Apr 062013

Kilito cervantesSome texts just remind you why you are in love with literature… And in Cervantes’ prologue to his most famous novel a “friend” gives him an advice from which all writers would benefit:

… there is no reason for you to go begging for maxims from philosophers, counsel from Holy Scripture, fictions from poets, orations from rhetoricians, or miracles from saints; instead you should strive, in plain speech, with words that are straightforward, honest, and well-placed, to make your sentences and phrases sonorous and entertaining, and have them portray, as much as you can and as far it is possible, your intention, making your ideas clear without complicating and obscuring them. Another thing to strive for: reading your history should move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful, not irritate the simple, fill the clever with admiration for its invention, not vie the serious reason to scorn it, and allow the prudent to praise it.*

You may wonder why I’m reading Don Quixote right now? The answer is in Abdelfattah Kilito’s latest book, Je parle toutes les langues mais en arabe. More about it soon…


* Edith Grossman’s translation, Ecco paperback, 2005.

Mar 202013

manuscript pixA few weeks ago I read Nick Flynn’s memoirs, first The Ticking Is the Bomb and then Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The Ticking stayed in my bag at least a week before I opened it. A friend had given it to me, Nick Flynn was coming to read in our program. The day before the event, she reminded it to me: “did you read the book? I think you would really be interested by the way he weaves together the idea of torture, the impending birth of his daughter and memories of his childhood.” That night, guiltily, I started reading. And, as predicted by my friend, I was taken by the storie(s), but I was even more fascinated by the structure of the text. At first I had doubts: for sure I was going to be lost in the chronological abysses existing between the chapters, unable to retain the names of so many people, names thrown at me as if they were old acquaintances. And where were we? Texas, Boston, New York, Istanbul, Brooklyn?

Soon it did not matter. I was caught in the maze of Flynn’s brain, putting together the piece of this complex puzzle with ease and cautiousness, feeling that it might explode before it was time, before the last word, feeling the ticking of this bomb-text. And increasingly intrigued: how did he transform this string of fragments into something which meaning went beyond the sum of its pieces? Part of the answer I found on page 123, in a chapter titled “the invisible city”,  where Flynn describes how he put together his previous memoir - Another Bullshit Night: 

At one point I laid each chapter out on the terrazzo floor, eighty-three in all, arranged them like the map of an imaginary city. Some of the piles of paper, I imagined, were freestanding buildings, some were clustered into neighborhoods, and some were open space. On the outskirts of course, were the tenements – abandoned, ramshackled. The spaces between the piles were the roads, the alleyways, the footpaths, the rivers. The bridges to other neighborhoods, the bridges out. I’d walk along them, naming each building (tower of man-pretending-not-to-be-homeless), each neighborhood (the heights, the lowlands, the valley of lost names), each passageway (path of those-claiming-happy-childhood). In this way I could get a sense if one could find their way through the book, if the map I was creating made sense, if it was a place one would want to spend some time in. If one could wander there, if one could get lost.

We often talk about the relationship between writing and place, but I had never yet encountered such a powerful evocation of the manuscript as a place, as one of these “invisible cities” originally created by Italo Calvino. In a previous post, I talked about the line, the main road on which a writer – in that case Cheryl Strayed – had hang the different pieces of her life, of her journey. Just like with Strayed on the trail, one could get lost in the narrow streets of Flynn’s city, but it would be worth the journey.

[picture: mapping out Metamorphoses of Palm Trees (Mindmade Books, 2011) ]

Feb 062013

As I read Oranges are not the only fruit with my students this semester, we watched excerpts of this filmed portrait of Jeanette Winterson. It’s a fascinating documentary, worth its 1:14 mns, and showing us Winterson as we’ve imagined her when reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? As one of my students remarked it is striking to hear / see that she talks the way she writes. There is only one stream of Winterson’s words, she is what she writes, one long story, that she keeps telling herself, allowing us to listen…

“Imagine: Jeanette Winterson – My Monster and me…” a documentary  by Alan Yentob shown on  BBC1, December 4, 2012.

[the title of this post is a quote from the documentary,  happening at about the 28 mn mark]


Jan 032013

The first days of the new year are traditionally dedicated to resolutions, promises one does to herself in order to be a better person, to perform better, to overcome bad habits, etc., in short to finally “do the right thing”…  I’ve never been very good at this: I always find it difficult to settle on a few resolutions that seem worth the try (too trivial, too hard, too …), when – without much illusion about myself – I am sure that by the end of the first week of January, I will have forgotten and settled back in my old ways. This year though is a little different. I’m faced not with the challenge of  vague resolutions but with the necessity of attaining a goal: to complete a manuscript before the first days of 2014.

On one hand it is scarier – something is really at stake, and self-esteem does not have much to do with it – on the other hand it’s concrete and a goal  possible to reach with some work and will-power. Besides keeping myself seated in front of a computer for hopefully a couple of hours a day, I need to limit distractions, the most dangerous being for me serendipitous reading. Focus, especially regarding reading matters, is certainly the key to my effort. And it is the most difficult part for my curious mind who loves to wander off, to go explore unrelated (understand unrelated to anything I am researching or teaching) volumes, and resists to limit itself  to “authorized” reading..

What am I reading right now? Northanger Abbey, In America and  As Always Julia: the Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. One is for a class I teach in the spring, one is for my research project, and one if for pure pleasure… Take a guess…

Oct 162012

For months now graphic representations of literary thoughts, of literary trends have appeared here and there… I was intrigued by those two, as they map a possible road to success, as well as reveal quite a bit of our literary taste:

  • A graphic representation of award-winning plot lines : http://www.informationisbeautifulawards.com/gallery/plot-lines/
  • And a chart on “how to win a Booker Prize”: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/datablog/gallery/2012/oct/16/how-win-booker-prize-charts#/?picture=397748599&index=0

Happy decoding!

Aug 312012

In the past few days there was an uproar on social medias over an article in which a writer admitted that she was seriously, furiously envious of the success of another woman writer. What she envies is the success the book and its author  enjoy, the trumpets we’ve all heard after its publication. She envies the publicity, the noise, the buzz, whatever marketers call it, the New York Times best-seller list, the book club selection, etc. And as much as she wished to find this success unwarranted, once she got around to read the book, she had to confess that even she finds Wild well written and worthy of praises. As one can imagine, Schickel’s post elicited comments and responses such as Diana Wagman’s one  in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

And like many, Wagman remarked that  Strayed’s successful writing doesn’t seem to have “inspired [Schickel] to work harder and to write more.” Which is what any good book should do for a writer, no? At least it does to me. And if I was amused by the controversy, and interested by the frank confession of envy and its analysis, I was far more taken by another post about Wild published in July by Richard Gilbert, where he takes the book apart to bring its structure to light and see what makes it successful, and what he, as a writer struggling writing his own memoir, could learn from it.

I had ordered Wild at the end of June, but left it behind when taking off to Europe, since I knew that once there I would not be reading in English that much. But as soon as I came back and finished the book I was then reading (more on this later), Wild was first on my list. First because I have a memoir in prose to write in my future, because I’m writing a somewhat memoir – hidden in poems – right now, and because I’ve become addicted to memoirs in general… So,  I read it. Too fast:  like other readers, I could not stop reading until sadly I got to the last pages. Sadly, because as Strayed seemed to wish to keep walking in the end, I would happily have kept reading. And like Gilbert, I wanted the author to reveal her secrets, how she transformed herself in an accomplished writer between the time she left the trail and the moment she published this book. I admired how the trail became the guiding line, the spine (Gilbert’s expression) of the story, and how she was able to hang off of it the rest of what she had to say. I had some reservations about some aspects of the story – or maybe reservations is not the right word, more “frustrations”- : for example, I regretted that the Strayed’s sister did not have more of a presence in the book, leaving me wondering about her. But all in all it was details, and certainly did not make me like the book less.. And it sent me back to my own project, gave me ideas. It did not leave me envious, but more grateful that somewhere a writer showed me that it is possible to do it, to write in an astute and compelling way, to make what is ultimately a personal experience something that readers can relate to.

Jun 092012

It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.

— Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings