Part 2 of #HayFestival: The Prize Winners

However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!

Olga listens to Jennifer reading that wonderful passage about the English language (will refer to it later in my review, because I LOVED it).

I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.

First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights  was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.

Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.

The International Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!

I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.

Forgot to take a picture of this panel, so you’ll have to make do with a gratuitous generic picture.

They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.

‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)

‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)

Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?

I loved the baaing of these sheep as I picked up my car in the evening.

 

Three Women Writers and Memoirs to Discover

I sometimes use little green stick-its to mark passages I particularly want to return to or quote in the books I read, and the three books below are FULL of green. They are all memoirs of one sort or another, looking at motherhood, being a woman in the modern world, moving between cultures and countries, how to be creative and fulfilled. And they are all poetic, funny, sad, and don’t beat you around the head at all with preachy ‘self-improvement’ tips.

Elif Shafak, from www.standard.co.uk
Elif Shafak, from http://www.standard.co.uk

Elif Shafak: Black Milk (transl. Hande Zapsu)

After the birth of her first child, the highly successful Turkish author experienced a severe case of post-partum depression, which puzzled her and crippled her creativity. She describes how she overcame it and found salvation through writing. So far, so dry a blurb, but this is Shafak we are talking about. So, in the storytelling tradition of Shehrazat, with typical scorn for conventionalities, we embark upon a stormy tale of how the author came to terms with all the warring women inside her. Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Little Miss Practical, Mama Rice Pudding, Dame Dervish and Blue Belle Bovary are at times suppressed or neglected, at other times they come to the fore and attempt to install a military dictatorship. It’s a witty way of talking about inner turmoil and life in general – and woven in we find Shafak’s usual candour, erudite cross-cultural references and self-deprecatory humour. Here’s a quote from the end of the book, chosen not because it is typical of her style, but because it seems to me to speak about so much more than just inner peace.

That is not to say that they [the 6 women] agree on every issue. But by listening, not just talking, they are learning the art of coexistence. They now know that to exist freely and equally, they need one another, and that where even one voice is enslaved none can be free. Together we are learning how to live, write and love to the fullest by simply being all of who we are. Sometimes we manage this beautifully and artlessly, sometimes we fail ridiculously. When we fail, we remember the moments of harmony and grace, and try again.

 

Elizabeth Smart: The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals

elizabethsmartopenbookontarioNowadays if you do a Google search for the name, you will find a former kidnap victim talking about her experiences, but before that, Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian writer best known for her fragmented, personal, prose-poetry work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a barely fictionalised account of her tumultuous love story with English poet George Baker. This volume is a continuation of the first one, in which Smart is a single mother of four trying to make a living as a copywriter in post-war London, in equal measure addicted to and annoyed by a feckless lover.

It surprised me, upon looking at Smart’s biographical details more closely, to discover she was very successful and made lots of money in her profession… and that she found ways to be a prolific writer (although it was mostly published posthumously). The way she presents herself in this book (and in its predecessor) is very much ‘woe me’, with an anger and ferocity of spirit, an openness about love and sex and feeling unfulfilled, which must have been very fresh and scandalous at the time.  Yet the observations are not just personal: there are excellent descriptions of austere, grey London after the war; of the centuries old division of labour- a proto-feminist too; a champion of ‘our hard-working deserving poor’.

Everyone must work; nobody must loaf. ‘Pull your own weight,’ my mother repeats… ‘Keep clean, bear fruit, and wait.’ This seems to cover housework, childbirth, sainthood. But money must come into it… I am reluctant, until we know more, to see the future so drearily laid out like an allotment garden, with each to his patch of work.

theassumptionsThere is little continuity in a narrative of this type: it is made up of glimmers of brilliance, highly quotable passages, and then we’re off on a new tangent, a new jumble of thoughts and impressions. The author acknowledges she may not be to everyone’s taste.

I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity…. An obsessional fog, even if it is made of a flock of holy ghosts, is not the sort of thing we can put before the members of Parliament… too fleshy too flighty too messy for debating floors?

Before you can start shifting uncomfortably in your chair, however, and complain that she is dripping in self-pity, she points out precisely that, proving that awareness of privilege is not a new thing:

O stop the caterwauling! Women with gusty voices pound pianos in pubs, impossibly happy against great odds. More ravaged and more successful by far than you, they know how to back-slap life with a greeting of gratitude. I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen. I might get a faded facsimile. If I were lucky a man I want might happen to find comfort in my simple meals, or warmth from a fire always burning at the right moment. This isn’t at all enough, but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.

***

‘Miss Smart, you are not the first woman to have had four children.’

Smart thinks and writes like a poet, so there is no story arc here to speak of. Instead, you have diverse approaches to the same body of a problem, like birds coming to peck at a cadaver from all different angles. You have repetition, strong rhythmical patterns which need to be chanted out loud, clusters of images exploding under their own weight at times. While it hasn’t got the raw power and coherence of her more famous book, it is brittle and smouldering and shrill. An acquired taste, perhaps, best read in instalments, a cry of real pain, with added burrs of satire and wit, and much compassion for frailty, drunkenness, despair. I can see myself liking it more and more after several rereadings.

Isabel Huggan: Belonging

Isabel Huggan near her house in France, from canadianwritersabroad.com
Isabel Huggan near her house in France, from canadianwritersabroad.com

By contrast, Huggan’s style is not at all convoluted: it is limpid-clear like a mountain spring, occasionally mischievous, and warm and welcoming like a bowl of soup. Huggan makes us feel one with the world and humanity in general. Although it’s a very personal story of (yet another) Canadian writer who lived in Kenya, the Philippines, France, and finally renovating a house in the south of France, it is in fact a mix of memoir and fiction (to show just how permeable the line between the two is), and something to which many readers will be able to relate. Above all, there is that generous, humble, self-aware spirit which makes me love the work and its author. Modesty, I suppose, is the word I am looking for: gentle curiosity, wisdom, openness, empathy for others, willingness to learn. Something which is often lacking from the ‘me, me, me’ shouty, selfie-touting discourse on social media nowadays.

I know all about homesickness – sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I’ve been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can blind you to everything else. And so you learn to live with mal de pays as with chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie. Then finally you wake up and compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed, and you stop.

She gives us the most succinct and true picture of what it really means to be moving abroad, that you will never be the same again:

… neither of us suspects how changing countries, even temporarily, is going to change us. He hopes that this job will open doors for him in the future, but we do not yet know the windows and doors in our hearts that will be opened – be wrenched open and torn from their hinges, never to be shut again. We do not know that we have begun a long journey with no return.

belongingI used to be somewhat suspicious of memoirs, seeing them as ego-driven exercises, for what could average people possibly have to teach to others? A strange attitude for an anthropologist, who loves listening to other people’s stories. However, after reading the unusual approaches to memoir-writing taken by these three women writers, I am converted. Memoir is really about sharing stories around the camp-fire, about sharing memories, finding the universals in human experience. I end this very, very long post (well done if you’ve made it this far!) with another wonderful quote from Isabel Huggan:

Since my earliest days I have been a merchant for Nostalgia, setting up my souvenir stall on the road to the wharf on the River Styx. I do not hoard memories and I am willing – even eager to part with them.

‘Here now, sir, here’s something to take in the boat with you as you pass on to the other side. A line of poetry smooth as a pebble, a phrase bright as an insect’s wing, a clause transparent as snake-skin shed in the grass. Take these souvenirs, if you wish, you who travel forward, and keep them close to your heart as you move into the darkness. You cannot take your gold and jewels, you cannot take your fossils. But you can take your stories across the water.’

 

 

 

Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac Léman. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timothée de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Bernières, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis, Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.