June 19, 2015

Under The Algerian Sun: Camus and Daoud

It’s the rare writer who can pick up where Albert Camus — master of midcentury philosophy and fiction — left off in the modern classic, The Outsider (formerly translated as The Stranger). But Kamel Daoud, ...

It’s the rare writer who can pick up where Albert Camus — master of midcentury philosophy and fiction — left off in the modern classic, The Outsider (formerly translated as The Stranger). But Kamel Daoud, an Algerian journalist and writer, has done just that in his new novel, The Meursault Investigation, just released in English.

Daoud’s book renews L’Étranger as an Algerian story for everyone, an incandescent read already acclaimed in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Nation.

Maybe you read Camus’s Outsider in college — or absorbed its frank fatalism through noir or New Wave cinema, in ‘80s rock, or in the televised angst of A. J. Soprano. The book’s antihero is Meursault, a disenchanted young clerk who murders a nameless Arab on the beach at Algiers, under the weight of heat and circumstance. Unable to defend himself or show remorse, Meursault is condemned to death — and confronts the essential absurdity of the universe.

One of Matthew Richardson's illustrations of "The Outsider" for the Folio Society.

One of Matthew Richardson’s illustrations of “The Outsider” for the Folio Society.

What about the Arab, though? For many L’Étranger is a miscarriage of justice. Daoud’s project is to retrieve the victim and re-prosecute this literary crime. His novel gives Meursault’s victim a name, a history, and one angry brother living in the aftermath of both death and Independence. Our guest Adam Shatz, who profiled Daoud this spring, said the result is a unique post-postcolonial work, one that lives and seethes in a truly absurd present, shaped also by the liberators:

He turns this novel into a critique of postcolonial Algeria. He really situates the absurd in post-colonial Algeria, in a country that achieved liberation after this long and bloody war of decolonization but did not render liberty to Algerian citizens. So in a sense, he’s critiquing Camus, he’s paying tribute to Camus, and he’s appropriating the whole theme of absurdity, saying, “if anyone suffers from a predicament of absurdity, it’s not settlers like Meursault, it’s Algerians after their liberation.”

Camus and Daoud, after all, have much in common. They’re both lively men who want to make words and the ethics they describe matter in the world. Robert Zaretsky reminded us that long before Daoud took aim at Meursault, the creator walked away from his own creation:

In 1942, soon after publication of both The Stranger as well as The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote in his notebooks, “Absurdity teaches nothing.” At that moment, he joins the resistance and becomes one of the leading voices of the resistance press. Camus recognizes that there is — if not something autistic — something solipsistic about Meursault. And it’s time to move on. Yes, the world is absurd. But that’s only a diagnosis Now the time has arrived to find a cure, to find a prescription, some way out of this. In his complexity, in his elusiveness, he poses these perennial questions about life, about our responsibility towards others. Not just towards one’s mother or towards one’s lover, but towards one’s fellow human being, like the Arab who’s never named.

Like Camus, Daoud rails against religion, making him non grata in many parts of the Algeria he loves. Professor Kamran Rastegar wondered whether Daoud’s motifs, driven by overwhelming “ideological exhaustion,” resonate with the young, and often faithful, energy of Tahrir Square.

But, over the course of the program, we were reminded that religion is too narrow a target for either man. Worse than enforced piety is the everyday inhuman abstraction that justifies everything from colonialism, to “counter-terror” and its blowback, to the easy guns and bureaucratized violence favored by our own Meursaults.

Kamel Daoud dares Camus and his readers to name the victims, view their faces, and insist that black, brown, colonial, and postcolonial lives matter. In doing so, according to Judith Gurewich, Daoud goes back to “the root of existentialism,” saying, “when you kill someone, you kill a part of yourself.”

As our hour closed, Adam Shatz returned to the absurdity of suffering:

There is this shared history of suffering. …The story doesn’t end after Camus’s death. It very much continues in the lives of the victims of Meursault. That’s very much true in what we’re seeing today in things like drone killing. We are linked to these other histories. We’re not separated from them.

Field Recording: At Boston Latin, getting to know Meursault.


I learned in high school English that it’s always one of three things: man versus man, man versus society or man versus himself. On their first day as seniors at Boston Latin School, students have to reckon with all three.

Every year, Lynn Burke assigns an English translation of L’Étranger for summer reading. Camus’s classic is a mainstay of late high school and early college, but it’s heavy stuff. (In only one way does it really qualify as “beach reading.”)

When her students arrive, however, Ms. Burke says they’re ready to lead her into existential depths. They’re also ready to hear out Camus’s young, anomic protagonist. I wonder if, every September, Ms. Burke feels as happily unnerved as I did. It’s strange talking with four kids so good and poised, and yet so eager to confront meaninglessness.

Graduation was last month, and Isabelle, Anna, Sean, and Edwood are fanning out to colleges after one last Boston summer — this one probably Camus-free.

But Meursault is staying with them. What could they see in this guy and his strange conclusions? It’s not really that he helps the students confront evil, isolation, and meaningless. There will be time for all of that, and they have more immediate concerns. After a few years of explaining themselves — to parents, to teachers, this year to colleges — some of them like the idea of a man without an answer.

—Pat Tomaino.

Who’s Camus to you? A primer.

Take Alain de Botton‘s short video course on why Camus the thinker looms so large, then enjoy our podcast:

May 7, 2015

Knausgaard: The New Novel Thing

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring.In our ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring.

In our conversation, James Wood of Harvard and The New Yorker finds in Knausgaard’s patient meditations, in his small-ball Fjordic stakes, nothing less than the rhythm of eternity:

There’s nothing eloquent about the phrasing, but the simplicity and pungency and innocence of the truth-telling struck me immediately. And what I mean by that seriousness and innocence is an awareness precisely of rhythms of life and death. The sort of rhythms that the psalmist knows. You know the Psalm 121: the Lord will know your going out and your coming in. In the larger sense, the form of our life is our going out and our coming in. It seemed to me that’s absolutely a rhythm that Tolstoy knew. It’s a rhythm that Proust knew.

Meghan O’Rourke, herself a poet and memoirist of personal experience, senses tension as the Norwegian works out what we want from letters as well as life:

In Knausgaard, there is a profound question about masculinity in the contemporary age and especially in the social welfare state. At times, there’s absolutely this kind of fascist-nihilist energy… He talks about his friend reading all this anti-liberal literature and philosophy. There is a real tension in this book. I’m really curious to read the last volume, which I think contains quite a lot about Hitler in it. To me, so much of this project is about this question of where do we find value today. How does literature potentially help us or not help us do that? So, to me, the news is in that. And it has something to do with masculinity and its sense of being.

The author’s own line has been that the books themselves are embarrassing, that he would burn them if he could. Yet they served as a way to open himself up and write (and write and write) a way out of some of his deep problems with fiction. Bill Pierce, senior editor of AGNI magazine, told us the struggle nourishes a “reality hunger” in readers and writers, too:

The fiction that I’m writing now is quite different from what I was doing before precisely because it’s less concerned with external ideas, received ideas, of what ‘literary’ means. [Knausgaard’s] work is literary because of what it does, but not because of how it’s written. He gets us all asking…where does my truth really lie? It doesn’t lie in wrought sentences. He knows that we can easily lose interest. And the strange phenomenon in Knausgaard is that we don’t.

If Knausgaard inspired a “period” in fiction writing — a version of the Raymond Carver grip on the American short story — Bill Pierce thinks it “would be a time when cleverness and literary language are always put in the service of heart truths, of our deepest sense of what is it to be human and alive at this moment.”

Does that seem like what books should be doing in this moment? If you’ve read My Struggle, tell us what you made of it — and even if you haven’t read the man we’re calling ‘the Knaus’, tell us what you think makes “fiction” fiction and “literature” literary — and share what you’ve been reading instead.

 

Sheila Heti: Smash The Fiction Section
heti-sheila-how-should-a-person-be

The problem with writing a different kind of novel is that interviewers won’t stop asking you why you did it. Even so, as part of our preparation this week, I asked Sheila Heti why she wrote How Should A Person Be?, a five-year-old book, to be found in the fiction section, that’s hard to think of as “fictional”.

https://soundcloud.com/radioopensource/sheila-heti-smash-the-fiction-section

Heti tells the story of her very real friendship with a painter named Margaux, living in Toronto, both by republishing their emails and by making things up that they did together.

In Canada the book has no subtitle. Heti’s American publisher asked her to append “a novel from life”, a name Heti likes because it doesn’t really say anything (all novels evidently coming from life).

The book is much sprightlier and less morbid than any volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (which Heti reviewed in the LRB). But Heti — together in a class with Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk — did experience her own version of the feelings he describes.

She says she wrote her first book, Ticknor, with Beckett and capital-L Literature in mind. Then her head “got turned around”: she felt an aversion to artifice grow into an interest in the ‘backstage’, in the process, in the pop culture of the moment, in things thought to be unliterary: like internet porn, say. To grow up as a reader is to live in the past, she said — and that means missing a lot of what’s happening in your own moment.

In his book, How Fiction Works, James Wood argues that all fiction writers are realists in one sense. Barthelme to Breton, J. K. Rowling and Eimear McBride, they’re all trying to say something true using something false. And the same could be said of Heti and her fellow travelers. They’re still imagining things; they just imagine less or differently. Heti called it “a very grown-up thing”: the idea that novelists might use their imaginations not to go to another world, but to go deeper into this one.

—Max Larkin.

The My Struggle Soundtrack

Also, we’re rocking out this week to the music that stirred Knausgaard most during his adolescent years and beyond. Art rock, punk, and glam, mainly, from the likes of The Cure, David Bowie, and Joy Division. Our show begins with one of the My Struggle keynotes: “The Great Curve” by the Talking Heads. Here are some others we’re listening to (on repeat).

— Conor Gillies.

June 26, 2014

Revisiting David Foster Wallace’s Boston

The novelist David Foster Wallace has resurfaced on film and in our radio archive, so we’re revisiting one of our favorite shows of the year this week: “Infinite Boston,” a tribute to Wallace's magnum opus "Infinite Jest" and its roots in Cambridge and Brighton. We dug up the famous Connection interview with Wallace from the spring of 1996, in which Wallace spoke about the book, Boston AA meetings, the lonely and lost Generation X, and his place in U.S. literature.

The novelist David Foster Wallace has resurfaced on film and in our radio archive, so we’re revisiting one of our favorite shows of the year this week: “Infinite Boston,” a tribute to Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest and its real-life roots in Cambridge and Brighton.

The actor Jason Segel will don the famous bandana on the big screen later this year for The End of the Tour. A few weeks ago Sotheby’s sold off a small lot of personal and private letters Wallace wrote to his friend J.T. Jackson during the worst years of his life. And, burying the lead, we dug up the famous Connection interview with Wallace from the spring of 1996, when he was back in town on a book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace talked with Chris about the book, Boston AA meetings, the lonely and lost Generation X, and his place in U.S. literature.

Our show this winter featured an audio tour of Wallace’s Boston with the local raconteur and Wallace expert Bill Lattanzi, interviews with his biographer D. T. Max, the editor and writer Sven Birkerts, and a conversation with Lattanzi and Deb Larson, Wallace’s friend and mentor at the halfway house where Wallace lived during those heartbreaking Boston years.

9157-lot-150-David-Foster-Wallace_2

A sad, sweet postcard from Wallace to J.T. Jackson from 1990. The front showed “A Foggy Day In Boston, Massachusetts”.

Thanks again to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.

Image credit: Richard Burrbridge/Rolling Stone.

Podcast • November 1, 2013

Nicholson Baker Writes a Protest Song

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies. Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in ...

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies.

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

Nicholson Baker‘s voice has a blushing transparency that will make you lean in here. He’s made a brilliant career out of a writer’s stray wit and the sparkling streams of one man’s mind. “His sentences have more pixel density than those of any living novelist,” Dwight Garner beams in the Times. Like his model John Updike, Baker is a champion noticer. In our conversations, and in his porniad House of Holes, he’s also magnetized by sex and very funny, too. But he’s political, as Updike declined to be. Baker gave us a brave and studious case for pacifism in Human Smoke, his pointillistic history of World War 2. And now in Traveling Sprinkler he emerges, through his fictional hero Paul Chowder, as a song-writer and (about time!) a fantasy radio guy and a podcaster.

Nick Baker introduced Paul Chowder four years ago in The Anthologist as a “confessional poet of a sort,” an often blocked writer of an introduction to a compiliation called Only Rhyme. In Traveling Sprinkler — lawn hardware making its circuitous path around the green landscape of his obsessions — Paul Chowder turns out to be less melodic than Cole Porter, less memorable than Tracy Chapman or Leonard Cohen. But the disarmed and endearing voice of Nicholson Baker is giving us the sense of a necessary human experiment (for all of us) and an homage to the triumphs of the masters:

It’s hard to sing, because when you sing as a writer you have lots of little squirrely black shapes on the page to hide behind. It’s of course very open and confessional but you have that nice scrim; you’re behind this shield of the 26 letters. But when you sing the words with your own voice with all of its own imprecisions and its desire to lose the pitch and all that stuff, it is so naked and so frightening… Music is so instantly graspable, and yet so mysterious. It’s so subtle and complicated; a slight change in harmony, a choice of doubling up a particular instrument, of adding a little reverb — all these things can change the texture of a moment so much. Yet all of them are entirely beyond speech. There’s no way you can codify or even talk about them verbally. So they’re in that way puzzling but also entertaining. All you’re trying to do if you’re writing a song is make something beautiful in some way — at least something that some one can tap his or her foot to — maybe dance around the room or sing along with, that someone will respond in a positive way…

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

You can try this out and home. And you can look for inspiration to Nicholson Baker’s Protest Songs on YouTube.

Podcast • November 16, 2011

David Grossman: looking for an end of “the situation”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg) David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg)

David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ominously long time.

Patriot and peacenik, critical-thinker and oppositionist, Zionist and humanist, David Grossman is a good guy, and then some. I feel grace, something like nobility, in his presence as in his prose. One knows that his son Uri was killed, age 20, at war in Lebanon in 2006, when David Grossman was in the thick of writing To the End of the Land, his epic novel of 21st Century Israel. But the nobility of suffering is not what I’m looking for or feeling as much as the steady brave honesty of the inquiries that David Grossman undertook even before Uri was born — of the unrelenting question “What happened to us?” as he put it almost a quarter century ago. The Yellow Wind, translated into English in 1988, was his non-fiction examination of the brutal, brutalizing occupation of the West Bank. “I could not understand,” he wrote, “how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched… The history of the world proves that the situation we preserve here cannot last for long. And if it lasts, it will exact a deadly price.”

David Grossman has seen more deeply into the Middle East nightmare, and been seared by it more than most of us could bear. And still I’m unclear after our long conversation here whether his brilliant penetration of the madness has equipped him and us to find a way out.

The basic Grossman diagnosis in The Yellow Wind was that by the 1980s, Palestinians and Israelis were living under a curse “placed on both peoples — the curse of self-destruction, the curse of the fear of peace.” Both parties are much worse off today, he tells me: programmed to hate and now paralyzed to help themselves — deeply damaged, disabled people, desperate for outside intervention. This is the strong case for putting the Middle East into locked-up receivership. But don’t we also keep seeing the power that paralyzed people develop to fend of their best friends?

Can we imagine a peace “contract” fair enough, and political leaders dedicated enough, to create a ten-year interval of stability that would begin to change hearts? Or must changes of heart come first? How many more “wars for peace” can we rationalize, like the Second Lebanon War? And how should we apply the curious strategy that David Grossman has contrived in To the End of the Land for his heroine Ora, as a means of distancing herself from the madness, “the general almost eternal conflict” that has engulfed her for 40 years? With the help of her Palestinian driver, Ora dutifully, grudgingly delivers her son to his Army unit for an extended tour of duty. “Don’t hurt anyone… and don’t get hurt,” she admonishes the boy, and then she deliberately disappears in a long hiking tour of the Galilee. Her thought is that no bad news about her son can be delivered if she cannot be found to receive it.

It’s important to David Grossman that President Obama is reported to have read To the End of the Land on vacation last summer, but I am still figuring how the book might instruct him. Barack Obama remains for David Grossman the one figure on the political landscape with the “contradictory capacities” to present a transformative vision of peace to the Middle East and at the same time rescue two damaged peoples from a trap of their own making.

Podcast • October 19, 2011

Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes: a Porniad

How quaint, just months ago, talking with Nicholson Baker about his inside-poetry novel, The Anthologist, to suppose his idle moments were consumed with Swinburne’s rhymes and the march time of Kipling’s four-beat lines. In truth ...

How quaint, just months ago, talking with Nicholson Baker about his inside-poetry novel, The Anthologist, to suppose his idle moments were consumed with Swinburne’s rhymes and the march time of Kipling’s four-beat lines. In truth the happy horndog inside this sportive, omnidirectional, irresistible prose guy was fantasizing a sex theme park, a House of Holes, and compiling a new book of Bakerisms to name the moving parts in the park: “his united parcel,” “her snatch patch,” “his Pollock,” “her shimmering chickenshack,” “his pulsing hellhound” and her ecstatic scream: “Ice my cake, dickboys. I want to feel like a breakfast pastry.” And then, when the tipping point arrives, “his Malcolm Gladwell.”

But then how clever of Nicholson Baker to have sensed the opening, or found the island, in the tsunami of Internet porn for no-fault sex as sunny and funny as he is — “good porn,” so to speak, which to Baker’s taste is kinky but consensual; it’s all hetero, but “almost hermaphroditic” in its relentless fairness to the female POV. It says something about the culture or about Baker’s gift that he has finessed the feminist objection. The Marquis de Sade let his imagination run and found immortality in that nasty word “sadism.”

John Updike, no matter the lyricism of his explorations, was tagged a “phallocrat” and worse. But when Nicholson Baker blows the wad of his imagination in House of Holes, Katie Roiphe volunteers over lunch to “protect” him; she’d never imagined sitting in a restaurant “with someone as decent and thoughtful and gentlemanly as Nicholson Baker.” Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books says House of Holes lives in “a magic circle of wholesomeness.” She concluded it would be salutary for her kids, and yours, to read it: “House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur. You can be sure that no matter what scene your children are masturbating to, they are not objectifying women. But you will have to make sure that they accidentally stumble on it soon, before they find the Internet, if they are to have a fighting chance at being wholesome and delightful fuckers instead of hopelessly depraved ones like yourself.” Janet Maslin likes it, too.

Our conversation may be your only chance to hear Nick Baker read from House of Holes, a book of raunch, which wasn’t written for the radio circuit. Listen carefully and you can hear him blushing. And laughing. And defending “my sacred Faulknerian duty,” as he said “to put it on the page. And I did.”

We’ve all got these layers of self, and a period where you think, well, I’m just going to give myself over to whatever it is — to learning how to drive, or drawing a tree, or the history of war. But there are just times of your life where you think well, I’m just really going to think really hard about, I’m really going to fill my mind with the most graphic, interesting sexual imagery I can possibly find, I’m going to really go overboard with that. At least that’s what happens to me. Isn’t the job of a novelist to be true to all of these different rooms in the house of fiction? All these different places? All those things happen, so isn’t the job of the novelist to include them all, and to kind of confront everyone with the fact that life that is confusingly kaleidoscopic?

Nicholson Baker with Chris Lydon at Upstairs on the Square, Cambridge, MA. October 2011.

Podcast • May 17, 2011

Teju Cole: A “Seething Intelligence” on a Long Journey

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States.

 

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States. It’s not just the quick resumé that reminds you of Rana Dasgupta — who was born and educated in England, then returned to his father’s country, India, to write stories and the novel Solo, set in the everywhere/nowhere of Bulgaria. Both writers — friends and mutual admirers, both in their mid-thirties — seem to have undertaken a project without borders. Cole tells me he likes to see himself evaluating a scene, he says, like an detective in a cop show: “What have we got here?” First, he looks; then he starts digging. History is the new geography, even at Ground Zero in Manhattan:

This was not the first erasure on the site… The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased and rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furst and timber of the island and its calm bay. Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories…

The narrator “Julius” at the World Trade Center site, in Open City by Teju Cole. Random House, 2011. p. 59

Teju Cole in conversation is sprightly, almost ecstatically musical, well-read and warm. He spins, riffs, notices and links — much as he does on the page. On an effulgent May afternoon in New York we are sitting on the grass, as it happens, before the brick row houses around Henry James’s Washington Square Park. Talk about palimpsests! And Teju Cole, feeling “more alive than on other days,” is peering through the layers and disguises of the scene, picking out evidences of his “open city” transformed.

What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…

This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.

Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.

Teju Cole is opening up, too, about the music that’s written into Open City — for example, the pattern of “doublings” (as in instrumental voices) of characters and cities, themes and phrases (like the air of a man “who had undertaken long journeys”) that recur in different rhythms and harmonies, so to speak. In particular, Gustav Mahler is another of those “vanished” who inhabit Teju Cole’s present and obsess his character Julius, a psychiatry resident about to start his clinical practice. Mahler (death centennial next year) was himself drawn to the “open city” of New York in a tormented late act of a great composing-conducting career. He was, Cole writes, “the genius of prolonged farewells,” in a long series of “final statements,” up to his unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Mahler’s music flows somewhere under Cole’s elegiac novel — “a story,” he calls it, “of mourning, for the feeling this city carried with itself after 9.11.” But what is it, I wonder, we are still bidding farewell? “It’s as if,” Cole says, “after 9.11 we entered a new phase in the life of this civilization. But I think it was also clear that it was the end of something… There’s a strong goodbye element in this novel, too.” The last chapter of the book, we’re noting, has three endings: one at Carnegie Hall, in a Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s Ninth; another in a view of the stars over Manhattan; the last in a harbor-cruise view of the Statue of Liberty.

There are two “open cities,” it turns out, in Teju Cole’s novel. Julius travels in search of his German mother to Belgium. Brussels is the city which gave Hitler’s troops free passage in World War II and preserved its medieval design but which, by 2006, is half-paralyzed by dread of Muslim immigrants. Brussels is where Julius meets his own double, a Moroccan Islamist of “seething intelligence,” a phone-store clerk who wants to be Edward Said when he grows up. And then there is Brussels’ “double,” New York, open to the deadbeat and the driven, thriving on perpetual renewal, and “saturated with the ominous energies” of its inherited past.

But then a student delighted Teju Cole on a school visit with the thought that his invention Julius — a solitary walker and cool, catalytic conversationalist with a stunning variety of New Yorkers — is himself the Open City.

Teju Cole’s last word with us — very much in that Open City spirit — was about the work ahead: first, a non-fiction account of Lagos (another “doubling,” it seems, of Rana Dasgupta’s work in progress on New Delhi) and then another novel:

“It’s simmering very softly below the surface. I don’t know what it’ll be. I don’t know where it’ll go. But I am going to have to confront Ulysses. We can’t keep pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t keep writing 19th Century novels, you know. We can’t pretend that that amazing unexploded ordnance of a book did not happen.” On the other side of Washington Square Park we hear sounds of kids cheering. “And in the far distance,” Teju Cole closed, as if on cue, “people applaud that idea. So I take it as a sign from the gods.”

Podcast • April 7, 2011

Téa Obreht’s Tale of the War Zone: The Tiger’s Wife

Tea Obreht thinks out loud. She laughs with sunny abandon. She digresses. She actually listens to a reader’s puzzles. She parses the finely-wrought text of The Tiger’s Wife for us with authority but also curiosity, ...

Tea Obreht thinks out loud. She laughs with sunny abandon. She digresses. She actually listens to a reader’s puzzles. She parses the finely-wrought text of The Tiger’s Wife for us with authority but also curiosity, delight, discovery. Tea Obreht’s conversation has the precocious free flow and solid substance her writing does. But let’s not be misled by her light touch: the
first novel by this young woman from the Balkans is about the landscape of permanent war — the very geography of tribal and personal violence — and the stories we make up to navigate it. Her writing is in touch with hell, just as she is surely in touch with Dostoevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov, the nihilist Ivan suggests to his baby brother Alyosha, the soulful seminarian, that his own dark view of life is rooted in what he’s heard about the Slavic reaches of the Ottoman Empire — about a part of the world Tea Obreht is contemplating a century later:

They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it…

From “Rebellion,” Chapter 4 of Part II, Book V of The Brothers Karamazov

The spirit of mayhem seems to flow out of the ground in Tea Obreht’s landscape. “The diggers” make the point anecdotally in The Tiger’s Wife. In an elderly couple’s backyard vineyard, a peasant clan turns up and starts shoveling. Eventually their leader explains that in wartime a dozen years earlier he’d buried a cousin there and that the unsolemnized death was now making his children sick. So they exhume a smelly suitcase full of bones and perform last rites of a sort on the cousin’s heart. But everywhere in The Tiger’s Wife the dead haunt the living. And so rises rumor, and then gossip, which matures into folklore and fables.

The paired stories on which Tea Obreht has built The Tiger’s Wife are told by an older doctor to his grand-daughter; they are presented in turn as the framework in which the man invented his life. The first, a sort of fable, involves a tiger that escaped the city zoo during the German bombing in 1941, and settled in the forest ridge near grandfather’s town when he was an impressionable lad of 12. The second invention is a Deathless Man who keeps showing up in the grandfather’s life, making it his odd business to tell people clearly when they are about to die. “So they can prepare,” he says. “I do not direct the passage — I just make it easier.” The tiger seems to represent to grandfather an escape from reality, the Deathless Man a reconciliation with it.

I think that story-telling and myth-making are a huge part of the book and that it became very obvious fairly early on that that was what the book was going to center on. I think that in the book, and perhaps in life, stories are a way for people to get through very difficult situations, and I certainly did not want to focus on the realities of the war, but the way people tell themselves about something after the fact.

That is, the way people perhaps think about their own lives and the lives of loved ones, and even the lives of strangers in order to make themselves see that person in a particular light, how that light changes when you learn something else that you perhaps didn’t know about an individual, and how our beliefs change through stories, and what stories we’re willing to believe at different times in our lives. I think that all came together. Of course I can say this after the fact, like I really knew what I was doing during it.

Téa Obreht with Chris Lydon, April 6, 2011.

Podcast • February 8, 2011

Rana Dasgupta: This Era of Catastrophe and Euphoria

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb him, about life and art. One is the sadness, loss, defeat and disorder that every new order creates — notably including globalization in our era, seen from anything other than the perspective of “mobile money.” Just as compelling somehow is his contrary theme: the flood of human energy and the reckless, irresistibly fascinating “ballistic” speed of innovation and change.

Dasgupta’s real-surreal novel Solo (reviewed here, here and here) won the Commonwealth Prize in London last year. It was singled out by Salman Rushdie, no less, for its “exceptional, astonishing strangeness.” What strikes me in conversation, however, with the astonishing news bursting in from Egypt as we speak, is how familiarly the book and author resonate with events. The sudden contagion of rebellious courage and confidence in dusty, despotic old Cairo fits neatly into the Dasgupta frame of life.

Solo is a novel in two “movements.” The first is a deft, elliptical recounting of the 20th Century from the far backstage of events. It is the mostly sorry tale of Ulrich, an obscure Bulgarian chemical engineer, blind, lonely and blue in in Sofia, in the 100th year of his life. It’s the tale, too, of Bulgaria’s 20th Century devolution from the Ottoman Empire through monarchy, then fascism, then Soviet Communism, then crony capitalism and cheapo turismo. Out of the ruins, so to speak, burst Ulrich’s gaudy “daydreams” of New York, Los Angeles and the global century in the second half of the novel. Boris — a violinist fantasized by Ulrich into world stardom — is an orphan inspired by Gypsy culture and a musical genius on the order of the mythic Orpheus. But the power to imagine Boris and his music is an expression of Ulrich’s hidden genius, too, part of the life he never got to live.

The book itself is an attempt to think about what global culture would be like, which is not to say a culture without any roots, without any human feeling to it. It’s not some sort of digital abstract culture; it is a highly felt culture which in a way tries to restore the human perspective, the human duration into this thing that we call globalization…

I have ambiguous feelings about globalization: I would want my work, and my life, to to be absolutely in this moment that we are living, absolutely conscious of it and aware of it, but, at the same time, to be highly cynical of it and to be deeply in touch with the eternal human story, never to lose sight of the myths, the enormous human resources that have got us this far. I guess I would be highly ambivalent, try to remain fully conscious of the enormous catastrophe we are living through. But never to play down either the enormous excitement and euphoria that modern life offers – of moving through time at this level of change…

One does also have to think about the people who can speak for this global system… the aristocracy of this system, the people who have this kind of effortless movement around it, who celebrate its values, and often who live in places that give them the sense of a rather serene system… They’re kind of in the idylls of global capitalism. Of course that’s not the only experience of it. At the rock-face of it, this system feels like the most destructive system ever to exist. And that turbulence is the weak point of this system… My novel is to some extent about that. It’s about entropy, it’s about the feeling that the creation of order always creates a greater amount of disorder around it. For the people who live in the midst of that disorder, the people who feel themselves to be part of that disorder, it’s a very very different kind of world.

The place to feel and contemplate our 21st Century condition, Rana Dasgupta is saying, might not be
Davos, say, but better the ravaged Congo.

Podcast • August 17, 2010

Real India: Novelist Paul Zacharia Shares His "Confusion"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Paul Zacharia. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3) Paul Zacharia is a novelist and story writer eminent in the Malayalam language and in Trivandrum, the southernmost big city in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Paul Zacharia. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Paul Zacharia is a novelist and story writer eminent in the Malayalam language and in Trivandrum, the southernmost big city in India and the capital of the famously progressive state of Kerala. In our conversations, Paul Zacharia stands for the many beloved Indian sages who for one reason or another have escaped universal celebrity. At home he is acknowledged as “non-conformist and unorthodox to the core;” his fiction marked by “a deep sense of humor, experiments in craft and narrative techniques, and an unsentimental prose.” When I called to ask if we could talk some “about the new India,” he readily agreed to “share my confusion,” as he said, about what his country is going through.

In his downtown apartment, under a monsoon downpour, Paul Zacharia is a cheerful spirit with a dissident turn of mind and a variety of opinions he shares freely. The New India is more poor than rich, he noted at the outset, but the growth is real and the cultural shifts will endure. Though left of center of himself, he does not mourn the collapse of “Nehru Socialism” — “just a slogan,” he argues, long useful to a ruling clique, as in many Communist countries. The “Maoist” label on the tribal rebellion in the eastern states of India “doesn’t mean a thing — they could call themselves Christians, or Jesus men or whatever, but the cause is just.”

He turns both sweet and sour on his egalitarian, persistently Communist home state Kerala. It was blessed 50 years ago with a perfect storm of reform movements that ended “feudalism” in the region. But the Communists who took power became corrupt, inefficient, heartless — “like any other political party.” A certain stagnation in education as well as politics in Kerala is driving the best of the younger generations to work and grow in Europe, the Gulf and the U.S. Their remittances are what keeps Kerala afloat.

About Americans he is affectionate one moment, astringent another. Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and James Thurber are writers he keeps rereading, in his pantheon with Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. Barack Obama seems “just a puppet of all the people who pull the strings in the US.” The war on terror? A ruling-class “industry.”

Zacharia takes up my suggestion that India will never see a social revolution:

I think the last revolution we saw was Mahatma Gandhi mobilizing the people against the British. After that, there is no cause out there: a single point of belief, a single ideal, and a great man who can hold up that ideal and say ‘Look at me, I am truthful, I am honest, I am transparent, I have nothing to hide and this is the ideal we shall follow.’ There is no such person after Gandhi. I doubt such a person can come up in the present kind of politics — I’m sure there are individuals, hundreds, maybe thousands, lakhs of individuals in India who have that mind. But they will never be able to come to the top and lead the people in the political system that we right now have here. So the revolution is impossible. The Communist party attempted it and failed miserably, in fact shamefully.

I will say the only revolution that keeps occurring is the revolution the voter creates every five years. That keeps democracy intact. Every five years there is a revolution in India, and that is very close to half a billion people going to the polling booth and putting his vote in. That is a silent revolution and that keeps this whole place going.

The people we elect are indifferent, inefficient and useless. But they keep democracy in place.

Paul Zacharia in conversation with Chris Lydon in Trivandrum, India. July, 2010