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Read an excerpt from George Prochnik’s Stranger in a Strange Land in the New Yorker

A Guide to Religious Anarchy: Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah

 

When I was growing up, I saw my father letting the flame of his Jewish identity burn down as low as it could go without extinguishing altogether. He viewed all formal aspects of Judaism with bemused indifference, alternating with sarcastic hostility; practicing Jews, he said, were perfect examples of people who, however smart they might be, “don’t have enough sense to step inside when it’s raining.” But my own experience of the American suburbs, where our family ended up at a moment when the remaining tracts of nature in the area were being steadily bulldozed and converted into new highways, malls, and subdivisions, left me with a lingering sense of spiritual absence. Almost all the history of my father’s family had been lost in the upheaval of their flight from Europe: I could not countenance the idea that our family would just step forever outside the nimbus or noose of Jewish identity as casually as it might step out of the car in a supermarket parking lot. I owed a debt to the dead, and I meant to pay. There was something intoxicating in the notion that I, the son of a non-Jewish mother and a non-observant father, might choose to blow on the flame of our Judaism through the actions of my own life, and so magnify its blaze no end.

I had a sense that this should be accomplished through an identification greater than mere cultural reference points—bageloxy—could supply. This made my actual encounters with observance all the more dispiriting. I hated praying. Orthodox synagogues were endlessly problematic in their intolerances. Reform services were intolerably denuded of authenticity. Either way, the services bored me silly. When I set out to study the canonical texts of Jewish belief, I discovered potent flashes of ideas and imagery, but there seemed, at last, just too much dross to plow through before getting to the sparkly bits. The books of the Bible were one thing, at least minus Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. But the ritualized law seemed for the most part an object lesson in how to nurture obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is where the writing of Gershom Scholem came in. Scholem, the German-born radical-humanist thinker who moved to Palestine after the First World War as an idealistic, if idiosyncratic, Zionist, is best known as the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah—a category of Jewish thought, prayer, and ritual practice that pursues ultimate truths about God’s nature, good, evil, and humanity’s role in the cosmos. As Scholem himself pointed out in the opening of one of his books, the Hebrew word “kabbalah” literally means “tradition,” and, in the sense that it composed “the tradition of things divine,” Kabbalah fed people’s hunger for a new and deeper understanding of conventional religious forms. Certain Kabbalists indeed extended their speculations so far that they were accused of redefining Judaism’s purpose. With their work, Scholem wrote, “the Torah is transformed into a Corpus mysticum.” At times, he appears to suggest that the intense study of this covert history might function as its own form of worship. For a bookish soul who balks at prayer and loves philosophical-historical reflection, this prospect can be awfully seductive.

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Read an excerpt from Gideon Rachman’s Easternization in The New York Review of Books

 

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House threatens a significant acceleration in the rivalry between the US and China. The deliberate but careful attempts of the Obama administration to push back against Chinese ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to be replaced by a new Trump approach that is much more openly confrontational, and more impulsive in style. Even before taking office, the new US president demonstrated his willingness to antagonize Beijing—by speaking directly to the president of Taiwan, something that all US presidents have refused to do since the normalization of relations between the United States and China in the 1970s.

If a direct military conflict between China and the United States does break out during the Trump years, the likeliest arena for a clash is the South China Sea. In his confirmation hearings before the US Senate, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new secretary of state, signaled a significant hardening in the American attitude to the artificial islands that China has been building in the South China Sea. Tillerson likened the island building to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and said that the Trump administration intended to let Beijing know that “your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.”

Taken at face value, that sounded like a threat to blockade the islands, on which China has been constructing military installations. China would almost certainly attempt to break such a blockade by sea or air. The stage would be set for a modern version of the Cuba missile crisis. The Chinese government’s official reaction to the Tillerson statement was restrained. But China’s state-controlled media was ferocious. The Global Times, a nationalist paper, warned of the possibility of a “large-scale war” between the United States and China, while the China Daily spoke of a “devastating confrontation between China and the U.S.” Independent observers had come to similar conclusions. Speaking to me in Davos a couple of days after Tillerson’s statement, Vivian Balakrishnan, the foreign minister of Singapore, warned that any effort at a US blockade in the South China Sea would lead to a war between the United States and China. The Singaporeans, who maintain close ties to both Washington and Beijing and whose natural style is cautious and technocratic, are not given to hysteria.

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author of Quicksand

 

Other Press: How did you come up with the idea for Quicksand, and for the character of Maja? Did you have any difficulty getting into her head or creating her voice?

Malin Persson Giolito: I have known for a long time, in that strange mysterious way writers “know” things, that I wanted to write about a school shooting. A tragedy, so tragic that it was like something out of the Old Testament, or one of those eight-hour Shakespeare plays that I liked to watch when I was a teenager. I wanted that. Pitch black. However, when I sat down to start writing, I realized that it was impossible. Who would want to read such a thing? Until Maja came. Cynical, funny, desperate, unhappy, lovely, obnoxious Maja… And how she came to me? I have no idea. But it is her story, so much hers, she is much more important to this story than any crime, and I realized along the way that it was her and her friends I wanted to write about.

I want to say that Maja was the easiest part, but it took a very long time to make her mine. I worked for four years with this novel and I really worked. “How many words do you actually need in your book, Mummy? More than a billion?” was one of many skeptical questions from my youngest. I approached Maja through her friends, her parents, her sister, and the tragedy of course. But when I started hearing her voice, I couldn’t turn it off. She accompanied me everywhere, and watched me and my life, my double standards, my friends… Maja’s voice worked in many ways as a comic relief for me as a writer, but it was also quite an annoying companion.

OP: You’ve said before that Quicksand is “Maja’s book.” Why did you choose to have her be the only narrator? Was there a point during your writing process when you had another or additional narrators?

MPG: It was a huge technical challenge for me as a writer. That motivated me and it frightened me, which triggered me even more. It is hard to write suspense without changing perspectives when pushing the story forward. I wanted to see if I was capable. But for a long time I had my doubts. So I wrote long sections, I think a couple of hundred pages from the lawyer’s perspective, and I also tried a few chapters with the other main characters, like Maja’s mom, and the other two lawyers. Once I had gotten that out of my system, I could go back to Maja. To keep it with Maja makes it so much more intense, to let her be the master of her story. Everything that interfered with that just made the story weaker. And not only from a literary perspective. She is a good narrator. Honest, unsure, unhappy and, yes, I keep repeating myself: funny.

OP: This past year Quicksand won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Award for Best Swedish Crime Novel, and it’s the first of your novels to be translated into English, as well as several other languages. How has Quicksand changed your life as a writer?

MPG: I think that the first thing everyone—not only my husband—thinks is that it has changed my life economically, and it has. I actually stopped working as a lawyer before the success—with some hesitation, because I like economic security, pension rights, and all that. Now I don’t have to worry for a few years. But to be honest, the big difference is something else. The massive support from my agent and my publisher, the critics’ praise, the prizes, and all that have given me a higher status as a writer. To be taken seriously is very nice. I hope, and I think, it will give me more courage as a writer. Everyone keeps asking if I will be blocked by the success and have a hard time writing the next. I think (and I really hope I am right) that I have been freed to do what I have always wanted to do: write my own stories the way I want to write them.

OP: How did being a lawyer help you write this novel?

MPG: Well, to be passionate about the court, about the process of law, that helps if you want to transmit the sense that it is not too boring to follow a court procedure from beginning to end. And it helps to dig where you stand… Is that a Swedish saying? If so, I am sure you have something similar. But it can also be a disadvantage if you write too close to home. I have a different view on the law than non-lawyers; it is like my religion, I don’t question my ten commandments. But Maja does. Maja has kept this from becoming a lawyer’s story and she has made it into something bigger.

OP: The story you craft in Quicksand profoundly resonates with contemporary American audiences. It explores subjects one normally doesn’t associate with Sweden, such as race, gender relations, and immigration. Were you aware of how universal Maja’s story would be when you were writing it? Do you think with your novel you’re bringing a fresh understanding of contemporary Sweden?

MPG: It is not a surprise to me that we—Americans and Europeans— share more problems than either one of us likes to admit, one of them being that we like to blame immigration for injustices that have other causes. But still, that so many people can relate to the story is one of the things that has surprised me the most. Maja lives in the rich suburb were I grew up, and I wanted to put that in a larger context in order to put light on injustices that have bothered me since I was a kid and that have become far worse in recent years. But it could have been seen as just a story about the young, rich, and fabulous. I am so happy that it isn’t. We need to talk about structural injustices. But do I want to bring a fresh understanding of contemporary Sweden? Quicksand is not a political book unless the readers make it political. And if the readers do, I hope it makes them look at themselves more than at Sweden.

OP: Is there anything you’d like your readers to take away from Quicksand?

MPG: That is such a difficult question. I could say that I want readers to think about equality, or what justice means in reality, but at the same time I don’t think that good books make you realize things that fit on a Hallmark card. Really good books can make you question yourself but without you being aware of it. I want my readers to think about my book after having finished it. They can think what they want, but if they think, that proves the story worked.

OP: Many authors have quirks to help them write. Do you have any? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

MPG: Lawyers often overcharge for advice that is absolutely useless. Are you really sure you want to ask me that?

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The New York Times Book Review raves that Rachel Aspden’s Generation Revolution is “an excellent social history of Egypt’s persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulties of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes.”

In his review Thanassis Cambanis considers the role youth plays in starting and sustaining a revolution:

In Aspden’s telling, the young, not yet ground into submission, have posed the greatest challenge to Egypt’s intolerable yet adaptive state. But the young can sustain resistance for only so long. The Tahrir Generation of 2011, she writes, may already be over the hill, though a new crop of restive Egyptians are reaching a boiling point, and they may not submit in the same way their grandparents did when the first military strongman took power in 1952. Nonetheless, Aspden notes, an empowered populace armed with education, modern communication tools and high expectations can repeatedly be dominated by an equally modern coercive state. Her conclusion is dispiriting, but she backs it with evidence. Youth alone, it seems, does not suffice to change tradition.

You can read the full review in the New York Times Book Review 

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Malin Persson Giolito, author of Quicksand, sat down with Shelf Awareness to speak about translation, creating the voice of a teenage girl, what drew her to write her novel, and more.

Shelf Awareness: Was it the crime that sparked this novel for you, or Maja herself, or something else?

Malin Persson Giolito: I couldn’t stop thinking about the crime. But it’s quite a difficult subject to write about, especially if you want to write a book people actually enjoy reading. I didn’t get anywhere until Maja came along. And I think the reason I wanted to write about a school shooting was not particularly the crime itself but the environment, that is, the school. It’s a very closed kind of environment. I think the book is about situations that you can’t control, and closed rooms. Maja was the key to the story. The first idea was the school shooting, but I didn’t know what to do with it until Maja came along.

It’s quite funny: as a writer, you’re probably the least capable of talking about your novel. You don’t really know what you’re doing. For the longest time you’re doing this puzzle upside down, so to speak, and then when the book is done hopefully you will see what the puzzle looks like, or perhaps one of the readers will tell you. There is something about this closed room that must have intrigued me, because we have not only the school but also the courtroom and the neighborhood where she grows up, which is an upper-class, very closed neighborhood–they’re very isolated from other parts of the Swedish society. Also, being a teenager is being isolated. You live in your own world of black and white, right and wrong, love and hate… teenagers are lovely. I have two. But they’re also quite isolated in their own minds, in their own day-to-day world.

SA: You write the voice of this teenager so convincingly.

MPG: I have a tendency to say this was the easy part, but that’s not really true. It took me a lot of time to get to her. But once I had her, that was the best part, just living inside her head, with her rage and her judgments. She’s an enraged teenager. She’s a very privileged teenager that has gone through this tragedy, and now she’s put in a place where she has absolutely no control over her situation anymore. And we learn that during the year that led up to these events, this tragedy, she also lost control of her life. So how does she react? Well, one of the reactions is this rage. She hates everyone. And funnily enough, that was when I liked her. I think there must be an enraged teenager within me.

I think we all can relate to this loss of empowerment when we look at the world around us right now. One of the things I really liked was that I didn’t have to be this thoughtful adult who sees the good in people–I could just let go of everything and just be her. Which is not the same as saying that I agree with her. Her way of judging people around her is not something that I necessarily share. But it was still surprisingly easy, once I was there, to just do that. Once in a while you just want to let it go, to quote a famous Disney princess. I really liked that with Maja.

One of the tricks, when you write suspense novels, is to use the unreliable narrator. And when I started writing I knew from the beginning I didn’t want that. I didn’t want her to turn out to be someone else, didn’t want her to wake up after having had an alcohol-related dementia, or whatever. I wanted her to be reliable narrator, in the purest sense of the term. But I didn’t think of the fact that she’s a teenager, and if you look up “unreliable narrator,” I think you’ll see a picture of a teenager. But she’s just her, and that was very important. That’s what made me really love her. She just wants to get through this. She’s a survivor, in more ways than one.

You can read more from the interview in Shelf Awareness

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Inheritance from Mother author Minae Mizumura for the New York Times

When her novel, Inheritance from Mother, was first being serialized in Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Minae Mizumura was inundated with letters from readers who identified with the frustration and exasperation she described feeling in taking care of her aging, ill mother. Mizumura recounts the experience for the New York Times:

TOKYO — It was the mad, busy time just before New Year’s, the most auspicious holiday of the year, when the hospital called to tell me that my mother had just been brought in by ambulance. She had slipped on the sidewalk and broken her shoulder and hip.

“Not again!” was all I could think as I rushed to the emergency room. I did not at first realize that the call marked the beginning of the end of what little independence my mother had left.

Despite five hours of surgery and two months of rehabilitation, she became wheelchair-bound and had to enter a nursing home. There, she slid rapidly into dementia, and became more difficult and demanding even as she grew frailer.

A year and a half later, she was back in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia. Day after day, I sat by her bedside, exhausted, while I struggled to finish work on a book for which the deadline was long past.

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Click on the picture below to download a Peter Stamm poster!

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author of The Second Winter

 

 

OP: Most novels set during the Second World War tend to focus on Germany, England, and the United States. What made you want to write about a family in Denmark in the early 1940s?

Fredrik is based very loosely on my father’s uncle, who was a member of the Danish resistance during World War II. When I was five years old, I came across a photograph of “Fredrik” when we were visiting Denmark, and I vividly remember the impression it made upon me. This man was a literal giant. He could have wrapped a hand around my body. I asked my dad who he was, and my dad told me the story of his uncle, lifting him onto his motorcycle at the end of the war and driving him through the streets of Copenhagen, showered in confetti, for the victory motorcade. As a young kid, I couldn’t quite comprehend what it meant that Fredrik had resisted the occupation—I just had a vague sense that he carried a pistol, snuck through the dark, and, as my dad told me, spent his nights with his eyes wide open, too scared to sleep. The more I learned, the more complex Fredrik’s story became. He took amphetamines to keep himself awake. He died just after the war from leukemia, contracted no doubt because of the stresses he was under. He was everything a hero should be. But he had also been sent away by his parents when he was twelve or thirteen to live on a farm, because he apparently had some sadistic tendencies and had killed family pets. And, most confusingly, he was married and had two children. It was in the contradictions of this heroic savage as father that the idea of the story was born.

When I set out to write The Second Winter, I wasn’t attempting to write about the war or even about Fredrik. Fredrik’s story gave me the language to create a metaphor. For me, the power of the novel lies in its deeper meaning: In the eyes of a child, fathers do inexplicable things—they steal, they kill, they rape. To some extent, this innocent confusion is not lost, at least not entirely, even as we grow older and place in context the things we do as adults. For me, this was the pleasure and challenge in writing the novel, to convey this beast as a man whom we not only relate to but in some measure love.

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This Father’s Day, get your dad books he’ll love

Other Press has a trio of books that will cover everything your father is looking for: At the Existentialist Café so he can immerse himself in the world of ides; The Butcher’s Trail, to stay engaged with current affairs; and The Dig, so he can retreat into a perfectly, wholly imagined fictional world.

Other Press Father's Day Books

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May 26, 1857

My dear Brother

            You will be surprized, I dare say, but I hope not sorry, to learn that I have changed my name, and have someone to take care of me in the world. The event is not at all a sudden one, though it may appear sudden in its announcement to you. My husband has been known to me for several years, and I am well acquainted with his mind and character… Your affectionate Sister, Marian Lewes … ”

 

Chapter 1

            One late afternoon in June of 1880, a rather famous woman sat in a railroad carriage traveling towards Venice with her new husband, a handsome young man twenty years her junior. The journey from Padua had taken just over an hour, across the flat plain, through vineyards and olive groves, and now the train was approaching the iron bridge that led across the lagoon to the city. As the woman glimpsed the shimmering waters ahead, and in the distance, the misty domes and campaniles of the celestial place, the light in the sky over it just beginning to turn pink, she discovered she was unable to give herself over to the surge of excitement she’d experienced sixteen years earlier – to the day – when she caught sight of the place with her “first” husband, George Lewes, by her side.  

The woman’s face was partly hidden by a lace mantilla, as had been her custom for several years, white, not black now, (she was no longer in mourning), and she wore a grey silk moiré dress that she’d bought for her trousseau. The mantilla served to prevent her from being recognized by people, and set upon by tourists who begged for autographs. Though not completely hiding her face, it distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely. She was sixty years old and her auburn hair was speckled with grey and hung in thick, heavy curves on either side of her face. Her skin was lined. Her grey-blue eyes were heavy and watchful. But her figure was still lovely, slender, almost serpentine – she’d never borne a child.

Now, as she watched her new young husband, it was as if he were drifting away from her, going further and further into his own world, and she didn’t know why.

He was staring out the window of the compartment, his brow furrowed in the light. He was a tall, athletic looking man with dark red curly hair that peeked out from under the brim of his straw hat, vivid blue eyes that shone in the heat, and a small, neat beard. As always, he was wearing an elegantly-cut suit, white linen, which had somehow preserved its freshness from the journey – Johnnie loved good clothes.

Yet he was still his same kind self, the way he had always been, tending to her every need. Ever since April, when she’d accepted his proposal, he’d been frantically rushing around, arranging the wedding and securing the new house, anxious to attend to her every comfort – that she have her shawl with her in case it was cool at night, and the best room in the hotel, that she not get tired, or have to stand waiting too long for their trains. He hadn’t been sleeping, he’d hardly been eating. There were shadows under his eyes, his cheeks had hollowed out. “Darling,” she would say, “slow down. You’ll make yourself ill.”

And he’d try to calm himself, like a child forced to sit still for a moment, but then he was up again, springing into action.

Perhaps Venice would make him better, restore him to his old self, and the romance of the city, its sensuality and foreignness and hidden ways, the strangeness of it, would free him and bring him back to her.

The train had reached the bridge. A cinder from the track flew in through the open window and caught her in the eye. “Oh dear,” she cried, and tried to get it out.   Johnnie, awakened from his reverie, jumped up. “Here, let me,” he said, and bent over her and gently managed to ease it out with his pocket handkerchief. “There you go,” he said, and then he sat down again, and resumed looking out the window.

After a few minutes, they had crossed the bridge. The train pulled into the Santa Lucia station and they disembarked.

When they emerged out onto the fondamenta, they were met by a scene of chaos, crowds of tourists and piles of baggage, porters and boatmen yelling and bustling about.

“You stay here, Marian,” Johnnie said. “I’ll go and find the boat. ”

She waited under her parasol.   The air was filled with an anxious cacophony of French, Italian, English, German as the tourists searched for the boatmen from the hotels who were supposed to meet them. A gypsy girl was sitting on the pavement with an infant, begging, holding it out to the tourists and whining, “Il bambino ha fame. Il bambino ha fame …” wearing a look of exaggerated suffering on her face.

At last, Johnnie came towards her. He’d found their boat, and he led her across the fondamenta to where it was tied. The gondolier was standing on the shore waiting. When he saw them coming, he threw his cigarette into the canal with a decisive gesture, and began loading their luggage.

“This is Corradini,” Johnnie said. “Madame Cross.” The man was older, she noticed, in his fifties, weathered and thin and muscular, with close-cropped grey hair, very pale blue eyes – probably Dalmatian, a lot of the gondoliers were, or a remnant of the Crusaders that you saw sometimes in Venetians. He had a browned, seamed face and he wore a gold ring in one ear. The gondolier nodded at her cursorily, then extended a rough hand to help her into the boat. No bowing or scraping, no kissing of the hand, no false effusion.   As she passed close to him to get into the boat, she smelled an unwashed odor, old tobacco and sweat, and something else, cologne meant to cover it.

He’d probably done this job for many years. The gondoliers held the tourists captive. They were their first contact with the city. Only the gondoliers knew how to navigate its labyrinthine ways.

All around them now, on the canal, the boats, full of people who’d gotten off the train from Padua, were crowded together and banging up against one another. The gondoliers were trying to separate them. “Premi! Premi!” they cried. “Stali! Stali!”

At last, the gondolas were untangled and they spread out across the water. The journey to the hotels was underway.

It was suddenly quiet, as if everyone was too exhausted and stunned by the sights, and too busy absorbing the strangeness of the place, to speak. In the boat, Johnnie sat perpendicular to her, his long legs drawn up awkwardly in the small space, silent, absorbed in looking out across at the shore.

To their right was San Simeone Piccolo– Ruskin called it a huge “gasometer,” with its great, dark dome, like a Greek temple oddly attached to a plain redbrick building.           They passed silently among the columned palaces with their Moorish arches and red and white striped mooring poles, their facades of marble and Istrian stone; their inlay of jasper and alabaster and porphyry, faded by sun and water; their foundations darkened and stained green with algae from the flux and retreat of the tides over the centuries. As always, she was surprised at their small scale, given the expectation of what Venice would be.

The gondolier stood erect in the stern, feathering the water with his oar, moving from one side to the other, swerving his hips. His skin looked as if it had been oiled. His striped shirt and black trousers fit tightly to his body, but there was a softness around his waist that betrayed his age.

Ahead of them, loomed the hump-backed Rialto, its archways and shops packed with tourists. They passed under it, and, in the confined space the smell of putrid effluence rose up and engulfed them. She could see brownish things bobbing in the water. She held her handkerchief to her nose to block the smell.

As they emerged again into the pink light, she breathed in the salty, brackish air with relief. When the real heat came, the smell would be insufferable. Well, she thought, along with everything glorious and holy, there had to exist its opposite: decay and death. For there to be light, there must be darkness, mystery.

The canal curved southwest, then bent again eastward. She glimpsed on the shore the white marble Hôtel de la Ville where once she and George had stayed. As they passed it, she glanced back, but said nothing to Johnnie.

At last, they came to the sign for the Hotel Europa. It was in the old Palazzo Giustinian, an umber-colored brick building with white gothic arches and balconies overlooking the canal. Just beyond it was the Piazza San Marco.

“There!” Johnnie told the gondolier. They stopped, and a grizzled old ganser reached down from the riva with his pole and pulled them over to the steps.

The gondolier threw up his rope and the man tied it. Johnnie gripped her tightly under the arms and raised her up from her seat. She was dizzy from standing up too quickly, and tired from the journey. Johnnie held onto her a moment, then leapt to the shore, reached down and lifted her up onto ground. “We’ve made it!” he cried.

He handed the gondolier a coin. But the man didn’t move. He stood there with his palm   open, looking down ostentatiously at the coin, then up at Johnnie again. Flustered, Johnnie dug down again into his pocket and offered him more coins. At this, the gondolier clamped his hand shut , and got back into his boat.

“Greedy swine!” Johnnie muttered, clenching his teeth, as they made their way to the portego.

Inside the hotel, they climbed the stairs into an immense, marble-columned lobby with a high, coffered ceiling, gilded and blue, and glass chandeliers and potted palms. At one end, was a reception desk with a sign, Telegrafo. There were other tourists scattered about on chairs and settees and they stared at them as they entered.

Johnnie led her to a settee and went to register. Was she imagining it, or did he welcome this bodily distance from her, being away from her for these few minutes?

After a brief period, he came back across the lobby followed by a man in a black morning coat. “This is Monsieur Marseille, the manager. He wanted to meet you. Madame Cross,” Johnnie said.

“Madame … George Eliot!” said the manager, hesitating a moment as if puzzled by the man’s name for a woman. He bowed. He was wearing a wig of flat, black hair, and he had a handlebar moustache, waxed and pointed at the tips.

“Of course, you know we have had many famous writers staying with us,” he said. “Chateaubriand, Mr. Ruskin. Many famous people, Mr. Turner, and Wagner, also Verdi. You are in excellent company.”

“How did you know who I was? she asked.

“The English lady over there.” He indicated a woman sitting across the lobby on one of the settees,   watching them. “She inform us of who you were. She say she recognize you. She tell us we have a great English authoress in our midst – ”

Johnnie interrupted, “Mrs. Cross doesn’t want to be bothered. She’s on a private holiday. We’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone else she’s here.”

“Of course, Monsieur.”

This had happened many times. George used to sign their hotel registers with false names to prevent them from being bothered. But people knew her, even though, after she became famous, she almost always refused to be painted or photographed. Still, when they went to the Pop Concerts at St. James’ Hall, people sketched her. George would glare, but it didn’t stop them. None other than Princess Louise once drew her likeness on the back of her program at a benefit concert for the Music School of the Blind. Truthfully, there were times when she didn’t mind the attention. Sometimes the fame, being recognized, was like a match being struck, a temporary light, a moment of pleasure, forgetting all her doubts, the lack of confidence, the headaches and kidney pains. But now she dreaded it. At this very moment in London she imagined there was a new scandal unfolding.

As people read the wedding announcement in The Times, they were laughing and twittering over their morning coffee about the besotted old woman marrying the handsome man, young enough to be her son.

To alleviate the manager’s chagrin, she asked politely, “You are French?”

“My grandfather, Monsieur Arnold Marseille, bought this palazzo in 1817. This year, we install private baths. Very grand, very convenient.”

A footman was hovering behind him. “The footman will show you to your room. We have here today six English families. There is the table d’hôte at five o’clock. Perhaps you and your son would care to join us?”

Her chest plunged. Johnnie’s face reddened.

“Please!” Johnnie cried. “The Signora is my wife!”

“Oh!” the manager said. “Vous devez me pardonner!” But his mortification only magnified the insult. He was mirroring back to them the truth. She did look like Johnnie’s mother.

As they ascended the stairs to the piano nobile and their rooms, she said, “We knew this would happen sooner or later. Imagine what they’re saying in London.”

“We don’t mind what they’re saying,” he said firmly, his jaw set, gripping her arm.

They came to the landing, and the footman threw open the gleaming mahogany doors to their appartement. It was hung with chandeliers, and gilded mirrors and oil paintings, and furnished with silk fauteuils. There were great, mullioned windows which looked out directly over the canal and crimson velvet drapes fastened with braided silk ties and tassels.

On either side of the sala, was a bedroom. Johnnie went to the door of each one and peaked inside. He pointed to the one on the right. “This is the best room, ” he told the footman. “The lady’s trunk goes in there. The other trunks’s mine. In there, please,” he said, indicating the second bedroom across the way.

It was their usual ritual.

While the footman put their luggage away, Johnnie stepped out onto the balcony. She followed him. To their left was the landing of St. Marco, the black gondolas parked in front of it swaying in the water. To their right was the view down the Grand Canal.

He began enumerating the sights, as if learning them himself. “There’s the Dogana,” he said, indicating the Customs House across the canal, its gold weathervane, the figure of the goddess Fortuna, moving faintly in the late afternoon sun. “The Salute,” he said, sweeping his arm across to the imposing dome behind it. “And San Giorgio,” he said,   across the Bacino, the little island on their left.

He stopped and looked down at the canal, suddenly silent.

She touched his shoulder.   “Please,” she said, “don’t mind the stupid manager. I’m perfectly all right. You shouldn’t feel sad for me. We expected this. We knew it would happen. I’m so happy to be here. Everything’s going to be all right now, you’ll see.”

He continued staring down into the water as if he hadn’t heard her.

“Johnnie, did you hear me?”

He nodded, still not looking at her.

“Please, Johnnie, smile for me,” she begged. “Let me see you smile?”

He looked around at her and forced his mouth into a thin smile.

“Shouldn’t I be the one who’s angry ?” she asked. “Not you. It’s not your fault is it? It’s I who looks old!”

He didn’t respond. He seemed to be looking right through her. She reached up and touched his red curls – she was allowed to do that wasn’t she? He was so tall. She loved the moments when she could touch him with impunity. His hair was so soft and silky, like a boy’s.

Behind them there was a knock on the door. “Chi è?” he called out, irritably.

Sono la cameriera,” a woman’s voice said.

Entra!” he commanded. He sighed. “They’re always bothering you.”

A maid entered. She was a girl of about sixteen, in a black dress, white cap, collar and pinafore. She had a mass of dark blonde curls tied behind her neck, and green, heavy-lidded eyes, a prominent aquiline nose. A Northern face.

“I unpack for Madame?” she said, in English.

“Yes, please. Thank you,” Marian said. “That one.” She pointed to her bedroom.

On the balcony, Johnnie said, “You can smell it from here. That smell of putrefaction underneath everything. ”

“You forget about it,” she said. “You get used to it   When the wind shifts, we won’t notice it at all. And when the tide comes in, the water’s really clear.”

The sky was darkening, burnished with gold.   “Look at the light,” she exclaimed. “The sun’s going down. This is the glory of the place.”

He put his arm around her waist and drew her to him, a protective gesture, warm and kind. She was acutely conscious of his touch. She looked up at his face. It was the familiar posture of a woman looking up at the man she loves, she thought, her life’s companion, his face in profile, the face she possesses as her own, but the face of someone separate, unknowable. All men were mysterious to her,   except George. She and George had been like one person. Johnnie’s was a handsomer face than George’s of course, an ideal of masculine beauty. Before she and George had come together, she’d heard people call him “the ugliest man in London” – not true!   But Johnnie’s face was troubled.   His forehead was drawn in a frown.

By now George would have been animated with excitement. “Look, Polly!” he’d cry, calling her by her girlhood nickname. Always full of enthusiasm, rousing her from tiredness and worry and depression. “Can’t wait till morning!” he’d say. And he’d awaken her into his own joy. He was irresistible. When he pulled her close to him, her body melded completely into his. No distance between them, the line of his wiry thigh against hers, he, who relished her body continually, her slenderness, always, with each new day and night as if he’d never known it before and it was a constant surprise to him,   whatever it was he saw in it, distorted by blind love.

Now, behind them in the hotel room, there were sudden, soft bursts of light. The chambermaid was lighting the oil lamps, leaving the edges of the room in shadow.

“Let’s have supper brought up,” he said. “Someone else might recognize you and that would be a bother.”

“Yes,” she said. “Do let’s. I can’t bear to see anyone else tonight.”

 

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1

ORLY AIRPORT

I am the colossal drill
Boring into the startled husk of the night.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Papal Monoplane

 

On this night of October 27, 1949 on the apron at Orly, Air France’s F-BAZN is waiting to receive thirty-seven passengers departing for the United States. A year earlier, Marcel Cerdan stepped off the plane as the newly crowned middleweight boxing champion of the world, a title he had clobbered Tony Zale for. And on that October 7, 1948, the crowd lifted him on their shoulders in triumph. A year later, inside the airport, Cerdan is setting off with his manager Jo Longman and his friend Paul Genser to regain his title, now in the hands of Jake LaMotta, the Bronx Bull. There is no question that in December, on another Constellation, he will bring the title back with him. In the departure hall at Orly, he blusters to the journalists: “That title’s coming home with me. I’m going to fight like a lion.” Lion against Bull, a matter of signs and constellations. The Lion of Nemea vs. the Minotaur, fabulous poster for December 2, 1949 at Madison Square Garden.

Jo Longman is wearing his bad-day face. They’d had to do everything in a hurry, cancel the passage on the ocean liner, claim priority seating on the Paris-New York flight, the whole can of worms, just to meet with Edith Piaf early the next morning. “Bring that title back with you!” says an Air France employee. “That’s the whole idea of going!” says Marcel. “Ye-es,” mutters Jo, who can’t help adding, “If you’d listened to me, we’d have waited a few days. Jesus! We’re sneaking off like thieves, almost. On Tuesday we learned the match was set for December 2, yesterday we were still in the provinces, and today we barely had time to pack our bags. I said we should stay on for a week, attend the meet at the Palais des Sports. But no, that was too simple, and tomorrow you’ll be rampaging around because, no surprise, in the rush to leave you’ll have forgotten half your stuff.” His anger is mock anger, they are used to playing at mutual recrimination, Marcel the amused free spirit and Jo the unheeded professional. In a few minutes, their elbows resting on the Air France bar, they’ll laugh about it. Since the trainer Lucien Roup quit, Jo has climbed in rank. Always in sunglasses, his hair pomaded, Jo Longman—who founded the Club des Cinq, the cabaret-restaurant where Edith and Marcel met—is the image of the louche character. The boxer likes his gift of gab, his love of partying and head for business, finds him the perfect companion on long trips between Paris, New York, and Casablanca.

#

The “Airplane of the Stars” is living up to its name today. Besides the “Casablanca Clouter,” the violin virtuoso Ginette Neveu is also setting off to conquer America. The tabloid France-Soir organizes an impromptu photo session in the departure lounge. In the first snapshot, Jean Neveu stands in the center smiling at his sister, while Marcel holds the Stradivarius and Ginette grins across at him. Next, Jo takes Jean Neveu’s place and, with his expert’s eye, compares the violinist’s small hands to the boxer’s powerful paws.

Then on the tarmac, at the foot of the gangway, the two celebrities continue their conversation. Ginette gives the details of her tour: Saint Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. Marcel offers her front row seats for his rematch at Madison Square Garden and promises to attend the concert at Carnegie Hall on November 30. Maybe they can have dinner together at the Versailles, the cabaret where the Little Sparrow has been packing the house for months.

The four enormous Wright engines of Lockheed Constellation F-BAZN are droning. The propellers and blades have been inspected, and the eleven crew members line up in front of the plane. The big, beautiful four-engine aircraft, its aluminum fuselage perched on its outsized undercarriage, looks like a wading bird. In the boarding queue are thirty-two other passengers: John and Hanna Abbot, Mustapha Abdouni, Eghline Askhan, Joseph Aharony, Jean-Pierre Aduritz, Jean-Louis Arambel, Françoise and Jenny Brandière, Bernard Boutet de Monvel, Guillaume Charront, Thérèse Etchepare, Edouard Gehring, Remigio Hernandores, Simone Hennessy, René Hauth, Guy and Rachel Jasmin, Kay and Ketty Kamen, Emery Komios, Ernest Lowenstein, Amélie Ringler, Yaccob Raffo, Maud Ryan, Philippe and Margarida Sales, Raoul Sibernagel, Irene Sivanich, Jean-Pierre Suquilbide, Edward Supine, and James Zebiner. Left behind are two newlyweds, Edith and Philip Newton, returning home from their honeymoon, and Mrs. Erdmann. The three were bumped when the champion received priority seating.

2

A DAKOTA IN CASABLANCA

 

“Modern life allows for travel but delivers no adventure.”

Jean Mermoz, Mes vols [My Flights]

 

With bad weather reported over the Channel and the North Atlantic, the pilot, Jean de la Noüe, decides to alter the flight plan. In place of a stopover in Shannon, Ireland, the plane will refuel on the small island of Santa Maria in the Azores archipelago. The flight crew initiates the departure sequence, head high, the big bird taxis from the embarkation area toward the runway. The Curtiss propellers rumble in rhythm.

Pilot to control tower: “F-BAZN requests clearance for takeoff.”

Tower to pilot: “Clearance granted, F-BAZN.”

At 20:06 hours, the Constellation takes flight.

Soon the Atlantic, in six hours the airfield at Santa Maria, then Newfoundland, and tomorrow morning New York.

#

Almost six years after he joined the Free French Forces in London, Jean de La Noüe still thrills at the memory of his truant years flying rust buckets, at first British, then American.

He never could stomach the Phoney War and its aftermath. Still, he had taken his wife’s advice and resumed work during the Occupation as an airline pilot for Air France, but the pill had grown progressively harder to swallow. He knew that it was all happening in London, and he wasn’t there. In Pléneuf-Val-André, his village on the Brittany coast, the English cliffs in the distance, Free France and Radio London. To take service again over the Channel, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, anywhere, as long as he was in the skies and on the right side. He had been only five years old when the armistice of the Great War was signed in a railway carriage in a forest clearing in Rethondes, and it was after discovering the exploits of the Dunkirk fighter squadron that he caught the aviation bug. His hero: Charles Nungesser, who disappeared over the Atlantic with François Coli attempting a nonstop crossing in L’Oiseau blanc the year Jean turned fifteen. A pirate of the skies, Nungesser had painted his pilot’s insignia on the fuselage of his two-seater, a Nieuport 17: a black heart encircling a skull and crossbones and a coffin set between two candles. Jean didn’t have the makings of a hero, but he was no deserter. Demobilized in 1940, he had been sorry to exchange the enemy lines for a commercial airline. In 1943, on an umpteenth flight, Jean bolted and joined the Free French Forces. After the Allied landing in North Africa, he had been assigned to transport soldiers from Casablanca to the Italian front. His aircraft was a Dakota, which the British pilots called the “Gooney Bird,” or albatross, for its ungainliness on the ground and majesty in the skies.

#

Those flights over the Mediterranean were a long time ago, the best years of his life, he often said. The capture of Pantelleria Island on June 10, 1943, then Linosa, Lampedusa, and the celebrated invasion of Sicily. Thirty-eight days of ferrying forces from the advanced base on Pantelleria, twenty-eight men to a Dakota. And leaving in his wake, as he shuttled back and forth, traceries of parachute canopies in the sky. Operation Avalanche against Salerno, and Slapstick to take the port of Taranto. The great battle, Monte Cassino, would come on May 11, 1944. Then parachute drops over Provence. In Casablanca, the Allied rear base, Jean would return to life. History was in the making, and he was part of it, an extra in the great theater of operations organized by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference. De Gaulle, Giraud, a few demobilized veterans from the French naval airforce, and the French army, which was now the second blade of the Allied operation—all these men, tenacious and battle-hardened, hungered for revenge and reconquest. In the postwar years, he brought his wife to the Max Linder Theater to see Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. He took exception to the casbah, so much at variance with his own recollections, and laughed out loud at the Marseillaise as orchestrated by the resistance fighter, Laszlo. Total joke. Walking back up the boulevard Poissonnière, he described his Casablanca to Aurore. The hotel in the Anfa district and the restaurant with the panoramic view. The palm groves around Camp-Cazes airfield and the barracks where the pilots were packed together. The runway, which features as the final set of the film, where Rick Blaine and Captain Renault celebrate the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He also told her about the history of the Moroccan airmail service, about the exploits of Mermoz and Saint-Exupéry, flying over the desert, over sand dunes, where you see nothing, hear nothing, and beauty is hidden in immensity.

#

On the night of October 27, 1949, Jean de La Noüe, captain of the F-BAZN, has 60,000 flight hours and eighty-eight transatlantic crossings to his credit. Next to him are Charles Wolfer and Camille Fidency, two former combat pilots. Since hostilities ended there has been no front to receive these soldiers. Like Jean, they chose not to pursue a career in naval aviation, adapting instead to this new line of commercial work. Assigned to the same flights, the two have become friends. And born the same hour on December 4, 1920, they are known in the company as the “astrological twins.” Soon, between stopovers, they will celebrate their twenty-ninth birthday. The radio is manned by Roger Pierre and Paul Giraud, the navigator is Jean Salvatori. And André Villet and Marcel Sarrazin, mechanics, complete the flight crew.

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author of The Honeymoon

Other Press: The Honeymoon is a fictionalized biography of George Eliot. What role has George Eliot played in your life? Why did you choose to write a novel about her life instead of a biography?

Dinitia Smith: George Eliot is a female novelist who went before me, who became the most famous writer of her time. I looked to her to understand my own life, her effort to succeed in a man’s world. In the novel I describe how she was snatched out of school to care for her ailing mother and at a time when a high-level education was not easily available to women, and taught herself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French and Italian! Then she became the editor of the prominent literary journal The Westminster Review, but it couldn’t be known that she was a woman. Investors—and male readers—wouldn’t have stood for it. Despite all this, she triumphed, and, despite her fame and fortune, she was kind and generous to a fault. I looked to her too, to understand what it means to cope with aging, and to lose one’s beloved life-partner, and finally, to find redemption.

Why did I write a novel rather than a biography? Because, despite the many letters and archives Eliot left behind, she was a woman of her time, and consequently, she rarely confided her intimate feelings on paper, for instance about what must have been her anger at the obstacles she faced as a woman in the male world of 19th-century England. We know little about her feelings for the men in her life, men who were crucial for her development as a woman and as an intellectual. She fell in love with George Henry Lewes, a married man, and we know almost nothing about her inner struggles as she took the momentous decision to live with him out of wedlock, or what she went through when her young husband, Johnnie Cross, tried to commit suicide on their honeymoon. I wanted to understand her, so, without violating the known truth, I went back to her writings, including her poetry, searching for clues to what she was thinking, and I tried to imagine her inner life in a literary way.

OP: Your understanding of George Eliot’s life and environment is remarkable, and so clearly rendered. You make her human. What kind of research into her life and work did you do before you started writing your novel?

DS: I did an extraordinary amount of research—and it was great fun. I read her letters, the great biographies of her, her journals and essays—and of course, the novels. But I also searched the archives for her personal reminiscences. I studied the floor plans of her houses, read travel diaries, studied 19th-century railway timetables, old photographs, the flora and fauna that she would have encountered on her estate, and European resort life in the 19th century. I was fortunate to find in the Princeton University Library archives notes she made for a new novel she was probably working on at the time that she died.

OP: George Eliot is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. In the course of writing your novel, did you learn anything from her about the craft of writing, and about being a woman author? Were you nervous about writing a novel about such a well-known and beloved author?

DS: Of course I was nervous! But she inspired me. She had no self-confidence, and yet found within herself a kind of stubborn strength in the face of defeat. I think readers will be surprised to find how hard it was for her to write. As for her writing style, which was exquisite, I didn’t want to imitate it, so I tried to write in what I hope is a clean, clear style that is respectful of her own.

OP: One of the most surprising things in your novel is the depiction of George Eliot and her relationship to other women and the burgeoning feminist movement in 1800s England. Could you tell us a little more about Eliot’s thoughts on women and their place in society?

DS: Her relationship to the feminist movement is just fascinating. Her best friend was the charismatic 19th-century feminist Barbara Bodichon. Eliot supported Bodichon to some extent. She gave money towards the founding of Girton College, Cambridge, the UK’s first residential college for women offering an education at the degree level. She signed the petition to Parliament asking for married women’s property rights. But she held back. She was innately conservative, partly, perhaps, due to her upbringing and the influence of her father, who was conservative. She’d seen the violence surrounding the Reform Act of 1832, which granted a broader franchise to workingmen. At the same time, she was afraid that education for women would devalue their roles as nurturers of children and keepers of the house. This may have stemmed from her relationship with her own mother, who was sickly and irritable, and who seemed to have little time for George Eliot as a little girl. Eliot spent her life looking for love, and that quest may be partly an effort to fulfill the void she felt in relation to her own mother’s affection. Don’t forget too that she was living in a scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes, who couldn’t get a divorce from his wife, and I think she was afraid of public scrutiny and calling attention to it.

OP: George and Johnnie both occupy such large places in Marian’s (George Eliot’s) life. What kind of influence, if any, did they each have on her work?

DS: George Lewes was the single most important influence on her writing. I believe that without him, she would never have become the writer she did. He held her hand, he nurtured her, urged her on through the most agonizing self-doubt. He read her work and made suggestions. He praised her prose style, and sometimes urged her to make her writing more dramatic. At times, Eliot, a fanatical researcher, became bogged down in it, and George warned her that a novel was not an encyclopedia!

I doubt that Johnnie Cross had much influence on Eliot’s writing. By the time they were married, she had published her last book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such. More importantly, Johnnie certainly lacked George Lewes’s extraordinary intellect.

OP: The Honeymoon is your fourth novel. Have you picked up any writing quirks to help you in your work, like a routine or a special writing place?

DS: I do have a schedule, which I’ve had in place for some time. When I was working at the New York Times, I would get up very early, at 5:30 a.m., or 6 a.m., and write for about two hours, then go to the paper, which at that time was not on the same 24-hour news cycle as it is now, and the workday tended to begin late, at 10 a.m. Needless to say, this was difficult. After I left the paper, I developed a routine of writing in the morning in my study, and trying to do some exercise and attend to household chores in the afternoons. I do need quiet and seclusion to write. At the beginning of a novel, I find it hard to write for more than two or three hours at a time. As the novel gets going, I find I can work for a longer time.

OP: Anyone who reads The Honeymoon will be itching to start in on (or revisit) George Eliot’s oeuvre once they’re done. Do you have any suggestions about which of her works they should begin with?

DS: Middlemarch, of course, is one of the greatest novels in the English language. I find it the most “modern” of Eliot’s novels, so relevant in Dorothea’s effort to find herself as a woman, to lead a useful and moral life. But, for a long time, I preferred Daniel Deronda to Middlemarch, perhaps because of the depth of Eliot’s learning about Judaism, and the fascinating unrequited love of Gwendolen Harleth for Daniel. Now Middlemarch is back on top! Eliot is brilliant, I think, at portraying bad marriages, and cold men. In Middlemarch, there is Casaubon, the prototype of a cold, self-absorbed intellectual who is unable to complete his “great work.” In Deronda, there is the horrible, cold and immoral Henleigh Grandcourt, whom Gwendolen marries in an effort to support her impoverished family. Daniel cannot return Gwendolen’s love because he’s fallen in love with the sweet and beautiful Jewish girl, Mirah, and has discovered he’s Jewish too.

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14

Listen to
The Butcher’s Trail
author Julian Borger

 

on The Diane Rehm Show

 


 


on NPR’s The Brian Lehrer Show

 


 


on BBC Newshour

 


at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute 

 


 

Praise for

The Butcher’s Trail

“[A] vivid, page-turning account…A well-organized, deeply researched work that ably digests the Balkan war, the criminals, the criminal court, and its legacy.” —Kirkus Reviews STARRED REVIEW

“Well researched…timely.” The Wall Street Journal

Gripping.” The Independent

Vivid…well-researched.” Publishers Weekly

“Presented in captivating detail [and] often playing out like a true-life spy novel…fascinating.” Library Journal

The Butcher’s Trail create[s] what may ultimately become one of the defining accounts of this episode of Balkan history.” The National

“Borger’s compelling, readable prose with these stories of assault on impunity offer a rare opportunity to penetrate the ‘nationalist bromides’ and ‘sounds of slogans’ that continue to hold these countries back in ways that are tragic in all sorts of new, post-war ways…Fascinating.” —The Arts Fuse

“A simultaneously thrilling and horrifying read.” —Signature

The Butcher’s Trail reads like a cross between a John le Carre novel and the latest Bourne installment.  Except this fine book is true.  At a time when Europe’s ugly nationalisms are resurgent, Borger’s account of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and the pursuit of justice could not be more important.” —Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus accident, and the Illusion of Safety

“Julian Borger reveals in riveting new detail exactly how a daring team secretly tracked down some of the worst war criminals of our time, and in doing, he shows us what it takes for justice to win.  This book is brilliantly researched, beautifully written and important.” —Ann Curry, journalist and correspondent

“Julian Borger’s thrilling history of the hunt for the infamous Balkan war criminals and the torturous path to creating and empowering the International Criminal Tribunal is not just masterfully told, but devastating in its revelations of complacency in the face of ethnic cleansing.” —Hooman Majd, author of NY Times bestseller The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

“Julian Borger has written the definitive account of the hunt for the war criminals of the former Yugoslavia. The Butcher’s Trail is wonderfully well written and deeply reported and it raises important questions about how to bring to justice those that have committed wars against humanity.”  —Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad

“This book is a powerful page turner.” —David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues (1997-2001) and law professor at Northwestern University


 

 

Polish soldiers meet Slavko Dokmanović on June 27, 1997.
 

Ousted president Slobodan Milošević is read his rights by Kevin Curits, a British ex-policeman, on June 28, 2001.

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author of Guapa

Other Press: In Guapa Rasa asks “Is boredom reason enough to rebel?” Do you think boredom is a good enough reason to rebel? How far do you think boredom can take a revolution?

SH: I suspect Rasa misdiagnosed his emotions here. Perhaps what he was feeling was not boredom, but a sense of hopelessness. In Arabic, the word would be ihbat, which is a feeling of being deflated and depressed. These feelings are certainly reason enough to rebel and demand something better. As to how far these feelings can take a revolution—I’m less optimistic. They are just one ingredient needed, but there are others: organizational and constituency-building tactics, a clear vision of what a better future would look like, and a clear plan of how to get there.

OP: Guapa is your first novel. What inspired you to write a novel? Why did you want to tell this story? Was it difficult to wrangle so many topics—gender identity, gay life, the life of a family, Middle East politics and American imperialism, and a very moving romance story—into one story?

SH: There are very few positive or accurate representations of the complexities of queer life in the Arab world. We are painted either as helpless victims by Western media, or as sick deviants, agents of the West, or a symptom of a decaying civilization by Arabic media. So I wanted to write something that would speak to my own experiences and the experiences of other queer Arabs around the world. And to do so I felt it was necessary to show the complexity of our experience, and how closely our struggles are linked to broader struggles of family, gender, politics, and imperialism. It was a challenge to do this and also tell a moving love story, but I knew that I owed it to myself and other queer Arabs to write the story in all its complexity.

OP: In Guapa, not only do you avoid naming the Arab country where the story takes place, you never name the event that occurs while Rasa is studying overseas. Why is this? Is there a relationship in your novel between what is named and what is unnamed?

SH: I went back and forth about whether to choose to set the story in a specific country. In the end, I liked that the ambiguity of the country mirrors Rasa’s own difficulties with labeling himself and his refusal to fit into the categories society tries to place him in. There are practical reasons as well: for the most part, queer Arabs live safely in a lively but very private social network. Revealing a country and trying to be specific about queer life in that country would expose people in a way that I felt was not ethical. So I decided that the only way to shed light on this rich subculture, but also respect the subculture’s privacy, would be to keep the setting ambiguous, and draw from different elements, both positive and negative, of the region’s queer subcultures.

OP: There’s a struggle between Rasa and his grandmother, Teta, over the legacy of their family, over what they choose to remember and how they remember it. Do you think there’s a great difference in how memory works for an individual or within the story of a family, and how it works historically, how it works for a country? As a novelist, how do you approach writing about memory?

SH: I think there are a lot of similarities between the politics of memories, myths, and storytelling in families and at the level of a country. Nation-building is very much about creating myths—embellishing certain stories and brushing under the carpet darker histories. Families operate in much the same way. In Guapa, as Rasa begins to uncover the darker elements of his country and his society, he inevitably comes across his own family’s darker secrets that he had a hand in burying.

OP: What resources would you suggest for the reader who wants to know more about gay life in the Middle East? How can one learn more without simply being complicit in an outsider’s gaze?

SH: There’s a huge diversity of queer experiences in the region, and I think anyone wanting to learn more about gay life in the Middle East needs to recognize that there is not a single gay experience. It’s also important to recognize that queer Arabs often face a dual struggle: we are not just battling homophobia and patriarchy within our own societies, but also anti-Arab and anti-Islam narratives prevalent in the Western world, which sometimes wants to use our voices to further that agenda. Recognizing this dual struggle is important for outsiders who want to better understand gay life in the region.

Some great resources (links embedded):

Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs (This review by Brian Whitaker, which critiques Massad’s theory on the “Gay International,” is also worth reading.)

Meem, Bareed Mista3jal

What is Pinkwashing? (video) (For a more in-depth analysis of pinkwashing, visit the Pink Watching website, or read this.)

James Harkin, “We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive: A Gay Soldier in Assad’s Army”

A series of videos on queer politics in the Middle East from a 2015 conference at Brown University on “Sexualities and Queer Imaginaries in the Middle East/North Africa.”

Brian Whitaker, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East

Sarah Harvard, “Stuck in the Media Spotlight, LGBT Muslims Often Feel Exploited

 

OP: Many writers have routines and tricks to help them with their work. Do you have any writing quirks?

SH: I write in the early morning, when I’m only half-awake. That way I’m less conscious about what I put on the page. Forcing myself to write every morning, at the same time and place, makes it a ritual and a habit.

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Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, reviewed Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations for The Washington Post this past Sunday.

In her review Alexander asks the questions, “What can America learn from systems of incarceration around the world?” and “What is justice?” In Incarceration Nations Dreisinger, she explains, “takes us on a tour of prisons around the globe in search of clues that might answer the question of what justice is or, rather, what it ought to be.” Alexander details Dreisinger’s travels across the globe, from Norway, where she marvels at the short sentences for inmates and amenities available at the prisons, to Brazil, where she discusses literature with an inmate, and back to the United States, which has “mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, militarized police forces and a prison building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen.” She praises Dreisinger’s work thusly:

The great gift of Incarceration Nations is that, by introducing a wide range of approaches to crime, punishment and questions of justice in diverse countries — Rwanda, South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, Uganda, Singapore, Australia and Norway — it forces us to face the reality that American-style punishment has been chosen. It is not normal, natural or inevitable.

In her review Alexander is most intrigued by Dreisinger’s visit to Rwanda, the nation most immediately known for the 1994 Civil War and genocide. There, she says, the country “aims to rebirth itself by facing its history honestly, unflinchingly, with open hearts and minds, yet we learn little about this reckoning and national awakening.”

You can read Michelle Alexander’s review on The Washington Post online.

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It’s Women’s History Month! Take a look at some our favorite authors to find the next woman you’ll be reading this month.

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Three irresistible, genre-bending novels from Other Press.

You won’t find any typical women’s fiction here. With Couple Mechanics, Willful Disregard, and The Other Woman what you’ll get is a truly inventive twist on the novel of the affair. Whether it be a marriage caught in crisis, a young intellectual woman unmoored by her romantic passion, or a an aspiring writer bound by her gender and her class, Other Press delivers challenging and surprising contemporary novels for today’s modern woman. Download a PDF of the poster by clicking on the image below.

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March is Women’s History Month, and here at Other Press we’d love to help you celebrate with a wide selection of brilliant and challenging women authors. This season we’ve published three psychologically intense novels about women and their relationships, written by women: Nelly Alard’s Couple Mechanics, Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard, and Therese Bohman’s The Other Woman.

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All three eschew the standard stale romance with reassuring narratives of revelation and self actualization; they are sharp, incisive, and honest looks into what it means to open yourself up to the vulnerability of a relationship with another person. Couple Mechanics is Nelly Alard’s answer to Simone de Beauvoir’s classic, The Woman Destroyed. In it she details one urban career woman’s fight to hold on to her husband, despite his infidelity and modern-day feminism’s maxim that pride and dignity take precedence over desire. In Willful Disregard Lena Andersson crafts an arresting portrait of one woman’s psyche as she battles through an obsession with the subject of one of her articles. Ester is young, analytical, and highly educated—not the type of person you’d expect to lose herself in another person. What you’ll find in Andersson’s award-winning novel is the dark irony that can lie at the heart of a manic pixie dream. The Other Woman is Therese Bohman’s (Drowned) twist on the novel of a marital affair. Our unnamed narrator is the other woman of the title, and through Bohman’s characteristic limpid prose and unnerving insight into modern-day gender politics, we learn exactly what that means.

Other Press has a long and proud tradition of publishing amazing women authors. Start with Alard, Andersson, and Bohman. When you’re done you can move on to some of our other favorites, like Minae Mizumura (A True Novel), Kyung-sook Shin (I’ll Be Right There), Olga Grjasnowa (All Russians Love Birch Trees), Stephanie Vaughn (Sweet Talk), Randa Jarrar (A Map of Home), and Yvette Christiansë (Unconfessed). 

If what you’re looking for is nonfiction, then look no further than Sarah Bakewell. She wrote the National Book Critics Circle Award winner How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, and we’ve just published her At the Existentialist Café, already a New York Times bestseller. In it she uses her distinctive wit and ability to distill complex ideas into accessible prose to bridge biography and history: she details the lives of the philosophers who created the movement, including Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus, while explaining the origins of existentialism and its significance in today’s world. We’re also excited to have one of the most important books coming out this season, Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations. A complex  and necessary look into America’s exportation of its prison industrial complex, Dreisinger offers what no other book on this subject does: a path toward change. James McBride (author of The Color of  Water and The Good Lord Bird) praises her work, calling Incarceration Nations a “well-written work of redemption and identity.”

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author of Incarceration Nations

Incarceration Nations is the story of my journey to prisons around the world, beginning in Africa and ending in Europe. The idea for this global journey was born behind bars in America, where I launched the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which offers college classes and reentry planning to incarcerated students in New York State. I had started the program hoping to make some small dent in the American mass incarceration crisis. The world’s largest jailer—with some 2.3 million people incarcerated—the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prison population. More African Americans are under criminal supervision today than were enslaved in 1850.

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But I was troubled by the fact that the public conversation rarely turned from America’s incarceration calamity to the global prison problem—a system the U.S built and then foisted on the world. Between 2008 and 2011, the prison population grew in 78 percent of all countries. Some 10.3 million people worldwide are behind bars, many convicted of nothing, waiting years to be tried and lacking access to adequate legal assistance.

I began to envision a global journey, one that would offer a chance to rethink one of America’s most devastating exports. On a basic level, I felt an urge to be a witness, to expose the hidden places and forgotten people that exist in every country. Such a journey seemed, for me and for my readers, a moral imperative. After all, justice should be loud and proud, a transparent system endorsed by all citizens. Yet prisons are invisible spaces, places most people never see, yet dimly accept as real and right. How can we endorse what cannot be seen?

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The final inspiration for my journey was a terrible realization: I was so routinely inside prisons, so often immersed in analyzing prison issues, that I was beginning to lose perspective. I needed a shock to the system, to ask myself anew what I used to get asked all the time: Why care so passionately about the so-called wrongdoers of the world? I would find fresh answers to this question, seeing prison anew by seeing it around the world. Nelson Mandela famously said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

In recent years, there have been plenty of calls for prison reform, many of them driven by arguments about economics and public safety. But what about fundamental moral arguments about prison, as an ethical concept? I decided that it was time to go back to the theoretical drawing board. I chose nine countries—Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and Norway—that would defamiliarize foundational concepts about justice and prison, concepts we too often take for granted. I would re-ask the big questions about punishment, redemption, forgiveness, second chances, racism, and capitalism that had made me a prison activist to begin with. And perhaps I might convince others—as voting, thinking citizens of a democracy—to become agents of change, too.

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Other Press: Lay Down Your Weary Tune is your debut novel. Could you tell us a bit about your journey in writing it? How did you discover Jack’s voice, and how did you know this was the story he would to tell? How did the novel take shape?

W.B. Belcher: “Journey” is the right word. I began sketching out this novel almost nine years ago. At the time, I was writing both plays and short stories, and I was exploring how various forms of storytelling overlap. Mask-making, reinvention, role-playing were common themes in my work, particularly in my playwriting. I began to explore these themes in the larger playground of a novel, but I discovered early on that the characters would drive the process. Eli Page, the mercurial folk music icon, sequestered in a foothills of the Adirondacks, came first. He was followed by Jack Wyeth, a wannabe music journalist and blogger in need of direction. The novel began to take shape once I realized that its root structure was a late coming-of-age/toppling of childhood idols story on one hand, and a novel about reinvention and the folk process on the other.

Jack’s a restless person, adrift, rudderless, except for his fascination with Eli Page, which seems to center him. Jack’s interests and personal history are tangled up in the myth of Eli Page. Folk music is Jack’s frame of reference—it’s how he sees and interprets the world, and since the novel is narrated from his first-person perspective, I knew that the language, the tropes, the archetypes, the imagery would all have to stem from folk songs and that folk Americana aesthetic. It was a long journey from point A to point B, but that decision to infuse Jack’s perspective with the music and symbols found throughout folk songs was the key to finding Jack’s voice.

OP: Were you nervous about alluding to such luminaries as Bob Dylan? How did you approach depicting the beloved and renowned Caffè Lena?

W. B. B.: When I first started, I didn’t know if the story had legs. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous about those references until I was well into the process. Many readers have asked if I was really writing about Dylan or Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie (a few have even mentioned Phil Ochs); I like to say that Eli Page is all of these musicians and he’s none of them. In the end, I hope I’ve created a convincing contemporary of Dylan, although Eli Page was not nearly as famous (or elusive).

Before I began writing Lay Down Your Weary Tune, I’d only been to Caffè Lena a few times, but those experiences were somehow memorable enough to inspire two scenes in the early drafts. And it was actually those draft scenes that prompted me to get more involved at the Caffè. To put it another way, writing the novel led me to Caffè Lena; not the other way around. In the context of the story, I was interested in folk music outside of the traditional hot spots (certainly outside Greenwich Village), and Caffè Lena was my real-life example. Jack believes that it’s one of the reasons Eli relocated so far upstate. As far as my approach—I wanted to make sure the listening room seemed authentic and the readers had a sense of the atmosphere. Despite the drama that happens during those scenes in the Caffè, I think I captured the Lena’s that we know and love.

OP: You take such care in illustrating Galesville, the town in your novel. It’s almost a character of its own. Was it important to you to create a concrete sense of place? Why?

W. B. B.: Galesville is an outsized character in the novel. Early on in the Intro, Jack uses “we” when he refers to his fellow Galesville residents—he includes himself as part of the town. Even though it’s rough going at times, he still considers himself part of the community. More important than concrete, I wanted to create a small town that was complex. Galesville’s not a funky little town that embraces everyone’s quirks, and it’s not a narrow-minded town that fears change—as with most towns, it’s both of those things and a thousand others. It’s a town in transition, caught between the old and the new, the past and present, the left and right, and it’s a town in the middle of reinventing itself from a farming community to an artisan community. I wanted it to feel familiar, but I had to remember that the descriptions of the town are subjective (filtered through Jack’s perspective), unreliable, tainted by Jack’s fear of being an outsider. Lastly, the details he chooses to show the reader—the river, the trestle, the hardware store, the depot, the graveyard, and so on—are bits and pieces that could’ve been lifted from the lyrics of a folk song. In many ways, he’s constructing his own myth as he writes, and Galesville is an actor in that myth.

OP: What do you think of the state of folk music today, both in terms of the music that’s made and how it’s received? Do you think it can ever occupy the same space in the American popular conscience that it once did?

W. B. B.: That’s a heavy question. Usually, I’d lean on some friends to help me answer with authority, but I think it’s fair to say that “folk” music (whether we’re referring to the traditional music or the American folk music revival) won’t ever occupy the same space that it did prior to 1970. That said, I think it’s doing just fine, and it has demonstrated an extraordinary staying power (and influence) over the years. It also dips in and out of popular culture, from Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013 to No Direction Home in 2005 and Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One in 2004. More recently, there’s been a resurgence of all things Americana. Venues like Caffè Lena, Club Passim, The Living Room, and many others have seen an uptick in interest and attendance; house concerts are alive and well; and the festival business is thriving. Folk music’s influence extends far beyond banjos and fiddles to much of the music that is popular today. That’s my take. I’ll leave the rest to folklorists and musicologists.

OP: Are there any musicians who have influenced your life as Eli influenced Jack’s life? What do you think of the relationship between fans and their idols, especially with how much closer fans seem to be able to get to their favorite artists today?

W. B. B.: I’ve been known to obsess about different bands and musicians (for short periods of time), but I can’t say that any one artist influenced my life the way that Eli Page influences Jack’s. I don’t tend to think of my favorite writers, musicians, or artists as idols, even if I love their work. I’m more of an admirer than an obsessive fan. That said, I think the relationship between fans and their idols is an interesting dynamic to observe. Beyond the marketing, promotion, branding aspect, I think there is something human in the fan/idol relationship. We’re all looking for a connection, right? We’re searching for people who “get” us, who understand us, who share our view of the world. But those idols can’t possibly live up to the fans’ expectations. It’s not just true of musicians, writers, artists, of course; it’s true of sports heroes and politicians and so on. They’re human, after all. As Jack notes in the book, they’re “flawed, hurting, grasping for answers” just like the rest of us.

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Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café is one of the most anticipated books of the year, and it has already garnered not one, not two, but four starred reviews!

 

“‘What is existentialism anyway?’ asks Bakewell in her tremendous new work, and you’re wrong if you find that question irrelevant to your life….
Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal STARRED REVIEW

 

“A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.”
Kirkus Reviews STARRED REVIEW

 

“Bakewell brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to ‘the task of responsible alertness’ and ‘questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.’”
Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW

 

“Bakewell focuses upon key individuals—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Martin Heidegger…With coverage of friendship, travel, argument, tragedy, drugs, Paris, and, of course, lots of sex, Bakewell’s biographical approach pays off….An engaging story about a group of passionate thinkers, and a reminder of their continued relevance.”
Booklist STARRED REVIEW

 

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For he who refuses to read women writers
How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

He read Mrs. Dalloway once, maybe back in high school, but ever since he’s stuck to Cormac McCarthy and any book that has the word “road” in the title. He makes a face whenever he comes across the phrase “mid-century misogynist.” He’s not a misogynist, of course, but he knows what he likes and he’s sticking to it. For this reader in your life we suggest Sarah Bakewell’s modern classic How to Live, the National Book Critics Circle Award winning biography of Michel de Montaigne. Charming and serious, probing and brimming with Bakewell’s characteristic wit, this is the book he’ll keep right next to On the Road for No Men.

For she who loves crime
The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri

This complex novel by Eduardo Sacheri, now a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, has as its backdrop the Dirty War of 1970s Argentina. It features all the hallmarks of great crime fiction–a mystery at its core, psychological insight into its characters, a thrilling plot full of twists and turns–and Sacheri’s deft prose.

For the one who’s had an unopened copy of À  la recherche du temps perdu on their bookshelf for 5 years
Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein

At 160 pages Monsieur Proust’s Library is a tiny book, but its rich with a history of literature and a love and fascination with the man whose name it bears. Anka Mulhstein doesn’t just give us a list of the books Proust read, but provides us with a sort of biography of the man through what he read–and how what he read shaped his thoughts and writing. Delightful in its insight, Monsier Proust’s Library is an excellent introduction to Proust and his oeuvre.

For she who loves the Brontës
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

Does she re-read Wuthering Heights each year? Has she watched all the adaptations, including the 2011 version directed by Andrea Arnold?  Does she own the Folio Society’s illustrated edition? Then next for her is Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, at once an homage to and a reworking of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, set in postwar Japan. Mizumura recalls Brontë’s frame narrative as well as the passionate love affair at the center of the novel, while detailing the effects of modernization on her native country.

For the hipster with the broken shoes who only reads foreign fiction

Memory Theater by Simon Critchley

He might have even had the author as a professor–Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and his interests range from Hegel and Heidegger to Terrence Malick and David Bowie. In Memory Theater, his debut novel, he tackles another one of his obsessions, memory and how we store it, and how it’s changing in the age of the internet.

For the movie lover
Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher

This debut novel about a ghostwriter who forges a relationship with a famed folk music recluse recalls everything from Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. and the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis  to Crazy Heart and Almost Famous. At the heart of Lay Down Your Weary Tune is a true love of music, but W.B. Belcher’s kaleidoscopic, fully fleshed characters and measured prose  probe the same themes of myth-making and identity that make movies about music so great.

 
For the newly (or not so newly) engaged 
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

One of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014, The Cold Song may at first seem like a mystery about a young woman’s disappearance, but it’s really about the marriage between Siri Brodal, a chef and restaurant owner, and Jon Dreyer, a famous novelist plagued by writer’s block. Ullmann uses sympathy and sharp wit in equal measure to render the fine details of and intimate relationship grown strained.

For the history lover
The Butcher’s Trail

It’s been over two decades since the break up of the former Yugoslavia, and in this gripping account, Julian Borger, who covered the Bosnian War for the BBC and The Guardian, follows the manhunt for the perpetrators of the infamous crimes committed during the war. Borger recounts how Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić—both now on trial in The Hague—were finally tracked down, and describes the intrigue behind the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president who became the first head of state to stand before an international tribunal for crimes perpetrated in a time of war.

 
For the person who answers “Anything” when you ask them what they want
Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

This is the book everyone loves, including each person detailed above. Blood Brothers delves into the relationships forged between a group of paperless, itinerant young men during the brutal days of the Weimar republic, right before the rise of the Third Reich. It’s rich in period detail, with a publishing history that’s as fascinating as the narrative itself–it is the author’s only novel, and he was disappeared during World War II.

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The 20th century read Albert Camus’s The Stranger. The 21st century will read Albert Camus’s classic with Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. This book has the power to transform who we are and how we think. The New York Times Book Review called it “a letter of love, rebellion, and despair for Algeria” and the Guardian declared it was “an instant classic,” and TIME Magazine picked it as one of the ten best of the year.
Now Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times has selected it as one of her top books of 2015.
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She hails it as “inventive [and] artful” and explains “It not only makes us reassess Camus’s novel, but also nudges us into a contemplation of Algeria’s history and current religious politics, colonialism and postcolonialism, and the ways language and perspective can radically alter a seemingly simple story and the social and philosophical shadows it casts.”

You can read the rest of her picks of the year here.

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author of Broken Sleep

Other Press: Your first novel, And the World Was, was published in 2006, and soon after you began working on Broken Sleep. Many writers take years to finish their second novel, like Akhil Sharma with Family Life. What was it like to write a book over so long a period of time? How did your writing process change throughout the years you were writing Broken Sleep?

Bruce Bauman: Both of my books took years and years to write. Both were “started” over twenty years ago. I understood early on that I was not a book-every-two-or-three-years kind of writer. I understood and accepted my limitations. I knew that if I wanted to write the books I envisioned, I had to get smarter and become a better writer. I’ve told my shrinks for years—two or maybe three novels I’m proud of and I’m declaring victory.

Both were rewritten many times in various forms. Once I got the basics down, Word took about six years and Broken Sleep around nine. Once it got going, BS was so much fun to write. Hard and frustrating some of the time, sure—but fun is the prevailing emotion. Even when it’s depressing.

I didn’t feel pressure to finish until the last year or so because my mom was dying and I had so wanted her to SEE its publication. I couldn’t do it and I will always regret that. But a book takes as long as it takes and I had to respect the book.

My work habits only changed once really—and that was when I actually became a writer and got serious instead of just calling myself a writer. I learned a lot about discipline and dedication from my wife, Suzan Woodruff, who has been an exhibiting artist since she was in her mid-twenties and is a brilliant painter. She has her own unique vision and follows it without giving a damn about what is trendy or hot in the art world. Once that change happened in me, I became very focused and disciplined.

OP: In Broken Sleep one of the characters, Moses, navigates what it means to be Jewish, to have that as a central part of his identity. Your first novel was also concerned with faith and the role it plays in our lives. What is it about that theme that drew you back to it?

BB: Faith, belief in God or lack of belief, and my own struggles have made that question central, and I assume it will always be central thematically, sometimes right up front as in Word, sometimes as part of many themes, as in BS. I have twenty-five diaries or notebooks, and the predominant themes are my dreams and interpreting them, my complaining about pretty much everything and trying to figure out how to give meaning to a life when you no longer have faith in God. What replaces it? Art? Sex? Politics? Fame? I don’t know the answer.

Identity is tricky and extremely complex but so often we as societies and individuals try to simplify and reduce personal identities to types, including national or religious identities. We—all of us—have individual and group identities. We often see ourselves in a way no one else does.

I’m going to stop here. The question of identity and what it represents in all meanings of that word is always central to my work, and my books speak for me on this subject.

OP: Early on in your novel a character states, “Irony without empathy is empty and juvenile.” Is this something you believe? Are there any works of art that in your opinion use irony with a true sense of empathy?

BB: There’s a song in the book “Papa’s Gun,” well yes, it’s about Hemingway’s suicide. But the lyric “irony and pity / oh so witty” is kind of a rip from The Sun Also Rises where the Bill character sings “Irony and Pity…” to Jake. That is one translation of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. All great tragedies, from the original Oedipus the King to Hamlet to The Great Gatsby have both. The last lines of The Sun Also Rises are a perfect example; a modern take on irony and pity. It’s essential to know that Lady Brett and Jake Barnes believe they are in love with each other, but because of his accident/impotence, they cannot really be together.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

OP: There are a multitude of voices in Broken Sleep, with several characters narrating their own chapters. How were you able to carve such distinct and brilliant voices for so many characters? Did the voices of the characters come before you found the form your novel would take, or after?

BB: The short answer is I have no fucking clue. Hell, a few years after Word was published, I tried to write a short piece using the voice of Levi Furstenblum. Couldn’t do it. He’s in BS briefly, but not his narrative speaking voice. Levi has, so to speak, left the building and he ain’t coming back.

Mindswallow’s voice I had very early on. Steve Erickson advised me to experiment with first and third person for Moses, which I did. And Moses said loud and clear “Third is me—I am an Old Testament voice.” Salome was the longest in coming—she always had to be in first person, and when she finally came to me she didn’t shut up.

Patience is the key. And getting good advice. After I’d written a few versions, first Allen Peacock, then Terrie Akers with an assist from Anjali Singh, really helped me get the order of the chapters right, and in so doing they let me know when a voice went off, and when I, Bruce, was intruding.

OP: In Broken Sleep the world is transfixed and transformed by Alchemy and his Insatiables. Salome’s work is equally captivating. Are there any musicians or artists who have brought that kind of significance in your own life?

BB: The Beatles and to a lesser degree Bob Dylan. It’s kind of cliché, but aside from their talent, which was enormous, they changed the cultural landscape of the world. In 1969, you could take any eighteen-year-old from the US, Brazil, East Germany, South Africa and put on Sgt. Pepper’s and suddenly they had something in common. It wasn’t just the music—that was the catalyst—it was an idea, a common language. I think that was really new. Maybe Chaplin and Garbo had that kind of recognition back in the 20s, but they belonged to everyone—grandkids, Mom and Pop and Grandpa and Grandma. Elvis had the youth thing, but he was empty inside. At that perfect moment in time The Beatles, who were a group—Dylan was always an oddball loner with friends—belonged to a generation. The youthful left-wing uprisings in France, the US, Mexico, China, Prague of ’68 dwarfed the European uprisings of 1848. I could make a case that without the new methods of communication open to almost everyone, and the Beatles were the lead messengers who instinctually grasped this new world, that the 60s as we know it could not have happened without them.

The net is an enormous technological leap, but you gotta remember this: in 1967 The Beatles played “All You Need Is Love” on the first live satellite link to 400 million people. There were others on the broadcast, but the Beatles were the stars. The Beatles had 400 million linked friends about twenty years before Mark Zuckerberg was born. That is transformative power.

 

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Missed Kamel Daoud, Francine Prose, and Dinaw Mengestu at Albertine Books? No worries! You can watch the video below.

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I know, I know most of you wanna hear about Alchemy Savant. The facts of his scurvy-pervey sexcapades and what really happened that night he bought the big one. I’ll get to that, but I been prepping for some time and I got a story to spill that’s more than just Alchemy. I loved the bastid and I despised him. Like he said, we was honest brothers, and sometimes brothers fight. Yeah, he rescued me from a life of scrounging for dimes in the deep end of the shitpool. Did that for lots of us. That was him, then and always: a lifesaving con-trol freak. After becoming a rock ’n’ roll god, he wanted not to be prez but a left-wing king.

I also been advised by the people paying me to do this to start when we met in ’92, almost thirty years ago now. I ain’t writing a word, just dictating. Don’t worry, it’s all me. They can fix everyone’s grammar except mine. I gotta sound like I sound, not some airbrushed version of me. I ain’t gonna softsell nothing neither. Some shit will make me look like a crude, ignorant crudhead and a world-class a-hole, which I was way back then and maybe still am. Judge for yourself.

I was born Ricky McFinn. Twisted branch in a warped family tree. Part Italian, part Irish, and all lapsed Catholic.My journey to becoming Ambitious Mindswallow began late summer of ’92, I’d been doing zip for a few years since I got my butt tossed out of the highfalutin School of Performing Arts for acting like a plastic surgeon and “repairing” my piano teacher’s nose after he opined my mother should’ve aborted me. Since it was my third offense, I was fresh out of community service and no-jail-time cards, so I was awarded an allexpense- paid trip to Spofford, the juvee jail. Before I could even join a gang, this motherfucker, who had body tatts of his mama, the Mother Mary, and muscle heads, tried to stick his wang up my anal hole. I elbow him in the nuts and tell him to take his queerass Puerto Rican butt back to his cell and leave me the fuck alone. That night, in the showers, in front of his compadres he gets on me for being so skinny (I was about six feet two, 130 pounds back then). So I put this fucker down: “Yeah, so what? I’m carryin’ weight in the only place it counts.”

“What you mean? You got dope?”

“Wha-utt?” I says. “Cocksucker, you so fuckin’ stoopit.” I grab my nuts. “I seen four-year-olds carryin’ bigger logs.” I let that one sink into his big, bald skull. Then wham, I snap him, “Hell, I bet yo’ mama’s clit’s bigger than your muscle!” That did it. They gouged out my left eye, which got me out of Spofford fast and gave me my little good-luck charm. Still keep my eye in a glass marble around my neck. My family was s-o-o-o sympathetic. (My dad and some Jew shyster sued the city. They ended up getting something but I didn’t get squat.) So then I was living at home, speculating on what to do with my wonderful fucking life. One night I am sound asleep when I hear my sister Bonnie, who has the other half of the bedroom, moaning and popping chewing gum bubbles while balling some lucky future herpes dick she picked up at Paddy Quinn’s. I figure I’ll hide in the bathroom, only my older brother Lenny, who’d gotten out of the army and was a speed freak, was shivering and shaking right on the bathroom floor. He liked to use me as his punch dummy, so I take about two hundred bucks and some of his pills. He can’t do shit. I feel much better after that.

My mom was screwing her new Korean lovewad — the Asian invasion was getting heavy and Main Street looks like a mini-Peking. My dad hadn’t found some pathetic divorcée to put up with his act that night, and he’s passed out drunk on the pool table in his half of the living room, which is also the office of the two family businesses. The other half is filled with “secondhand” dresses that happened to be all new that my dad “buys” and my mom sells to the neighborhood wifies. I think, Shit, Spofford’d be better than trying to make a life with this family a ratbrains.

I toss a few things into my backpack. I open the kitchen window to the fire escape. We lived on the sixth floor. I take this chair, go out the front door, and lock it. Wedge the chair under the door handle so they can’t get out. I climb up to the roof, down the fire escape, and slip back in through the window. I dial 911. I turned on AC/DC so loud it could rattle the Chinese super’s place six floors below. They all jump up and start screaming. My mom is wailing, “Ricky, yeh bastid, I’m gonna kill ya, I swearh!”

I plead to the 911 lady, over all the cursing and commotion, to get someone over here ’cause they is dying. If only. I scoot out the window and down the fire escape with only my Strat and backpack, wearing my leather jacket, though it’s late- August shitbowl Flushin’ Bay hot. I hear the sirens as I head toward Main Street to catch the Seven, thinking, They can kiss my bony ass if they ever see it again.

I start hustling — not, as rumored, letting old queens suck me off, but I do rip off tourists and hang out on 2nd and B at the Gas Station club that is this burnt-out building with only half a roof. For free booze and crash rights, I clean up the broken bottles, crack vials, and vomit. Me being only eighteen was a misdemeanor next to the other shit going down.

One night about 3 A.M., from my seat inside I see this snazzy guy wearing a black sports coat, black porkpie hat, a purple T-shirt, and black stud earring, and puffing hard on an unfiltered smoke, high-step out of a limo. (This was a few years before that hood became a haven for the hundred-dollartorn- jean crowd.) Beside him is a six-foot blond strung-out model type with albino skin and straw-thin arms clomping onto him. He has the aura. Everyone just zooms their eyes on him as he swaggers in and downs like five beers in five minutes. I’m playing my Strat, I plug in whenever I got the urge. After he buys a packet of powder for his babe, who snorts up right there, they split. As he walks out, he says, “I like your playing.” I’m thinking, Fuck you, who cares what you think? The crazy thing is, already I do care.

To make some extra smash, I was buying junk and toot from this Super Fly knockoff who hung out on the southeast corner, we call him Duckman though he calls himself “Mr. Sam Spade,” wearing his big-brimmed hat and brown leather jacket and polished white shoes. He patrols around his corner like Chuck Berry doing the duckwalk and quacking “crack, crack.” I buy some stuff from Duckman and cut that shit down so detergent’d get you higher. I sold some shit to a coupla prepsters in the Gas Station, who is acting like they was dirty boulevard homeys. This one guy, showing off for his babe, tries to scam me by shorting me, giving me seventy bucks instead of a hundred. We engage in a minor conflagration. He tries to play tough. “Fuck you, man, that shit isn’t worth a hundred.”

“You right, it ain’t.” I says to his chick, “Why you sucking off this prick? You should try this white trash missile.” I stare real tight in his face: “G’head. Try something, yeh pisshead.” As I’m doing this, I spot the snazzy dude from the other night without his hat, sitting with my guitar on his lap. He’s sidewaysed himself into the corner and is lazy-eyeing us, and then, again, he smiles at me, while strumming the Velvets’ “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”

I say to the prepster, “You think I won’t mess your pretty face, you are way mis-tak-en.” With my left hand, I pull off my shades. “Look close at my left eye . . . Yeah, it’s glass. Gift from my cell mates. Now gimme me the dope and the cash. All of it.” I took it. “Now go!”

The guy keeps strumming. No one really listened to the music or poetryslammin’ there. The Nuyorican was down the block if you was into that mumbo-jumbo. I grab an acoustic guitar from behind the bar and hand it to him. I take mine back and we start jamming. He drops me a dime worth of lickass. “You handled that real sweet.” “Yum, just swallowed that pussy whole.” He nods and starts playing “Police and Thieves,” achingly slow and reggae cool. Not at all like the Clash. I says I never hear it like that, and he says, “I always preferred Junior Murvin’s original.” I say nuthin’. Don’t want to show my ignorance. Then he starts messing with more music I never heard. Turns out it’s his shit and he sings his lyrics:

I do it for the chicks and money
don’t care ’bout no salvations
or gold-plated salutations
all I want is chicks and money . . .

We’re jamming when Mr. Suburbia drives up with his boys in a Mercedes with CT plates. I stop playing and step outside. He and his three buddies come at me. I pull my metal before they get close, and I grab the main sucker. I go right at his ear. “Bitch, I tolt ya. I don’t care. I’ll cut you good and we’ll be one pretty pair a misfits.”

Mr. Suavola glides out to us like he’s Mahatma Luther Kingmaker. “Let’s maintain a level of intelligence and decorum . . .” He gently takes my arm and pulls the knife away from the guy’s ear. He calls out to the Duckman, who saunters over.

“My man, Alchemy Savant, ain’t seen you since I hear your soulman’s heart and chocolate vodka voice charmin’ us at the Paradise,” Duckman declares, and quacks. “So what can I do you for?” These clowns are morgue-meat white. The neighborhood cops drive by and Duckman throws a big Howdy-deedamn- do kiss at ’em while Alchemy is explaining everything, only he adds this, “My friend and I, we need a car, and I think these gentlemen are going to lend us theirs as compensation for our troubles. What do you think?”

Duckman muses for a sec. “That be fair.”

Mr. CT starts howling, “No way. Wait. Please. No!”

Duckman says, like he’s sucking the last juice from his whore’s hot spot, “Boy,” and he’s lov-ing using that word, “boy, did you see that black-’n’-white that drive by? You don’ do what I suggest, you take your ride, and I call my associates and they stop you before you hit First Avenue. You know what the Tombs is, boy? The Tombs is the nastiest cell in America.” These tools are piss pants yellow now. “Shee-it, you’ll see it for yo’self.”

I’m just wishing, wishing this cat had been my lawyer in juvee court. “Okay, boys, past your bed-wettin’ time.” The CT guys start slinking away and Alchemy surprises me when he yells after them, “Give me your number.” They stop and do that, and the screw job, he thanks them.

I think it’s finally done ’til Duckman grabs my arm. “How much you get?”

“Hundred.”

“That and the shit be mine for services rendered.” No way I’m hosing Duckman. “And, one mo’ thing, as I am sure you remember, anything you sell to the white boys in here, I gets seventy-five percent. And them other three corners, I owns ’em.” He and Alchemy shake hands. I hand over the cash and the dope to the Duckman, and he quacks on back to his corner. Alchemy yells out to me, “You up for a ride?”

“Where to?”

“L.A. Going to start a band there.”

Never been to L.A. and I ain’t got sweet nuthin’ to lose and no future in New York. “Let’s jam.”

Alchemy drove like red lights, slow-moving cars, potholes is just hazards to be avoided. Or not. In minutes, we’re over the GW Bridge and jetting away from dumps like Bayonne, the “American Dream Developments,” and them putrid gas tanks of the “Garden State.” Yeah, a garden doused in weed kill. I’m thinking to myself, So Looong Flushin’, when he swivels his head so he’s looking backward and stares at the city, and I’m getting a tick nervous here about his driving skills, and he says, “Look at that skyline, and the acolyte cities, the lights, they’re like God’s dissonant drips merging across the sky on a Jackson Pollock canvas.” Uh, yeah, sure. I don’t know Jackson Pollock from Jack-in-the-fuckin’-Box, and if God created Hoboken in his image, then book me a ticket to Satanville.

A coupla minutes later he turns and asks, “So, besides taking advantage of foolish college kids, what do you want to do?”

“Pile up chicks and money,” I croon. We laugh and start riffing about L.A. and the music we want to play and all the movies we dig and all the shit we have in common. ’Cause I don’t know yet, but sense there’s plenty we don’t.

We drive for a coupla hours and it’s like 4 A.M. when he pulls off the 80. Even at that hour it’s not like any Jersey that I seen. No gas and garbage smells.

He announces, “I need to see my mom. There’s a motel where we can get some rest first.” In the room, in like one minute, the guy’s asleep. About two hours later, I hear him howling. I am freak-ing out, and I don’t freak easy, but I ain’t never heard such scarifying noises exiting out from no one except when Tommy Huston shot Davy Rathbone in the nuts. I’m thinking the guy is a psycho or he’s gonna die on me and that’s all the bullshit I need, stuck with a “borrowed” car and a dead body in Nofuckingwhere, New Jersey. I leap out of bed, turn on the lights, and shake his ass awake. He sits up, he’s all sweaty, and his eyes — whew! They are a kaleidoscope of light and dark browns with dots of tans and whites, gonzo wild and like he has just seen God and Satan — only his voice and body are totally cool.

“It’s part of my birthright,” he finally says. “You’ll see in the morning. Now go back to bed.”

I’m more than a bit jittery, so I put on the cable TV, watch some porn, and jack off in the shower while Alchemy is once again fast asleep.

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An excerpt from Rupert Thomson’s Katherine Carlyle

Another beautiful September. The sun richer, more tender, the color of old wedding rings. Rome filling up again, people back at work after the holidays. I ride through the city, over potholes and cobbles, the sky arranged in hard blue blocks above the rooftops. The swallows have returned as well, flashing between the buildings in straight lines as if fired from a gun. I park my Vespa outside the station and walk in through the entrance.

It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness. They were nudges. Pokes. Nonetheless, I felt a thrill each time, a rocket-fizzle through the darkness of my body, and I took photos of them all and stored them on my laptop, in a file marked INTELLIGENCE. The weeks passed, and the world began to address me with more precision. In May I stopped for a macchiato near the Pantheon. On my table was a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. I recognized the prefix — Bologna — and called the number. A woman answered, her voice hectic, a baby crying in the background. I hung up. The scrap of paper was a message, but not one I needed to pay attention to. In June I entered a changing cubicle in a shop on Via del Corso. Lying on the floor was a brochure for a French hotel. “Conveniently located for the A8,” the Hôtel Allure offered a “high standard of accommodation.” I borrowed my friend Daniela’s car on a Friday afternoon and drove for seven hours straight, past Florence and Genoa, and on around the coast to Nice. At midnight the hotel’s neon sign floated into view, the black air rich with jasmine and exhaust. I spent most of the next day by the pool. The hot white sky. The rush of traffic on La Provençale. In the early evening a man pulled into the car park in a silver BMW. He stood at the water’s edge, his shirtsleeves rolled back to the elbow. His name was Pascal, and he worked in telecommunications. When he asked me out to dinner — when he put that question — I somehow realized he wasn’t relevant. If the Hôtel Allure was a mistake, though, it was a useful one. I’ve been imagining a journey ever since.

The station concourse smells of ground coffee beans and scalded milk. I stare up at the Departures board. Firenze, Milano. Parigi. None of the names stand out, none of them speak to me. Voices swarm beneath the high sweep of the roof, footsteps echo on the polished marble, and then a feeling, sudden yet familiar — the feeling that I’m not there. It’s not that I’m dead. I’m simply gone. I never was. Panic opens inside me, slow and stealthy, like a flower that only blooms at night. The eight years are still with me, eight years in the dark, the cold. Waiting. Not knowing.

I deliberately collide with someone who happens to be passing. He’s in his early thirties. Black hair, brown leather jacket. He drops his bag. An apple rolls away across the floor.

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

“No, no,” he says. “My fault.”

The moment he looks at me, my existence comes flooding back. It’s as if I’m a pencil sketch, and he’s coloring me in. I go and fetch the apple. When I pick it up it fits my palm perfectly. The shape of it, the weight, makes everything that follows feel natural.

I hold it out to him. “I think it might be bruised.”

He looks at the apple, then smiles. “This is like a fairy tale.
Are you a witch?”

“I just didn’t see you,” I say. “I should be more careful.” I’m breathless with exhilaration. I’m alive.

“Are you waiting for someone? Or perhaps you’re going somewhere — ” He glances at the Departures board.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “Not yet.”

Something in him seems to align itself with what I’m feeling. We’re like two people running side by side and he has fallen into step with me. Nothing needs to be explained, or even said. It’s understood. His eyes are dark and calm.

“Come with me,” he says. “Do you have time?”

“Yes.”

His fingers curl round mine.

We walk to a small hotel on Via Palermo. They have a room on the second floor, at the front of the building. I hear the muted roar of a vacuum cleaner. There’s a coolness about the place, a feeling of suspension. A hush. It’s that hidden moment in the day, the gap between checking out and checking in.

On the stairs he’s behind me, watching me. My hips, my calves. The small of my back. I can feel my edges, the space I occupy. We reach the door. He steps past me with the key. He smells of wood and pepper. As soon as we’re inside he kisses me.

The room has a high ceiling and surprising lilac walls. From the window I can look down into the street. He pushes me back onto the bed. I tell him to wait. Lifting my hips, I pull the apple from my pocket. He smiles again.

We take each other’s clothes off carefully. We’re not in any hurry. One button, then another. A catch. A zip. The TV watches us from the top corner of the room. The curtains shift.

When he’s about to enter me I hand him a condom from my bag.

“You’ve done this before,” he says.

“No, never,” I say.

He looks down at me. He thinks I’m lying but it doesn’t bother him.

“I carry them to stop it happening,” I say. “It’s the opposite of tempting fate.”

“You’re superstitious?”

I don’t answer.

The noise of the traffic shrinks until it’s no louder than the buzz of a fly trapped in a jar. There is only the rustle of the sheets and the sound of our breathing, his and mine, and I think of that place in Brazil where the rivers join, two different kinds of water meeting, two different colors. I think of white clouds colliding in a sky of blue.

I cry out when I come. He comes moments later, quietly. When I turn over, onto my side, he adjusts his body to mine. He lies behind me, fitting himself against me as closely as he can, like a shadow. I feel him soften and then slip out of me. This too is part of the coloring-in.

Afterwards, I follow him downstairs. Out on the street I’m worried he will tell me his name and ask if he can see me again but all he does is put one hand against my cheek and look at me.

“Mia piccola strega.” My little witch.

He kisses me and walks away.

Later, I think of the apple we left in the hotel room. Lying among the crumpled bedclothes, its red skin glowing.

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author of Katherine Carlyle

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Other Press: Katherine listens to and references a lot of music in this novel, including “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” What part does music play in your life and in your writing?

Rupert Thomson: I listen to a lot of music, but mostly on my phone, while traveling, or in the car. I never listen to music when I’m writing. Favorite artists include Howling Wolf, Cesaria Evora, Roxy Music, Nirvana, Diego Cigala, Van Morrison, Björk, The Fall, Diamanda Galas, and Nick Cave. It’s hard to keep up-to-date though. At the moment I’m listening to the soundtrack from the Iranian vampire movie The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night. Since music is something that defines people, it sometimes helps me to create a character. In Katherine Carlyle, the fact that Massimo puts on Suicide and then Miles Davis late at night tells you something about who he is. So does the fact that Kit’s father sings Dinah Washington songs badly when he’s driving. When my memoir This Party’s Got to Stop came out, there was so much music in it that the UK publisher made a CD and sent it to booksellers. It was an eclectic mix, everything from Jacques Brel to Alien Sex Fiend.

OP: Throughout the novel Katherine returns again and again to one of her favorite films, Antonioni’s The Passenger. What do you think about how consciousness is inhabited in fiction as opposed to in film? Are there any films that have had as deep an impact on you as The Passenger has had on Katherine?

RT: In the first draft of Katherine Carlyle I referenced The Passenger instinctively, without realizing how fitting it would turn out to be. I simply thought it was a film that someone of David Carlyle’s generation—also my generation—would have seen and admired. Also, David Carlyle might be attracted by the fact that the film is about a foreign correspondent—i.e., someone in the same profession. Gradually, though, I realized that the movie’s protagonist echoed my protagonist: they were both self-destructive while appearing to be spontaneous and carefree. Perhaps Kit even subconsciously imitates the story arc of her father’s favorite film in the hope that it might help him to follow her and find her. In any case, I found all kinds of ways in which the two narratives could play off each other.

In films you’re looking at people from the outside. It’s about surfaces—what you can decipher from what you’re being shown. In fiction you’re more likely to be inside, looking out. The miracle of fiction is that it allows you to inhabit different thought patterns, different characters, different worlds. You get to spend time in other people’s heads. No other art form penetrates human consciousness in quite the same way.

So many films have had an impact on me. A short list of directors I keep returning to would include Wong Kar Wai, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fassbinder, Billy Wilder, Wim Wenders, Paul Thomas Anderson, Visconti, John Cassavetes, Claude Chabrol, and Harmony Korine. Most recently I’ve become obsessed with Bela Tarr’s film of Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango. Some individual scenes last almost half an hour. You stop expecting jump-cuts, or even editing. (In an interview Bela Tarr’s editor once said: “The important thing is to know where not to cut.”) Watching becomes a form of meditation. I’m always looking for films that challenge the medium, that attempt what Susan Sontag once called a “heroic violation of the norms.”

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OP: Katherine Carlyle is your tenth novel, and you’re well known for tackling widely varying subjects and genres in your writing. What is it that keeps you engaged with your work on a day-to-day basis?

RT: I have never felt that the word “genre” applies to my work. It’s just not relevant. The books are the books. They might have a thriller dynamic or horror elements, they might masquerade as historical novels, they might even appear speculative, as Margaret Atwood’s often do. In the end, though, they don’t fit any of the boxes. In the past critics have compared me to writers as different as Gabriel García Márquez and Elmore Leonard. I have also been compared to Dickens, Kafka, J. G. Ballard, Mervyn Peake, and David Lynch. I’ve even been compared to Grace Jones. Perhaps “genre-defying” is the best way of putting it. Critics also talk about my unpredictability. I actually think the books have more in common than they seem to think. The subjects and settings may vary, but the lack of similarity is superficial. Dig deeper, and you begin to see certain themes recurring. That said, I don’t feel I should be too aware of those themes. Self-consciousness is a form of constriction. All I’m interested in is what is coming next. The next challenge, the next journey into the unknown. The only interesting book is the one I haven’t written yet.

What keeps me engaged on a daily basis? Only last week my brother asked me if it was true that I worked seven hours a day, seven days a week. I told him it was. I couldn’t do that, he said. I couldn’t sit in a room all alone for seven hours a day. Then he said, I don’t know how you do that. I smiled. I can’t imagine living any other way, I said. I get to inhabit so many different worlds. I get to live all these different lives. Because—to paraphrase William Burroughs—if you don’t actually experience what you’re writing, if you don’t live it, it won’t feel authentic. Writing isn’t about any one particular book. It’s a life’s work. I think Günter Grass said that. The books are successive attempts to capture something, to get something right. But that “something” is always just out of reach. Perfection is necessarily elusive.

OP: You do a remarkable job of illustrating the world as Katherine moves through it, from Rome to Berlin to Arkhangel’sk. Did you travel or do any kind of research into these places?

RT: I wrote six or seven drafts of Katherine Carlyle without traveling anywhere at all. I knew Rome a little since I had lived there in the late 90s, and visited in the early 2000s. I’d lived in Berlin too, and spent a week in the city in 2007, researching locations. Russia and Svalbard were entirely unknown to me. For the first six or seven drafts I was content to imagine them, but I knew in the end that I would have to go, if only for a smell, a sound, a glimpse of something. I spent a week in Svalbard towards the end of September 2013, then traveled from Moscow to Arkhangel’sk with my brother some two months later. I had so many adventures! The reason why I insist that the writing comes first is because research of this kind—exotic, unpredictable—tends to provide too much material. The fiction is in danger of being swamped by real experience. If you aren’t careful, the novel morphs into a diary, or a travelogue. I like to distinguish between real facts and imagined facts. In a novel, the imagined facts must always take precedence. The best way to research is to do the imagining and then to set out on a quest for what has been imagined. Much of what I experienced and discovered in Russia and in the Arctic Circle was eventually discarded, including a whole chapter in the extraordinarily atmospheric steel town of Cherepovets, and yet a kind of flavor lingers—and I used certain locations and encounters, or versions of those locations and encounters, when they fitted into the book I had already written, or when they enriched or illuminated Katherine’s particular psychology. In the end, my two great hopes are that the novel feels perfectly authentic, and that the many hours of research don’t show.

 

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A view of Svalbard 

OP: What is it about IVF that made you want to use it as an avenue to explore identity and the dynamics of a family? Was it difficult to inhabit Katherine’s mind?

RT: In the early 2000s I read a newspaper article reporting the birth in Barcelona of a child who had been frozen as an embryo for the previous thirteen years. Thirteen years. I instantly saw those years as a period of waiting. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the child had a sibling who had been born nine months after the original fertilization. In other words, the child had a sister—or a brother—who had once been the same age but was now thirteen years older. The child who was born second had missed thirteen years of his/her sibling’s life. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but see IVF—and especially cryopreservation—as some kind of metaphor. At first I thought about the sense of slippage, the idea that somebody could be two ages at once (in the novel Katherine says she is 19, but also 27, since she was frozen for eight years). Later, I began to see those years in the freezer as a very modern form of abandonment. In the novel Katherine uses the unique circumstances of her conception as the trigger for a journey of transformation. In traveling north, towards the Arctic Circle, she is in some sense returning to the place where she began. Psychologists call it “repetition compulsion.” As a fiction writer, I saw all kinds of possibilities in the fact that a young woman’s pre-existence could haunt—and influence—her real existence.

By the time I read that article I had already entered the world of IVF myself. My daughter was an IVF baby. She was also frozen while still an embryo, though only for three months. I found the science miraculous but hard to believe in. The techniques were still so new that nobody could predict what the physical and psychological consequences might be. I felt I was going into the unknown. I felt awe, but also fear. (An early title for the book was Frankenstein’s Daughter.) All this uncertainty and conjecture led to what I hope is an unexpected and gripping first sentence: I was made in a small square dish.

Inhabiting Katherine’s mind was something that came naturally to me. I didn’t have to work at it. I didn’t even have to invent her. She was just suddenly there, from one day to the next. It was as though she had always been there, waiting to be written about. And she came complete—with a physical presence, a voice, and an agenda. She came to me so naturally, in fact, that I became suspicious. I decided to try to distance myself from her by writing the third draft of the book in the third person. It was a disaster from page one, but I went through with it, all the way to the end. And it was good that I did. In the process, I learned why a first person narrative was so crucial for this particular book. Katherine Carlyle is an ecstatic novel. It’s narrated by a young woman in a state of wrongheaded exaltation. She is convinced that she has found the key to her existence, the right way to live, and as a result of this conviction she is highly persuasive. I felt that if I told the story from outside, readers would be less persuaded, less intrigued. Furthermore—and crucially—I could only shift seamlessly between Katherine’s account of her own life and her imaginary account of her father’s life if I wrote in the first person. If I used any other voice, the dreamlike quality would be lost, and the narrative would become awkward and unconvincing.

 

Rupert Thomson in Arkhangel’sk, in an abandoned clothes market at night.

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Overview

Book Summary

An old man sits in a bar in Oran and tells a stranger the story of his brother’s murder. He tells of the circumstances surrounding the murder, he tells of how his brother’s murder shaped his and his mother’s lives, and he tells of the supposed investigation that comes after the murder. But The Meursault Investigation is more than the story of a family and its tragedy—it is the story about the power of storytelling itself, about the power of language and the need to use it carefully, about the totalizing alienation felt when a story uses its power to obscure a truth, and the violence that’s inflicted when that obfuscation is taken as the only story to be told.

A response to The Stranger, The Meursault Investigation brings new and insightful perspective to Camus’s classic text, initiating a fresh and unique dialogue with Camus’s themes of alienation and absurdity, while situating them within the context of the urgent questions faced by both Algerian and American society today. In reading Kamel Daoud’s novel, students will be able to consider questions about personal and national identity, the power of literacy to affect change, and the ways in which one finds and constructs meaning.

Contains mature content. You may want to preview before reading aloud.

 

Teaching the Book

How do you confront stories that are told not by you, but about you? How does who tells a story shape what the story says and means? How can a person tell a story about himself that works against the his total absence in someone else’s story, without recreating the violence experienced from that absence? The Meursault Investigation stands on its own as a commentary on the social ills faced in modern societies, and offers students ways to examine those ills. It also allows students the opportunity to revisit Camus’s The Stranger with new questions and a new critical perspective. Why would someone want to write a response to The Stranger?

Theme Focus: The power of language

Comprehension Focus: Authorship

Language Focus: Alienation and disenfranchisement

Get Ready to Read

Pre-reading Activities

Preview and Predict: Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Have them describe the cover and consider these questions:

  1. Where do you think the book is set? Why?
  2. What feelings does the cover evoke? What does the man on the cover of the book make you think of? Would you think differently if it were a lone woman?
  3. Whose footprints are on the cover of the book?
  4. Have the students take particular note of who the author of the book is.
  5. Does the man on the cover of the book remind you of Camus’s Meursault?

Brainstorming: Have the students read the book jacket description. Ask the students what they know about colonialism and “the Arab world.” After having read Camus’s The Stranger, did they have any questions about “the Arab,” or had they forgotten about him? After reading the description of The Meursault Investigation, what questions about “the Arab” come to mind, if any? Ask the students to think about other books they’ve read that were “responses” or continuations of classic texts, and why these books are written, decades after the original.

Vocabulary

Explain to the students that the author uses vocabulary to evoke a certain response from his readers. Some of these words have exact histories behind them and are used in academic and social justice contexts today. Others simply help to create the world Harun inhabits, and serve to capture the alienation and otherness he feels. The following list contains some of these words.

Ask students to write down what they think the following words mean as they come upon them. Afterwards, have them look up the words and write down their definitions. Have students compare their own definitions with the ones the dictionary provides and decide which one they think applies better and why.

  1. impunity (p.6)
  2. intangible (p. 6)
  3. settler (p. 11)
  4. decolonized (p. 31)
  5. indifferent (p. 39)
  6. diaphanous (p. 58)
  7. absurdly (p. 75)
  8. interminably (p. 103)
  9. dissonances (p. 119)
  10. despair (p. 133)

Using Vocabulary: Ask students to refer to the definitions they wrote for the above words to answer the following questions.

  1. When Harun says that Musa’s murder was “committed with absolute impunity,” is he referring to the trial Meursault faces in Camus’s The Stranger, or Camus’s book itself?
  2. What specific act is Harun describing when he says “Some of our people even decolonized the colonists’ cemeteries”? Is he using the word ironically?
  3. Why is Musa indifferent to the fact of his mother’s life? What else is he indifferent about? What is he not indifferent about?
  4. Who is Harun referring to when he uses the word settler? Is there another name he uses for them?
  5. What is the despair Harun refers to that he thinks Meriem runs away from?

As You Read

Reading the Book:

Modeled Reading: Read aloud from the first few pages of the book. Ask the students to describe the voice of the speaker and their reaction to his speaking directly to an unnamed listener. Ask them to consider the differences they notice between how The Meursault Investigation begins and how The Stranger begins. Why does Daoud make these changes? What are some similarities and differences they notice between Harun and Meursault?

Textual Analysis: Ask students to keep these questions in mind as they read the book, and to point to passages from the book to support their answers: Is what Harun faces at the hands of the djounoud comparable to what Musa faced at the hands of Meursault? What causes Harun’s alienation? Is the hold Maman has over Harun similar to other exercises of power in the book?What do you make of the fact that both Harun and Meursault are fatherless?

Reading Comprehension

Authorship: How many investigations are there in the book, and who leads them? What is the difference Harun experiences between hearing the story of Harun’s murder from his mother, reading it in the newspaper, and reading it in “Meaursault’s book”? Is it comparable to the difference you experience when reading The Stranger and reading The Meursault Investigation?

After You Read

Questions

Comprehension Focus

On Authorship: Musa’s murder is one story told by several voices. Who are the people who tell this story? In each version of the story, what is the focus? What is included and omitted and why? What is the difference between how each of the voices tell the story, and what is the objection Harun has to how others tell the story?

Theme Focus

Why is language important?: Why does Musa learn French? What does he appreciate about French and the way Camus/Meursault uses it that he does not find in how his mother uses language? In the book Musa’s mother holds an enormous amount of power over him. When he learns how to read and write in French, does he start having any power over her?

Compare and contrast these two passages:

“Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in. In her language, she spoke like a prophetess, recruited extemporaneous mourners, and cried out against the double outrage that consumed her life: a husband swallowed up by air, a son by water.” (p. 37)

“The reason why your hero tells the story of my brother’s murder so well is tha he’d reached a new territory, a language that was unknown and grew more powerful in his embrace, the words like pitilessly carved stones, a language as naked as Euclidian geometry. I think that’s the grand style, when all is said and done: to speak with the austere precision the last moments of your life impose on you.” (p. 100)

Language Focus

Have the students choose one of the words describing alienation and disenfranchisement from the above list and use it tin a one-paragraph review of the book. In another paragraph, have the students use other words from the list for who they imagine could be Harun’s counterpart in the United States.

Do Camus and Daoud use the same words to describe alienation? Have students find the similar words and write the sentences they appear in next to one another.

Have the students use the vocabulary words to relate the anonymity the Arab in The Stranger and Harun in The Meursault Investigation grapple with what some people may be experiencing in the United States.

 

Content Area Connections

History: Have students research the history of the Algerian War of Independence and compare it to contemporary efforts for liberation, such as the Arab Spring or the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Language Arts: Have students write a 500 word response to Daoud, imitating his voice and style.

Arts: Have students create a new cover for the book.

Extension Activities

—Compare and Contrast: The novel is in many ways a response to Camus’s The Stranger, even as it uses the form of Camus’s later novel, The Fall. Ask students to read The Stranger and The Fall, and to then consider what commentaries The Meursault Investigation makes on Camus’s books.

—Are there any sentences or scenes from The Stranger that are directly quoted or lifted in The Meursault Investigation? When they first read The Meursault Investigation, did theses sentences or quotes seem as though they came from another voice?

—Are there any themes are revealed in The Meursault Investigation after reading Camus’s books that remained hidden before?

—Can they identify why Kamel Daoud chose to use the form of The Fall for a book that is a direct answer to The Stranger?

—Do The Stranger and The Fall resonate with them in the same way The Meursault Investigation does? What effect does the 70 year difference between the publication of The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation have on how they approach each work?

 

For Further Reading

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

 

 

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An Excerpt from The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas

Paris, Summer 1721

In the Regent’s Bath
“No hangover can stand in the way of a good idea,” says Philip d’Orléans to himself, inhaling the strong fragrances of his bath and closing his eyes. Were he to open them, his field of vision would be obstructed by his large, pale paunch, afloat in the hot water; and although the sight of that beached animal’s belly of his, that soft demijohn distended by nights of debauch and gluttony, wouldn’t completely spoil his delight in his good idea, it would certainly diminish it. “My children are big and fat,” declares the Princess Palatine, his mother, who herself is not thin. As the thought of his mother is always agreeable, his corpulence becomes a matter of complete indifference to him. But should he recall the words she’s always happy to add — “Big fat people don’t live any longer than anyone else” — he’d feel a frightful pang of sadness. Two years ago, his adored eldest daughter, the Duchess de Berry, died in a horrifying physical state, her obesity augmented by — or so it was said — the early stages of a pregnancy. The speed at which she’d burned out her young existence, her thirst for pleasure and extinction, the delirium of theatricality and self-destruction in which he had so loved to join her — all that had left her incapable of engendering anything but her own death.

He knows he shouldn’t dwell on the Duchess de Berry. He mustn’t think about her in these evil hours, these leaden, alcoholic hours. Stick to the present, and to whatever fosters belief in a future . . . Yes, it’s a good idea, he repeats to himself, plunging his head underwater. He’s found the solution to two vexing problems: one centers on the political need to neutralize Spain and prevent a new war, and the second results from his secret, crafty desire to put off as long as possible the time when little King Louis XV might beget a dauphin of France. It won’t be tomorrow, since the boy’s only eleven years old and won’t come of age until his thirteenth birthday, and even then . . . But the best course is to address the matter now. If the king has a son when he dies, then that son will naturally inherit the crown; but if the king dies without a male heir, then . . . then . . . perforce . . . the crown would belong to him, to Philip d’Orléans, regent of France, nephew of the late King Louis XIV, who throughout his reign took pains to keep his brother’s son well away from the government, to treat him like a good-for-nothing, and all the more rigorously because the Sun King was aware of the young man’s capabilities. Except in Louis XIV’s service, intelligence was no asset at the court of Versailles.

By a smooth transition, this reflection leads the regent back to his admirable idea. The bathwater’s cooling down, but he doesn’t care, he’s happy with his plans for the future.He’s a man who’s scrupulous and careful in accomplishing his mission, though things aren’t easy, what with the suspicions of poisoning that weigh on him, suspicions incessantly revived by the old court party; but should the occasion authorize him to ascend to the throne in all legality, he can very well see himself as king. Philip I? That title’s already taken; there was a Capetian Philip I. He fought doggedly against William the Conqueror and got himself excommunicated for repudiating his wife, Bertha of Holland, who had been chosen for political reasons . . . as if there were any others, the regent thinks, as if there were any such thing as marrying for love, at least as far as he was concerned . . . and this point, though not so painful as the death of his daughter, still rankles him. Philip II, then? Why not? Philip II, called “the Debauched.” A naive but irresistible vision; power, once tasted, is difficult to give up. It’s no use to be clear-sighted, to know that the more power you acquire the less you count personally, since you’re nothing but a pawn on the chessboard of the ambitious who are working away feverishly below you. No, you hold on, you postpone as long as possible the moment when you must step outside the circle of light and away from the hum of praise and compliments — the moment when you’re going to find yourself alone in the dark, hunted out of the world, stricken from the ranks of the living. Philip II — wouldn’t that complicate relations with the current king of Spain, Philip V? Yes, quite a bit, and not only because the king of Spain’s named Philip too; he would also be in the running for the French throne if Louis XV were to disappear. Of course, Philip II is a title that has been taken before: there was Philip II of Spain, called Philip the Prudent, the gloomy builder of El Escorial, an archpious, slow-moving bureaucrat. From the Prudent to the Debauched, a long story . . .

The regent’s daydreams slowly dissolve in the mists of his bathroom. A single question remains: How will Philip V react to this excellent idea of his? The regent strokes himself vaguely. He starts to doze off in his bath. Two chambermaids take hold of him, one on either side. They lean over and pull him up by his armpits. Their breasts jiggle in the steamy air. The regent smiles, blissfully happy.

But perhaps he’s not giving so much thought to his hangover as he is to Cardinal Dubois . . . Dubois, a man who not only has never stood in the way of good ideas but is positively bursting with them, especially in matters of diplomacy. And the regent’s good idea, the excellent idea he’s congratulating himself for, might have been suggested to him by the cardinal, his former tutor, the doer of his dirty work, a creature who plumbs the depths of degradation and scales the peaks of distinction.

Working with his customary speed and effectiveness, the cardinal sees to it that the king of Spain, Philip V, the former Duke of Anjou and a grandson of Louis XIV, is apprised of the main points of the idea/solution, which will assure a complete reconciliation and a solid alliance between the two kingdoms. And Philip V, under the influence of the French ambassador in Madrid, M. de Maulévrier, vigorously supported by the king’s confessor, Father Daubenton, a Jesuit who can manipulate the king’s will almost as well as the queen, gets enthusiastic about the project. As a rule, Philip V is not given to easy enthusiasms. With his demeanor of an old man worn out before his time, his buckling knees, his pigeon toes, his pallor, the dark circles that enlarge his eyes, he doesn’t give the impression of someone who expects very much from the future. And in fact he’s got no earthly
expectations whatsoever. All his hopes lie in heaven, not in the world. But when he reads the letters from Paris, the thick black cloud customarily hanging over him evaporates. He rereads the letter and then has it read to him by his wife, Elisabeth Farnese. When he writes his reply to the regent, he doesn’t feel he’s responding to the proposition; he has the impression that he’s its source. And he would appear to find the idea breathtaking. So perfect a plan seems to have been conceived not by a human mind, but by Providence.

The Duke de Saint-Simon, Ambassador Extraordinary

In his memoirs, Saint-Simon describes for posterity the “conversation curieuse,” the interview in which Philip d’Orléans, the companion of his childhood, apprises the duke of the brilliant idea. The two men are almost exact contemporaries. The regent is forty-seven, Saint-Simon forty-six. The passing years, war wounds, and nocturnal excesses have left their mark on the regent. His brick-red complexion designates him as a serious candidate for a stroke. The brilliance of his presence, dimmed by his weak eyesight and the stress he operates under, shines through only intermittently.

Saint-Simon, decidedly shorter than the regent and just as imposingly bewigged, looks much younger, and because of his regular life, the heat of his imagination, his passion for analysis, and the fact that he brings the entire weight of his existence to bear on every instant, he is formidably present. Profoundly different though the two men are, they’re united by the duration and sincerity of their friendship and by the pleasures of intelligence, the excitement that comes with quick wit and unspoken understanding. Nevertheless, Saint-Simon seldom departs satisfied from his conversations
with the regent. The scene the two of them play out is always repeated. Saint-Simon, brimming with initiatives and impatient for them to be realized, harasses the regent, who suffers the assault with lowered head and contrite face. It’s not that the duke bores him. Certainly not! Nor that the regent disapproves of the duke. Not in the slightest! On the contrary! But — and here’s the cause of his distress — the regent doesn’t have the courage to go the way of reason, which is namely, in Saint-Simon’s view, his own way. The regent stoops, hunkers down, grows annoyed at himself, but does not act according to reason. He makes the wrong decision every time. And why? Because he’s weak, because he’s already been taken in by Dubois, and because for all the duke’s acuteness, his interventions come too late.

This conversation, however, goes differently. The regent’s in excellent humor, proud of his news, proud of the secret he wants to confide to his friend. Saint-Simon has grievances: he’s never been invited to any of the Palais-Royal dinners given in the pink-and-gold dining room, cushioned like a jewelry casket (no matter that the mere thought of those orgies repels him, especially the fact that His Highness the Duke d’Orléans, a grandson of France, acts as the chef), and his opinions are rarely heeded in the Regency Council — without counting the thousand daily wounds he suffers from barbarians who don’t respect the rules of etiquette and the permanent scandal caused by the arrogance of Louis XIV’s bastards, who are in ascendance everywhere. But Saint-Simon is so flattered and touched by his friend’s demonstration of confidence in him that he forgets all complaints. He takes pleasure in recalling the scene:

Early in June, I went to work with His Highness the Duke d’Orléans and found him alone, walking up and down his grand apartment. As soon as he saw me, he said, “Ah, there you are,” and taking me by the hand continued, “I cannot leave you in ignorance of the thing I desire and prize above all others, which will give you as much joy as it gives me; but I must ask you to keep it utterly secret.” Then he began to laugh and added, “If M. de Cambrai [Cardinal Dubois, archbishop of Cambrai] knew I had told you, he would never forgive me.” Thereupon he informed me of the accord which he had reached with the King and Queen of Spain, of the arrangements by which our young King and the Infanta of Spain were to be wed as soon as the girl came of age, and of the agreed marriage between the Prince of Asturias and Mlle de Chartres [Saint-Simon’s error; he means another of the regent’s daughters, Mlle de Montpensier]. If my joy was great, my astonishment surpassed it.

Perhaps Saint-Simon finds the difference in rank between the betrothed parties surprising, but he’s especially flabbergasted by the spectacular nature of the reversal by which the son of the king of Spain — upon whom, two years previously, the regent declared war — has become his future son-in-law.

Upon learning of these impending marriages between France and Spain, between the French Bourbons and the Spanish Bourbons, this creation of alliances between the continent’s two most powerful kingdoms, uniting two branches of a single family — in other words, the realization of Europe’s worst fears — Saint-Simon’s immediate reaction is to advise keeping the matter a deep secret, so as not to infuriate the other countries. For once, the Duke d’Orléans can give him a guilt-free response: “You are right, of course, but that is impossible, because the Spanish desire to announce the declarations of marriage at once, and they wish to send the Infanta here as soon as the proposal is made and the marriage contract signed.” Curious haste, Saint-Simon points out, given the ages of the four young persons involved. Their betrothals are admittedly premature. The Prince of Asturias is fourteen years of age, the regent’s daughter twelve. Louis XV, born February 15, 1710, is but eleven. And as for Mariana Victoria, the infanta of Spain, her date of birth was March 31, 1718. Louis XV’s future wife, the future queen of France, is not yet four years old!

Saint-Simon doesn’t find the ages of the betrothed parties surprising, in fact doesn’t give them a single thought, and in this he resembles the authors of the agreement. What stuns him is the audacious stroke of marrying a daughter of the House of Orléans to a son of Philip V, a man veritably steeped in hatred for that family and for the regent in particular. A little later in the interview, having recovered from his amazement, Saint-Simon thinks about drawing some personal advantage from the project. He asks the regent to appoint him to bring the marriage contract to the court of Madrid for signing. In the same breath, he proposes to bring along his two sons, Jacques-Louis, Vidame de Chartres, and Armand-Jean, in order to obtain for them and himself the title of grandee of Spain. Saint-Simon desires grandeur. The regent smiles. For if the Duke de Saint-Simon is pas grand — that is, not tall — his elder son, Jacques-Louis, is even shorter than his father. His nickname is “the Basset.” The regent accepts. Saint-Simon, therefore, will be the “ambassador extraordinary” for a far from ordinary marriage.

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Response to Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation has been overwhelmingly positive, sparking widespread and engaged discussion amongst critics and readers of all types. The New York Times Book Review hailed it as “[A] rich and inventive new novel…so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it,” and The Guardian dubbed it “An instant classic.” But Daoud’s work has inspired more than words; each new review is accompanied by it’s own artwork, which does its part to illuminate the themes and beauties found in Daoud’s work.

Scroll down to see the arresting illustrations and photographs inspired by Daoud’s novel.

 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

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Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in the American film adaptation of Eduardo Scheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes.

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Adam Shatz, Khiereddine Djamel Bekkai, Kamran Rastegar, and Other Press publisher Judith Gurewich joined Christopher Lyndon on Radio Open Source to discuss Kamel Daoud’s “rich and inventive new novel,” (New York Times Book Review) The Meursault Investigation.

Together they discussed the place Camus classic holds in history and literature, the postcolonial aspects of Daoud’s novel, his critique of both Camus and Algerian society and government, and local and international responses to Daoud’s work. Shatz commented:

What’s remarkable, what’s striking about The Meursault Investigation, is [Daoud] takes a further step, a much bolder step. He turns this novel into a critique of postcolonial Algeria. He really situates the absurd in post-colonial Algeria, in a country that achieved liberation after this long and bloody war of decolonization but did not render liberty to Algerian citizens. So in a sense, he’s critiquing Camus, he’s paying tribute to Camus, and he’s appropriating the whole theme of absurdity, saying, “if anyone suffers from a predicament of absurdity, it’s not settlers like Meursault, it’s Algerians after their liberation.”

richardson011

One of Matthew Richardson’s illustrations of “The Outsider” for the Folio Society.

Listen to the discussion here.

Learn more about Camus and The Meursault Investigation here.

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author of The Travels of Daniel Ascher

Other Press: In your novel the protagonist uses her skills as an archeology student to discover a long-held family secret. Why did you make Hélène an archeologist?

Déborah Lévy-Bertherat: I’ve been fascinated by archaeology ever since I visited Pompeii at the age of six. I find it bewildering to think that wherever we walk, layers of the past lay beneath our feet.  I even considered studying archaeology instead of literature…

I learned a lot from conversations with Pompeii specialist Alix Barbet. She told me, for example, that cast bodies were not merely the tortured shapes of dying victims, which is how I saw them. They contain a skeleton, jewels and objects. This gives information not about how people died, but about how they lived.

As for Hélène, she has always wanted to be an archaeologist, without knowing why. As the novel unravels, she understands that her quest is deeper than she thought. She becomes the archaeologist of her own family’s history, especially Daniel’s. She must find out where her uncle comes from and why he looks so different from her grandparents. A family is like the earth: under its smooth surface lie hidden traces of the past. You may dig into that past, by inquiring, and that’s what Hélène does. She feels that she can’t ask Daniel directly. But she meets his neighbors, friends, and relatives, and each of them gives her a clue about Daniel’s true story.

In the end, she understands that the archaeological sites she studied—a children’s graveyard, cast bodies of Pompeii, an old mosaic—were all images of Daniel’s tragedy. But her main discovery could be that the question is not only “How did they die?”  but “How did they live?”

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An excerpt from Where Women Are Kings

Elijah, my lovely son, my beloved,

I want to tell you your life. Everyone has a story inside them, which begins before they are born, and yours is a bigger story than most will ever know. They say I shouldn’t tell you some things, and that words can hurt little ears, but, son of mine, there are no secrets between a mother and son. A child has seen the insides of its mother’s body, and who can know a secret bigger than that? And they say a lot of things, those English. What they call “child abuse,” we Nigerians call “training.” So don’t mind them.

Your story begins in Nigeria, which is a place like heaven. There is continuous sunshine and everyone smiles and takes care of each other. Nigerian children work hard at school, have perfect manners, look after their parents, and respect the elderly. Nigeria is brightness and stars, and earth like the skin on your cheeks: brown-red, soft and warm.

I am full up with proud memories from Nigeria. Most of all I remember my family. Mummy — your grandmother — was famous for shining cooking pots and shining stories. “Long ago,” she would tell me and my sisters, “a woman, so full of empty, sold her body as if it was nothing but meat for sale at the market. She traveled all over Nigeria, that woman, looking for something to fill up her insides, and learned many languages, searching for words to explain the emptiness. And people liked
this empty, clever woman: she was made of starlight; her heart glowed silver. They listened when she spoke her many-language words, telling the places she’d seen: of Jos, where the sky rained diamonds, and the North, where men disappeared inside walls of sand, and the Delta creeks, dancing with river spirits. And so the people made her king. And the land filled her up, and the emptiness was sky. Nigeria is a place where women are kings. Where anything is possible.”

All my childhood she cleaned her pots while I watched, listening to her stories, to her songs, contented as any woman who ever lived. Mummy’s singing was loud, which was a good thing as my sister, your aunt Bukky, from whom you inherited that beautiful skin tone, had the kind of voice that reached inside your face. I remember one day her begging Mummy to share secrets. The sun was only half risen, yet we’d been up for hours, listening to Mummy sing and Baba snore.

“Please,” Bukky whined. “Please, Mummy. I won’t tell a soul.”

“I’ll never tell you my secret ingredient.” Mummy shook her head until her beaded plaits clicked together. She laughed. “Never. You can pester me all day and my mouth will be closed
tight as Baba’s fist on payday!”

“Please,” Bukky said, looking at the cloth with which she was wiping the pots. “It could make us rich. Imagine, a formula that cleans pots that well for sale on Express Road!” Bukky was always looking for ways to make money, and she was foolish. Once, she’d nearly been arrested after a man told her he’d give her one hundred U.S. dollars to carry a bag through airport customs. If Baba hadn’t driven past and seen her out of school and hanging around with a bag that wasn’t hers, she would have been thrown in prison. And if it had been Mummy who’d driven past, then Bukky would be dead, for sure. And who knows if the gates of heaven would open for such a crime, even if it was born of foolishness? But the things that sit in my heart are not Bukky’s foolishness, or our parents’ exasperation. Rather, the light in the compound, dancing on the metal of those cooking pots, making a thousand patterns in the dust and on Bukky’s pillow cheeks; Mummy’s laughter; Baba’s snoring. The tiny emptiness, where you would grow. A place where women are kings.

I remember that the house, with broken stairs and a leaking roof, had a central courtyard where Mummy washed rice in one of those pots; I swear our rice was the cleanest in all of Nigeria. My sisters, Miriam, Eunice, Rebekah, Bukky, Esther, Oprah, and Priscilla, spent their time looking in Mummy’s other shining cooking pots, examining the thickness of their eyebrows, the distance between their eyes (Bukky always said you could have parked a car between Esther’s eyes), the shape of their lips, the curl of their eyelashes. Baba chuckled with laughter whenever he saw them looking in the pots, and patted me on the head. “Lovely Deborah,” he said. I never looked in a cooking pot. I knew, even from such a young age, that it was sinful to be vain. I was a clever child, Elijah. Gifted. I knew the Bible so well that I could recite Psalms from the age of one year. I’m not sure if it was my not looking in a cooking pot or my willingness to study the Bible that made me Baba’s favorite. But I knew that I was. And every daughter who is her father’s favorite grows up blessed, as I was.

Really, we were all blessed. We loved school and attended the Apostle of Christ Coming Senior Department, which was only a fifteen-minute walk away. But we loved coming home from school even more — to eat dinner together and talk through the day, and read the Bible, or the other books that Baba bought for us from the store near his work, or books given to us by Mummy, which were so often read that they stayed open, as if their stories were alive and wanted to be heard. We lived on the outskirts of Lagos, in the suburb of Yaba, near the bus stop on University Road toward Yaba Cemetery: me, Mummy, Baba, my seven sisters, aunts, grandparents, and my brothers, Othniel and Immanuel — although Othniel was busy training to be a pharmacist and always out at work or the university library, and Immanuel spent all his time with his girlfriend, who lived on Victoria Island. Immanuel’s girlfriend was even more of a top secret than Mummy’s cooking-pot paste; she had starred in a music video and her parents were separated and never attended church.

Church was always a big part of our lives. When you live in a place like heaven, you cannot forget to thank God. And we had another reason to love God: our uncle, Baba’s brother, was born with the voice of God in his heart. Uncle Pastor performed miracles. He could make a dying man live, and turn around a family’s bad luck to make them the most fortunate family in all of Lagos. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes. I’ve seen many things. One man prayed for the miracle of financial security and returned to church a week later with a winning Lotto ticket, a new Rolex watch, and a girlfriend with breasts so large that Baba could not help commenting on them, and Mummy made him put all the naira from his pocket in the offerings bin. How we laughed, Elijah! Our church was a place of happiness, and your little face led me back to it, back to our parents’ laughter. We’d all watch the way Mummy and Baba teased each other: his pretending to choke on her cooking; her calling him “bigbelly man.” Their laughter. The way they looked at each other, and at us. It was such a happy home. A family. There is nothing sweeter than that.

Mummy and Baba had strong foundations to their marriage, so, when the winds blew too hard, nothing fell over. They were friends first, for so many years, and when I became friends with Akpan, I remember Mummy and Baba looking at each other and the smile they shared. They wanted strong foundations for me, too. They were so happy when your baba led me under the palm tree, producing from his trouser pocket a ring that shone like a midnight star and must have cost six months’
salary. They knew something of how marriage can work. They felt happiness, but also relief. Even in a place like heaven, life is difficult for women. If it hadn’t been for your baba, Akpan, asking for my hand in marriage, I do not know what would have become of me. And, son of mine, that is the situation for women the world over.

I was lucky. Akpan became my friend. He visited all the time, and every time he visited I liked him a little more. He had a kind face and he believed in things, and often had a Marks and Spencer carrier bag full of gifts for us: a matching goldplated jewelry set for my sisters and me, a travel alarm clock for Mummy, though she never traveled farther than Ikeja and didn’t have any AAA batteries, anyway.

Sometimes, when I was a child, I heard God in my ear — heard His voice as clear as the colors of morning. When I told him, Akpan said I had a spiritual gift. He said God had chosen me to whisper secrets to, because I was beautiful. He called me his angel and my heart swelled so much I struggled to breathe. It was many long years before we were married, and before Akpan got a visa for himself and a spouse visa for me so that we could leave our home and come to England, to the flat in London where we made you on the first try. The stars were bright that first night, Elijah, as though the Nigerian stars had traveled over to Deptford to light up our lovemaking. You were born from love and Nigerian stars and secrets believed.

You are loved, little Nigeria, like the world has never known love.

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author of Where Women Are Kings

Other Press: In Where Women Are Kings you display a compassionate understanding of the intricacies of Nigerian customs, the adoption process, and the workings of mental illness. Was it the result of research, personal experience, artistic imagination, or a combination of all three? How were you able to explore such big and disparate themes without having them overwhelm the narrative or the characters?

Christie Watson: As a novelist I often take lived experiences and ask What if? to create narrative. Of Where Women Are Kings I wanted to take my lived experience of adoption and ask questions outside my own (positive) experience. I take research very seriously; I think it’s the job of a novelist to get the facts right. Even in fiction there needs to be truth, and a well-researched novel allows for believability and more importantly, avoidance of offense. But of course all stories are a combination of all three aspects you mention. It’s impossible to separate the different elements.

I am driven by character first, story second. I always preach to my creative writing students that character is the most important thing. People read stories to identify with a character, no matter how sophisticated the plot or external events. And themes of a novel are subconscious, and more about the writer. The themes will emerge even if you try to suppress them, so I don’t worry about themes too much. I write strong characters and let them tell the story! I simply listened to Elijah’s voice.

OP: Some of the most moving parts of your novel are the letters Deborah writes to Elijah. Why did you make her letters a part of the novel? Was there ever a point when you were writing where Deborah appeared only through the third person, as with the other characters?

CW: I wanted to experiment slightly with form, and I was interested in consciousness and how to tell the story with Elijah at the center without losing the narrative voices of Nikki and Deborah. The letters allowed me to explore insights into mental illness and take the reader on a journey into psychosis.

Deborah from third-person perspective would have been a very different character, and there was a risk that she would become unsympathetic. I wanted to climb into her head and see the story from inside her, understand what or who drives good people to evil acts.

OP: In many ways, what Elijah faces is a conflict of between the cultural and religious inheritance his mother has left him, one that is inextricably tied to her intense love for him and the life they shared, and the stability and care Nikki and Obi offer him when he becomes a part of their family. Do you think it’s difficult for those working in the public sector, like Chioma and Ricardo, to address the abuses children like Elijah face without censuring the cultures they are a part of?

CW: We can’t separate ourselves from culture, and I know from working in the NHS that mistakes have been made plenty of times in the past due to the harmful attitude that if something abusive is considered culturally normal then it is not child abuse. But in my experience it’s not people from within a culture who condone harmful practices but well-meaning public sector workers fearful of being called racist. Child abuse such as female genital mutilation, or faith-based abuse like Elijah suffers is child abuse in any context. Things are improving dramatically and the dangers of calling child abuse something culturally acceptable are being addressed throughout the public sector, in the police, social services, and NHS.

OP: Both Nikki and Deborah face their own challenges in their respective experiences of motherhood. If they were ever to meet, what do you think they would make of each other?

CW: I think they would be equally devastated by the loss they recognize in each other.

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An Excerpt from Out of Sight

“It’s all façades here,” Ed Ruscha once said. “That’s what intrigues me about . . . Los Angeles — the façade-ness.” He has described himself as a landscape painter, and it’s true. But Ruscha’s is also an art of façades, and the landscape he painted, especially in the 1960s, was that of L.A. and its many façades — its storefronts and apartment buildings, gas stations and restaurants, and, above all, its signs: Los Angeles is a city of signs, and Ruscha is its poet-painter laureate.

Interest in the Southern California landscape was not unique to Ruscha in the 1960s. It fi gured importantly as well in the work of Joe Goode and Vija Celmins, two painters whose initial focus on “common objects” gave way over the course of the decade to images of desert, sea, and sky. It was not an obvious choice. Though the landscape was the defi ning subject of American painting in the nineteenth century, it had, by the middle of the twentieth, largely faded from view. Yet Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins all discovered a way beyond the impasse of mid-century American painting by reclaiming the Western landscape. Such concerns were a long way from the alleged dictates of the L.A. Look, at least insofar as that label implied an art preoccupied with high-tech materials or a synthesis of color and form. Still, Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins had all studied with Robert Irwin, and even if their work didn’t betray any stylistic influence, it is also true that their concerns were in many ways closer to those of Irwin and L.A.’s so-called Light and Space artists than to those of the East Coast Pop artists to whom they were initially compared. Light was a constant theme in Ruscha’s paintings, for instance, as space was in Celmins’s; Goode, meanwhile, tested the limits of sight, of what could be seen and what could not.

However indirect or oblique their aesthetic kinship with other Los Angeles artists, the parallels among Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins are striking. Just as L.A.’s “façade-ness” was at the heart of Ruscha’s work, the Southern California landscape we encounter in the work of Goode and Celmins is one of false fronts and obstructed views. What, if anything, lies beyond the façades? An answer, I think, can be found in the history of landscape painting and the American West — and the relationship between that landscape and the idea of the sublime.

The sublime — the frisson of exhilaration and terror that arises from the sense that one is in the presence of some overwhelming, even godlike power — found its purest artistic expression in Romanticism. In the early nineteenth century, poets such as William Wordsworth and painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner immersed themselves in the natural sublime, mirroring in their art the experience of vertiginous mountain passes, the boundlessness of the sea, or the infinitude of stars in the night sky. Evocations of the sublime were likewise key to the popular success of many crowdpleasing American landscape painters later in the century. The genre’s heavyweight champion was Frederic Edwin Church, whose Niagara was a work of such sublimity that crowds would stand in line for hours for the chance to swoon before its majesty. Works such as Niagara were, for many observers, testament to the greatness not only of the artist but of America, symbols of the young nation’s vaulting ambition and its promise of spiritual renewal. Sentiments of this sort stoked the zeal for westward expansion, the ideal of Manifest Destiny that demanded continental reach, and no one did more to promote that ideal than Albert Bierstadt, whose paintings of the Sierra Nevada rivaled Church’s in their grandeur.

Postwar American painting had a brief flirtation with what the art historian Robert Rosenblum, referring to painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, dubbed the “abstract sublime.” By the late fi fties, however, Duchampian irony was ripe for revival. And irony is the enemy of the sublime; it is a small, skeptical voice calling us back from the brink. We see it most clearly in Jasper Johns and the artists who followed in his wake, including Ruscha, whose work is thick with irony. But irony alone cannot account for the hold Ruscha’s work has on the viewer’s imagination. Amid the absurdities so abundant in his art, an air of mystery remains.

In a series of paintings begun shortly after the New Painting of Common Objects show, Ruscha hit upon a strategy he would build on in years to come. Emphatically horizontal canvases — what Ruscha himself once called his “Panavision format” — helped him push the conventions of architectural perspective to comic extremes. Ruscha regarded “the horizontal line and the landscape” as “almost one and the same,” and these works illustrate the point. The first, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, depicted the Twentieth-Century Fox movie logo. Twice as long as it is high, the painting captures the absurd monumentality of the emblem. Against a black background, the towering logo occupies the left side of the picture; perspective lines extend from the logo’s lettering to the lower right-hand corner, where they converge. Ruscha applied the same scheme — elongated horizontal format, black sky, perspective lines meeting at the lower right — in Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas. The picture is divided by a diagonal that constitutes the building’s roofl ine and overhead sign, which simply reads “STANDARD.” In both paintings, the overall effect is mock heroic, a ludicrous kind of triumphalist grandeur (looking at Large Trademark, you can almost hear the familiar Fox fanfare).

Ruscha tinkered slightly with the formula in what has become one of his most iconic images, the Hollywood sign, executed first in a series of prints and reprised in two later paintings.* The sign sits proudly on its hilltop, its letters silhouetted against a glowing red-orange sunset. But it also looks a little lost, occupying but a small fraction of the real estate in the center foreground, where it is dwarfed by a sky that seems to go on forever. It is no match for the mythic Western landscape, the legacy of Bierstadt paintings and John Ford Westerns, yet its mere presence deflates the myth, reminds us that it’s just a Hollywood production. As the last light fades, the sign serves as the closing credits for the American sublime.

Ruscha painted the Standard station in 1963, but it had already made an appearance in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the first of his many small books. Ruscha’s books have a very different feel from his paintings and prints; the mock heroic is replaced by the mystifyingly mundane. Each book comprises a series of photographs, artless snapshots, of exactly what its title promises: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Nine Swimming Pools, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, among others. Some of the books — including, most famously, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, with its twenty-five-foot-long, multi-paneled accordion fold — deal specifically with the city’s façade-ness.

ruscha pic

Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, edition of 1,000 (artists book, 7 x 5 5/8 x 299 1/2 in.)

Even the words in Ruscha’s paintings serve as façades. They are as enigmatic as the photographs of swimming pools or apartment buildings in his books. They seem to have drifted into view, flotsam bobbing along the surface of contemporary culture: advertising slogans, announcements, non sequiturs, snatches of conversation. You can try to decipher them, but as Ruscha warns in the title of one painting, there’s No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk. “A lot of my ideas,” he told one magazine, “come from the radio.” He liked it best, he added, “when it’s music overlapping talk, or talk over talk.” In Ruscha’s paintings, no matter how you try to fine-tune the dial, you keep getting static, the white noise of crossed signals. Is it a clue, with some deeper meaning? Or just another one of the things made out of human talk? 

Ruscha is identified with paintings of words, so much so that the fact that he titled one of his largest and most prominently placed works Picture Without Words is reason in itself to take note. The twenty-three-foot-high canvas (its extreme verticality is another exceptional aspect) was commissioned for the opening of the Getty Center in 1997. But it was the realization of ideas Ruscha first explored in the 1970s in a series of works on paper titled Miracle. In the Getty painting, a shaft of light pours through a high window and illuminates a rectangular section of fl oor. The symbolism is deliberately hokey, like something out of Song of Bernadette or a prison film where the killer finds redemption before his long walk to the gas chamber, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. Ruscha has often pointed to the role of his childhood Catholicism and its continuing influence on him, despite his abandonment of the faith by the time he was an adult. He has described his mental universe as that of “a Catholic kid intersecting with the world of crass consumerism.” Picture Without Words is not so much a declaration of faith as a declaration that, for Ruscha, words are opaque, another façade that obstructs our vision, and their absence here provides an opening of sorts for something unnameable: The light coming through the window, whatever its source, is not among the “things made out of human talk.” This is about as close as Ruscha gets to an unambiguous acknowledgment of the sublime; absent words, only the B-movie cliché of the scene itself suggests the usual ironic counterpoint. It is Ruscha’s genuine fascination with the sublime that prevents his work from being merely clever.

In his small but influential 1960 book, The Image of the City, the urban planner Kevin Lynch investigated the “legibility” of American cities — how the people who lived and worked in a particular city formed a mental image of their urban environment. In Los Angeles, Lynch concluded, they simply couldn’t: The city was too “hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole”; it was, for all intents and purposes, illegible.

The illegibility of Los Angeles was to a great extent a function of its sprawling, de-centered geography. But not of that alone. What was missing from L.A. was not just a real, physical center but, more important, a symbolic center, a touchstone where the city’s past could speak to its present. It has often been noted that L.A.’s greatest architectural treasures are private residences, largely hidden from view, rather than public buildings. It is the latter that imbue a place with collective meaning, that serve as monuments to recall us to our history. Instead of monuments, mid-century Los Angeles was, as Ruscha never ceased to remind us, a city defi ned by signs, a repeating loop of signifi ers that seemed to lead only to one another.

If the city was illegible, the Western landscape blazed with the unnameable; it teamed with signifi cance, at once mythic and historic — of the frontier spirit and a continental empire, of providential favor and self-realization, of an immanent presence beyond the reach of human talk — a surfeit of meaning characteristic of the sublime. In taking that landscape as their subject, Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins each had to reconcile the contradictions between the mythology and the dull sublunary reality of postwar Los Angeles, a task they approached with varying degrees of skepticism. “You can’t just go up and read it,” Celmins said of her own work. “You have to stand back and find your relationship to [it].” That was true of the Southern California landscape as well. For artists such as Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins, the challenge was to fi nd a place to stand — a place situated, however precariously, between suburbia and the sublime.

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In the Sunday April 5th edition of The New York Times Magazine Adam Shatz explores the complex history of postcolonial Algeria, Kamel Daoud’s place in it, and Algerian reactions to Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. Shatz traveled to Algeria to observe the author and to speak to some of his peers and contemporaries, including novelists Maïssa Bey and Rachid Boudjedra, historian Daho Djerbal, and journalist Ghania Mouffok. Their disparate views on Daoud and his work are evidence of both Algeria’s conflicting political landscape and the impact Daoud has had on the literary world.

Shatz writes:

Reading [Daoud’s] columns in Le Quotidien d’Oran, a French-language newspaper, I saw …[he] had an original, epigrammatic style: playful, lyrical, brash. I could also see why he’d been accused of racism, even “self-hatred.” After Sept. 11, for example, he wrote that the Arabs had been “crashing” for centuries and that they would continue crashing so long as they were better known for hijacking planes than for making them. …The more I read Daoud, the more I sensed he was driven not by self-hatred but by disappointed love. Here was a writer in his early 40s, a man my age, who believed that people in Algeria and the wider Muslim world deserved a great deal better than military rule or Islamism, the two-entree menu they had been offered since the end of colonialism, and who said so with force and brio.

The Meursault Investigation was first published in Algeria in 2013 by Éditions Barzakh, then in 2014 by Actes Sud in France, where it became a bestseller and was a finalist for France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Shatz praised the novel, saying:

Nothing…prepared me for [Daoud’s] first novel, a thrilling retelling of Albert Camus’s 1942 classic, The Stranger, from the perspective of the brother of the Arab killed by Meursault, Camus’s antihero. The novel…not only breathes new life into The Stranger; it also offers a bracing critique of postcolonial Algeria… The premise is ingenious: that The Stranger, about the murder of an unnamed Arab on an Algiers beach, was a true story…Meursault is less a critique of The Stranger than its postcolonial sequel.

Shatz spoke to Daoud about his life in Algeria and his relationship to Camus’s work. Daoud says:

The Stranger is a philosophical novel, but we’re incapable of reading it as anything other than a colonial novel. The most profound question in Camus is religious: What do you do in relation to God if God doesn’t exist? The most powerful scene in The Stranger is the confrontation between the priest and the condemned man. Meursault is indifferent with women, with the judge, but he becomes choleric in the face of the priest. And here, in my novel, is someone revolting against God. Harun, for me, is a hero in a conservative society.

Kamel Daoud

Ferhat Bouda/Agence Vu, for The New York Times

The Meursault Investigation will be published by Other Press on June 2nd.

Read more in The New York Times Magazine

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Kamel Daoud, author of the award-winning The Meursault Investigation and columnist for Algeria’s Quotidien d’Oran, was recently interviewed by The New Yorker‘s Deborah Treisman for the Page-Turner blog. They spoke about his views on Albert Camus and The Stranger, his views on writing, and his work as a journalist.

Though The Meursault Investigation is inspired by Camus and his seminal novel, Daoud says that he does not intend for it to stand as a simple response or correction. Rather, his novel is in conversation with Camus’s work, and is a way for him to “find [his] own path through Camus”:

My basic idea was to start with Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” to question the work, but to move on from there—to question my own presence in the world, my present and today’s reality. It was also a matter of analyzing Camus’s work, of “rereading” it, of having it reread by an Algerian and by contemporary readers.

While Daoud’s novel is closely linked to The Stranger, it also stands on its own. Daoud explained the novel’s focus on the relationship between a mother and son, and how that relationship is reflected in Algerian and Arab culture:

At the center of this novel is the strong bond between a son and his mother. It’s a bond that is complex in Arab culture and in the Mediterranean region. Here, it is strengthened by the characters’ shared grief and by the desire for revenge in one and the desire for freedom in the other. The bond between a mother and her son is not always rosy: it’s where your bond with the rest of the world is formed. If you stumble here, you will fall wherever you go.

The Meursault Investigation is Daoud’s first novel, but he has always wanted to be a writer, and the form of the novel allows him a diiferent path through which to interact with the world:

I am a journalist by accident—and because it’s the profession that brings me closest to writing as well as to a vivid experience of reality … I love to write … I am going to write, I write, and I have always written: it is my vocation and my passion. I will defend it. It is also the proof and the practice of my form of luck: my freedom. I have a right to freedom because I am alive and because I am going to die. This is why I write.

The New Yorker MUSA

 

You can read more from the interview here, and read an excerpt from Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation in The New Yorker.

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author of Whisper Hollow

Other Press: The differences in the relationships that Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia have with the men in their lives is striking, but what remains central in Whisper Hollow is how these three women relate to each other, and how their lives intersect and comment on one another. What was it that drew you to these characters and made you want to write about them?

Chris Cander: Each of these women is burdened and informed by her secrets: Myrthen, because of something she did; Alta, because of something she desired; and Lidia, because of something that happened. Those secrets dictate the courses of their lives, which intertwine at various points, affording them the opportunity to help or hurt one another, which each of them does, according to her own needs. What drew me to these characters was their varying tolerance for truth, and the lengths they would go to hide their private shames. By writing about them, I was able to examine those unexposed parts of myself.

 

OP: In your novel, Myrthen Bergmann, who so craves salvation, is unable to find it in the solitary religious life she devotes herself to. Rather, it’s Alta who is able to find a kind of salvation in Lidia and Gabriel. Why did you choose to explore the limits of what religion can offer through an illustration of the fecundity of human interaction?

CC: Religion has played an important role in the shaping of American minds, especially in small communities. It brings people together, but by its nature, is also restrictive. I wanted to explore the ways that these characters would respond to their social and moral confines as they tried to keep their secrets hidden and still satisfy their deepest longings. In the case of Myrthen, she cleaves to the Church in order to hide from her own truth and tries to impute her actions to God in order to justify them. As a consequence of her mortal sins and her abuse of free will, she eventually succumbs to the wretchedness inside her. Alta and Lidia, on the other hand, are somewhat alienated from the Church, but find sanctity and grace in the love they have for each other and for Gabriel.

 

OP: Whisper Hollow is almost as much the story of Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia as it is the story of Verra, the town in which the three women live. It’s fascinating to witness how the town shapes its residents and how the residents shape their town. Did you do a lot of research to so accurately depict Verra, or is it based on a place you already know? Was it important for you to locate the story in such a specific setting?

CC: The setting is a fiction inspired by the towns in the southern counties of West Virginia. My mother’s side of the family is in the northern part of the state, and I visited there often when I was growing up. It is haunting with its natural beauty that almost balances the proletarian poverty suffered by too many of its citizens. The stories my mother used to tell me about her home state had a wholesome quality, an honesty exemplified by a hard-working middle class trying to do right by their families. So I made up a town and called it “Verra,” which shares roots with the Latin verus, meaning “true.”

Adjacent to the town, literally across the tracks, is Whisper Hollow. Readers familiar with Appalachian dialect will know that Hollow is pronounced “holler,” and so the name speaks to that dichotomous place within us where we keep the things we are willing to speak aloud, as well as the things that we are not. In the novel, the Hollow side is where the coal is mined, where Alta and John shared a cabin as secret lovers, and where Myrthen spends her dark days inside St. Michael’s. I think of the place not just as the novel’s setting, but as a metaphor for the map of the human soul.

 

OP: There’s been a lot of discussion about “likable characters,” especially likable women characters, in fiction lately. Do you see Myrthen as an “unlikable” character? Was it difficult to write about such a woman without making her a villain?

CC: It seems a dangerous and silly endeavor to polarize characters, whether male or female, toward the extremes of likability and unlikability in fiction. Doing so can limit their full expression and restrict them to mere caricatures. Truly interesting characters intersect the page in the more complicated and nuanced center of the likability spectrum. I agree with Claire Messud’s assertion that when evaluating characters, “the relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” Myrthen is probably not someone readers would like to have as a regular dinner guest, but I hope they will be compelled by her complexity, and from the safe distance that fiction provides, can voyeuristically experience the darker forces within her—and possibly, within all of us.

 

OP: The novel covers more than six decades. Did you have any writing tricks or quirks to help you wrangle all that time?

From a storytelling perspective, I had to consider which moments comprising those sixty years were essential to the story. So in each chapter, I tried to re-enter the characters’ lives at those points when they encountered some interesting trouble that would inexorably dictate the course of events: when they either braced against or yielded to forces beyond their control, when they made choices with cataclysmic consequences, when they buried their shame and secrets, or when they followed their desires. Also, there’s a kind of stillness to the setting that I wanted to offset by chunking the passage of time into intervals of several years and chapters with alternating points of view. For example, the story opens with the triggering situation of Myrthen and her twin engaged in a fatal quarrel a few days before their sixth birthday; then introduces Alta eight years later, when she is twelve years old, on the cusp of longing, and about to meet the aunt who would symbolize the glamorous life she would never lead; and next John, two years after, as he embraces and then jettisons the dream of doing something other than mining coal; and so on.

From a mechanical perspective, I kept track of everything with meticulous timelines and lists. If I changed a date, for example, I would go back and make sure that everything affected by it was also changed: the characters’ ages, the phase of the moon, the temperature, the day of the week.

 

OP: Alta and John are both artists, and their work serves as a way for them to exist beyond the confines of their lives in Verra. What role does art play in your own life?

My devotion to writing is modeled on my parents’ creative expression. My father was an airline pilot whose photography hobby became his second career, and my mother taught high school English and business administration, and also sewed and played piano. They had careers and family and social lives, but they also encouraged often-solitary artistic pursuits. For me, it was creative writing, in which I found solace and refuge even before I hit double digits. I consider myself exceedingly fortunate that I am able to write as much as I do, but my main job right now is taking care of my young children. That, too, is a privilege, but it comes with its own set of constraints. Like Alta, I’m able to travel beyond my own boundaries through my art, and when I return (mentally) to hearth and home, I feel satisfied and enriched in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.

 

 

 

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Thanks to the tremendous support of independent booksellers, The Cold Song is an ABA Indie Next Pick for May.

“Elegant and incisive, The Cold Song exposes a complex family drama that revolves around the day a beautiful young woman goes missing. When she is found murdered, the family must sort out their suspicions of one another and question their own degrees of responsibility for her death. This novel is a startling meditation on loss, how we deal with it, how it echoes through generations, and how our mistakes cause us to lose the ones we love.” —Jenny Patiño Cervantes, City Lit (Chicago, IL)

“In The Cold Song, Linn Ullmann unravels a haunting mystery in a close-knit seaside community. Better than that, though, she exquisitely dissects the human condition across the lifespan—from the young boys on bikes toying with the thought of blood brothers, to a woman on the cusp of adulthood determined to reinvent herself, to middle-aged spouses entrenched in work and child-rearing and even occasionally each other, to the family matriarch reflecting on her legacy. Ullmann’s gift to us is revealing, in precise and unblinking prose, these so very human characters and how (or not) they find their way.” —Kirsten Jennings, Bookbug (Kalamazoo, MI)

“Breathtaking murder mystery or heartbreaking family saga?. . . Linn Ulmann’s subtle use of the flashback leaves the reader feeling as unsettled as each of the Brodals. The tense, spare prose thoroughly conveys the coldness and withholding that pervades the entire household. Completely portrayed with intrigue and oblique humor, each character in this novel, even the very minor ones, draws you in. Mystery or saga, I enjoyed every minute of it!” —Mary Mollman, The Book Stall at Chestnut Court (Winnetka, IL)

The Cold Song is brilliantly paced, and Linn Ullmann carefully unspools the stories of each of her characters until they are all caught in the same web of slow, sad disintegration. The heart of this novel is in the way Ullmann’s characters fail to address their own accountability—as a sister, as an artist, in a marriage, as a parent. They shift and settle, like the coastal summer fog Ullmann often invokes, but they don’t resolve. Ullmann is courageous and successful in her restraint.” —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone, Book Culture (New York, NY)

The Cold Song explores the terrain of a modern family full of creative talent yet having become stuck around recognizing what each of them needs. Then the disappearance of their 19-year-old nanny one summer ratchets up the tension. The unease that leaks into everyone’s attempts to do the right thing and the shifting sands that appear around what that unease might mean make for a most memorable novel with truly vivid characters.” —Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield’s Books (Sebastopol, CA)

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George Prochnik discusses Stefan Zweig, the subject of his forthcoming biography The Impossible Exile, and the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review includes a rave review for Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel!

“Mizumura’s literary and cultural ambitions do not overwhelm the sheer force of her narrative or the beauty of her writing…. Riveting… ambitious…. Mizumura has triumphed…. [The novel’s] psychological acuteness, fully realized characters and historical sweep push it out of pastiche and into something far more alluring and memorable.”

Booksellers can download a printable PDF, suitable for in-store displays, here.

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Booksellers everywhere are gearing up for the holiday season. Looking for ways to spruce up your displays? Download this attractive end cap for Gabi Gleichmann’s The Elixir of Immortality for your store.

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