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.

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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) ]

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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]

 

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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…

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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!

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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.

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Feb 042012
 

When in 1997, Jeanette Winterson published her first novel, Oranges Are not The Only Fruit, she found her inspiration in her childhood, portraying under a thin veil of fiction her Pentecostal mother terrifying both daughter and husband in a house where rules led often to abuse. And the fierce Mrs W. – as the mother is most often referred to- was not fooled. In a strange phone call – “I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone.” – the estranged mother explained that for the first time in her life she had to order something under a false name, and that her reading confirmed her doubts: “… if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?”  she asked her daughter. And she continued, “it’s not true”.

“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? the photographer frames the shot; writers frames their world.”

Writes Jeanette Winterson fifteen years later as she has now decided to reframe her story, and abandons the illusion of fiction. But if Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a memoir of an adoption, of a botch childhood, of abuse and misery inflicted by a fundamentalist christian mother and a self-effacing father, it is also – and that’s personally my favorite part – the story of a young girl becoming a reader and then a writer.

The only books allowed in the Winterson household were the Bible, a few commentaries and Jane Eyre, six books altogether. Four year old Jeanette learned to read in Genesis, and from there devoured whatever written page she could put her hands on. While her mother had a system – every night she would read the sacred text aloud to her daughter and husband, and when she was done with Apocalypse, she would leave them a week to reflect on what they had heard before starting again at the beginning – Jeanette early on also devised her own stategies for her secret readings. Since she did not know where to start and had no one to advise her, she simply decided to read from the “A” shelves in the local library and work her way through Z, limiting herself at first to prose and fiction. Years of reading and discoveries ensued – with in the end some help from the librarians that were intrigued by this strange and resilient reader – and when around thirteen she got a job – a few hours after school and on Saturdays – she used the money to buy books eager to own words and start building her personal library:

 “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different  kind of time and a different kind of space.

There is a warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”

But one day her mother noticed that her mattress was strangely raised and found underneath paperbacks she had been hiding. Thrown outside, set on fire, the stash disappeared in a blaze under Jeanette’s eyes. Who the next day realized that there was a way for her to keep the words, not matter what: “‘Fuck it’ I thought, ‘I can write my own’.”

A writer was born.

 

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Jan 162012
 

Breaks are made (in part) to catch up with reading, specifically those books for which there is no possible work – research related justification… The ones you read only out of curiosity, pleasure. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir on widowhood – simply titled A Widow’s Story - is one of them. I found it in the piles at my parents house, and taking advantage of the wee hours of jetlag, devoured the first hundred and fifty pages in the middle of the night. As usual with Oates, it reads well, it’s griping, and one turns pages without even noticing.. Until, after another hundred it starts to get a bit too long, at which point I have to admit I skip paragraphs, and even pages. A journal of the weeks, months following the death of Oates husband of “forty-seven years and twenty-five days”, this memoir retains its original diaristic form, and as a consequence is sometimes repetitive. I feel guilty writing «repetitive» as what I have in mind here are the emotions of the writer, who, sure enough, as might be expected, experiences day after day a similar range of emotions, contemplating her life turned upside down in a less than a week (Raymond Smith was taken ill with pneumonia to the nearest emergency room, and as everybody thought he was coming home, he  died in a few hours from an infection acquired at the hospital), her sudden solitude, and how much of her life was woven into his life and vice-versa. So in its repetitions, the text seems to be therapeutic for its author, but at times tedious for the reader… Personally, I can forgive Oates, if only because her prose fascinates me, mesmerizes me to a point of oblivion.. and forgiveness… And who could not forgive a woman who has lost the love of her life, the person she’s been with since her student’s years, the man who accompanied her through her literary rise?

Though, before the year was over – and within the period covered by the  journal – Oates had met another man, who she married just a month after Smith’s death first anniversary. A controversy ensued the publication: why is the reader not made aware of the encounter, the growing romance and in the end, the wedding? In the last few pages, she gives the reader a hint – too subtle for me, I did not get it…-  though the memoir never varies from its mournful, self-interrogating tone. So the question many raised was why the omission? and how would the revelation change our reading of the book?

Again I read this memoir just as if it had been another of her novels, hypnotized by the words, cradled by the rhythm, and interested by the feelings explored. But this twist in the narrative poses questions about what memoirs are, what they should “do”, how we can “trust” their narrator – and frankly what “trust” means in this context. I read an increasingly number of memoirs – out of taste and of professional necessity – and these few sentences excerpted from Oates’ answer to her detractors gave me food for thought:

A memoir is most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience, not a clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the “future” of the individual in the throes of an unpredictable and uncontrollable experience; certainly another memoir might focus upon the recovery and the (temporary?) “after-life.” It is not a charge against grief that it can’t last as pure, raw grief for very long—as one who is tortured, but survives, has not been less tortured because she has survived. To elide the two experiences would violate the actual, literal, “existential” experience of having had cancer, for instance, for the ontological predicament of not-knowing-the-future is inextricable from the experience itself. If one knew beforehand that she would be cancer-free within a year, that would yield a very different sort of perspective.

 

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Sep 022011
 

Last Spring there was a raging debate in the US over the notion of «memoir», of what a memoir could/should be, how it should be written, etc. The debate is still on, and when this week a blog post announced the publication of the English translation of Emmanuel Carrère’s book, Lives other than my own, I wondered if it would bring a new perspective to the discussion. In France memoirs do not constitute a genre of its own, with a separate spot on the shelves of bookstores. Usually found within «Literature», it is a genre that is rarely singled out (in the same way, political memoirs will be found with books on current events & politics, and so forth). This Fall, a traditionally very busy season in French publishing, there are a number of memoirs, or books that would be seen as such in the US, coming out . But again they are rarely labelled that way, maybe because authors and publishers prefer to entertain the blur between fiction and non-fiction and promote the idea that in the end it is all literature. Books appears under the same often austere jackets (some of the most prestigious «maisons» – publishing houses – established their image through pictureless covers, the colors or paper texture being their trademark, almost a sign of nobility…Think the creamy off-white of Gallimard, the yellow of Grasset, or in Carrère’s case the textured white covers of P.O.L)

Before leaving Paris, I had a conversation with a friend, – editor and writer herself – with whom we always marvelled at the American mastery of this «thing» called Creative non-fiction. And we came to discuss Carrère’s book, finding that it certainly stands closest to the American notion of memoir. Because the book is a memoir built in a diptych. In the first part the author remembers the day of and days after the 2004 Tsunami in Tangalle, Sri Lanka, where he was vacationing with his girlfriend and their repective sons, and how they took a role in another family’s tragedy, a young couple losing a child to the Big Wave. Equally overshadowed by death the second part retraces the life and death of his sister-in-law, a young judge, mother of three, who dies when the the cancer that has plagued her since youth recurs. In order to better understand Juliette’s professional and personal life, Carrere leads his own investigation, and as a result paints a fascinating portray of the quotidian of this magistrate, her battles, her challenges and successes. Closer to US creative non-fiction and memoirs  – a mix of personal experience with a more general view of the context – that part of the book was for me the most successful.

In memoirs, the authority of the narrator is often discussed, how credible he/she is, how she deals with erratic memories, how he expresses – or better, shows – emotions, what can render the story if not universal – I do not like the notion – at least relevant for most. Carrere is not gentle with his readers: he assumes his position of voyeur – if he is touched, even grieved at some point, it is always over dramas he witnesses without being directly emotionally involved. And in the distance he exhibits, there is discomfort, source of anger, frustration for the reader. But somehow he kept me under a spell: the writing? certainly. The story? true for part 2. The enigma that this unclassifiable work represent? yes, up to the last line.

Very curious now to see what will be the reactions in  the US creative non-fiction community…

 

* photo: moss on a wall of the Château de Chambord

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Aug 212011
 

Reading yesterday a blog post / interview about and with William Giraldi, my attention was caught by his statement about reading : “I don’t enjoy writing,” Giraldi said. “I enjoy reading.”, and he shared with his audience his concern about so many wanna-be writers who do not consider that reading as part of the writer’s life, who have not and do not read… Before MFAs and other workshops, the only training a writer would refer to was the reading school: read as much as one can possibly do, and find in those reading the very substance essential to the art of writing. And unfortunately, I have to agree with Giraldi, being like him struck by the number of writers or apprentices who do not read and do not see this as a paradox.

Earlier in the summer I read The Summing up, where Somerset Maugham attempted to «give a coherent picture of [his] feelings and opinions» as a writer, as a thinker. Not a memoir in the conventional sense of the term, The Summing up is an exploration of the life of the mind, of the material that – literally – built the writer in him. And, as one can expect, reading is at the heart of his experience. Here are few of his thoughts on the matter, some of the ones I keep now on my desk…

“To me reading is a rest as to other people conversation or a game of cards. It is more than that; it is a necessity, and if I am deprived of it for a little while I find myself as irritable as the addict deprived of his drug. I would sooner read a time-table or a catalogue than nothing at all.”

“The writer can only be fertile if he renews himself and he can only renew himself if his soul is constantly enriched by fresh experience. There is no more fruitful source of this than the enchanting exploration of the great literatures of the past.”

“No reading is worth while unless you enjoy it”

And this one for the writers among us:

“Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do. We do not write because we want to; we write because we must.”

 

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