Thursday, April 27, 2017

A life in Writign / Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem
I life in writing

Jonathan Lethem: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a dark writer, but this is utterly different’

The American novelist on writing horror, how Occupy gave capitalism back its name and the thunderbolt that has hit US politics

Paul Laity
Friday 10 February 2017 12.00 GMT

he Blot, Jonathan Lethem’s noirish new novel, centres on Alexander Bruno, a suave tuxedo-wearing gambler: “he’d been told he resembled Roger Moore, or the bass player from Duran Duran”. He travels the world, playing high-stakes games, taking rich men’s money in clubs and private dining rooms; such is his reputation and air of “ruined glamour” it is almost a privilege to lose against him. The reader first encounters this “weird sad gorgeous man” travelling to a mansion outside Berlin; halfway through the game that follows, a half-naked woman appears in a zippered leather mask offering tiny sandwiches.

His German opponent calls Bruno a “man of mystery”. During another game, cocaine-fuelled and played in Raffles hotel in Singapore, a woman drapes her arms over his shoulders and stage-whispers: “She told me you looked like James Bond, but I didn’t believe it.” Bruno seems content merely to perform being himself, not to have an interior. Yet Lethem’s hero is, even at the burlesque beginning of this entertaining novel, unlike 007 in at least two obvious ways: first, rather than poker, he plays backgammon; and second, he has begun to suffer a problem with his vision, a blind spot – he calls it “the blot” – and it spells his downfall. On a backgammon board, a “blot” is a piece that stands alone, vulnerable to attack.
Lethem, who is best known for the novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, initially thought of making his protagonist a poker player, but decided it was too much of a cliche. Besides, as Bruno says, “backgammon’s beauty was its candidness. In contrast to poker, there were no hidden cards.” As in poker, the betting involves bullying, but as in chess, what’s on the board is undeniable. All of which played into what Lethem says is his “fascination with the problem of superficiality. All I have of you is your mask, the enactment of you … All I can offer you is the one that I’m wearing.” After Bruno undergoes a major operation that involves rebuilding his handsome, expressionless face, he takes to wearing a medical mask (that is, merely a different kind of mask) at all times.
Lethem is a renowned stylist who turns out funny, exuberant, surprising sentences, and who has a deep love of genre fiction. He reread the novels of Graham Greene when planning the novel – “as I kid I revered him” – and Bruno’s escapades in Singapore have a nicely colonial Greene-ish feel. “He writes about men spiralling into disgrace; it connects to this book,” Lethem says. When we talk in his office at Pomona College, southern California, I ask him if The Blot, which is shorter and less ambitious than some other of his novels, is akin to a Greene “entertainment”.
The answer is complicated. He began the book while on a sabbatical in Berlin – he teaches creative writing – when he was in a very “cleared-out space”, having just finished two big projects. The first was Dissident Gardens, his superb fictional engagement with three generations of leftwing activists in New York: it begins with the American communist party in the 1950s, takes in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk revival and the 1970s Sandinista revolutionary movement, and ends with Occupy. Lethem based it on the experiences of his grandmother and his own upbringing among countercultural radicals in a Brooklyn commune – his mother was a 1960s folk singer who died when he was 13.

Dissident Gardens had invoked a lot of ghosts,” he says. “This made it most similar, as a writing experience, to The Fortress of Solitude” – a novel that draws on his childhood in a poor neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where he was one of few white kids attending the local school. “I felt I was doing some witnessing.”
The second “giant weight off my back” was his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, a book that tackles, among other subjects, his college years alongside Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis at Bennington College, Vermont (“Bret stood perfectly for what outraged me at that school, and terrified me, too, the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame. It was inconvenient that I liked him.”). It catalogues his passions and influences, from Marvel superheroes to Bob Dylan to Barbara Pym; the bravura title essay, a defence of artistic appropriation, is composed entirely of sentences lifted from other sources. For Lethem that book too was “about legacy and burdens and accounting for myself”.

After all this, The Blot was “a conscious attempt to get back to a more straightforward storytelling”; it is mostly “disburdened of social ethical frameworks”. Even so, he didn’t set out to lighten the mood with an “entertainment”: “it’s simply the book I wanted to write next”. Now that he has so many novels under his belt, and is part of the hip literary establishment – the Colson WhiteheadMichael ChabonJennifer Egan generation – it would be “easy to fall in with entrancing myths of my trajectory”. But “there’s no plot”, and he’s always wanted to write different kinds of books: “I’ve been around long enough for people to endure my zigzags, my careening.”
The blot itself is not only a backgammon piece, and what turns out to be a tumour behind Bruno’s face, but stands for “what you can’t see and can’t know. The thing at the centre of your vision – yourself. The mystery of consciousness.” In other words, the blot exists in the “realm of the symbolical or metaphorical”. It’s thus comparable to Lack, the hole in the universe, in his early “boy-meets-girl-meets-void” campus novel As She Climbed Across the Table; and to the magic ring Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude discover in The Fortress of Solitude; also to the “chaldron” in his later semi-surrealist novel Chronic City. The symbol “exfoliates”, Lethem says, “it keeps meaning different things – and for me, that’s the gold, that’s what I’m after”. He refers, in a typical cascade of inspirations, to the castle in Kafka, the golden bowl in Henry James and the Hitchcockian object, the MacGuffin, that is both everything and nothing.
In one sense, The Blot enters new territory for its author. Its centrepiece is a wincingly intricate description of the surgery performed on Bruno by a Jimi Hendrix-obsessed California surgeon. There’s a hint, too, that the story ends with the gambler descending into the underworld. “It’s my first horror novel,” he claims. “I like Poe, and creepy Philip K Dick novels and David Cronenberg movies, and I’ve always thought of myself as a dark writer, but this is utterly different.”
In other ways, however, the novel returns to familiar Lethem themes. When Bruno travels to the San Francisco Bay Area for his operation, he is forced to recall his childhood in Berkeley and his absent mother, a countercultural dropout. As a struggling writer, Lethem spent 10 years working in bookshops in the university city (“Berzerkely”, as one character has it), and he uses his local expertise when tackling two other favourite subjects – toxic real estate developers and the hazards of gentrification.

A recuperating Bruno, masked and unmoored, gets mixed up with anarchist protests, in which he joins with Berkeley students. It’s another unfolding of Lethem’s interest in challenging politics, and I ask him about Occupy Wall Street, which he visited and addressed in 2011, two years before the publication of Dissident Gardens. “It might sound ridiculous but it changed my life. I had displaced my own left thinking into the past and it made me realise that was lazy and indulgent … It gave capitalism back its name, so you could be an anti-capitalist in America again. Bernie Sanders was utterly the product of that.”
In Dissident Gardens, Lethem reflects, he was trying to get at “an anti-capitalist form of Americanism”, the idea of “left desire, the hunger for something you can’t see in front of you, the sense that the world is not enough”. Occupy was never “a thing in quarantine, coming from nowhere and then laughably disappearing into nothing … we are walking around changed. Because of what was embodied in that moment, left desire unfroze.”
As a parallel, Lethem mentions the insight of the theorist Laurence Rickels that the election in 2008 of Barack Obama wasn’t, as is sometimes thought, the end of the civil rights era, but the opposite – in the late 60s, the whole question of race was merely frozen, unfinished and unresolved. Obama’s presidency represented its restarting, not least with the rise of Black Lives Matter. The moment of its suspension “was what, as a child in the inner city in the early 70s, I was an intimate witness to,” Lethem continues. “That’s what The Fortress of Solitude deals with.”

The novelist feels that he too absorbed the belief that the issue of race had been taken care of, that the future would be “post-racial”. And yet “African Americans were still the underclass, living in these disastrous quarantines and housing projects”. There was so much left undone, but people decided to pretend all was well. “The cognitive dissonance was immense. It’s why we have such a racist America right now.”
Lethem insists he has no special insight into the Trump phenomenon, though he has been in a “fever to understand”: “I’ll read my way out of this somehow!” He feels it’s important to recognise that Trump represents “not something that just happened, a thunderbolt that broke our reality. The reason it is so vertiginous is that it is an unmasking of things that were gravely wrong on all kinds of levels.”
Jonathan Lethem

“That’s not to say that Trump’s daily behaviour isn’t distractingly creepy, that it’s not a stark contrast to the classy, poised, easy-to-identify-with vibe that we were getting off Obama. But it’s not just a before and after.” Part of any way forward is to look to “the giant unconscious beneath the surface” of the “rational experience of politics and history”. As a writer, Lethem feels he should be an “honest witness, recording my own reactions” to the ongoing administration of the “craven, gold-plated Ponzi-capitalist”. It is no accident that the action of the novel he is currently writing – about a New Yorker pulled to southern California – is set at the moment of Trump’s victory.
Lethem has been teaching at Pomona since 2011. When I bring up Lionel Shriver’s address last year on cultural appropriation, he says his students alerted him to it, and explains carefully why he thinks the tone of her intervention made it “a disaster area”. “The ground she’s claiming is the ground I live on – writing about other people than myself – and I should feel that she bravely fought for who and what I am.” But he “didn’t want to be spoken for” on her terms.
“I hope that if my students chose to pick up The Fortress of Solitude, and were reading the chapters written from the point of view of the [African-American] singer Barrett Rude Jr, they wouldn’t see it as being any different from the extraordinary way that James Baldwin writes about – and from the point of view of – his white characters in Another Country.
“Now,” Lethem continues, “the immediate response to this is: wait a minute, you and Baldwin don’t have equal privilege, so it’s not the same act.” But what is crucial, Lethem insists, is “the ethical freight that comes with my understanding that Baldwin made his gesture from a different place, and then finding it possible to make my gesture anyway”. It’s by no means “a simple thing”; other people’s needs have to be deeply considered. It’s far from “putting on a Mexican hat” (as Shriver did, giving her speech), and “making fun of people … it’s a day-to-day, moment-by-moment, line-by-line” process, “created by love, not created by defiance”. He pauses and says he’s in danger of welling up. “It’s created by humbling yourself.”
Lethem’s predecessor in his Pomona College chair was David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008. “When I got here it was still fresh; colleagues taught with him and were still suffering from the wrenching experience. It was like I was the triage on a still open wound … or a Henry James short story – a great man heavily present in his absence, and you were trying to figure out what his message was for you.”

Being appointed as Foster Wallace’s successor was another indication of Lethem’s growing prestige. It’s many years since he worked in those Berkeley bookshops, a little-known writer producing the kind of spirited pastiche now seen again in the opening of The Blot. As “a middle-aged novelist”, he thinks back to the days when he would excitedly discover a new writer, and read all their novels and essays in rapid succession – “it was like I was skeletonising the body of work; I was the piranhas”. These days, he worries for those admirers or reviewers rushing their way through the entire shelf of his books: under such circumstances, “I wouldn’t want to read all of me”.
 The Blot is published by Jonathan Cape.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A life in writing / Donna Leon

Donna Leon

A life in writing

Donna Leon: Why I became an eco-detective writer

On the 25th anniversary of her first crime novel, the Commissario Brunetti author reveals how she is responding to dark times

Susanna Rustin
Saturday 15 April 2017 11.00 BST

ultured, shrewd, honest and fit Commissario Guido Brunetti – the more-or-less-ideal man who is the hero of Donna Leon’s hugely successful series of 26 detective novels set in Venice – begins her latest book Earthly Remains by faking a heart attack. Pushed beyond his limits in an interview with a high-end lawyer suspected of a crime, and who he believes his favourite junior colleague, Pucetti, is about to punch, Brunetti gasps for breath, collapses on his friend and ends up on the floor.

It is a wild gesture by the policeman who is more often in elegantly attired control. But it is characteristic, too, in that chivalry and protectiveness – both for the lawyer’s young female victim and for his younger colleague – are the immediate cause. Brunetti, as this novel opens, can’t take any more.
“I think he’s got darker, he’s more bothered by things,” says Leon, asked whether she thinks her creation – who has admirers ranging from Ursula Le Guin to Theresa May among millions of readers in 35 countries – has changed over time. This year marks the 25th anniversary of her first Brunetti novel, and Leon, who will be 75 in September, is full of enthusiasm for life.
Brunetti, she points out, is still the same guy: “He reads, he has a sense of humour and irony, he’s happily married, he has nice kids and a decent life, I knew when I first wrote about him that I wanted him to be someone I like.” But he is not immune to the wickedness and venality that surround him, and we have seen him investigate dozens of murders in plots that, with their historical, watery settings, sometimes feel closer to fairytale than police procedural.
His shortlived breakdown, Leon thinks, is linked to a shift in herself. “It’s because I’ve become darker,” she says. “I come of happy people and am by nature a happy person, I wake up cheerful and go to bed cheerful but intellectually my vision is very bleak.”
Donna Leon in Venice, where she spends a week each month

It turns out that the predatory lawyer and his young victim, who might have been the centre of another story, are here not the point. The moral corruption of the city is not what is bothering Leon. Instead, it is the corruption of the lagoon. The first suspicious deaths Brunetti stumbles on, once he has been packed off to recover on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo, are those of bees. Earthly Remains – already praised in the New York Times as “one of her best” – marks Leon’s coming-out as a writer of eco-detective fiction.
“I don’t care about politics except how it will have an impact on ecology. It seems to me that more and more people in positions of power have decided they won’t concern themselves with it; that global warming is inconvenient and so they won’t talk about it. People with kids, I’m surprised they aren’t armed. I cannot understand the passivity of people in the face of this … I get agitated.”
Leon sounds agitated. A spry, slim figure, she talks and jokes animatedly – about opera, philanthropy, US and Italian politics, how Venice has changed in the decades since she moved there, her charmed life: “It’s enjoyable because it was nothing I ever wanted – I was never driven or taught ambition as a kid. My parents just said ‘go get a good education, have a decent life and have fun’, which was miraculously visionary for people in 1950s America.”
But Leon, whose Spanish name is her paternal grandfather’s – her other grandparents were Irish and German – has a social conscience. Her parents, who were Catholics, taught her that to vote Republican was a mortal sin and her new novel is dedicated to the liberal US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Donna Leon in Venice

It turns out they are friends, having met when Leon took the judge and her husband Marty out to dinner in Venice as a favour, after learning that Marty was a fan.
Now she writes Ginsburg letters, “because it’s the only place you can write things and nobody is going to know what you say. She’s all that’s between us and them,” she adds. “I have such respect and love for her and I would have those feelings as an American even if I didn’t know her. She’s so brave and so smart.”
Leon stopped reading news online the day after Trump’s inauguration, and now gets her information from a variety of print sources including “my bible” – the regional daily newspaper Il Gazzettino. She supported Hillary Clinton and looks startled when I ask which Democrat she wanted to go up against Trump. Italian politics she regards as a decades-long stitch-up, the anti-establishment Beppe Grillo as a scapegoat.
But mainly, Leon insists, politics doesn’t interest her. Her overwhelming concern is for the environment. The victim in her second novel was a public health inspector caught up in a conspiracy around the disposal of toxic waste, but more often she used to mention topics such as recycling almost as a joke. In Earthly Remains they are the whole point. The book demands that we recognise crimes against nature as just that.
“Can you think of anything worse? I really think it is our only problem, everything else is absolutely secondary and almost irrelevant,” she continues. “I will not say that writers have an obligation to write about this – it’s not my place to tell people what their obligations are. But it’s a subject I do not resist … Trump is a global warming denier. The foxes have been put in the chicken coop.”
Venice’s vulnerability to rising sea levels is an inescapable fact. Leon moved there in the 1980s, having been blown away by its setting, architecture and history, but mostly because Venice is where her best friends – a couple who are jewellers – live.
Brought up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, by parents who had survived the depression but missed out on college educations, Leon was teaching in Iran while attempting to complete a PhD about Jane Austen when the revolution of 1978-79 interrupted her studies and her life. When her trunks were returned to her months later, following her hasty evacuation (part of it at gunpoint, on a bus), her papers were gone.
She was working as an advertising copywriter in New York when an acquaintance got in touch to ask if she wanted to visit Italy. When they arrived in Rome, it was love at first sight: “I was speechless with wonder and whenever I could I went back, it was an incredible realisation that these people had such lovely lives.”
Leon joined the American expat fold, though it was not until she wrote her first novel, Death at La Fenice – about a world-famous conductor being poisoned with cyanide in his dressing-room – that her identity became a literary one. Nowadays Henry James’s name crops up often in Leon’s books, usually when the aristocratic Paola is ignoring her husband Brunetti because she is buried in one of his novels (the climactic section of The Wings of the Dove is set in the kind of palazzo in which Paola grew up). Brunetti, like Leon, prefers to spend his spare time with ancient Greeks and Romans. Usually, Leon explains, they are reading the same thing. It is well known that her own novels have never been translated into Italian, because she regards celebrity as irksome and doesn’t want locals to read them.
Venice’s conservation and housing issues – the acqua alta that sees much of the city regularly flooded during the winter, the scandals and delays associated with construction of the Mose tidal barrier, and the overwhelming impact of mass tourism – have long been the backdrop to Leon’s novels, as they are to life in her adopted city. But in Earthly Remains the resulting dissatisfaction has reached a new pitch. In an early scene, Guido and Paola navigate the overcrowded Rialto bridge on the verge of panic.
“That happened to me,” says Leon. “I was going down to Rialto one day, it must have been a Saturday because it was like this” – she tucks her elbows into her sides in a mime of being squashed – “and someone bumped into me somehow so that I caught my foot and I would have tripped only I couldn’t fall because the crowd was so thick. I’m not being hysterical when I say it’s unbearable.”

Donna Leon in Venice

Two years ago, she left. Though she still spends around a week each month in Venice, she now mostly lives in Switzerland, where she has a home in Zurich and another in the mountains. A bestseller in German before she was widely known elsewhere, she credits her Swiss publisher, the family-owned Diogenes, with having “made my career”.
Leon is single, and feels this suits her. “I think most people profit immeasurably from marriage in every sense, but I’m too restless,” she says. Her recent moves firmed up her determination to shed as much “stuff” – including money – as she can.
“I don’t want to be didactic but I think if one has been lucky fiscally, one should give a lot of it back, because we all of us have too much,” she says. Her great passion is baroque music. She discovered her love of Handel when she saw Alcina at Carnegie Hall in the 1970s and, while she is vague about the extent of her financial commitments, Leon takes evident pleasure in her role as a patron of the orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro. She had “great and glorious fun” supporting the recordings of Handel operas with her friend, the conductor and harpsichordist Alan Curtis, and is strongly of the view that opera houses need to work harder to find new, younger audiences.
But she won’t give up writing, she says, “as long as it’s fun”. Recently she very much enjoyed writing a scene in which Brunetti and his dull boss Patta bond over some hand-sewn buttonholes. “I’m interested in why people do things. Crime in itself isn’t interesting, it’s just horrible. The convolutions of greed are more interesting intellectually than passion, because with passion the name is the answer. What happens once you open the door to temptation and to possibility, that’s what fascinates me – how people worsen.”
 Earthly Remains is published by William Heinemann. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A life in writing / Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman
A life in writing

Neil Gaiman: ‘I like being British. Even when I’m ashamed, I’m fascinated’

The award-winning author on his new book of Norse mythology, Brexit and being an Englishman in New York

Michelle Dean
Saturday 4 February 2017 08.00 GMT

eil Gaiman wanders into the Crosby Hotel’s colourful parlour in lower Manhattan looking like the Platonic ideal of himself. He’s all wild hair and gracious manners, dressed in a lived-in black wool coat, which he keeps on throughout. He loves this hotel, he says, not least because the concierge writes a comic about Houdini with the former concierge.

Gaiman started out in comics, reading them as a child and eventually writing them too, including his famous Sandman series. So does this happen to him often, his very presence tempting out underground comics enthusiasts all over the globe? “I wish I could say yes. It would be a much more interesting and sort of Pynchon-esque world. But no, it’s just here.”

Gaiman looks a little tired. He has just come from feeding breakfast to his toddler youngest son, the progeny of his second marriage to the singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer. (He has three children with his first wife, Mary McGrath.) His creative life is a whirlwind of projects. The television version of his 2001 novel American Gods is to air in the US in April. He has also been at work on an adaptation of his 1990 collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, for Amazon and the BBC, on which he is serving as showrunner. Meanwhile, there is the matter of writing books, the latest of which is Gaiman’s retelling of Norse myths in the straightforwardly titled Norse Mythology, out this week.
It has clearly been a struggle to find the time. “I would look up every now and again and go, ‘OK, I have a week. Good, I will retell a story.’” These are drawn from the 13th-century source texts for many Norse myths, the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, which he first read in his 30s, after absorbing the superhero stories inspired by them in Marvel comics as a child growing up in West Sussex. With such a haphazard schedule, it has taken around eight years to write the book, the idea for which was first floated by his American editor at Gaiman’s birthday lunch in 2008.
Listing all of Gaiman’s achievements could fill a book on its own. In addition to the comics, he is the author of novels for adults and children including NeverwhereThe Graveyard Book and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He has written original screenplays and seen his work adapted by others, too, such as the 2009 stop-motion version of Coraline. He has been nominated for and won countless awards, including the Hugos, Nebulas and Eisners.
Gaiman’s love of Norse mythology surfaces frequently in his work, not least in American Gods, which captures a battle between Odin and Loki. But in embarking on the retellings in Norse Mythology, Gaiman found himself faced with new limitations, as much information about the gods is missing. “On Greeks and Romans, for example, we have scads of stuff, but the Norse weren’t writing it down,” he explains. “They were telling the stories, so everything we have was written down after the event.” The holes and the contradictions that result from the oral tradition presented creative choices, but he felt an acute responsibility to be faithful to the traditional versions.

“I have to play fair with the Norse scholars and I have to play fair with kids who pick up the book and read it and think they know the stories. And so I may add colour, I may add motivation, I’d go and put in my own dialogue. I may draw inferences,” he says. “All that stuff I’m allowed to do, but I feel like I’m not allowed to just go, ‘OK, there’s a patch of canvas missing here. I’m going to draw something in … ’”
Even so, Gaiman’s personal sensibility is apparent in the text. His affection for Loki, for instance, shines through: “Loki is very handsome. He is plausible, convincing, likable, and far and away the most wily, subtle and shrewd of all the inhabitants of Asgard. It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust.”
Gaiman attributes his love of Loki to his novelist’s eye. “You always end up fascinated by who changed, and how they change, because the engine of fiction is who are you at the beginning of the story and who are you at the end. Thor, bless his heart, has no narrative arc: he is the same person all the way through. He is not the brightest hammer in the room, but he’s good hearted, and you know he will die at the end, but he dies the same person he’s been all the way through.” In contrast, Loki is both the devil and the saviour of the gods. “Almost every story where they’re in trouble, it’s because Loki got them into it. Also, an awful lot of the time, he’s the only one smart enough to get them out of it.”
He declares “a real joy in passing these things on. It’s like being given something that belongs to humanity and polishing it and cleaning it up and putting it back out there.”
Gaiman’s enthusiasm for myths also extends to the Egyptians and the Greeks. He can reel off similarities between ancient stories, and says he doesn’t just tell the stories, he feels them on some emotional level. “The glory of some of these myths is that they feel right,” he explains, although he also concedes that every now and then “you’ll hit a myth and go, ‘No, I can’t really get behind that. Really, we get licked out of the ice by a cow? OK, if you say so.’” (He’s referring there to the myth of Audhumla, which he includes in Norse Mythology, despite his scepticism.)
As Gaiman wrestled with these stories, he says, he had no idea he was writing a topical book. But then, as political events unfolded in the second half of 2016, he could not help but draw parallels. “For me, it was Ragnarök,” he says, referring to the apocalyptic end of the gods. It begins with a long winter, continues with earthquakes and flooding, and then the sky splits apart.
The view that Brexit and the election of President Trump have brought about chaos and even a sense of impending doom is widely held, but Gaiman’s version of it is particularly eloquent. “I remember the 80s and the nuclear clock and the cold war and Russia and America and [thinking] ‘I hope you guys don’t press buttons and it would be very nice to not live in the shadow of everything ending’,” he says. “But at least at that point, what you were scared of was just one action. Now one is scared of the accretion of a million actions and a million inactions.”
He says there is “a strange kind of magical thinking” afoot and tells me about waking up the morning after Brexit in a hotel in Scotland and checking the result, then having “that sort of moment at the end of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston sees the Statue of Liberty ... I was going, ‘Oh, no. Are you really … ’”
Gaiman has, in recent years, divided his time between the UK and the US, but he is not an American citizen and has fallen off the electoral roll in the UK, so he wasn’t able to vote in either the Brexit referendum or the US election. “I’m frustrated not being able to vote over here,” he says. “I’m like, well, I pay lots of taxes to the US and the UK, but I don’t want to become an American citizen. I like being English. I like being British. Even when I’m ashamed, I’m fascinated.”

Indeed, he clearly is. He does a very good imitation of the cab drivers he encountered in London leading up to the Brexit vote, who seemed to believe that, ultimately, the thing they were about to do was of no consequence: “The EU’s not going to let us go ... ”. Regarding the Trump vote, he says: “At the end of the day, what I think was being voted for was change. People were saying ‘We’re fed up and we’re not being listened to’, and unfortunately that wasn’t being offered by the other side. The appeal of Bernie Sanders was he was standing up there saying ‘This thing is fucked’, and the problem with Hillary was she was standing up there and saying ‘Things are good, they’re getting better’.”
Genuine worry furrows Gaiman’s brow, but he has plans to respond to current events. His following is huge, including 2.5 million people on Twitter and the millions who read his books and his blog and watch his television shows. He intends to use that platform to highlight the plight of refugees. He hopes, too, to double down on his longstanding activism to promote freedom of speech. “I wrote an essay on my blog in 2009 called ‘Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?’,” he says, “Which just becomes more and more timely. I have a 14-month-old son, and a four-month-old grandson. I have no idea what kind of world they’re going to grow up in. I’m going to do my best with the time and the intellectual effort remaining to me to do whatever I can to give them a good world,” he says.
Ragnarök, as Gaiman writes in Norse Mythology, is of course “the end” of something. “But there is also what will come after the end,” he adds. In his version the sun comes out. Something glitters in the grass. The gods’ children find a set of golden chess pieces waiting for them. They arrange them on a board, and then one of them makes a move. “And,” Gaiman concludes, “the game begins anew.”

Monday, April 24, 2017



By Erica Gonzalez
April 20, 2017

Earlier today, HBO surprised us with new photos from Game of Thrones' seventh season. It didn't take long for fans to analyze the pictures and string together some theories on the upcoming plot.
This picture of Jon Snow has specifically attracted a lot of attention (and no, not just because Kit Harington is easy on the eyes). If you look closely at the background, it seems he's standing in the crypts of Winterfell, as told by the dark lighting and enclosed stone arches behind him. The location is significant because Lyanna Stark, Ned's sister and Snow's biological mother (which was confirmed last season), is buried there. Hence, a new theory supposes that in this photo, Jon is looking at Lyanna's grave.
Does that mean he discovers his true patronage in Season 7? How does he find out? Who tells him? And what is his reaction like if/when he realizes he's not Ned Stark's son, but Lyanna's? More importantly, does he also find out that his father is Rhaegar Targaryen? According to another theory, a clue about Snow's real father lies in Lyanna's crypt.
What's certain is that it seems Jon has learned something in this scene. Maybe he really doesn't "know nothing" after all.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A life in writing / AS Byatt

 'There are worse things human beings can do than take themselves seriously' 
A life in writing / AS Byatt

Writing in terms of pleasure

In my work, writing is always so dangerous. It's very destructive. People who write books are destroyers

Interview by Sam Leith
Saturday 25 April 2009 00.01 BST

o you know what her children call her?" a mutual friend asked me when I said I was going to see AS Byatt. "You'll never guess. Not in a million years."

"Antonia? Mum?"
"No," he said, laughing. "They call her 'AS Byatt'."
Why is this funny? I think it's because it seems to play to a public idea of Byatt's austerity. It's a version of the joke that's told about the Cambridge poet Jeremy Prynne. Prynne is asked: "What's your wife's name." He replies: "Mrs Prynne." It identifies an anxiety by teasing it. In England, we're in awe of intellectuals, and scared of them, and Byatt - as novelist, critic, anthologist, essayist - is an unapologetic four-star intellectual.

In person, she's both formidable and friendly; her voice has a very slight quaver or tremor to it. Everyone does seem to call her something different. "Antonia", "Dame Antonia", "ASB", "AS", or just - with lugubrious reverence - "The Dame". Born Antonia Susan Drabble, she writes under Byatt (the name of her first husband) and signs her emails "ASD" (her second husband is Peter Duffy). Her email address presents her as "Arachne". And her grandchildren, running into the room waving plastic toys, do, as promised, call her "AS".
George Haight's biography of George Eliot describes a Mrs Shaw noticing the young Mary Anne Evans sitting to one side by herself at a children's party.
"My dear, you do not seem happy," she said. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
"No, I am not," said Mary Anne. "I don't like to play with children. I like to talk to grown-up people." George Eliot - along with Robert Browning - is one of the fixed stars by which Byatt navigates, and the story told of Eliot could as easily have been told of her disciple.
"I was a deeply unhappy child," she says. "I didn't like being one. It seemed a horrible thing to have to be."
Byatt grew up in York, the oldest of four children in a clever, competitive household (her sister is Margaret Drabble; they don't get on, and she's fed up of being asked about it - as I was twice warned before going to see her). Her father, John Drabble, was a county court judge and her mother was a scholar of Browning who felt trapped as a housewife. "My poor little mother," says Byatt, almost to herself. "She shouted and shouted and shouted." Antonia's adolescence coincided with her mother's most acute dissatisfaction, and she found her own escape in literature and, at Cambridge, in academic work.
One of the characters in her new novel, The Children's Book, she says, "represents my greatest terror which is simple domesticity." Greatest terror? She says, decisively: "Yes. I had this image of coming out from under and seeing the light for a bit and then being shut in a kitchen, which I think happened to women of my generation."
Though she has had four children, domesticity never swallowed her. She spent a little over a decade as an academic at University College London before giving it up to write full time. Her fiction, though admired, remained a specialist taste until she won the Booker prize in 1990 for Possession - a novel that transformed her reputation, brought her work to a mass audience (it went on to become a successful Hollywood film) and paid for the swimming pool at her house in France. Subtitled "A Romance", its parodies of Victorian verse are blended into a virtuosic exercise in genre writing. It also - like few books before or since - evoked what could be pleasurable and exciting about academic work.
"She's very unusual for an English person," her friend Philip Hensher says of her, "in that she's quite suspicious of comedy. With most people, sooner or later, every intellectual position comes down to a joke - it never does with her. This is where I think she fights with Kingsley Amis."
I read Possession years ago, I tell her, but a passage has stuck in my mind. One character makes a sneering remark about another "taking himself rather seriously". Their interlocutor replies briskly: "There are worse things human beings can do than take themselves seriously."

"Yes," she says. "I've been saying that all my life."
Byatt was educated at a Quaker school, and it has stayed with her: "I am not a Quaker, of course, because I'm anti-Christian and the Quakers are a form of Christianity but their religion is wonderful - you simply sat in silence and listened to the nature of things."
Her nature is not to mock or sneer. She might not think something is much good - but she'll think about it patiently, assess it fairly, and then judge it with a presbyterian directness. There was a great hoo-hah when she wrote a negative review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the New York Times. It was claimed that she was "just jealous". But she simply described, conscientiously if a little irritably, what she saw: "a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature". It was "infantile" - a word not meant as a sneer, but as a straightforward diagnosis.
Her new novel takes place at another time - the turn of the 20th century - when "it was seriously suggested that the great writing of the time was writing for children, which was also read by grown-ups". The Children's Book tells the story of two generations of a group of families living near each other in the country, the closest thing they have to a matriarch being Olive Wellwood, a successful published writer of children's stories.
"A book starts when two things you thought were different come together," she says. "I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family - how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy-story writers."
The Children's Book is on one level a work of careful social and psychological realism: dense with information, following with reportorial exactness the lives of interlinked households over decades. Byatt plots out her timelines on Excel spreadsheets so she can make sure her characters are the right age at any given time. You can learn a lot from it about the chemistry and history of pottery, about the politics and literature of the Fabian and suffragist movements, about the run-up to the first world war.
On another level, it is stuffed with the motifs of fairy stories: doubles, changelings, locked rooms, underground journeys, boys who refuse to grow up. Like Possession, it nests a story within a story. It plays deliberately with mythic motifs such as silver and gold, or the spinning of webs. "I can't say how important it was to me when Angela Carter said 'I grew up on fairy stories - they're much more important to me than realist narratives'. I hadn't had the nerve to think that until she said it, and I owe her a great deal."
It is also a disconcertingly centreless book. When at one point Byatt describes Olive as its heroine she corrects herself: "I heard myself say that word. But I think there isn't a main character ... Iris Murdoch once said the world has enormously more people in it than you can ever imagine. She said whenever she finished a novel she wanted to start again and write it from the point of view of all the minor characters. In a sense I felt I was able to do that, because the minor characters became major characters when the book turned its gaze on them."
If Possession is Byatt's Mill on the Floss, then this is her Middlemarch: the life not of a couple but of a community. It is an anxious, rather than a romantic book - it abounds with confusion, compromise, family dysfunction, thwarted love. Sex is pervasive, and threatening. The connection is there between childishness and child abuse (the manic-depressive master potter, Fludd, in certain aspects resembles Eric Gill).
The book touches, too, on what Byatt calls "one of the steady themes of my writing that I don't understand - as opposed to several that I do. I don't understand why, in my work, writing is always so dangerous. It's very destructive. People who write books are destroyers."

You might be tempted to assume that Olive, as the writer in the book, is a proxy for Byatt. If so, the relationship is intriguing. One of her friends "thinks I haven't written another character that I don't like, and he's extremely shrewd".
The first world war comes down on the end of The Children's Book like a guillotine. Unexpected in history, it was also unexpected by the author - "I started working on the 1890s without thinking it through that all these children would die in the war ... I keep trying to get people to take the word 'looming' out of the publicity material." Researching the novel, she made a discovery that seemed too good - or bad - to be true: soldiers named trenches and redoubts after children's books: "Peter Pan Trench", "Hook Copse", "Wendy Cottage" ...
Fairystories and utopian politics are entwined in the book. "I'm a naturally pessimistic animal and there's a sort of innocence in these people. They came after the high Victorians, whom I love in a way I don't love these people. I love Browning in a way I love nobody in the period this novel is set in, except perhaps Rodin. I love Tennyson too. I feel they understood that the world might be tragic whereas the Shaw, and even the Woolf generation ... "
She identifies the same soppy spirit in the second half of the century: "I don't like the 1960s either. The last big novel I wrote was called A Whistling Woman and it was about utopianism on the one hand and a dangerous sort of mystical romanticism on the other. I don't believe that human beings are basically good, so I think all utopian movements are doomed to fail, but I am interested in them."
Byatt may be serious, but I think it's a mistake to see her as humourless or intellectually snobbish. After our interview, she and her husband laugh about the wit of a football crowd - England fans chanting to the Belgian team: "You're French, and you know you are."
What distinguishes her is a sort of grounded curiosity. She has been a visible admirer and encourager of younger writers including Hensher, Lawrence Norfolk, David Mitchell, Adam Thirlwell and Ali Smith. Her advocacy is "not entirely disinterested, because I wish there to be a literary world in which people are not writing books only about people's feelings. If you notice, all the ones I like write also about ideas. You know, there's been that sort of clonking account of what was good about British writing which was McEwan, Amis, Graham Swift and Julian Barnes - but there's all sorts of other things going on. In fact I admire all four of those writers . . . and they don't only do people's feelings but nevertheless it's become ossified."
As a young writer herself, Byatt befriended Iris Murdoch, though "because I actually didn't want a mentor I found the friendship very difficult to handle ... she simply used you as material. She loved you very much but she would take you out to lunch and just fire questions at you like a clay pigeon shoot."
Was she taken aback by the memoir written by Murdoch's husband, John Bayley? "I think what he did was wicked and I don't mind you writing that. I knew her enough to know that she would have hated it ... it's had a horrible effect on how people feel about her and see her and think about her. She was a wonderful novelist and she was a novelist who didn't write about herself. Feelings were in her work but it wasn't restricted to feelings. There was thought in it. There was structure in it. An intelligent, complicated world ... I think what John did was unforgivable."
Byatt's hostility to the cult of "feelings" can, though, be easily misunderstood. The Children's Book is filled with emotion - and into it is woven, discreetly and obliquely, one of the central emotional facts of Byatt's own life, the loss of her son in a car accident when he was 11.

It's something she brings up, unexpectedly, when we're talking about her time as an academic. "This is two sentences, and that's the end of the story." She had wanted to write full-time, but "if I had a job we could send my son to a fee-paying school. My son got killed on Frank Kermode's doorstep, the day I accepted the job more or less - so there was no point in having the job except what else was I going to do." She did the job for "as long as he had lived, which was 11 years", at the end of which "it was like being released from a spell". A poem she wrote, "Dead Boys", described how after his death a child is perpetually present, at every age, to his mother. The same image appears in The Children's Book.
"I was watching David Cameron saying that people have been writing to him and saying that, after a time, you get to want to celebrate somebody's life. All I can say is no, you don't. It's just terrible. It stays like that."
She's dismissive, though, of the idea of writing as therapy or emotional exorcism. "I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It's the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things."
I ask her to elaborate: "I," she says, "who I am, is the person that has the project of making a thing. Well, that's putting it pompously - but constructing. I do see it in sort of three-dimensional structures. And because that person does that all the time, that person is able to love all these people."

Byatt on Byatt

"The minds of stone lovers had colonised stones as lichens cling to them with golden or grey-green florid stains. The human world of stones is caught in organic metaphors like flies in amber. Words came from flesh and hair and plants. Reniform, mammilated, botryoidal, dendrite, haematite. Carnelian is from carnal, from flesh. Serpentine and lizardite are stone reptiles; phyllite is leafy-green. The earth itself is made in part of bones, shells and diatoms. Ines was returning to it in a form quite different from her mother's fiery ash and bonemeal. She preferred the parts of her body that were now volcanic glasses, not bony chalk. Chabazite, from the Greek for hailstones, obsidian, which, like analcime and garnet, has the perfect icositetrahedral shape."
This is from my story "A Stone Woman", a fairy tale about a woman who is turned into stone - or into many kinds of stone. The stone is a metaphor for grief and for ageing and stiffening. We are always being told language is inadequate to describe things. I think it is endlessly inventive if we pay it attention. I love all the buried metaphors in the stone-names. Thinking and writing are making connections. I once gave a reading in a university where a student said self-righteously "You used a word I didn't know in that reading. Don't you think that was elitist of you?" I replied that if I were her I should have rushed to the dictionary in glee and delight.