March 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a review of Sven Lindqvist’s The Myth of Wu Tao Tzu up at the Los Angeles Review of Books
February 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I recently came across this set of images shot in Yamaliq, a hillside neighborhood in western Urumqi right behind the main train station, by Chinese photographer Tian Lin (b.1971), who is a native of Urumqi. As many of you have already known, the neighborhood has been occupied mostly by extremely poor Uyghur migrants from other towns of Xinjiang. The set of black-and-white images presents a powerful story about darkness and hopelessness, accompanied by some well written short texts, stories, and poems about the dispossessed residents of Yamaliq.
May 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’m very happy to say I’ve been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship (thank you Creative Scotland) which means I’ll be in the village of Grez Sur Loing in France during June. Though my ostensible purpose is to work on a novel in progress, my real goal is to recreate the atmosphere of RLS’s sojourn in the South Seas. Each morning I will convene a meeting of the elders of the village. We will toast each other with coconut milk. I will marry a snake. I will find a peace I had not thought possible, and change my name to ‘Jacques’. Finally, after weeks that will feel like years to the villagers, I will contract an exotic disease that will make me work feverishly on a manuscript I will not live to complete. For years, and generations after, the good, pure people of Grez Sur Loing will tell stories of ‘the pale one that died’.
There will be no statues.
May 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
May 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My blog on the Zagreb Subversive Forum is up now at CITSEE.EU and on the Forum website.
April 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My story ‘The False River’ has been shortlisted for The Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I had completely forgotten about this, so it’s almost a shock, though a welcome one. I think the way judging works is that they pick a regional winner (mine would be Canada and Europe) then an overall one. The story in question is about a man obsessed by numbers who is driving a Greyhound bus and is very much in love. 1st round of judging takes place on May 22nd. Please cross your eyes.
April 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Once again, I am the bridesmaid in this excellent competition. My story ‘Half’ was shortlisted and appears in the 2012 Anthology, which can soon be ordered here. The Willesden Herald is a very good competition because a) it’s not expensive to enter b) it’s judged anonymously c) The word limit is usually much higher than usual (7/8000) for short story competitions and d) if you get shortlisted, you at least get a publication out of it, rather than the whole ‘honourable mention’ thing which is like being told you’re a bridesmaid without being allowed to come to the wedding.
My story is an incredibly joyful tale of acceptance, personal growth and warm, enduring love, as the begining suggests:
Ruth stood at the end of the pier, looking back at the shore. Beyond the beach, above the road, she saw the line of hotels: white castles topped with flags, slightly blurred in her vision. She squinted, but they weren’t just distant: they appeared to be retreating. As if she were at the stern of a ship that was slowly cruising away.
She touched her hair, then checked her watch. Perhaps Sam wasn’t going to come. Perhaps, despite the way he’d sounded, things had not improved.
She leaned on the railing and wanted to shut her eyes. But the pier, for all its ironwork, did not feel like something to trust, not against so much water.
Five minutes, then she’d go; the London train was at half past.
She went to the telescope and pushed a coin in its slot. She bent and peered and turned it slowly. Windsurfers, waves, a dinghy. A single swimmer on his back. Then the grey of the water blurred to the yellow ochre of sand. More sand, then the freckled limbs of a woman without hair. The woman was wearing small dark glasses. She absently picked her nose. Then she looked directly at Ruth with a stare that said, Fuck off. Ruth jumped and the telescope skipped to waves that lifted, hung, then fell. The woman had, of course, not seen her. If she moved the telescope back, the woman would be squeezing sun cream onto her speckled arms.
She turned the scope till she was seeing down the pier. A pushchair, a rubbish bin, a cloud of candyfloss. Then she raised it and saw faces. White, black, lumpy, old, then, as the shutter dropped, the face of her half-brother.
He’d told her a year ago, just after he passed the bread, right as she started to butter.
“I’m using heroin,” he said.
April 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There’s a nice review of The Tree That Bleeds in the April issue of Literary Review, which doesn’t even accuse me of bigotry or treachery.
April 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My piece on life in Cairo’s cemeteries is up at Egypt Independent.
March 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My piece on Cairo’s rubbish collectors is now up at the London Review of Books.
Here are some more photos from the area:
February 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In case you were wondering, look no further:
Go to another man who is a good snake charmer, and this man will pour some water into a plate, then he makes a snake drink this. After this he puts a piece of salt in the plate with a little more water, and then makes the snake vomit the water he has drunk back into the plate. The would-be snake charmer must then drink this water. After he has done this he can handle any snake, none will hurt him.
‘Tell me about the tree,’ I asked, as innocently as I could.
‘There is lots of baraka [blessing] in the tree. So much. It is the sheikha’s tree.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Twenty years ago, someone wanted to cut it down. but the sheikha appeared to them and said, “Don’t do it. This is my tree. Any my name is Sheikha Khadra.” Another time magicians came and cut the tree. It started to bleed.’
‘Red blood,’ she said with untainted sincerity. ‘But the sheikha dealt with them. She cut off their hands.’
I waited to see if she would smile, but she didn’t.
January 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
November 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
One book begets another, at least that’s how it seems. You have intentions to read about Egypt, to start to educate yourself about a country you know little about but are soon going to visit. You have already bought several books, they are by your bed, but first you decide to read a book about Mongolia in the 1920s,
not because you have any pressing need to learn about this subject, but because it is a large hardback at the bottom of the pile of non-fiction you are definitely going to read (as opposed to the piles and shelves of stuff you might one day read). This book has been there so long (at least three years) that the sight of its spine induces a kind of shame, like that caused by those emails you receive from good friends, that you click on eagerly, that you enjoy, and then do not respond to for weeks, months, even though it would only take a few moments, five or six sentences, to adequately reply. And so you drag it out, dust it off, see how many pages it has, then dutifully start to read. You find yourself enjoying it. You did not know about the Czech Legion during WW1. You are amazed at the atrocities of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. When you finish you look at the Egypt books, try to decide which to read first. You are not sure, and while you think, you look at the pile you will definitely read, then at the might-read pile, and there you find a book you only bought because it was £1, Peter Fleming’s, ‘The Fate of Admiral Kolchak’.
Again, you had had no thought to read about White Russian armies, but it does relate to what you have just read, and if you do not read it now, then when? And so you begin. You read about the armoured trains used on the Trans Siberian railway.
You read about rearguard actions against the Bolsheviks, and the stresses of command. This is Baron Wrangel’s description of General Slachtov, who was holding the Perekop Isthmus in the Crimea in 1920:
His face was deadly pale and his mouth never ceased to tremble, while tears streamed from his eyes… Incredible disorder reigned in his railway carriage. The table was covered with bottles and dishes of hors d’oeuvres; on the bunks were clothes, playing-cards and weapons, all lying about anyhow. Amidst all this confusion was Slachtov, clad in a fantastic white dolman, gold-laced and befurred. He was surrounded by all kinds of birds; he had a crane there, and also a raven, a swallow and a jay; they were hopping about on the table and the bunks, fluttering round and perching on their master’s head and shoulders
As for this account of the horses abandoned during the White Russians’ retreat from Omsk in 1919, you find it surreal and heartbreaking.
They were as tame as pet dogs, but nobody had time to stroke their noses. They stood in the streets ruminating over the remarkable change that had taken place in their circumstances. They walked into cafes. They wandered wearily through the deep snow. Droves of them blackened the distant hills.
After this, it makes complete sense to read a book about the Ukraine, then one about Armenia.
Tomorrow, you will write to Viktor, tell him you are well.
September 9, 2011 § Leave a Comment
A lot of wonderful looking films at the Toronto Film Festival, including Werner Herzog’s new documentary about death row inmates, which The Guardian bills as almost a comedy, a judgement supported by some of the clips. ‘Tell us about his hands.’
July 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Mr Leonard Bernstein’s eloquent disclaimer regarding certain aspects of Mr Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the Brahms No. 1 Piano Concerto, before a concert in April 1962. He was particularly referring to Gould’s insistence that the entire first movement be played at half the indicated tempo. Gould was no lover of public recitals. He called them ‘the last remaining blood sport’. He gave his last public performance in 1964. He was 31. This perhaps give some indication of why he found it distasteful:
I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity
Here are some pictures of Gould during recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Oh, and if you’ve made it this far, here are the sounds themselves:
The end of the 1st movement of the Bach Concerto in D Minor
From the 1982 Recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, on which you can clearly hear Gould’s singing/humming:
July 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I’m delighted to have been asked to take part in an event at this year EIBF. I’ll be reading alongside Roger Hunt, whose book is about his experience as a hostage in Mumbai in 2008.
The event is on Friday 19th August, at 11.00 a.m. For more details of the event, click here
June 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This first appeared on the TV version of This American Life. Cartoonist Chris Ware teams up with animator, John Kuramoto, to make a cartoon version of a true story about how a bunch of first-graders become warped by pretend-TV.
March 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
As we prepare to enter what will surely be International David Foster Wallace Month (a day seems paltry, a year is just greedy), here is an old interview from The Believer, which includes the following, one of DFWs many dog references. After reading the book-length interview that is Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, these have almost come to seem metonymic not only for all kinds of DFW’s concerns, but also for the still-pointed sadness of his absence.
If you live by yourself and have dogs, things get strange. I know I’m not the only person who projects skewed parental neuroses onto his pets or companion-animals or whatever. But I have it pretty bad; it’s a source of some amusement to friends. First, I began to get this strong feeling that it was traumatic for them to be left alone more than a couple hours. This is not quite as psycho as it may seem, because most of the dogs I’ve ended up with have had shall we say hard puppyhoods, including one past owner who went to jail… but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I got reluctant to leave them alone for very long, and then after a while I got so I actually needed one or more dogs around in order to be comfortable enough to feel like working
March 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King opens thus:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.
(from The Millions)
March 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Contractual wrangling means that the next season of Mad Men probably wont air until 2012 (gasp). In the meantime, here’s a kind of spoof/public service announcement that Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer made, which isn’t exactly funny, but feels right enough.
March 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
There’s a new David Foster Wallace story in the latest New Yorker. It begins
Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.
The story has a plain, dry descriptive tone in places, as it lists muscle groups and bones, that then switches to one of direct emotional appeal. After only one reading, I hesistate to draw conclusions, but there was a wonderful openness to the way that the boy’s painful attempt of the impossible is put alongside holy equivalents from history (or ‘facts’ that are presented as such) without any direct linkage. The boy, for some unspecified reason, seems more contained and focusessed than his father who makes a living out of selling motivational material of his own devising. The boy seems to have no capacity for boredom- he pays attention to everything, and functions well socially, but is also wholly detatched. The first line’s mention of the ‘whole person’ can be taken to mean that what the boy’s father, and many of us have, are not ‘ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals’ but something more twisted by doubt and fear. These are what push us through life, not the clear synonyms mentioned.
January 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Right wing of the diptych Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels by Jean Fouquet, c.1450. Wood, 93 x 85 cm Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
Yukio Mishima once wrote about a picture of St. Sebastian whose ‘only purpose had been to lie in wait for him’. Whilst I disagree with Mr Mishima about many things- for example, the irrelevance of women, the need for emperor worship, the advisability of staging a coup -I did feel ambushed when I saw this on the cover of a book about 15th Century European painting. The angels’ faces are sullen, threatening. I don’t know if the angels are red and blue because they represent different types, or if this is just for visual impact. As for the enthroned Virgin, she is said to be modelled on Agnès Sorel, mistress of Charles VII, who died of mercury poisoning aged 28, and whose cousin took her place after her death.
As for Mr Fouquet (1420–1481), he is thought to have been the inventor of the portrait miniature.
January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
‘Tippoo’s Tiger’ is a life-size tiger of carved and painted wood, seen in the act of devouring a prostrate man in the costume of the 1790s. Concealed in the bodywork is a mechanical pipe-organ with several parts, all operated simultaneously by a crank-handle emerging from the tiger’s shoulder. Inside the tiger and the man are weighted bellows with pipes attached. Turning the handle pumps the bellows and controls the air-flow to simulate the growls of the tiger and cries of the victim.
Tipu (Tippoo Sahib to his European contemporaries) was Sultan of Mysore in South India from 1782-99. He was the implacable enemy of the East India Company, a commercial enterprise with its own armies and civil administration, which during the late 18th century was engaged in extending British dominion in India. Tigers and tiger symbols adorned most of his possessions, from his magnificent throne to the uniforms of his guards.His armoury included mortars shaped like sitting tigers, cannon with tiger muzzles, and hand weapons decorated with gold tiger heads, or inlaid in gold with tiger masks formed by an arrangement of Arabic letters meaning The Lion of God is the Conqueror.
The tiger is currently in the V & A in London, and if you don’t think it’s scary enough, listen to them play the organ inside it.
January 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
At the end of the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas looks at a painting and cries. The painting is by the exiled Spanish artist Remedios Varo and depicts
a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void. (CL 13).
What upsets Oedipa is that she identifies with these girls, not only their sense of captivity, but also their impotence. It is with terror she thinks that
what really keeps her where she is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all… if the tower is everywhere and the proof of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (CL 13)
But when I look the painting above, I don’t see anything to justify this kind of fear or paranoia. It’s something Oedipa brings to the painting. The rest of Varo’s work doesn’t have this tone either. It’s more playful, more interested in the surreal than in being allegorical.
Please note the cat in the floor.
Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born in Spain and educated in Spanish convent schools. Her father was a hydraulic engineer, which had a recurring influence in her work. Her artistic training was strict and academic, from which she fled into Barcelona’s bohemian artistic circle. She was married to the poet Benjamin Peret, and her widower, publisher Walter Gruen. She moved to Paris where she became involved within the Surrealist movement. Forced into exile by the Nazis, she settled in Mexico City where she died of a heart attack at 55. There only seems to be one biography of her in English, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (1988) by Janet Kaplan, and I have a feeling she isn’t that well critically thought of (there’s a lot of snobbishness about ‘fantasy’ art, sometimes with good reason). But to me there’s something distinctive about these pictures that elevates them from a lot of stuff that’s come since. The trouble is that the waters have been muddied so much.
January 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
A few obscure Wes Anderson clips, the first from the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, where the Max Fischer players from Rushmore stage some popular films.
This second is a 2004 American Express commercial that’s a homage to Truffaut’s Day for Night. My advice: click on the YouTube bit on the right hand corner of the screen, and it will get bigger.
January 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I rarely remember my dreams. But I am assured that they still happen. Or at least the same patterns of electrical activity that correlate with waking reports of a dream. Though this is fine for my brain, it leaves me feeling a bit cheated. Thankfully I own a copy of The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, which has many fine short pieces I can recite and pass off as my own whenever the conversation during the party/train ride/hostage situation turns the sad corner to ‘Dreams’. This is one of my current mainstays, which you may of course feel free to appropriate, should you also suffer from the same deficit, and are at a different party or bank to myself.
My thumb is embarking on a great adventure.
“Don’t go, please,” say the fingers. They try to hold
him down. Here comes a black limousine with a
veiled woman in the back seat, but no one at the
wheel. When it stops, she takes a pair of gold
scissors out of her purse and snips the thumb off.
We are off to Chicago with her using the bloody
stump of my thumb to paint her lips.
December 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
I used to finish every book I began, no matter how bad it seemed. To stop reading would only compound the sense of failure the book had already inspired. I suppose that the failure, on my part, was in thinking that the book was worth reading in the first place; that a scan of its opening pages had not alerted me to the fact that it was misconceived/ cliched/badly plotted/ pretentious/narrated by a rabid dog that thought it was a hippo. There was also the fear that the book was not to blame, especially if it was part of the canon, or even just well-reviewed. Because we should always acknowledge the possibility that the fault lies with us, not the book (or at least that we share blame). We can ruin good books for ourselves by reading them last thing at night, when we are tired, or on a train where someone is talking too loudly, or simply by reading the book too quickly. And there are definitely great books that are very uneven, that have both wonderful and mediocre sections (e.g. Lanark and Ulyssess), and that the latter must be endured. Even with some of the very worst books, there is the increasingly desperate hope that the last 25 pages, when the spaceship lands, will turn out to be a tour de force that contains ‘some of the finest passages written in the English language since the end of the War’ (or some other hyperbole).
But a few years ago, after 120 pages of Memoirs of a Geisha, I decided to stop. The narrative premise was unconvincing, the writing was leaden, and there were hundreds of books in my room. For me, this last point has become increasingly crucial. I will only be able to read a small fraction of the books I would like to read, and so to waste time on something that is less than wonderful seems ridiculous.
These days the difficulty is in deciding when to stop. I don’t, for example, read 50 pages and think ‘Shall I continue?’ If something is enjoyable, this question never arises. Usually it takes longer, especially if I think that the fault is partly mine, that I am just being obtuse. In the case of the book I most recently stopped- The Orchard Keeper (1965) by Cormac McCarthy -it was because I had read 5 or 6 other books by the author, and felt that I knew what to expect. This passage was decisive.
The boy followed him for a few paces, then quartered off to the creek again and the man watched him go, his legs disappearing in the mist, then the rest of him, so that he seemed to be gliding away toward the line of willows marking its course like some nightwraith fleeing the slow reaching dawn until the man wasn’t sure that he had really been there at all. Then he came back with the pole and handed it to him.
Thanks, the man said.
They moved on across the field, through vapors of fog and wisps of light, to the east, looking like the last survivors of Armageddon.
(103-104 UK Picador edition)
Though this probably doesn’t seem bad (especially out of context), after reading 5 or 6 books written in this style, it now seems incredibly overblown, an attempt to make every event in the book into some portentous event. I’ve managed to deal with this kind of thing before, for example in All the Pretty Horses
The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.
Why it should be a ‘gorgon’ is beyond me- it doesn’t fit any character’s point of view, not even the authorial voice, with its King James cadences. As a result it seems comical rather than resonant. In terms of the passage from The Orchard Keeper, I could probably have dealt with ‘nightwraith’ on its own, but the subsequent description a paragraph later of them being like ‘survivors of Armageddon’ was too much faux-epic for me.
And the other thing about ceasing to read is that it need not be a judgement on the author- I’ve enjoyed several of McCarthy’s books, and realise this was his first novel. It’s just that I also have 2666, The Man Without Qualities, The Recognitions, In Search of Lost Time, Wolf Hall, and too many others staring at me from the shelf, and I don’t know what they contain.
December 17, 2010 § Leave a Comment
If you didn’t like The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven, or The New World, judging from this trailer, you won’t like The Tree of Life either.
I happen to like the aforementioned films very much.
This comes out in May.
p.s. If the film runs slow or is pixellated, go here and watch it in HD. Which you probably should do anyway.