Sunday, February 17, 2019

The books the made me / Leïla Sliman / ‘I’ve always been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe'

Leïla Slimani. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The books that made me

Leïla Slimani: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe'

The author of Lullaby and Adele celebrates Julian Barnes’s British humour and reading Anna Karenina for the first time

Leïla Slimani on her shocking bestseller, Lullaby: 'Who can really say they know their nanny?'
Leïla Slimani

The book I am currently reading

The Piranhas by journalist Roberto Saviano. It is his first novel and it’s very impressive. I admire Roberto a lot. I’ve been following his career for years.

The book that changed my life

I can still remember when I read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in my room in Rabat, where I grew up. I was completely overwhelmed.

The book I wish I’d written

I couldn’t stop reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. I’ve always been fascinated by Monroe, her melancholia, her extreme beauty and how fragile she was. Blonde is a terrific novel.

The book that influenced my writing

Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. The style is simple, direct and so luminous.

The book that is most overrated

So many books are overrated these days. Readers seem to place a greater emphasis on sociological issues, on provocative topics rather than on style. Reputation is a lot about marketing.

The book that changed my mind

I thought that every human being wanted to be free until I read The Politics of Obedience (1576) by Étienne de La Boétie. He showed me that people can prefer to live in servitude, will sacrifice their freedom for security or money. When you really want to be free, you must be able to sacrifice everything; a lot of people can’t.

The last book that made me cry

Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s Sonechka. It is a very delicate and poetic novel about a woman who is crazy about books. Ulitskaya loves this character and makes a heroine of a very ordinary woman.

The last book that made me laugh

The Only Storyby Julian Barnes. It is actually a very sad novel but even when he tells a sad story Barnes has the power to make me laugh or smile. I love his British humour, his sensibility.

The book I couldn’t finish

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I found it so boring! But I will probably try again because everyone tells me that I have to persevere.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read

None. There is no shame in literature.

The book I give as a gift

Any of the books of Israeli author Zeruya Shalev, one of the most talented writers of our times.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for

I haven’t written it yet.

My earliest reading memory

Les Malheurs de Sophie (1858) by the Comtesse de Ségur. I was crazy about this book and about this little girl, who lies, steals and feels so lonely and misunderstood. It is profound and not very politically correct.

My comfort read

Magazines and newspapers. I love reading the press.

 Leïla Slimani’s Adèle is published by Faber (£12.99).

Two books to better understand Cuba

Two books to better understand Cuba
In "La Tribu," the young Cuban writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez portrays the period from the thaw of relations with the United States to the death of Fidel Castro. In "Our Woman in Havana," the former U.S. ambassador defends the rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S.
By Andrea Rodés
July 02, 2018

Carlos Manuel Álvarez Rodríguez (Cárdenas, Cuba, 1989), a young Cuban writer and journalist, recently spoke with AL DÍA. Now living and working in Mexico City as a freelance reporter writing for various foreign media, Álvarez is also the founder of El Estornudo, an independent narrative magazine about Cuba.
A year ago, Álvarez surprised the Latin American public with his non-fiction book "La Tribu" (The Tribe), a collection of portraits of colorful characters that he uses to portray the dramatic changes that occurred in Cuban society between 2014 and 2016, starting with the restoration of relations with the United States, and ending with the death of the historical leader of the revolution, Fidel Castro.
To explain the shifts in Cuban society, the author collects different stories, as reported by The New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson on the website of the book's publisher, Sexto Piso, based in Mexico. Álvarez writes about a group of Cubans who leave the island, seeking fortune in the north; the life of a great poet who has scarcely been published and resigns himself to death in anonymity; the daily routine of a former Tropicana dancer who lives in a garbage dump; the odyssey of a mother determined to recover her daughter's body after her daughter's suicide in another country; and the exciting return of a Cuban baseball player who escaped from the island, was recruited by the Yankees, and then returns to visit his people and his neighborhood after many years. Unfortunately, the book hasn't been translated to English.
Álvarez portrays "the Cuba that lasts, the beloved, the sad and the hated, that of the verses of boleros and now of reggaeton, the one that is forever, whether you like it or not, "wrote Jon Lee Anderson.
The author spends most of his time writing for his magazine, El Estornudo. One of his most recent articles was -of course- about the World Cup. "This is the first World Cup that I see from a country that participates in the World Cup. There were two possibilities for such a thing to happen. The first was that the Cuban team qualified for the event. The second was to leave Cuba. The second option has been fulfilled, something that is not like going around the corner," he wrote "It's not like kicking a penalty, but rather like stopping it, that's complicated, but it's even easier for Cubans to get a visa for any party, a refuge in any city, than scoring a goal and then find someone around to celebrate it with."
The diplomatic perspective

If you prefer to read about Cuba in English, in March of 2018 "Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat's Chronicle of America's Long Struggle with Castro's Cuba" was published. It's written by Vicki Huddleston, the former U.S. ambassador to Cuba during the presidential administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Raised in Hungry Horse, Montana, Huddleston is an advocate of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. Her interest in Latin America came about early on in her career: she was a volunteer of the Peace Corps in Peru, before graduating from the School of International Studies at the University of Colorado and being a fellow at the Harvard's Institute of Politics. Before becoming a diplomat in Cuba, she worked for the USAID cooperation agency in Haiti and was an ambassador to Mali and Madagascar.
In an interview with Local 10, Huddleston said that she favored former President Barack Obama’s policy, and the economic reforms that she said fostered the growth of the island’s private sector. President Donald Trump’s reversal of the policy, she said, has failed. She opposes the U.S. embargo. 
“It didn't work,” Huddleston said. “It's 50 years, let's try something new."
In another interview, Huddleston said she hopes her book will inspire more women to seek leadership roles.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bruno Ganz, actor who played Hitler in Downfall, dies aged 77

Bruno Ganz

Bruno Ganz, actor who played Hitler in Downfall, dies aged 77

Actor was widely praised for 2004 portrayal of dictator’s final days in Berlin bunker

Ruth Quinn and Vanessa Thorpe
Sat 16 Feb 2019 16.05 GMT

Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor who played Adolf Hitler in the film Downfall, has died in Zurich at the age of 77, his agent said on Saturday.

The actor became internationally renowned for his 2004 portrayal of the dictator of Germany in the final days inside his Berlin bunker.
In a Guardian review of the film Rob Mackie described Ganz as “the most convincing screen Hitler yet: an old, bent, sick dictator with the shaking hands of someone with Parkinson’s, alternating between rage and despair in his last days in the bunker”.
His lengthy rants in the film became a recurrent meme with subtitles laid over the footage to create parodies of everything from sporting events to current affairs.
It is widely believed to be the cinematic footage most often shared online, as well as the cause of one of the world’s most productive internet memes.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2005, Ganz said that during the months of painstaking research, that involved looking at historical records including a secretly-recorded tape of Hitler, before taking on the role he became convinced that Hitler was suffering from Parkinson’s disease towards the end of his life.
He said: “There is newsreel of him presenting medals to the Hitler Youth a few days before his death, and you can see his hand shaking, so I visited a hospital and observed Parkinson’s sufferers.”
The actor also revealed that in taking on the role it was “useful to be able to put my Swiss passport between my heart and Mr Hitler, so that he couldn’t touch me”.
The actor said he was “fascinated” that “he was not just supported by the German people; he was loved”.
He added: “The relationship between him and them was almost religious. There was also that Wagnerian undercurrent – the hero dressed in white, standing against a corrupt world. Look at the bunker - the way Goebbels’s wife is willing to kill her children because she can’t imagine life after national socialism. It is like a cult. So it helped me that I am Swiss, not German.”
But Ganz added that he had not gained real insight into Hitler’s motivation, saying: “I cannot claim to understand Hitler. Even the witnesses who had been in the bunker with him were not really able to describe the essence of the man.”
On the actor’s 75th birthday the German news outlet Deutsche Welle reported that Ganz’s decision to quit school and pursue his dream of acting baffled his parents.
In the early days of his career he worked as a bookseller and a paramedic before he broke into film with roles in The Marquise of O, which won a special prize at Cannes in 1976, and Peter Stein’s drama Sommergäste(Summer Guests).
He also played a vampire in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and an angel in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and its sequel Faraway, So Close! (1993).
In 2008 he appeared in The Baader Meinhof Complex and in 2018 he was in Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built.
At the time of his death Ganz was the holder of the Iffland-Ring – a diamond-studded ring stamped with the image of German actor August Wilhelm Iffland. It is passed from actor to actor to mark the recipient as the “most significant and worthy” German-speaking actor of their era.
It is not known to whom he had chosen to pass the heirloom at the time of his death.
Last year it was reported Ganz was suffering from intestinal cancer. He is survived by his son, Daniel.

Adèle by Leïla Slimani review / Sex-addiction thriller

Adèle by Leïla Slimani review – sex-addiction thriller

The follow-up to Lullaby centres on a modern-day Emma Bovary whose frustrated desires threaten to destroy her family

Leïla Slimani on her shocking bestseller, Lullaby: 'Who can really say they know their nanny?'
Lara Feigel
Thu 14 Feb 2019

re there secret desires that both endanger family life and make it survivable? Do we long to escape our children? To have sex with strangers at will? The Franco-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby won the Prix Goncourt in 2016 and swiftly became a bestseller here last year. That tale of a murderous nanny, exposing the fetid emotional growths fouling the bourgeois home, was Slimani’s second novelistic investigation of forbidden desires. Now Adèle, the novel she wrote before that breakthrough success, has been translated into English by Sam Taylor.

When we first meet Adèle, she’s leaving the house before her husband and son wake up, looking for sex on the way to work. “Adèle has been good,” the opening proclaims, but now “she wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.” For several years, she’s combined a sexless marriage to Richard with a closet life as a sex addict, seducing almost all the men she meets. The situation becomes unsustainable when her husband is injured in a road accident, depriving Adèle of freedom because she has to look after him.

Slimani’s novels are hard to categorise. They combine the pace of the thriller with the flatness of tone that we might associate with Michel Houellebecq, or indeed with Camus and Robbe-Grillet. Like those writers, Slimani is drawn to revealing the hellishness of the ordinary and the ordinariness of hell. But this isn’t social satire or commentary. Class and race matter – in Lullaby the employer was of north African descent and the nanny white; here Richard is upper class, Adèle working class – but these aren’t novels hustling for social change or even pushing us to be more honest about the falsity of bourgeois life. They are too story-driven for that. Adèle is rarely likable, but the narrative is on her side, breathless in its fears that sex won’t be available (“She hates the idea that her beauty will be wasted, that her good mood will be for nothing”) or that exposure will follow.

In many ways, Adèle is a modern-day Madame Bovary, but the book itself has less in common with Flaubert than with the sensation novels that Emma Bovary reads addictively. Slimani is trying to shock, arouse and titillate us with extreme mental states. Addiction makes a good subject for her because Adèle’s desire to live a fantasised version of her own life seems to mirror Slimani’s desire to write sleek, fantastical prose, not quite committing to building a three-dimensional world. Like Flaubert, though, she empathises with her character, even at her silliest (Adèle falls asleep with her face in an ashtray), and occasionally we feel something like Flaubert’s interest in the nuances of Adèle’s mind. She likes to read Kundera, and there’s a quote from him in the epigraph: his definition of vertigo not as the fear of falling but as “the desire to fall … the intoxication of the weak”. Slimani seems interested in delineating this intoxication.
In Lullaby, the question driving the book is not only whether the mother Myriam will find a way to survive bourgeois life without feeding off the weakness of another woman, but whether the nanny will give in to her own weakness, abdicating responsibility for keeping her charges alive. Here there’s the question of whether Adèle will allow her addiction to take over her life, destroying her love for her son. Both books are very good at showing that there can be a kind of gleeful pleasure in overcoming your fears by living them out, losing the things you are most desperate to hold on to. “Wanting to is the same as giving in,” Adèle thinks, “the dam has been breached. What good would it do to hold back now?” In both cases, the rapid descents feel just about credible enough to tell us something about the form of vertigo Kundera defined.

Adèle was published in France in 2014; five years later, it appears in Britain in the midst of #MeToo. Some of what it says about sex and power may seem more outdated and therefore taboo-laden now than it did then. Slimani began writing the novel when the Dominique Strauss-Kahn trial was in the news, and there’s some attempt to reverse the usual power structures by making the sex addict a woman. But though Adèle seeks power through sex, she’s attracted to powerful men and she relies on them to overpower her. If Adèle were asked about #MeToo, she would throw back her head with her usual loud laugh and say that the men are only acting as the women want them to. Her constant fantasy is of “the real men, the good ones, somewhere else, the ones who would finally know how to control her body”, and she does not have the intellectual curiosity or the emotional courage to seek new structures for desire. I found myself wondering what kind of novel it could be if her husband were better in bed, or if Adèle were less submissive and had moved further beyond Emma Bovary in her desires. What if it was reasonable rather than self-destructive or self-pitying for a woman to feel constricted by family life and ask for more?
 Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury). Adèle by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor, is published by Faber (£12.99). 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Meet the author / Kerry Andrew on writing supernatural fiction: ‘I had to spook myself out’

Kerry Andrew: ‘Writing a novel is a bit like writing an opera: it’s a massive undertaking.’ Photograph: Urszula Soltys

Meet the author

Kerry Andrew on writing supernatural fiction: ‘I had to spook myself out’

The musician and writer on her debut novel, Swansong, inspired by a 17th-century ballad, her inspirations and the wisdom of Robert Macfarlane


erry Andrew is a London-based composer, performer, writer and educator. She has a PhD in composition, has won four British composer awards and is the current BBC Ten Pieces commissioned composer. In 2014 she released Hawk to the Hunting Gone, an avian-themed alternative-folk album under the name You Are Wolf. Swansong, her debut novel, is set in the Scottish Highlands, where a London student flees after a disastrous night out.

Swansong is based on a ballad probably originating in the 17th century. What appealed to you about it?

It comes from the same root as the Swan Maiden myth – or it might do – and the version I came across was more supernatural. It’s very dark and romantic and tragic. Quite often in ballads you get a woman who’s been left very sad, so the fact that this involves a male character who is left bereft – in a very beautiful way – made it stand out.

Going back to the novel’s supernatural element, was that hard to make work?

No, not for me, actually. I had to spook myself out sometimes – I would sit in the dark and try to put myself into Polly’s position. And then I read things like Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and I really studied how she did it. Some of my favourite books are those that feel contemporary and real but have that otherworldly element. I’m not interested in full-on fantastical: I like glimmers of it, interrupting the fabric of the real world.

You write beautifully about the Scottish landscape while staying true to Polly’s urban perspective. Did you want to develop the idea of “nature writing”?

I’m not like Polly: I know the west Highlands well and I love it there. But I don’t come from a rural background. What I was really thinking about was Romanticism – of the wild being wild and quite forbidding, not gentle – and Polly being very disdainful and it slowly working its magic on her. It was more fun to describe it through that urban lens.

What were your other influences?

I don’t think the novel’s turned out like any of these people’s writing at all, but I love Sarah Hall – she’s absolutely immense. I really like Sarah Waters, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith. And British art-house films that are often about rural landscapes: My Summer of LoveShell and God’s Own Country, which is my favourite film.

What are the similarities – and differences – between writing fiction and music?

They’re completely different. Writing a novel is a bit like writing an opera: it’s a massive undertaking and you’re doing everything – you’re the librettist and you’re setting the scene and doing everything else.

Can you tell us about collaborating with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris on The Lost Words?

It was very fortuitous. I tweeted Robert and he happened to listen to my music and asked me to do a piece for his “Wren” spell – he doesn’t call them poems. He’s said he wants them to “taste good in the mouth”, which is such a lovely way of talking about words. I think about that a lot because of setting words to music: they feel like they need to taste good when you’re singing them as well.

 Swansong by Kerry Andrew is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). 

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado review / Powerful debut collection

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado review – powerful debut collection

Horror, science fiction and fairytale merge in these short stories from a writer of rare daring

Justine Jordan
Thu 18 Jan 2018

ow much to get that extra stitch?” the narrator’s husband asks in the labour room as his wife is sewn up after a difficult birth. “You offer that, right?” “The husband stitch” – the term for an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening when repairing an episiotomy – is considered a dark joke from the battlefield of birth, but has been attested to as part of the violence visited on women’s bodies during labour. It’s also the title of the standout story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, a finalist in last year’s US National Book awards: a tense, seductive fairytale about rumour and silence, sex and power, autonomy and being ignored.

The narrator begins as a bold girl in the tradition of Angela Carter: “This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them ... It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want, what plays on the inside of my eyelids as I fall asleep.” She takes this young man as her husband, offering him her whole self – all except the mystery of what lies beneath the green ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. “Why do you want to hide it from me?” he asks. “I’m not hiding it,” she replies. “It just isn’t yours.” The ribbon becomes a locus for desire, aggression, control; their child had accepted it as part of his mother, but when he sees the father’s angry attempts to pull at the ends must also be warned away. “Something is lost between us, and I never find it again.” There is only one possible ending: just as Chekhov’s gun must be fired, this ribbon must eventually be untied.
You may recognise the setup from that hoary old horror story “The Green Ribbon” (inexplicably retold for first graders in the US by Alvin Schwartz in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, thereby traumatising a generation). Machado folds many folk tales into “The Husband Stitch”, from the modern classic about the hook-handed murderer disturbing teenagers who are making out in a parked car to stories of a girl who is dared to go to a graveyard after dark and an old woman who must find a liver to cook for her husband.
Machado’s skill here is to bring out what these communal stories share, exploring their deep roots in women’s experience over centuries and the way they run together “like raindrops in a pond”. At the same time she challenges our individual readings: “That may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.” She also gives stage directions, busting the story out from the page: to recreate the sound of an episiotomy, “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.

None of the other seven stories is as achieved as this one, but there’s a ragged glory to their formal experimentation and erotic fearlessness, and the gusto with which they reinvent horror, SF and fairytale tropes. Sex and death are the dominant themes, with two stories charting passion against the backdrop of apocalypse.
“Inventory” lists a woman’s erotic experiences, from the first inklings of desire in childhood, through memories of lovers both male and female, as a virus depopulates the world and any chance of physical connection dwindles. In “Real Women Have Bodies”, a riff on fashion and the constraints of body image, two young women fall in love as a mystery epidemic causes women literally to fade away. “I don’t trust anything that can be incorporeal and isn’t dead,” says one man, recasting the old misogynist joke about menstruation.
“Eight Bites” is a neat tale about self-hatred and bariatric surgery, with the fairytale promise of transformation: “It will hurt. It won’t be easy. But when it’s over, you’re going to be the happiest woman alive.” “Especially Heinous”, meanwhile, is a baggy monster: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU”, this bizarre phantasmagoria of the US TV show is written in the form of surreal episode synopses. Poking fun at cop show cliche (“‘I hate this goddamned city,’ Benson says to Stabler, dabbing her eyes with a deli napkin”) while interrogating the way sexual violence is served up as primetime viewing, it also satirises the tendency of long-running narratives to become increasingly baroque, adding in ghosts, demons, doppelgangers and the conviction that “New York is riding on the back of a giant monster”.
Machado’s manipulation of literary registers can lead to odd and jarring effects, as in the deeply uncomfortable “The Resident”, which uses the fusty language of the Victorian ghost story for a contemporary tale about an artists’ colony that teems with every horror cliche imaginable. We encounter a spooky old hotel, terrible weather, buried memories about the nascent sexuality of pubescent girls, tears “the temperature of blood” and some truly disgusting psychosomatic pustules. Towards the end the mannered veneer cracks open to expose something quietly extraordinary. Like many of these pieces, it falls somewhere between exercise and inspiration, but it signals a writer of rare daring.
 Her Body & Other Parties is published by Serpent’s Tail.