With only a few weeks remaining for our Short Story Prize for this year, we thought we would catch up with our judges to ask them what they thought makes a good short story, and what they were looking for in the submissions. Read below for what their thoughts!
About our judges:
Samuel Fisher‘s debut novel, The Chameleon, was published by Salt in 2018. He runs a bookshop in East London called Burley Fisher Books, and is a director of Peninsula Press.
Layla Benitez-James is a writer, translator and artist living and working in Spain, where she serves as Director of Literary Outreach for the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid. Layla also serves as Podcast Editor for Asymptote Journal, and her poems and translations have appeared in The Acentos Review, Anomaly, Guernica, Waxwing, Revista Kokoro, La Galla Ciencia, and elsewhere. Her audio essays about translation can be found at Asymptote Journal Podcast. Her first chapbook, God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure was selected by Major Jackson for the 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and published by Jai-Alai Books in Miami, April 2018.
Harry Mount is the Editor of The Oldie. He is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That, as well as Odyssey – Ancient Greece in Odysseus’s Footsteps.
What do you think makes a great short story?
Sam: A writer that picks the right details. Because of the constraints of the form, details have more metonymic heft than in longer form fiction — they have to do more. The best short stories have an uncanny focus on picking the aspect of a scene (the quality of light, the way a laugh resounds), which cut to the heart of what the scene is trying to convey.
Layla: Well crafted characters, characters that feel real from the very beginning and make me forget that I´m reading fiction. Ryan Harty’s Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down comes to mind as a great short story that pulled me into the life of a couple instantly with just a few lines of good dialogue.
Harry: A proper story with a beginning, middle and end, with a proper feeling of drama and suspense.
What is one thing you’re looking for when reading the competition entries?
Sam: That the story sets the terms for its success, and then meets them.
Layla: A surprising voice or some focus on a slice of life I don´t know well. I´m interested in stories that push against the boundaries of genre and make me reconsider what fiction can do.
Harry: Brilliant writing.
What inspires your writing?
Sam: At the moment, rage and despair at the mounting inequality and illiberism here and around the world (pretty cheery, I know).
Layla: Travelling, snippets of overheard conversations. I am very inspired by the natural world: geology…foxes…hyenas lately. Spanish has been creeping into my writing more and more and I am definitely interested in multilingual texts and writers who are blending in more creative linguistic play into their work.
Harry: Think of the poor bloody reader! Be interesting, funny or sad.
What are your top tips for anyone considering entering the competition?
Sam: Share your writing with a reader you trust before sending it on, it’s always helpful to have a critical eye. Read your work aloud.
Layla: Send in something you love to read aloud to yourself, something that makes you happy to have written. Strange to write this as a judge, but don’t think about who will be reading, write something that you have never yet seen in the world and make it your own.
Harry: Read the short stories of F Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh’s shortest novels.
For more information and to enter The London Magazine Short Story Prize 2018, go here.
We were recently contacted by Reverend Christian Mitchell of the church of Heathfield in rural Sussex, who had made a remarkable discovery. In one of the rectories attached to an old church in the area, they had found an almost full collection of the original London Magazine, dating from 1733 to 1770, which were believed to have belonged to the Reverend of that era.
In the collection we discovered not just poetry and literary essays, but maps of newly discovered parts of the world, new inventions of the age, political discourse, and the burgeoning financial movement of the era.
We went down to Heathfield to inspect the findings, and interviewed Reverend Mitch about them. It was a truly fascinating experience, and we hope to do much more with this newly discovered archive.
For now, listen to the link above for more information.
Big Foot has died. Our narrator introduces us to an alarming situation in an almost mechanical tone. The newly translated noir novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Man Booker International Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk is an entertaining one, yet it is not your typical mystery page-turner. Tokarczuk’s master storytelling paired with Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ excellent translation pause the happenings of the plot to delve into contemplation of mankind and the universe. Drive Your Plow guides the reader through horrific accidents, with language that is fluid and accessible yet tainted with an unusual manner of speaking, leaving us to wonder, for a short while, if this story is situated in the present, and then, whether the narrator is out of her mind.
The first person narration, used throughout the text, lets the reader in on to the narrator’s thoughts, her witty remarks and astrological musings. We know of her ‘Ailments’, as she dubs her chronic illness, and of her hatred of given names. We accompany Janina – as she does not like to be called – through endless cups of black tea, cosmic calculations and translations of Blake, going back and forth, every now and then doubting her mental sanity.
The point of view does not change at any moment in the novel, leaving space for complete deception, as the reader has no alternative voices to listen to. The narrator’s discourse is, as one would expect in a crime novel, bleak and melancholic at time, but it is also bursting with hilarious phrases. Waking up from a nightmare, Janina imparts a life lesson: “The old method for dealing with bad dreams is to tell them aloud above the toilet bowl, and then flush them away.”
Certain sentences in the very beginning make the reader wonder if the novel is about to veer toward the fantastic – upon finding and undressing the cadaver of the man she calls Big Foot (because of the big prints he leaves in the snow), she firmly declares that he could not be human, as he has the feet of a demon. The context plot, however, stays firmly grounded in the realities of rural Poland, with the social exclusion of those who refuse to live within the ramparts of conventional patterns, and the snowy winter that were, as the narrator ponders, proof that “the world was not made for mankind.”
Passages like these, broad reflections on the universe and the place of humankind, are what differentiates Tokarczuk’s work from the lot of the genre. The mysterious and violent deaths seem to fade into the background at times, setting the scene for the Janina’s countless pieces of wisdom and long trains of thought. The biggest mystery is not the numerous deaths of prominent men of the community, but that of the narrator’s “Little Girls”, who turn out to be none other than her beloved dogs.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead comes with a strong anti-hunting, pro-vegetarian message that speaks volumes on the problematic habits of humans. An ode to nature and a love letter to animals, Tocarczuk’s novel is the wonderfully crafted story of an animal-loving recluse desperately fighting to make the world a better place.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), Fitzcarraldo Editions, pp.272, £12.99
Words by Laila Obeidat.
For more on Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, visit Fitzcarraldo.
A huge thanks to everyone who entered this year’s poetry prize! We had so many high quality entries this year which resulted in a huge longlist, but eventually our judges managed to whittle it down to the following three entries. All submissions were read anonymously.
Here are the winners of The London Magazine Poetry Prize for 2018!
1st prize: The Lean Years by Sharon Black
2nd place Black Fire by Matthew Smith
3rd place: Self-Addressed – Alycia Pirmohamed
As well as receiving prizes of £500, £300 and £200 respectively, each of these poems will be published in the December/January Issue of The London Magazine, as well as online.
Below is a short statement from our judges Les Robinson, Sophie Collins, and Mark Ford:
We enjoyed reading the poems and found it very hard to pick the eventual winners.
In the end we chose The Lean Years as the winner as it contained many strong images and emotions within its well constructed form.
In second place was Black Fire which we liked for its edginess and intrigue.
Finally we placed Self-Addressed in third place, a moving, reflective poem.
Congratulation to the three winners and thanks to all the other enthusiastic poets whose work we read with pleasure.
Full long list below (in no particular order):
The Lean Years — Sharon Black
Faultlines — Sharon Black
Light’s Tricks — Sharon Black
Ash Wednesday — Lois P. Jones
Everything I Know About Atlantic Gigantism and New Prosthetics I Learned at the Fish Market — Rachel Moore
First published in the June 1970 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 10, No. 3)
Like a statue too finely carved, too finished and perfected, the boy looked fragile, ever in danger of being injured. The exquisitely pointed nose, the cupid’s bow drawn almost to the point of snapping, the slender chin were assets in a girl, not in a boy. He smiled with a look of joyful wonder, and he approached you trustingly as if he didn’t even know about getting hurt. So, it is said, the penguins approached the first explorers — with complete trust, no fear, no thought man might be any less innocent than they.
The headmaster had led him into our classroom late one morning in the middle of the second term, told us his name—Silvio Guidi—and left. The teacher asked him his age. He was twelve, two years younger than nearly everybody else, and a full four years younger than one boy—Matteo, a lanky old repeater who already spoke in a man’s, low and throaty, voice. The teacher, perhaps to get a laugh out of the class, sat the new boy next to him saying, ‘Four years younger than you are Matteo, and a lot smarter, I’m sure’. Matteo took the words good humouredly. He was the clown of the class, and seemed to enjoy it. The boys laughed at the mere mention of his name. He had an incredibly long reach. If you laughed too loud, sometimes for no apparent reason, you might get your head cuffed by him even if you were on the other side of the room. No one in the class room felt quite safe.
At break, the boys milled round Silvio to ask him all sorts of questions. Matteo wanted to know if he had any sisters. No, he was an only child. He certainly looked it. He seemed so intact, so whole, and new, as if he had been privately educated, at home, by a tutor. But it wasn’t so at all. He came from a nearby town, Poggibonsi, a name that sounded sufficiently funny to the boys to start teasing him about it. ‘Poggibonsi, bonsi, bum,’ they chanted around him, and pushed him at the sound of ‘bum’.
‘But are you sure you haven’t any sisters?’ Matteo kept asking him.
Silvio seemed more amused than annoyed. ‘No,’ he said.
‘What does your father do?’ someone asked him.
‘I don’t have a father,’ he replied.
‘Why?’ Matteo asked, open-mouthed, as if he had come on something that he could exploit.
‘He died,’ Silvio said. ‘In the war.’
There was a moment of silence. Matteo got some reproachful glances.
‘But you do have a mother?’ a boy broke in.
‘Oh, yes,’ Silvio said. ‘My mother is alive.’
She came for him at half past twelve. We saw her outside the school’s columned entrance, a pretty blonde, not much taller than her son, and with a smile that she lavished, as he did, on everyone, but which was not quite as pure as his, being flavoured with a touch of coquetry.
She took him by the hand, and swinging his arm, they went off together. As they left the school yard and reached the street through one of those archways that in Siena again and again repeat the motif of the town gate, they looked the same age, or just about.
The prettiness of the woman hadn’t passed unnoticed by the boys. Matteo especially, seemed struck. The next morning, no one teased Silvio, and Matteo kept saying in Silvio’s presence, ‘Have you seen his mother? Have you seen what a mother this guy’s got?’ Silvio smiled his amused smile, and laughed when Matteo asked him to introduce him to her.
‘I’m serious,’ Matteo said.
The young boy laughed more, and looked at the others. Oh, this Matteo was certainly a curious fellow. What was the matter with him?
‘When are you going to introduce me to her?’
‘Well,’ Matteo said, giving him a shove, ‘what’s there to laugh about?’
Silvio looked away, unable to dissemble.
Matteo followed him, and gave him another push. ‘So what’s there to laugh about, I’d like to know. If you won’t introduce me, I’ll introduce myself.’
But he didn’t dare. Day after day, she came regularly at 12.30 to fetch her boy. Each time, Matteo looked at her wistfully, and slunk away. In her absence his boldness returned. He protested about Silvio not introducing him. He insisted that he do so. And yet from the way he withdrew when she appeared, one wondered if, should Silvio introduce him, he had the courage to look at her, to shake hands or to say a word.
As the days passed some of the boys made friends with Silvio. Two or three of them would walk with him and his mother a little way. Not Matteo. Matteo seemed awed by her and kept his distance. She seemed like a schoolgirl among the boys. Absolutely happy. Always holding Silvio by the hand, she talked and joked with them as they walked. Soon, she knew and called a few by name. One wondered if, being new in town, these children were her only friends. Then, one day, she noticed Matteo looking at her from a distance.
‘That one there,’ she said, ‘what’s his name?’
‘That’s Matteo,’ the boys said in a chorus.
She beckoned to him without hesitation. ‘Come here, Matteo,’ she said, and Matteo sidled over looking at the ground. On his way he kicked the gravel, and raised a little dust.
‘You are Matteo.’
‘But you’re not a child.’
‘He’s sixteen,’ two boys said at once.
‘Oh,’ she said with what sounded like appreciation, and looked up at him.
He came nearer and put an arm over Silvio’s shoulder.
‘Eh, Silvio and I,’ he said, and made a gesture with his other arm.
‘You are friends?’
‘We sure are.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s what I like.’
Silvio looked around him. Everyone was friendly. But he didn’t seem surprised, it was probably something he was used to. His mother could accomplish this and more.
Matteo, having been introduced, now never failed to join Silvio and his mother after classes. The escort of three or four boys accompanied them down the main street. They dropped out one at a time as they came to some side street, but not Matteo. He couldn’t bring himself to leave them and went right to their doorstep, on the street that led to where I lived, at the other end of town, though it was quite out of the way for him. And he carried Silvio’s big Latin dictionary for him and any parcels for her. One day, I saw them approaching the house. As they got to the doorway and Matteo was about to turn back and say goodbye as he always did, she said something to him, and they all went inside the house. From that time on, Matteo’s work improved considerably, and toward Silvio he became as protective as a father.
First published in the June/July 1977 of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 2)
Of course I stole the title from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: I I I In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one ‘subject’, this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am ‘interested’, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would want to read me on it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.
In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialect and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.
I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas – I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention – but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of ‘Paradise Lost’, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg on its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in ‘Paradise Lost’, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a greyed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was travelling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?
When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elemental psychology book showing a car drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t just think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t take to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture. Just as I meant ‘shimmer’ literally I mean ‘grammar’ literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene: It tells you. You don’t tell it.
Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began ‘Play It as It Lays’ just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of ‘character’ or ‘plot’ or even ‘incident’, I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book – a ‘white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams – and yet this picture told no ‘story’, suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognise her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made ‘Play It as It Lays’ begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins: ‘Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills’.
That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by ‘white space’.
I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished. ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with para-typhoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name ‘Jack Valenti’ a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogota (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.
The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 a.m. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogota that stopped for an hour to re-fuel, but they way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 a.m. I feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.
I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is nor simply ‘ordering’ tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?
‘She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue’, some places were wet and hot and others dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalised Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling. ‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’ ‘I knew about airports.’
These lines appear about halfway through ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called ‘Victor’ in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name ‘Victor’ occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who ‘I’ was, who was telling the story. I had intended until that moment that the ‘I’ be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was: ‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’ ‘I knew about airports.’
This ‘I’ was the voice of no author in my house. This ‘I’ was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called ‘Victor’. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.
Ben Aleshire makes his living as a travelling poet, writing poems on his typewriter for whatever his readers can spare as a donation, a venture which has seen him travel all over Europe and America, and with his most recent tour taking in a performance at London’s legendary venue The Troubadour, and a stay at Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. When he is not on tour, he does the same in the city of New Orleans, where he lives between increasingly frequent bouts of nomadism.
His work has been featured in publications such as The Boston Review, El Mundo (Spain) and The Times (UK), who recently broke with 233 years of history by publishing one of his poems as a lead article. He is Assistant Editor for the Green Mountains Review, is a co-founder of the letterpress publishing collective Honeybee Press, and we were very excited to get to speak to him for The London Magazine.
A question most writers are asked is “What led you to writing?”, and while I am also interested in hearing about that – I have a sneaking suspicion that you have something of a multi-discipline background – I must ask how you found your form as a travelling troubadour poet? (note: perhaps here you could describe the process a little for a reader who knows nothing about you
I sit in the street with a small folding table and chair and a sign that says POET FOR HIRE—then I smoke a cigarette and wait for some stranger to approach me with a poetic desire they need fulfilled. Maybe their girlfriend broke up with them, and they want a poem that will be an apologia to make them reconsider. Maybe they were raped last night, and want me to tell them why. Maybe it’s their friend’s birthday, and her favourite word is petrichor, the smell of the earth after it rains. Whatever it is, I write a poem about that subject, and then they come back in 10 minutes or so, and read it, and pay me whatever they think it’s worth. In that sense, it’s a quasi-Marxist system—rich bankers have given me hundred pound notes, and homeless people give me nothing but good karma, which I desperately need—it all works out in the end.
How did I start doing this? My story is that I’ve been writing poetry on a typewriter since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t till about 7 years ago, when I met Robert McKay, that I started taking it into the street to write poems for strangers and make my living that way. Robert is my miglior fabbro, the better craftsman—the original being Arnaut Daniel, the rakish troubadour who Dante immortalizes in the Divine Comedy, which is where T.S. Eliot gets his dedication for Pound, etc. A purer heart than I, Robert wasn’t trying to make money from it—he saw it as just another linguistic experiment, like Burrough’s cut-ups or Dadaist games, etc. Maybe because I had already been making part of my living from busking as a musician, I put 2 and 2 together very quickly and got a booth at the Farmers’ Market in Burlington, Vermont, where I was based at the time. So there’d be stalls of vegetables, cheese, flowers, and then poetry. People loved it—the newspaper did a feature on me, I published a book of the poems, Currency, in conjunction with an art residency, quit my weird night-watchman job, re-potted myself to New Orleans, and started touring.
Where did Robert get the idea? Probably from someone in the Bay Area scene like Zach Houston, or someone in New Orleans, which were the epicenters at the time. There was a guy in the 80’s in NYC who published a novel about working this way, Dan Hurley—but a literary scholar in New Orleans tells me she saw people doing it down here even before that. Ultimately I’m not sure if there’s a way to trace it back to—especially since putting a typewriter in the street has been a profession ever since typewriters were invented. I’ve seen people in Guatemala who are still doing it, typing up official documents and letters.
I have come across quite a few ‘Poet for Hire’ style writers on the street with typewriters in various cities across Europe, but a lot of them sadly aren’t very good. How do you keep up your inspiration and discipline? And do you ever feel a rivalry with other writers who try to do a similar thing?
Yes, I agree—the charlatans are multiplying like flies, probably due to the hyper-fast mimesis of the internet, particularly Instagram. There are a few noble souls out there writing excellent poems (Tania Panés and Gennarose Nethercott are my favorites) but most are trafficking a cringingly hideous stew of cliché and gibberish. In New Orleans there are so many cheap xeroxes churning out treacly pet poetry for tourists that it’s become difficult to find a place to literally sit down, and some of them are real pricks—I actually had to smash someone’s typewriter once.
It’s gotten so bad in New Orleans that by now, I’m already moving on—my novel is what I’m focusing on. The phenomenon of all these douchenozzles clogging the streets with their doggerel is actually fascinating as far as the research I’m doing on the troubadours is concerned—because the original troubadours faced a similar problem. Guiraut Riquier, the so-called “Last Troubadour”, wrote these fantastic letters to courts, lamenting their inability to distinguish any longer between troubadours (poets fiercely dedicated to their craft) and jongleurs (jugglers, literally—but a catch-all term for entertainers, who watered down the tradition and ultimately destroyed it).
Most contemporary jongleurs just want beer-money, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are equally ill-intentioned people with grander vision, trying to commercialize typewriter-poetry, mostly for wealthy weddings or corporate events. I do take private gigs now and then, but ultimately, I think it’s a slippery slope that changes the fundamental structure of the art-form, from something that’s radically egalitarian, to something that’s a privilege of the very rich. J’accuse! Je refuse. Simultaneously, the commercial business thing is about transforming one’s poet-self to conform to a standard bourgeoise fantasy—i.e. if you do twelve corporate gigs a month, you can afford a nicer apartment in a nicer part of a town, a nicer car in order to drive to more gigs, etc—and suddenly the idea of writing poems for strangers mystically in the street becomes a threat to your living situation, you know? I’d rather be going bald from constant financial panic, but be writing the poems I want to write, which is pretty much where I’m at right now.
You travel all across the world with your work, often staying with people you barely know. What are some of the memorable and strangest moments from the last few years?
Living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris fits both strange and memorable—and to that I would add, magical—which puts me in danger of being considered corny, but hear me out. I think there’s actual magic ingrained in the 500-year-old bones of the building, in the shards of the tombstones stolen from the Pere Lachaise cemetery which the floors are paved with. So much of my life in the past couple years stems from the summer of 2016, when I stayed at the bookstore for several months as a Tumbleweed—that is, as one of the transient writers who roost among the stacks of books in exchange for working a few hours a day, and slaking wine and reading books at the same table where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch. Writing poems on a typewriter in front of the shop everyday rejuvenated my poetry practice, because so many of the passersby there are such fascinating pilgrims, of a sort, paying homage to the literary history of the building, which spans from the Lost Generation through the Beats to today’s living history of visiting writers like Zadie Smith. Fascinating pilgrims usually come bearing fascinating poetic desires, which is key to my emotional homeostasis—writing the same anniversary poems for the same bourgeois tourists in every city I come to makes me want to bash my brains in.
Also, the people I met in Paris have had an inordinate effect on my life—I met Terry Craven there, a former bookseller who started a new bookshop in Madrid, Desperate Literature, where I stayed the following year—that’s where I met a journalist who featured me in El Mundo, and later on Spanish television as well. When the Prostíbulo Poético (PoetryBrothel) of Barcelona was in town and one of their poets fell ill before the show, naturally it was Desperate Literature who they called looking for a replacement poet—that’s why I was stripped down and covered in silks and amulets and a lace choker and became El Trovador, (the Troubadour), my stage nom-de-guerre—I’m already making plans to go back to Barcelona to perform with them again—who knows?
It just goes on and on. The poem I wrote for the owner, Sylvia Whitman, was recently published in the Iowa Review, one of the more prestigious American literary magazines, which is opening doors for me, especially as someone without an academic background (I still don’t have a degree, and no one in my family does either). The poem I wrote for one of the booksellers there, Rose, is the one the Times chose to break with 233 years of history and publish as a lead article for the first time. Which, I assume, is partly why I’m being asked for this very interview, and also the reason why I was invited to come back to the U.K. next summer to perform at a festival in Wales. And half the reason the Times journalist contacted me in the first place is because she, too, lived as a Tumbleweed in that literal monastery of books. I met Scarlett Sabet there, who I read with at the Troubadour itself, the legendary venue in Earl’s Court, where I’m hoping to return next summer as a poet-in-residence—the ripples just keep moving outwards, and that’s what I mean when I say the place is magic.
And what about the more difficult moments? I imagine it isn’t always glamorous.
Difficult moments—my recent U.K. tour was certainly the most difficult so far, mostly for financial reasons that are no one’s fault but my own. I had bought a ’93 Capri convertible in Slidell for $1600 and a case of beer (a case of beer being a standard currency in Louisiana), to tour up the East coast of the U.S. in, while filming a documentary with a mysterious Chilean filmmaker named Jordi Goya, another Shakespeare & Co connection (don’t google him, by the way, he’s an internet ghost). By the time we got to New York the thing was smoking, and I had to spend all the money I had to repair it. I make money in the street as I go along, of course, but usually I have more than a single-digit bank account while I do it. By the time I got to Manchester, I was flat broke. I had some contacts there but none of them could find me a place to stay, and I almost ended up sleeping in the street. I was working in Piccadilly Gardens among all the zombie Spice addicts and every day I’d make about 20 quid, just enough to eat a 6” Sub of the Day at Subway, and a bed in an unsavoury but very cheap hostel nearby.
The life I lead is romantic, for sure—but there’s always this other side to the coin. Mainly the constant fear of the fear of being asked to leave where you’re staying. Hitch-hiking through the Lake District in a neon-pink woman’s blazer is romantic, but there was also the time I got dropped off outside Wigton where there was nowhere for anyone to pull over, so I had to walk for miles carrying my table and chair and backpack of filthy clothes and typewriter, my books getting heavier and heavier, a literal box of my own vanity, as cars scream by, their drivers hurling curses at me.
Do you spend much time writing when not on the street with your typewriter? If so, how does the writing differ? Are you working on any non-poetic writings for example?
Yes—I’m 70,000 words into an autobiographical novel, ‘Poet for Hire: Kismet of a 21st Century Troubadour’. That’s my main project, especially now that I’m home from tour. Writing prose is so difficult—such different muscles—and so much more demanding than poetry. A novel is physically enormous, but mostly what I mean is that poets aren’t burdened (sadly, I so often think!) by the obligation to make any sense. At all. Look at Ashbery! The most universally-lauded poet ever, and none of it makes one goddamn lick of sense.
I’ve also written plays occasionally, although I haven’t had one produced since I won a playwriting contest years ago, and haven’t really tried—I think it’s one of those things where the theatre world is so small, the only way I can get something produced is if I happen to meet the right people at the right time, or if the other aspects of my career go well enough that they start attracting interest (bites bottom lip, swirls whiskey provocatively).
When not on tour, you normally live and work in New Orleans. Can you tell me about how you first came to New Orleans, and what inspires you about the city?
I first came to New Orleans in 2007 for a gig at the Dragon’s Den, while touring with my old band. It took me till Twelfth Night, 2013, to come back—I was living in the dressing room of a puppet theater, and had to push my mattress up against the wall whenever they had shows. My only plan was to write, but then all these bizarre things started happening to me—I was suddenly asked to write the score for a show at the Marigny Opera House, a venue created in an old cathedral that still had vines growing on the inside—a neo-Beatnik guy hired me to digitally archive a bunch of never-before-seen poems and letters by Kerouac, Ginsberg, DiPrima, Corso—he had found a treasure trove of submissions to an early 1950’s magazine in New Orleans that went bust before all their submitters got famous. And I fell in love a few times, joined a hallucinatory marching band, bartended at a high-volume club—the city just sucked me right in. I didn’t have any plans to stay, but did—I went back north for a book tour that summer, bought a ’83 jalopy that ran off fry-grease just like my band’s bus, stuffed my few possessions inside, and drove back down.
There’s a lot more I could say, but it’s all in the book I’m working on—
Can you tell me about the Honeybee Press?
Honeybee Press is a traditional book arts cooperative based in Burlington, VT—that is, it’s a group of poets who got together to use letterpress, block printing, papermaking and hand-binding, both to keep those traditional methods alive and also to make small press publishing financially viable. By that I mean, if you do all the printing yourself, while drinking beer and listening to Bonnie Raitt records in a moldy art studio, then you can price the books low enough so that people will actually buy them. We also hosted some raucous readings and ran a magazine, The Salon. A few of our titles got excellent reviews, and their authors have gone on to do some really fascinating stuff—Gennarose Nethercott, another typewriter poet from Vermont, recently won the National Poetry Series, one of the bigger prizes in the U.S.—Estefania Puerta went to Yale for graduate school and is making some fascinating visual art as well as writing—Julia Shipley won a book prize, and I think Nicholas Spengler’s non-fiction book on Melville will be published soon. Robert McKay is at work on a Seattle-noir novel when he’s not fighting Capitalism.
These days the press is in a bit of a holding pattern—our Vandercook (that’s the giant machine the covers are printed on) had to be relocated, and I spend less time in VT than I’d like to. I still dream of expanding the press to New Orleans, and establishing a north-south poetic trade-route, but it will require slightly more resources and time than I have at the moment.
Finally, who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
The Futilitarians, by Anne Gisleson—it’s a non-fiction book about the Existential Crisis Reading Group, a hard-drinking batch of New Orleanians who use readings of philosophy as a method of processing grief. Also, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee—which is so exquisite that I never want it to end, and it’s also a bit of textbook for the book I’m trying to write. Also: Break.up, by Joanna Walsh is excellent, an experimental novel about love and travel. There’s a group of poets in America I find very inspiring as well—Danez Smith, sam sax, Franny Choi, Hieu Minh Nguyen—also Major Jackson, Solmaz Sharif, and Airea Matthews, among so many others.
These days I’m also inspired by the broadening of poetry in general—visual poetry is becoming more accepted these days, and I recently got the opportunity to record an audio-chapbook, with sound-collage by a musician/engineer named Kamikaze Funtime. This year I’m hoping to make a video-poem or two, if all goes well.
In an age which has sidelined the Christian faith, the long, bitterly contested campaign to remove the serious discrimination suffered by Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom for nearly three centuries after the Reformation is seldom recalled, except by apologists for Irish nationalism. The struggle for Catholic rights lasted some fifty years, from the 1770s until 1829 when what had come to be known as Catholic emancipation was embodied in law by the Duke of Wellington in command of an obedient Tory government. Even when it was over, Catholics were often told they did not deserve their release from discriminatory laws. The 19th century Tory historian, J.A. Froude, wrote, ‘they who had never professed toleration, had no right to demand it.’
Toleration, however, gradually won the day. The first concessions in 1780 allowed Catholic priests to celebrate mass without fear of arrest and prosecution, and removed the risk of life imprisonment from those who established Catholic schools. The bar on the ownership of land, often disregarded in practice, was formally lifted. With the completion of the process of reform by Wellington, most public offices were opened to Catholics who were also given the right to vote in Britain (they already had it in Ireland), and to sit in both Houses of Parliament.
Left to their own devices, the politicians would have resolved the issue much more swiftly, but they were thwarted by two stubborn monarchs. The virtuous George III was adamant that the oath he had sworn at his coronation to uphold the Protestant faith, coupled with a blood- curdling denunciation of Roman Catholicism, made it impossible for him to permit emancipation. His dissolute successor, George IV, was no less resolute in his hostility, despite marrying a Catholic illegally and going to great lengths to charm Catholic Ireland during a wildly popular visit in 1821. Royal princes cursed emancipation in lurid terms in the House of Lords.
No one seemed particularly surprised or shocked by this display of intense Hanoverian partisanship. But though the crown’s right to determine policy was not strongly contested over these fifty years, its eventual, reluctant submission to Wellington marked an important moment in the shift of power from monarch to ministers.
In her 24th book, Antonia Fraser assembles a large cast of curious and colourful characters, much given to making outlandish remarks and fighting duels. They adorn a vivid account of a little-known historical episode, which unfolds with the verve for which the author has long been famous; at the age of 85, her vigour remains undimmed, along with her voracious appetite for research.
One of her own forebears was among the most intransigent opponents of emancipation. The 2nd Earl of Longford, head of the extreme Protestant Brunswick Club, set out on the hopeless task of trying to make his Irish Catholic tenants ‘love and venerate the Protestant religion and laws as gloriously constituted by the wisdom, and established by the blood, of our forefathers in 1688.’
It was an appeal to which many elsewhere responded enthusiastically. There was no majority for Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom as a whole, and no threat of disorder from English Catholics. Wellington imposed emancipation everywhere because of the strength of the demand for it in the land where Longford had launched his fruitless campaign on behalf of the Protestant cause.
From 1812 onwards, a restless and eloquent nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell, made emancipation the focal point of swelling Irish discontent. The case for economic reform, so obvious to British visitors appalled by Irish poverty, was set aside in favour of an issue that stirred even stronger feelings than the most acute hardship to be found in Western Europe. O’ Connell was described as ‘a glass in which Ireland may see herself completely reflected.’ It was in reality a distorted reflection which suited O’ Connell’s purpose of bringing Catholic Ireland under his control and demanding emancipation in recognition of his power.
Britain ended up conceding under duress in 1829 what its political elite would have happily bestowed nearly thirty years earlier at the time of the political union of Great Britain and Ireland, if the conscience of the king had not been so sorely troubled. Wellington handled the retreat in masterly fashion. He secured a sharp reduction in the size of the Irish electorate by revising the franchise to exclude most of O’Connell’s followers. He compelled O’Connell to disband the political organisation that had become the basis of his power. In England, most Catholics, loyal to a fault, felt deeply uncomfortable about achieving full civil rights as a result of Irish recalcitrance.
Antonia Fraser writes benignly about the participants on both sides of the campaign, rejoicing in the bloodless victory that was finally won. Wellington is commended for wearing down the resistance of the bloated George IV. O’Connell, the hero of the story, is forgiven for killing a fellow Irishman in a duel on the way to his triumph that enabled him to become an astute MP, observing that ‘ there is more folly and nonsense in the House than anywhere out of it’. Whig grandees are chided gently for speaking rudely about the pope.
Some rejoiced unduly in the hour of victory. In the holy city, word spread that a new saint had been canonised. Men struck their breasts and intoned, Santa Emancipatione, ora pro nobis.
BY ALISTAIR LEXDEN
The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Meg Wolitzer must be psychic. Well before the explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed and the #MeToo movement gathered pace, she penned The Female Persuasion, a novel about feminism, and finding your voice.
Published on June 7th, the Female Persuasion tells the story of Greer Kadetsky’s coming-of-age, from her edifying arrival at Rutland College to her encounter with the dazzling Faith Frank, and the ensuing intergenerational friendship which shapes Greer’s experience of the world.
This isn’t the first time that Wolitzer has tackled the bildungsroman trope; her 2014 novel The Interestings follows a group of 6 teenagers, who meet at a summer camp the year that Nixon resigns. The novel follows their divergent lives through youth and middle age; it’s a fascinating study into the enduring nature of creativity and the transience of satisfaction.
Unlike The Interestings, though, The Female Persuasion puts the female coming-of-age experience at the heart of this novel. From the loss of her virginity to her first boyfriend, to the unsettling experience of having her breast grabbed at a college party, Greer’s story is full of moments that every millennial woman will find mirrored in her own life. Early in the novel, Greer, a shy bookworm paralysed by her inexperience, laments that she is not one of those women described as ‘spitfires’ and ‘kickass’, women with ‘fuck-you confidence’ who are ‘assured of their place in the world’. Wolitzer draws wonderful parallels between Greer and her best friend Zee, described as ‘bracingly, innately political’; her temerity acts as a foil to Greer’s timidity, which gradually wanes as the novel progresses.
When it comes to the representation of #MeToo in the novel, Wolitzer’s prescience is astounding. Not only does the description of serial groper Darren Tinsler hit awfully close to home post-Weinstein, but she also predicts the value mismatch between Second Wave and Fourth Wave feminists which has pervaded much of the #MeToo discussion. In the novel, Greer and Faith’s relationship breaks down after Greer becomes disillusioned with some of Faith’s actions, which she feels are contradictory to her feminist values, such as her sleeping with a married man, and her turning a blind eye to ethical neglectfulness on a refuge camp for trafficked women in Ecuador.
Speaking of Greer, it is no coincidence that the novel’s main character shares a name with arguably the most influential feminist of the 1970s, Germaine Greer, who now seems to be spending much of her time arguing with current feminists about the moment which we’re living through. Wolitzer has hesitated in directly confirming the correlation between the names, admitting instead that she ‘unconsciously’ named the character Greer after remembering seeing The Female Eunuch on her mother’s bookshelf.
In the novel, Faith Frank is a bastion of Second Wave feminism; it feels like Germaine Greer is her real-life counterpart. Through this characterisation, Wolitzer asks the question that has troubled 21st century feminism during #MeToo so far: namely, is it possible to admire the foundational work that Second Wave feminists did to underpin the societal progress women have made over the past 30 years, without necessarily agreeing with everything that these women are saying in the present moment? After all, each generation of feminists has certain privileges, thanks to the previous generation, but they also have very different experiences of the world, and as such, have developed different attitudes.
And this is partly why Wolitzer’s novel is so powerful – it captures a moment in time, for a certain generation of women, and enshrines #MeToo in a literary format. It is not historically and socially overarching or comprehensive because ultimately, it is a work of fiction. It succeeds in revealing the cracks in our current incarnation of feminism, in an insightful manner, and encourages us to think about the freedoms that we’re entitled to. More than anything who, the novel forces us to take a look back over the past 12 months, and see just how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. At the end of the novel, Greer bemoans that men ‘always get to set the terms’. ‘They don’t ask, they just do it’, she complains. ‘I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.’ Wolitzer’s novel landed in the centre of a female revolution, which brought those buildings crumbling down. It’s our time, now, to pick up our tools, and, brick by brick, begin to rebuild.
One of the stand-out gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show appeared to replicate the pea in its structure. ‘The Seedlip Garden’ had a circular pool, round stepping stones, and a ‘Peavillion’ housing a collection of articles about peas. This garden got me thinking about, well, peas, and the little-observed role they’ve played in our culture.
One of the most historic vegetables, the pea probably originated in Asia and was grown as far back as 7000 BC. The Greeks had ‘pisoi’ and the Romans introduced ‘pisum’ to Europe. Peas were widely used in Roman cookery: there are nine dishes which call for peas in Apicius’ fifth-century Roman cookery book.
But it is Catherine de Medici we must thank for rekindling a popular affection for peas in the sixteenth century. When she married Henri II of France in 1533, she is said to have brought her favourite foods from Italy with her to France. These included peas, or ‘piselli novelli’. Dried peas soon fell from favour and everyone began to eat petit pois. Garden peas may also have been introduced to Britain through a royal connection: Charles II would have known petit pois during his exile in France and their appearance in British kitchens post-date the Restoration. Indeed, such was the pea’s continued prevalence in France that King Louis XIV is recorded to have observed that: “The young princes want to eat nothing but peas!” And neither, it seems, did he. Petit pois were his obsession.
The pea has also played a pivotal role in science. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by crossing yellow peas with wrinkled peas in his garden in Moravia and experimented on more than 28,000 pea plants over seven years. His results were published in 1866 and laid the foundations for our understanding of genes and the way they are inherited (he coined the terms ‘recessive’ and ‘dominant’).
Just before that, and on the other side of the world, US President Thomas Jefferson was busy with his own, non-scientific experiment with peas: he regularly competed with his neighbours to grow the first crop. He decided to stagger his planting so that he would be able to enjoy 15 different varieties of fresh peas from May until July.
Peas scuttle through literature and art. A pea is the focus of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’; Edward Lear sent ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ to sea ‘In a beautiful pea-green boat.’ When under the spell of the love potion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Titania dotes on Bottom (who has the head of a Donkey) and offers him nuts to eat, but he replies, ‘I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas’. In the Brothers Grimm story, Cinderella’s step-sisters ‘did their utmost to torment her – mocking her, and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes, and setting her to pick them up.’
Shelling peas, in contrast, is the tender subject of paintings and sketches by Whistler and Van Gogh. The Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used peas in his famous vegetable portraits of people; his work ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ has peas in a curved pod serving as eyebrows.
Less beautiful, but no less worthy of discussion, are London’s pea-souper fogs which once swallowed our city. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Herman Melville for first using the term ‘pea-soup’ to describe the weather. He wrote in November 1849 in his ‘Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent’: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered pea soup London fog.’ Henry James found the smoke in London particularly depressing and noted that when he looked out at ‘The pea-soup atmosphere of Piccadilly, I feel like taking to my bed.’
Incidentally, should peas pop up in conversation, a lexicographer will probably tell you that a pea (the use of the word has been recorded from 1666) is an example of a back-formation (‘a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix.’) of the older word ‘pease’ which also meant ‘a pea’ but was understood to be the plural. When John Lyly penned the phrase ‘as lyke as one pease is to an other’ in a novel in 1580 he probably did not predict that it would still be widely used today in the form of of the favourite expression: ‘like two peas in a pod’.
Chasing the last few peas around the plate is enough to make anyone feel pea-brained, but perhaps reflecting on their history can make the process slightly less maddening.
Jesús Carmona is famed for his explosive and witty footwork and his ballet-infused moves translated masterfully throughout this irresistible interpretation of famous scores from Spain’s most beloved composers. A truly colourful and explosive perform by all 11 dancers and musicians.
Home Fire is a contemporary take on Sophocles’ Antigone, examiningthe fraught tension that comes with being British, female and Muslim in today’s world. An urgent and pertinent novel which takes on politics, radicalisation, family and faith in a way that is both truly elegant and evocative.
This exhibition spans a huge expanse, both historically and geographically, to tell the stories of the frequently under-represented. Igor Palmin’s photographs are a particular highlight, showing images of hippies in the Russian countryside, as are Paz Errazuriz’s images of sex workers in Chile during the time of Pinochet.
‘I’m currently reading ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s as worrying as the title would suggest, but the rich context they provide gives some very reassuring contours to the daily news cycle.’
Douglas Cowie’s most recent book, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, is a fictionalised account of the near-two-decades-long relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. As Cowie has pointed out, while many would automatically call what existed between Beauvoir and Algren an affair, that word’s suggestion of something secret, untoward, perhaps a little seedy makes it a poor fit to the writers’ pained but loving connection: eighteen years, the author has noted, is surely too long a commitment, and suggests too strong a bond, to be labelled, dismissively, an affair.
On a cold Chicago evening – February 1947 – Nelson Algren receives a phone call that he thinks must either have been misdirected or misdialled. The caller does not speak his language; he hangs up three times before the operator intercedes on Simone de Beauvoir’s behalf. The two writers speak, briefly. Beauvoir is visiting from France, has come to Chicago from New York, and a mutual friend has suggested that, should she wish to see the ‘real’ Chicago, Algren be her tour-guide. They meet amid the bright lights and grandeur of the Palmer House, one of Chicago’s finest hotels, where Beauvoir is staying. From here, Algren leads the way through a divine and dark comedy of shady streets and bars, prostitutes, a police-station line-up that cannot fail to make one think of the opening of The Man with the Golden Arm. Beauvoir is overwhelmed by the experience and feels faint. They return to Algren’s apartment. They have sex. Next morning, Algren makes breakfast. So begins the eighteen-year ‘marriage,’ as Algren and Beauvoir come to see it, between a ‘local Chicago youth’ and his ‘frog wife.’
Cowie’s will likely be a new name to many readers, though his first novel, Owen Noone and the Marauder (a remarkable debut about friendship, loneliness, and music) was published a little over a decade ago. He lectures in creative writing and American literature at Royal Holloway (University of London), where he has taught courses on, among others, Hemingway and the literature of Chicago (the reading list for the latter of which of course includes Algren). He considers the half-forgotten Algren – of whom many have heard but few have read; he is, for now, a little like those holiday destinations of which we finds ourselves forever saying we have always wanted to go but (still!) have never been – to be one of the great writers in English. Cowie writes with great economy and assurance, a commanding sense of purpose and narrative drive which in places remind one of the best moments in Anne Tyler. I am not sure whether Cowie would welcome this comparison, but it is meant as a compliment, for, like Tyler at her best, he avoids descending into sentimentalism’s familiar rhythms, resolutions, and clichés while being unafraid and unapologetic in his renderings – equally raw and incisive – of sentiment. (I read Owen Noone years before Tyler’s early novella A Slipping-Down Life, and my appreciation of the latter was shaped strongly by the memory of the former.) Human feeling is the basic – which is not to say easily captured – ingredient of this new novel, which works as a satisfying and coherent whole, in no small measure thanks to Cowie’s ability to balance narrative warmth with authorial cool. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is tender without ever being mawkish.
The quick birth and slow death of a relationship makes for a simple plot, and that the relationship will not last is not the revelation or dramatic climax of the book. Its breakdown is, in fact, signalled in the prologue – which rather beautifully answers to Algren’s closing thought of Simone – in which Beauvoir, in 1981, reads of Algren’s death, and finds that she is sad but not sorry:
He’d written so many terrible things about her after her memoir […]. No, she couldn’t feel sorry or apologise. […] There’s no use apologising or feeling sorry for the dead, anyway. She could feel sad, though, she admitted to herself.
The novel’s force lies in the carefully shaped sentences and beautiful because unadorned language, from the sensitivity with which Cowie, focalising his narrative in almost equal parts through his protagonists, renders the fine grain, snags, and splinters of love, its illimitable complexities, and its decline. Late in the novel, in one of only two such passages I can identify, an omniscient voice intervenes to comment on Algren’s failure of understanding of the dynamics of love: ‘Love can’t be built on conditions,’ Algren tells himself. ‘If it is, maybe it isn’t love, after all. Nelson didn’t recognise his own conditions as conditions. But conditions are always there, in love.’ Perhaps, though, it is fair to say that after nearly eighteen years Algren does come to realise that conditions are there, on both sides, and that they are ultimately impossible to satisfy. ‘Will it be a long time before we see one another again?’ Simone asks, in late summer of 1960. ‘It will,’ Nelson replies, ‘probably.’ The adverb cannot dampen the blunt finality of the preceding clause. Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren will not meet again. In 1964, following the publication of Beauvoir’s memoir, a silence begins which, Simone realises on hearing of Algren’s passing, will last nearly as long as the relationship itself. Or perhaps it is its long-resounding, final cadence.
By the time they come to say what will, in effect, be their final goodbye, both Nelson and Simone realise that while love lingers things are not and cannot be what they were. In part, this is because Algren has turned from an energetic man, cocksure and confident in his art, to one of questionable mental health and embittered by professional and connubial frustration. His decline from a figure of rather Emersonian machismo – the Algren we meet at novel’s opening is the very image of self-assurance and perfectly balanced action and intellect imagined in ‘The American Scholar’ and ‘Self-Reliance’ – is a condensed tragedy so well limned that, at times, the reading is painful. During his final visit to Beauvoir, which will be their last time together, we find Algren resentful of the time Simone spends apart from him, equally dissatisfied with their time together. For her part, Beauvoir – who at times seems very much the existential egoist, seeing her significant others as extensions of herself (as ‘traces’ and ‘fingerprints,’ as she puts it at one point) rather than as others to whom she is obligated and by whom shaped – realises by now that what she now feels for her ‘local Chicago youth,’ her ‘crocodile’ husband, is something devastating for them: pity.
She would listen to this sad man that her Chicago husband had become, and realised
that only love made his complaints tolerable. […] He thought so little of himself that
he couldn’t reach high enough to let others help him […].
Poor Nelson, poor Chicago husband, poor crocodile and local youth. Again her pity demeaned them both, demeaned their love.
With Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, Cowie sounds a gentle yet precisely articulated tragedy – the inability of two keen interpreters of human experience to comprehend fully, until too late, the impossible demands each makes on the other. He sounds this tragedy as if it were notes played on Harmon-muted trumpet. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is – like all Cowie’s work, but especially Sing For life: Tin Pan Alley, the first of his paired novellas that continue the Owen Noone story – is a meticulously crafted and moving piece of work. A not-entirely-new new voice, Cowie’s has a song worth both the singing and the hearing.
The outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. Become a vegetarian, better yet a vegan, and soon enough your body will be formed almost completely from plant matter. This beguiling conceit lies at the heart of Han Kang’s extraordinary novel The Vegetarian, where a seemingly trivial change in the life of a young woman results in a terrifying transformation.
Split into three parts, Kang’s narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye. We see her through every perspective but her own, first through the eyes of her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative.
The first of these begins with a dream, a subconscious cry, the trigger that will initiate the many changes in her life to come. It is a grotesque scene, one that reemerges again and again in the book, bestowing Yeong-hye with Lady-Macbeth-like ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody mouth’. The vivid nightmare sees ‘those eyes, rising up from the pit of my stomach’, leaving her assaulted body in the midst of a deep and terrifying transformation as the fear of change inevitably turns itself inward: ‘Why are my edges all sharpening? What am I going to gouge?’
Food has always held a central place in how we connect and communicate with those around us, to sit around a table and ‘break bread’ is one of the oldest and most traditional acts we have. What Kang artfully shows is how the rejection of such conventions and traditions can create unpredictable and often fatal ramifications. The act of rejecting meat soon becomes one of rejecting flesh in any form, the sex life of the couple disintegrates as their bodies become different entities. When Yeong-hye rejects her husband’s advances he asks why: ‘The meat smell,’ she replies, ‘Your body smells of meat.’ Fed on different food, the two lose understanding of each other – if there was even any to begin with. This develops with a strange ferocity in the following chapter in which we see Yeong-hye openly welcome the advances of other suitors based purely on the floral paintings that adorn their bodies. She becomes not merely opposed to meat, she becomes enamoured by its opposite, ensnared by the botanical potential plants offer her, the relative seclusion and safety from a world of flesh beyond her control. The flora and fauna she clings to begin to grow in significance, becoming not just fuel for her body, but fuel for her mind, and just as her new obsession changes her body, it changes her mind as well.
Our vegetarian becomes ‘deflated from within’; her husband’s narrative is overwhelmed by his own inability to accept his wife as she challenges the conventional cage he has built for her. One of the most overused words in his segment of narrative is ‘normal’. He celebrates what he views as his wife’s ordinariness, the mundane and unthreatening shell that he had perceived her to be – any consideration for her in any manner that does not relate to his immediate needs is cast aside. She is a cook first, an object for sex second, a companion? Hardly. Yet when this definition of her ‘normalness’ is threatened, so too is the life that her husband leads. It is only when he begins to finally acknowledge that he has no power over his wife that he admits to himself: ‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’. The simple act of choosing what to eat, casts all Yeong-hye’s relationships into disarray – no one can fathom why or how she would make such a decision without a logical explanation, because of a dream. Rather than enquiring into the cause they dismiss it.
In her isolation Yeong-hye becomes ‘utterly unknowable’ – it is not so much that she is vegetarian but that she is unlike those that surround her. She remains immobile, a fixed point careering towards a seemingly inevitable end as her family collides around her in their attempts to connect. What is most disturbing in Kang’s narrative is the manner in which the changing female body is shown as a central concern for the family at large. When her relatives hear of her vegetarianism they respond with astonishment and apologies to her husband. It’s made clear from the start that what Yeong-hye choses to do with her own body preoccupies all members of her family, and that whatever choices she may make her body remains governed by those around her – something that comes to a climax at the end of the first section when her father attempts to force-feed her meat in suffragette fashion, and she retaliates with an equally violent act.
In the following narrative the perspective is immediately and refreshingly reversed, in stark contrast to the selfish and abrasive tone of her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law sees the events of the past section with fresh eyes, and his response is deeply empathetic. When he witnesses her hurt herself he hears ‘a sound like something snapping inside his own body’, and he preserves his shirt stained by her blood as an eerie souvenir. This bloody offering begins an obsession with Yeong-hye’s changing body.
Yet, just like her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes captivated by the idea of her rather than the woman herself. In this instance rather than her ‘normalness’ he is drawn to her transformation. Unlike her husband who recoils from change, this man is inspired by it, made curious by what he sees as a creature so like and yet unlike his own wife. This obsession soon gravitates around a blue mongolian mark, ‘petal-like’ on the small of Yeong-hye’s back. The point becomes fetisized, yet once uncovered it is revealed as ‘more vegetal than sexual … perhaps a mark of photosynthesis’. The mark, like many other points, signals a deeper and more surreal evaluation of a changing state. When finally faced with her naked body, rather than being aroused, the brother-in-law instead discovers ‘a feeling that simulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock’. Like the mark itself, Yeong-hye’s transformation begins to lose its seductive appeal. Her body becomes alien rather than alluring, weakened, its human core threatened.
As the tale progresses it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat is less about gaining control than it is about releasing it. Rather than appearing to take a hold of her life with the new rules she has drawn up for herself, Yeong-hye becomes a woman plagued by demons, but demons that she never truly articulates and ones that no one ever enquires about. Soon food is entirely dismissed, as is sleep. Instead of becoming more seductive when freed from the constrictions of her oppressive husband, as she loses weight and her marriage, she vegetates, day by day her own body growing more like the plants she consumes. Ironically throughout her book her actions only enhance the human characteristics of those around her. She inspires every emotion, from grief and anger to lust and joy. Her own rejection of humanity inspires constant expressions of it in those around her.
Yet the motive behind the transformation is never fully explained, the elusive ‘dream’ that plagues Yeong-hye, the one that sits in her chest, and forces her into hospital again and again, continues unexplored. Anorexia nervosa combined with schizophrenia is the doctor’s tentative diagnosis but the delusion runs much deeper than this, and what is most arresting about Kang’s prose is that she never gives the game away; we’re never sure whose side to take. Teetering between explanations both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’, she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights.
This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith’s achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang’s novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.
Deborah Smith has gone on to translate Kang’s novel Human Acts for Portobello Books (2016). The Vegetarian is shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016.