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”.