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Tag: writing

Writing and reading Europe

Thursday, 8 May, 2014 0 Comments

Can writers help establish a European identity? Or do authors reinforce borders? Is it possible to have a common European literature without a common language? More than 30 writers from 25 countries will debate these questions today and tomorrow in Berlin at a conference titled Is the European Dream Still Alive? Before they ponder these weighty issues, they might give some thought to what Julio Cortázar, the Argentine novelist and short-story writer, had to say about European writing:

“All European writers are ‘slaves of their baptism,’ if I may paraphrase Rimbaud; like it or not, their writing carries baggage from an immense and almost frightening tradition; they accept that tradition or they fight against it, it inhabits them, it is their familiar and their succubus. Why write, if everything has, in a way, already been said? Gide observed sardonically that since nobody listened, everything has to be said again, yet a suspicion of guilt and superfluity leads the European intellectual to the most extreme refinements of his trade and tools, the only way to avoid paths too much traveled. Thus the enthusiasm that greets novelties, the uproar when a writer has succeeded in giving substance to a new slice of the invisible; merely recall symbolism, surrealism, the ‘nouveau roman’: finally something truly new that neither Ronsard, nor Stendahl , nor Proust imagined. For a moment we can put aside our guilt; even the epigones begin too believe they are doing something new. Afterwards, slowly, they begin to feel European again and each writer still has his albatross around his neck.”


An afternoon with Borges in Buenos Aires

Wednesday, 30 April, 2014 0 Comments

In 1976, Patrick Richardson was an impoverished, 25-year-old writer, living in a garret in Amsterdam. To escape the oncoming Dutch winter, he set off to Latin America. You won’t believe what happened next. Well, you can, actually, because this is not an Upworthy story. In Buenos Aires, he met his literary hero, Jorge Luis Borges. Snippet:

“Have you read my stories?”

“All of them!”

“I have done my best, although I must apologise for their poor quality.” Borges was renowned for his humility, authentic or otherwise.

“No, really, you’re too modest.”

A playful expression flitted across his countenance. “Perhaps you are familiar with the story of what occurred when Goethe visited a brothel in Hanover?”

“No, but I’d love to hear it.”

The long, convoluted story, which I have forgotten, lasted for five minutes, until he questioned me about my journey in South America and my life in Amsterdam as a writer. At last, after what seemed a lifetime, a man in a stone-coloured suit came down the gangway, mounted the steps on to the stage, and leant over him. “It’s time to go, Señor Borges,” he said in a hushed voice. “You have an appointment at three.”

An afternoon with Jorge Luis Borges is published in today’s Independent.


Fighting illiteracy with e-books: There’s an app for that

Monday, 28 April, 2014 0 Comments

The San Francisco-based non-profit organization Worldreader distributes e-books in poor countries. Its app, which has more than 300,000 users in the developing world, lets people choose from over 6,000 e-books on low-end mobile phones, and Worldreader says it’s delivered nearly 1.7 million e-books since its launch in 2010.

A new UNESCO study (PDF 1.6MB) based on interviews with 5,000 Worldreader app users looks at reading habits in seven countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe — where the average illiteracy rate is 34 percent among adults and 20 percent among children, and the conclusions are uplifting. Snippet:

280414reading “The tendency of digital reading to increase overall reading is not limited to Worldreader Mobile users. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in the USA observed that the overall reading consumption of individuals tends to increase following the adoption of digital reading. The Pew report shows that, over the course of 12 months, users reading e-books read 24 books on average, while the average number of books read by non-e-book readers was 15 (Pew Internet, 2012). For champions of literacy this trend is extremely promising, as it suggests that the benefits of mobile reading are exponential and may accelerate literacy development.”

Without a decent educational system, greater access to books won’t necessarily raise literacy levels, but greater access to books can nurture a love of reading and writing and expose readers to unimagined new worlds. UNESCO puts it like this: “While it is true that books, by themselves, will not remedy the scourge of illiteracy, without them illiteracy is guaranteed.” The Worldreader e-book initiative deserves our support.


Ambulator nascitur, non fit

Monday, 3 February, 2014 1 Comment

There are those who believe that poeta nascitur, non fit (a poet is born, not made), and those who don’t. The same applies to walkers. Well, that’s what Henry David Thoreau thought. A month after his death from tuberculosis, in May 1862, The Atlantic magazine published one of his most famous essays, “Walking,” which contains the observation, Ambulator nascitur, non fit. To someone who did some serious walking in January, the aphorism rings true. And the following passage is filled with goodness:

“My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.”

In essence, Walking celebrates the rewards of immersing oneself in nature and mourns the inevitable advance of land ownership upon the wilderness.


When happiness is a warm Smith & Wesson

Wednesday, 11 December, 2013 0 Comments

Earlier this year, the German writer Wolfgang Herrndorf asked his friends if they knew someone who knew someone who could get him a revolver. He wasn’t planning to rob a bank or commit a crime of passion. Rather, he intended to fight cancer — his way. Before long, he was the owner of an unregistered .357 Smith & Wesson and he found it to be a thing of considerable beauty. “It possessed such a comprehensively calming effect that it’s unclear to me why the health insurance provider didn’t pay for it,” he wrote in his diary. On 26 August, he left his apartment in Berlin, strolled along the bank of the Hohenzollernkanal, found a seat, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 48.

Most modern German writing is unreadable. There’s no shortage of material, but it seems that the writers are more interested in whingeing about the “Kapitalismus” that has given them such an enviable standard of living, or they’re occupied with absurdities such as the Occupy movement, or they’re fomenting hatred of Amazon and Google and generally acting the Luddite when it comes to technological progress. All this is preferable to the hard work of writing. The result is an endless stream of turgid polemical tracts misleadingly labelled as novels and memoirs. Wolfgang Herrndorf was the honourable exception to this rule.

His novel Tschick (English: Why We Took the Car) was published in mid-2010 and a year later Sand appeared. The two represented the most exciting and stylish German fiction of recent times. Tschick was published in 27 countries and one million copies were sold in Herrndorf’s homeland. Along with writing novels, Herrndorf posted regularly at his blog Arbeit und Struktur and it was there that the wider world learned of his battle with cancer. After three operations and bouts of radiation treatment and chemotherapy he decided that he’d had enough of modern medicine and requested the revolver. The book of his blog is now destined to be a posthumous bestseller.

Smith & Wesson


The Door in the Wall

Sunday, 27 October, 2013 0 Comments

“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the […]

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Readying for Bond

Thursday, 24 October, 2013 0 Comments

Amazon is about to deliver and soon we’ll be delving into Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. As we prepare for this thrilling treat, let’s ponder the cover of the second Ian Fleming 007 story, Live and Let Die, which was published in April 1954 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. It has to be said that it does not represent a triumph of art. Given that the action-packed adventure catapulted Bond from the jazz joints of Harlem to the emerald waters of the Everglades in pursuit of the ruthless Mr Big, the flatness of the cover is even more perplexing. Perhaps it was the Fleming/Bond philosophy that baffled the designers.

“No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is crossed in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down out of the sky into the sea or on to the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane’s fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea. Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry? You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. Perhaps they’ll even let you go to Jamaica tonight. Can’t you hear those cheerful voices in the control tower that have said quietly all day long, ‘Come in BOAC. Come in Panam. Come in KLM’? Can’t you hear them calling you down too: ‘Come in Transcarib. Come in Transcarib’? Don’t lose faith in your stars. This happy landing at Palisadoes Airport comes to you courtesy of your stars. Better thank them.” Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die


Sorrow and bliss in Italy

Wednesday, 16 October, 2013 0 Comments

The recent spate of migrant deaths in the waters off the coast of Italy has highlighted the tragedy of Africa and its failed states. But the heartrending fate of Africans in Italy is not new, as Iris Origo noted in her diary 70 years ago:

16 October 1943: “Antonia goes down to Chianciano and returns with the news that at Magione a German captain, as he was driving through a wood, was shot and killed; he was buried yesterday at Chianciano.

In the evening a Moroccan soldier turns up here, an escaped prisoner from Laterina. He can speak only a few words of English and Italian and is very completely lost — travelling north, although he says he wants to get to Rome. We give him food and shelter for the night and point out the road to the south. ‘Me ship,’ he says, ‘Me not swim’. Very slight are his chances of getting home again.” Iris Origo

Iris Origo was an Anglo-Irish writer best known for works such as War in Val d’Orcia, The Merchant of Prato and The Vagabond Path. Following her birth in 1902, her parents travelled widely, particularly in Italy, where her father contracted tuberculosis and died in 1910. Her mother, Lady Sybil Cutting, then bought one of Florence’s most spectacular residences, the Villa Medici in Fiesole, which was built between 1451 and 1457. Iris Cutting married Antonio Origo, the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo, in 1924 and the couple devoted much of their lives to the improvement of their estate at La Foce, near Montepulciano. The Marchesa of Val d’Orcia, as Iris Origo was titled, died in her beloved Tuscany, with its cultivated hills, picturesque towns and magnificent Brunello di Montalcino in June 1988, aged 85.

Tuscany


Dreaming horse

Sunday, 29 September, 2013 0 Comments

“…and in his sleep he dreamt of horses and the horses in his dream moved gravely among the tilted stones like horses come upon an antique site where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again and the horses were […]

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Bicycle turning into brick

Sunday, 18 August, 2013 0 Comments

‘The Atomic Theory,’ I sallied, ‘is a thing that is not clear to me at all.’ ‘Michael Gilhaney,’ said the Sergeant, ‘is an example of a man that is nearly banjaxed from the principle of the Atomic Theory. Would it astonish you to hear that he is nearly half a bicycle?’ ‘It would surprise me […]

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Cormac McCarthy at 80

Monday, 15 July, 2013 1 Comment

The birthday isn’t until next Saturday, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get the celebrations going, does it? Cormac McCarthy is one of the few writers who has created their own genre: the metaphysical Western. It is filled with demons who roam the borderlands of Mexico. At times, one feels they would be more at home in a Hieronymus Bosch painting filled with fantastic imagery illustrating moral and religious concepts and narratives. Above all, Cormac McCarthy is a teller of tales.

“There is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these are also the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall. And those seams that are hid from us are of course in the tale itself and the tale has no abode or place of being except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home and therefore we can never be done with the telling. Of the telling there is no end. And… in whatever… place by whatever… name or by no name at all… all tales are one. Rightly heard all tales are one.”

Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

Cormac McCarthy