The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Most people know you’re a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out – I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea – or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.

How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?

I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country – heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonioum-239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.

When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags. I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.

[I]f I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.

Which is what?

Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity?

I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhuman we must go to a darker continent.

Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?

It was largely a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naïve as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 198 interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review No. 186, Fall 2008.

Here is Rachel Cohen’s review of Robinson’s latest, Home, in the most recent Bookforum.

It’s a civic holiday in glorious Ontario, Canada. (My roommates and I have no idea what we’re supposed to be celebrating, except summer weather and Tim Horton’s ice caps, maybe.) Therefore I should give my magnificent brain a rest but when I see a fellow human in need I cannot turn my head aside. I cannot deny our shared humanity (as much as I may like to).

Rushdie is threatening legal action over some of Evans’s wilder allegations, which of course places him in a difficult situation. Two decades back, he was being held up as an icon of free speech beset by censorship, theocratic totalitarianism and mob violence. He’s clearly aware of the potential ironies: “I am not in the business of suppressing books,” he declares. “I just want the stuff taken out of which he knows to be untrue.”

“Untrue”; a tricky word. On Her Majesty’s Service purports to be a non-fiction book, and must be judged on that basis. But Rushdie’s whole career has been based on the artful renegotiation of the distinction between fact and fiction, history and fantasy. The magic realism of Midnight’s Children; the alternate history of The Ground Beneath Her Feet; the postmodern self-reference of Fury; the liberties taken with Hamlet and Star Trek in East, West; above all, the cavalier reworking of ancient texts and myths in The Satanic Verses; all of these are liable to the pedantic corrective that “it didn’t really happen like that”.

Yes, Mr. Footman, very good! You’re almost there. Your final conclusion should be: Mr. Salman Rushdie writes fiction: “An imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.” F-I-C-T-I-O-N.

Hint: Any need for the word “magic”, “myth” etc.

Bonus charity gesture: Hamlet is a play (P-L-A-Y), also an imaginative work, and while you may have endeared yourself to some fan boy communities, even Wikipedia knows that Star Trek isn’t depicting reality either.

Helpful suggestion: A political science beginner’s course on matters related to free speech and the limits thereof.

Token of thanks: No tangible objects needed! Just promise to think before you hand Guardian any more word vomit, especially on Rushdie news of which we readers get far too much. I’m subscribed to its RSS feed after all. Cheers!

Click on images

Is it bright where you are?

The Death of Elizabeth (1828)

The Death of Elizabeth (1828)

Portrait (1909) by Henri Le Fauconnier

Portrait (1909) by Henri Le Fauconnie

(Google translate for link)

Music: “Absence” from Les Nuits d’Été Op. 7 by Hector Belioz, lyrics by Théophile Gautier
Mezzo-soprano: Dame Janet Baker
Conductor: Herbert Blomstedt.
Orchestra: Danish radio symphonic orchestra

(Info about the cycle) (Lyrics)

Here are some vague details on what could possibly, maybe be his new book. At this point in the piece he and the interviewer discuss whether Ishiguro truly has “chameleon-like” story telling skill because he changes setting drastically from book to book. Ishiguro feels that thematically he’s retreading similar territory.


I think that’s very particular to you. It shows a certain chameleon-like ability.


I don’t think it is that chameleon-like. What I’m saying is I’ve written the same book three times. I just somehow get away with it.


You think that you have, but everyone who read your first novels and then read The Remains of the Day had a psychedelic moment — they were transported from this convincing Japanese setting to Lord Darlington’s estate.


That’s because people see the last thing first. For me, the essence doesn’t lie in the setting. I know that it does in some cases. In Primo Levi, take away the setting and you’ve taken away the book. But I went to a great performance of The Tempest recently, set in the Arctic. Most writers have certain things that they decide quite consciously, and other things they decide less consciously. In my case, the choice of narrator and setting are deliberate. You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations. But I leave quite a large area for improvisation after that. For example, I’ve arrived at an odd setting for the novel I’m writing at the moment.


What’s it about?


I won’t talk too much about it, but let me use its early stages as an example. I’d wanted for some time to write a novel about how societies remember and forget. I’d written about how individuals come to terms with uncomfortable memories. It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme. Another option was the Star Wars strategy: “in a galaxy far, far away.” Never Let Me Go went in that direction, and that has its own challenges. So for a long time, I had this problem.


What did you decide?


A possible solution was to set the novel in Britain in 450 A.D. when the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons took over, which led to the annihilation of the Celts. Nobody knows what the hell happened to the Celts. They just disappeared. It was either genocide or assimilation. I figured that the further you go back in time, the more likely the story would be read metaphorically. People see Gladiator and interpret it as a modern parable.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 196 interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in The Paris Review No. 184, Spring 2008.

  • Colin Burrow’s contribution to this year’s Lady Margaret Lectures on Milton at Cambridge U is now available as a podcast (finally!). Entitled “Milton’s Singularity” it even comes with a handout (PDF). That’s exactly why he’s one of my favourite lit crits. Unfortunately for rabid Milton fans the next lecture, “Milton: Poetry vs. Prose” by Sharon Achinstein, is scheduled all the way in May! And then it will take a whole month before it gets uploaded because those silly Cambridge people apparently have better things to do. Sigh.
  • Fence, a darn good literary magazine, is offering its annual subscription for the price you’d like to pay, starting as low as $1.00 USD. Contributions of $300 or more gets you a lifetime subscription. The offer ends at April 30th. Fancy taking them up on it? (via Chekhov’s Mistress which has the full details)

While Dorothy W.’s post Reading biographically reminded how little use I have for biographers and their books I do enjoy a nice, short interview that gives me the highlights. Sarah Crown interviews Anna Beer, the latest Milton biographer, and Beer tries to keep the focus as much as she can on Milton’s other writings outside of Paradise Lost, which I liked. I’ve developed a growing curiosity about his political writings and Beer stresses that Milton’s poetry, like his sonnets, are often exceptional. She’d like to do her part to knock down the tower the academy has erected around Milton, a situation that apparently started very soon after his death in the 17th century.

Can you believe that most people skip Boks V & VI in Paradise Lost because they’re about the battle in heaven? But I thought it was awesome! Am I really so strange? :/

Anna Beer on John Milton

The latest TLS “Commentary” included a review of Milton exhibitions being held at Oxford and Cambridge. Every time I read of another great exhibition being held at either school I sigh and moan about my decision not to apply to either of them (as if I would have gotten in anyway :P) until I chat with friends at various British universities.

Err…I’d love to link to the appropriate TLS article but I have no idea if it’s available online (probably not) because the website is acting up. But! I’ve found better. Oxford has put up podcasts of speeches and readings from the opening night at the Bodleian library! Look! Readings from Paradise Lost! Holy mackerel. There’s an online exhibition too.

Christ College at Cambridge has taken a different approach. The school’s annual Lady Margaret Lectures focuses on Milton this year and it looks as though each one will be made available as a podcast. They’re spread out throughout the year though so one must be patient. Happily, one of my favourite literary critics, Colin Burrow, will deliver his lecture on “Milton’s Singularity” on February 27. Can’t wait! In the meantime Quentin Skinner spoke about John Milton as a Theorist of Liberty. (I’ve since discovered that there’s a problem with the mp3 as the sound only travels to one side of the headphone — a situation I find too annoying to tolerate for a 51 mins lecture. Ugh.)

Various Christ College members have also created “a resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost” called Darkness Visible. I have not really poked around but it looks pretty. Instead I poked around the main page and found the actual exhibition websites. Here is Living at this Hour: John Milton 1608-2008 and Milton in the Old Library, which includes a catalogue (PDF) that offers a preview of the exhibition.

I am always on the look out for more worthwhile literary sites that take me to places I always wanted to go to or make me think about things I’d yet to consider. And to find out about more books, of course.

If you enjoy interviews with a variety of figures involved in publishing from authors to designers and publishing heads do take a hop and skip over to Nigel Beale’s Nota Bene Books. I’ve seen it pop up in Metaxucafe‘s headlines and visited occasionally but it wasn’t until Mr. Beale came along and put the interviews right in front of me (I didn’t know that he conducted interviews) that I really started to dig around.

His interviews are notable for a laconic, unscripted style that has everyone settling in nicely as gets around to tougher questions that provoke thoughtful (or sceptical) pauses or slightly uncomfortable laugh before they dig into an interesting point. I imagine that Beale starts out looking very much as he does in his site picture: slightly reclining, pencil cocked, quite harmless before a stray remark prompts to stiffen, lean forward slightly, eyes trained on the author as he says, Wait a minute, you can’t tell the readers that they read a scene incorrectly. When you’re writing it, it’s yours, when I buy it becomes mine.

Favourites so far are the ones he conducted with Kathyrn Court, President of Penguin Paperbacks and Plume for the Penguin USA division, and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. She talked about getting Chris Ware for Candide:Or, Optimism, a selection from the Penguin Classic Deluxe editions (of which I have several including the Voltaire, plus a few from the Great Ideas Series). Walcott? It won’t matter for he will win you with his potent affability and warm sense of humour. His interview was like the audio version of a hot chocolate with a touch or two of Jamaican rum. Real good stuff.

Among other literary figures Walcott mentioned in that interview was Joseph Brodsky, a very good friend of his. I don’t know much about Brodsky at all but, as now happens so regularly with the occasional book or new author I “discover”, his name started to pop up everywhere. Scott Horton posted a short piece on him over at his Harper’s Magazine blog.

Have I praised Harper’s Magazine lately? In addition to sharp, vibrant, cogent and passionate political commentary it publishes poetry and excerpts from unfailingly interesting books, new and old, whether it’s a parable published by an Argentinian worker’s co-op or a story from Marguerite Duras’ latest collection of hitherto unpublished notebooks.


I changed things up a bit. The old theme was boring me to tears. It will be easier to navigate among posts, especially those I did in parts. That’s for you anonymous searcher looking for analysis on “The Wanderer”.


For some of your novels, you’ve adopted an intellectual project — usually a poet whose work you read obsessively and integrate into the book. In Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! it’s Blake, in Somersault it’s R.S. Thomas, and in An Echo of Heaven it’s Kim Chi Ha. What purpose does this serve?


The ideas in my novels are fused with the ideas of the poets and philosophers I am reading at the time. This method has also enabled me to tell people about the writers I think are important.

When I was in my twenties, my mentor Jazuo Watanabe told me that because I was not going to be a teacher or a professor of literature, I would need to study by myself. I have two cycles: a five-year rotation, which centers on  a specific writer or thinker; and a three-year rotation on a particular theme. I have been doing that since I was twenty-five. I have had more than a dozen of the three-year periods. When I am working on a single theme, I often spend from morning to evening reading. I read everything written by that writer and all of the scholarship on that writer’s work.

If I am reading something in another language, say Eliot’s Four Quartets, I spend the first three months reading a section such as “East Coker” over and over again in English until I have it memorized. Then I find a good translation in Japanese and memorize that. Then I go back and forth between the two — the original in English and the Japanese translation — until I feel I am in a spiral that consists of the English text, the Japanese text, and myself. From there Eliot emerges.


It’s interesting that you include academic scholarship and literary theory in your reading cycles. In America, literary criticism and creative writing are, for the most part, mutually exclusive.


I respect scholars most of all. Although they struggle in a narrow space, they find truly creative ways of reading certain authors. To a novelist who thinks broadly, such insight gives a sharper way of comprehending an author’s work.

When I read scholarship on Blake or Yeats or Dante, I read it all and I pay attention to the accumulation of differences between scholars. That’s where I learn the most. Every few years a new scholar puts out a book on Dante, and each scholar has his or her own approach or method. I follow each scholar and study that way for a year. Then I follow another scholar for about a year, and so on.


How do you choose whom to study?


Sometimes it’s a natural consequence of what I have been reading. For instance, Blake led me to Yeats, which led me to Dane. Other times it’s pure coincidence. I was on a promotional tour in Great Britain, and I stopped in Wales. I was there for three days and I ran out of books to read. I went to a local bookstore and asked the person working there to recommend some books in English. He suggested a collection by a poet who was from the area but warned that the book wasn’t selling very well. The poet was R.S. Thomas, and I bought everything they had. As I read him, I realized that he was the most important poet I could be reading at that point in my life. I felt that he had a lot in common with Walter Benjamin, although they seem very different. Both are concerned with the threshold between the secular and the mystical. And then I begin to think of myself as being in a triangular relationship with Thomas and Benjamin.


It sounds like when you travel you spend most of your time in your hotel room reading.


Yes, that’s right. I do some sightseeing, but I have no interest in good food. I like drinking, but I don’t like going to bars because I get in fights.

From “The Art of Fiction” interview no. 195 with Oe Kenzaburo, The Paris Review, Winter 2007

Hello, hello. I’m a year older, today. Isn’t that something? I have a Pakistani friend who, of the same age, is warding off her parents who are busily trying to wrangle her into an arranged marriage. Age is something she often thinks about. I, on the other hand, forgot it was my birthday until I received the first phone call this morning.

I have a treat for you. A mindful Everday Yeah contributor found my blog and linked me to an interview with Jesse Ball. I first learnt of the writer earlier this year in a regular foray through the Paris Review archives. I held no assumptions about his age or literary experience then, but when I saw and read of his latest novel Samedi the Deafness I assumed it was his first and imagined that he was some young buck, one who primarily considers himself a novelist and probably didn’t have a substantial poetry portfolio yet. (I can’t help it. As much as I love poetry, novels reign by default.) I was so so wrong. Which is rather exciting because if the few poems I’ve read are representative of his work I’ll need to get one of his poetry books immediately.

Here’s an interview excerpt:

EDY: I won’t pretend to be a great scholar of the term Kafkaesque which seems to immediately put me at a disadvantage when I read your book because of all the reviews I’ve read people are quick to describe Samedi as a Kafkaesque story. I understand where they’re coming from, but in a way I’m jealous because the term is thrown around so much and I know I’ll never feel comfortable enough myself to use it when describing a work of fiction. Anyway, I ended up at Wikipedia to try and boost my knowledge on the subject, but only read the cultural references of Kafkaesque. One particular reference stood out in my mind. It’s a quote from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, “Having sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience. I mean that as a compliment.” Now, I am only a novice on the subject, but if it were up to me I would have retired the term right then and there. No one’s going to top that. Bill Watterson made a valid effort in his comic strip when he had Hobbes say that “People need goodnight smooches so they don’t get Kafka dreams,” but I feel like he took a different route entirely with the term. So, this isn’t really a question. Maybe just talk about your thoughts on Kafka. If this seems like a waste of your time please either tell me or ignore the whole thing and pretend you didn’t see this question.
JB: Kafka — too many people read him badly. You have to find the gentleness in him — the love, the comedy. And of course — his clearness.

I missed the “Kafkaesque” comparison but I quoted this bit because, if you remember, I initially passed over Samedi the first time I saw it a store display. The cover design caught my eye but the Graham Greene comparison — it was expressed awkwardly too, I think, the reviewer tried to turn it into an adjective — made me roll my eyes dismissively. (It took a Boldtype review to remind me that the author was the poet Ball.) Ball’s comments are also interesting because Kafka’s “gentleness…love and comedy” are definitely not words I’ve often seen associated with his fiction.

Everyday Yeah is worth a browse on its own. I am not one for fiction of any length on-line, but these short short pic and story pieces managed to suck me in. Their “random musings” quality, the way they sometimes concentrate on a detail and develop it, or concentrate on one for a few sentences and then leap on to another association, carry an adventurous quality. I wanted to have them on paper in a little booklet I could flip through, which is always a good sign. The book reviews are enjoyable for the writers’ voices alone (detailed criticism is not necessarily the focus), and the aphorisms are satisfyingly weird. There’s a lot to uncover there; it’s always nice to anticipate something promising.

Another site worth perusal is People Reading. Sonya Worthy once travelled through parts of North America to discover what nations got up to with books outside of home. She’s back in San Francisco but she never lost the urge to poke a bit at anyone seen reading a book. I’m a nosy person so I never get tired of finding out.

*Cheeky reference to this poem.

“I have always written essays as if they were examples of imaginative writing, as I believe them to be,” she once wrote in an autobiographical sketch.

Elizabeth Hardwick: News and Reviews from the New York Times archive

A selection of her contributions to the New York Review of Books. Few of them are available for free, but a notable one (per the NYT) is her exchange with John Cheever. I’m hoping the NYRB will free up a few of the others.

Slaves of Golconda on Sleepless Nights.

Christian Lorentzen on Hardwick’s work at Harper’s Magazine.

Hardwick in the New Yorker.

Paris Review 1985 interview:

Her home is clearly that of a writer constantly at work, and strewn throughout is a lifetime’s accumulation of furniture, objects, paintings, posters, photographs, records, heirlooms, and countless books. On either side of the living room are more books: ceiling-high shelves of histories, fiction, and poetry. It is a working library, accumulated with her late husband, the poet Robert Lowell. The daily effort to keep a large library in order has made Hardwick favor paperbacks, preferably those lightweight and storable ones that can be whipped out on a bus or an airplane—nonsmoking section—without too much fuss.

Just as there are books everywhere that indicate the life of the mind, so one frequently comes upon notebooks and notepads on the coffee table, and on the dining room table, things in which she has jotted down lines, questions, ideas. The typewriter goes from room to room, one day upstairs in her study, the next morning downstairs. And then there are the manuscripts from former as well as current students from her various writing classes, which she will read and comment on extensively.

This interview took place in her home, where she occasionally puttered, setting stray books in their places as we talked.

The Slate Magazine obit:

Literary criticism is a peculiar business…In latter years, the once-proud field has been split into two lesser parts, one occupied by the Assistant Professoriat, supplementing their incomes and their reputations with an appearance in this or that semipopular review, and the other occupied by newspaper men and women, who generally have to crank out shallow criticism by the column inch. Both camps are stocked with people who can’t write, or can’t read, and more than a few can’t do either.

Hardwick was something else: In fact, she was the best literary essayist of the last century. Better—yes—than Edmund Wilson, better than Trilling or Steiner or Sontag. She was not as broad as they were, but she was deeper, and line for line a better stylist.

Of course, I’ll now have to get that 1999 Bookforum issue to find Lewis’ review of American Fictions he mentioned further on.



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