Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alex Preston / Top 10 Literary Believers

Alex Preston
Photo by Lucy Preston

Alex Preston's

top 10 literary believers

From Dostoevsky to Zadie Smith, the novelist picks his favourite portrayals of characters struggling with faith

Oscar and Lucinda
Gillian Armstrong's 1997 film version of Oscar and Lucinda.

Alex Preston was born in 1979. He lives in London with his wife and two children. His first novel, This Bleeding City, was published in 2010. His second, The Revelations, is published this month by Faber and Faber. He also writes reviews for the Observer and the New Statesman and a regular panellist on the BBC Review. He tweets as @ahmpreston.

" Steady, plodding relationships are not the stuff of great literature. As we all know, happiness writes white. Friction, fissures, flaws – love stories take their energy from impediments, they thrive under the heat of conflict. The same goes for belief. Quiet, placid faith fails to stir us. It's the dark night of the soul that we want in our fiction, the adolescent torment of Salinger's Franny or the guilt-ravaged Bendrix coming reluctantly to God in The End of the Affair.
"In previous centuries authors would have presupposed both faith and familiarity with the scriptures in their audience, but now religion has withered in the bright glare of science (at least in Britain), and our churches are increasingly Larkin's 'accoutred frowsty barn[s]'. Yet we still, some of us, feel the God-shaped hole, and courses and cults have sprung up to cater to those looking for meaning disenchanted world.
"I have always been fascinated by the outer reaches of religious experience, by the titanium-plated smiles of the born-again, by the visitations and mass-hysteria of Christian evangelicals. It's not only the secrecy and intrigue of those closed worlds; it's the way their members seem to have found an answer to so many of life's great questions. Frankly I'm envious. So when I read and write about believers, it's partly that I'm trying to find an authentic way into what they've got. So far I've not had much luck. Perhaps this is why it's characters in books who struggle with, rather than revel in, their faith who attract me.
"The four young friends in The Revelations all believe, but their conviction is tested to breaking point by the tragedy that unfolds over the course of a weekend religious retreat. Doubt stalks their every footstep, the charismatic priest who leads them suffers his own crisis of faith; that some of them are still believers at the end of the book is a kind of miracle."

1. Franny in Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger

Marcus and Abby Glass, two of the heroes of The Revelations, take their surname from Salinger's precocious family. Franny's breakdown in the second story perfectly captures the headrush of adolescent spirituality (and its resultant comedown). I have always been a little bit in love with her which is, I suppose, creepy, now I'm over 30 and she's still at college.

2. Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alyosha is a novitiate Russian Orthodox monk, Jesus-like, compassionate but totally powerless. He clashes with his brother Ivan, a rationalist and an atheist. Alyosha isn't divorced from the real world, though; he is a realist. As Dostoevsky says: "Faith, in the realist, does not spring from the miracle. But the miracle from faith."

3. Samad Iqbal in White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Literary grandees from Updike to DeLillo tried (and mostly failed) to represent the east/west cultural clash in the post-9/11 years. The most nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the experience of British Muslims comes earlier, in the form of Samad Iqbal, a devout believer attempting to fit his faith to his adopted nation. When tempted by his children's music teacher "he felt a cold thing land on his heart and knew it was the fear of his God". A character funny, touching and tragic in equal measure, through Samad Iqbal we understand the burden of the comfort of faith.

4. Sir William Gull in From Hell by Alan Moore

A high-ranking Freemason who suffers an extraordinary theophanic episode when the god Jahbulon is revealed to him in a vision, Sir William Gull uses the prostitutes he kills in the East End of London to satisfy an ancient religious blood rite. The image of the future in which a vast City skyscraper rears up above the crazed royal physician seems strikingly relevant as we survey the wreckage of the post-crash financial system: Gull's mystical cult seeks to perpetuate male dominance of society. Written at the start of the bubble that just burst, testosterone-fuelled derivatives traders were the offspring of Sir William Gull's gruesome satanic rituals.

5. Herr Naphtha in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

A Marxist Jesuit practicing a kind of religious fascism, Naphtha is one half of the dialectic duo that will bring Hans Castorp to his Bildung. The dark mirror of Settembrini's rational humanism, for Naphtha piety and cruelty are inseparable. Naphtha struggles with his inability to achieve the "graveyard peace" which he sees on the faces of his fellow believers. His death, like his life, is shockingly uncompromising.

6. Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Brought up by a fundamentalist father from the Plymouth Brethren, Oscar sees "God's hand everywhere about", whether in gambling dens, at the racecourse or in the fate that brings him to Lucinda. "Our whole faith is a wager," he tells her. "We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it."

7. Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix in By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

A Chilean priest and member of Opus Dei, Lacroix is the narrator of this deathbed novella of religious compromise and hypocrisy. A priest for the ease of lifestyle it offers, Lacroix's real calling is literature. He meets Pablo Neruda and Ernst Jünger, gives lessons in Marxist theory to General Pinochet, and then, in a brutal final scene, realises that Santiago's principal literary salon has been held above a torture chamber. As he slips towards death, a hesitant truth begins to reveal itself …

8. Esti Kuperman in Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Esti is the barren, lesbian wife of an Orthodox Jew, Dovid. Although only a foil (and lover) to the ballsy heroine, Ronit, this frail, silent character carries the heart of the novel with her. Esti is trapped with a paunchy, neurotic husband she doesn't love by her devotion to her religious belief. A book about a world that is at once bafflingly alien and surprisingly familiar.

9. Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

While his lover Sarah's faith is stronger, Bendrix's tentative, stumbling epiphany brings the novel to its breathtaking end. Greene pits the jealous lover against a jealous God; there will only ever be one winner. Bendrix's lament of "I hate You as though You exist" finally, reluctantly, becomes a prayer: "O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever."

10. Margery Kempe in The Book of Margery Kempe

Kempe's autobiography, dictated to an amanuensis, is the occasionally hilarious record of her attempts to relive Jesus's life. Her visions are full of male genitalia and gore, but they are also surprisingly touching (particularly the scene in which she makes a hot drink for the Virgin Mary to comfort her after the crucifixion). We read of Kempe's meeting with that other great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Julian's Revelation of Divine Love is more spiritual and pious; The Book of Margery Kempe is more fun.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dayna Evans / Response System

Response System
When I was in third grade and had just moved to America from England, I used to sit by this big brick wall every day at lunch and read. I didn't have any friends because all the kids thought my accent was weird, so I took solace in sitting by that wall and reading for an hour. There were many times that kids would come up to me and taunt me with "Say something, let's hear your voice, say something" and that scarred me and made me really shy. Maybe part of the reason I can't remember a lot about what I read or what I favored in books when I was little is because I associate it with a really awful time in my life when I was constantly picked on by American children.
I got over being shy, but I never dropped the habit of reading books. In a way, I think it was the books that helped me not be shy. Original, I know. I saw in them characters who were smart, interesting, weird, and somewhat manic like me, and I knew that I could take charge of my life like they had. It’s probably not surprising that I also wanted to be an actress for several years. “Hey, change yourself. Just pretend.” My experience with reading as a shy, heavily freckled and portly child was the same as when someone sees those Thor movies or The Hulk and immediately gets P90x delivered to their homes. I would read Matilda or The Secret Garden or A Wrinkle In Time and they were my P90X. I didn’t have to be a shy weird girl with a British accent anymore. There were people in this world for me and I could just pretend to be them. And if I couldn’t, there would be a Miss Honey to help me through.
Weirdly enough, I did sort of have a Miss Honey when I was in third grade. I had this teacher named Miss Rose (all third grade teachers had names taken from an Anthropologie catalog) who really took a liking to me because I knew what the word “vicissitudes” meant. I don’t know how I knew it, but it was pretty symbolic that of all words above my age bracket that I could know, it was one that represented an unfortunate change in circumstance, exactly what I saw as my falling out of favor with children my age once I moved from the UK to America. Anyway, Miss Rose tried to give me free therapy when she should have been teaching me cursive, and I shunned her much as I did my real therapist. All I needed to get me by was a dose of truth from an empowered girl character between the pages of a library book. And lucky for me, I’d found my soulmate.
by sandro castelli
Anne Frank and I had a lot in common. We had both been exiled, felt weird, and were highly perceptive while also being dumb and a little too big for our britches. She understood what I was going through, even as far as not knowing about sexuality, which I didn’t formally discover until my sophomore year in college. Her diary was my greatest inspiration to begin writing, and I can’t erase this thought from my mind fast enough, but basically as a child I thought, “Well, if that girl wrote and got famous off of it, so should I.” Yeah, I know. Now you have to deal with it, too.
In England in third grade, you study the Holocaust because the British don’t make allowances for sensitivity. We also would memorialize May Day every year by dressing up in traditional WWII garb, standing on chairs in a line outside of my primary school, and singing “You Are My Sunshine” to the tilt. The British treat their children like miniature adults with fully formed emotional response systems. When we learned about the Holocaust, I started naming my journals. I tried for “Missy” but thought that sounded too similar to “Kitty,” Anne Frank’s diary, so I changed it to “Kat.” I was a genius.
After moving to America and realizing that not only had no one in my age group heard of Anne Frank, they did not know about the Holocaust (I grew up in a very Irish/Italian neighborhood), I was distraught. But also secretly pleased. Anne Frank represented the “vicissitudes” of my cultural collateral. I not only knew big words, I knew big ideas, and my accent could no longer hold me back.
Well, it turns out it could. I continued to be mocked and disliked, especially because I grew boobs and got my period at ten, making me a verifiable leper. In times of trouble, I turned to Anne (who overcame the largest adversity I could imagine) and Mary Lennox inThe Secret Garden, who despite her awful brattiness, actually sort of healed people. I used their successes as not only an example of what my successes should be like, but I think I started to believe that I’d also done those things. Like all horribly insecure and self-aware children, I acted smarter, more together, and more aloof than I really was, but it got me through years of turmoil with the underlings of the American school system. Unfortunately, I still haven’t grown out of it.
Dayna Evans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. 


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Delia Hamish / Universal Love

Universal Love
Images by Sophie Calle

It was easier to like people immediately after sex. There was something agreeable about the way they lay there half under the rumpled sheets.
I was softer then, too. Even if I hadn’t been fond of them before, I could have agreed to marry anyone in the five minutes after sleeping with them.
It turned out if you told someone you’d like them more after sleeping with them, they’d often sleep with you just to see if you were bluffing. No one’s called my bluff so far, but I haven’t tried as hard as I might have. There are better places to route your energy, even if I haven’t found all of them yet.
Earlier, when I was young enough to get away with it, my line had been, “I don’t know whether to punch you or kiss you right now,”  although I always went with the latter, mainly because my small stature made the former unwise. Eventually word of this got around and the hint of a threat, which among the boys I favored often seemed to be an aphrodisiac, lost its powers.
Here’s a conversation I had after sex once.
“You looked like you were getting stabbed.”
"But in a good way?"
"Is there a good way to get stabbed?"
“Don’t make it easy for them,” I was told, but resisting the impulse to make it easy was the hard part for me. “Sometimes you know what you want…” I’d counter, but determining what exactly you want can be more difficult than simply aligning your desires with someone else’s.
I don’t mean to imply that isn’t pleasurable in its own way.
by sophie calle
Here’s a different conversation I had after sex once.
“I prefer men who hate all women a little bit to those who love them universally.”
I guess it wasn’t a conversation because he didn’t reply.
Up until a certain point, when they asked something it was never just a question, it was also a request, and the answer always had to be a performance: an audience-targeted rendering of who you were. Performative people enjoy this part, but they can’t bring themselves to move on from it. Non-performative people also enjoy this part, but usually can’t wait to move on from it. For a long time I was deeply mistaken as to which of these types I was.
Someone asked me not to talk about my boyfriend while we were in bed together, which seemed like a fair request. Months later I made the same error with the same person and quickly apologized, although by then I felt that since they now had me in common, it didn’t seem so crazy to mention one to the other, to associate the two out loud as I did in my head. But even the most detached people want to feel, in that one moment, the opposite of who they are, which is the appeal of sex in the first place.
You can lose touch, but you can’t un-know someone. Even if you never speak again, they’re somewhere up there, their faces after, during, before: crinkles around their eyes, a fold above their lip, a pattern of perspiration on their forehead. People sometimes talk about a physical memory that lies deep in your own muscles, your own bones. But what I think of when I hear the phrase is the impressions that remain within you of someone else’s muscles.
Delia Hamish is a writer living in Chicago.
Images by Sophie Calle.
"Titan" - Clockwork (mp3)
"BBBS" - Clockwork (mp3)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mark Brown / The real Mona Lisa?


The real Mona Lisa?

Prado museum finds

Leonardo da Vinci pupil's take

Prado says pupil painted remarkable portrait alongside Leonardo da Vinci, affording insight into how Mona Lisa actually looked

      Mona LisaView larger picture

      A detail of the nearly conserved Leonardo da Vinci pupil's take of the Mona Lisa. The Prado has yet to finish conservation work on the whole painting. Photograph: Museo Nacional del Pradio Click on magnifying glass for full image
                   A contemporaneous copy of the world's most famous painting has been discovered by conservators at the Prado in Madrid, allowing us to see the Mona Lisa as she would probably have looked at the time.
                 In art historical terms, the discovery is remarkable. The Prado painting had long been thought to be one of dozens of surviving replicas of Leonardo's masterpiece, made in the 16th and 17th centuries.
                But, The Art Newspaper reports, recent conservation reveals that the work was in fact painted by a pupil working alongside Leonardo.
                The original painting hangs behind glass and with enormous security at the Louvre, a gallery it is unlikely to ever leave. There is also no prospect of it being cleaned in the forseeable future, meaning crowds view a work that, although undeniably beautiful, has several layers of old, cracked varnish.
      This newly discovered work – found under black overpaint – allows the viewer to see a much fresher version of the captivating young woman, generally acknowledged to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
               The Prado said the restoration had been carried out over the past few months in preparation for an exhibition at the Louvre in March.
               Details of the discovery were revealed at a recent Leonardo symposium of experts at the National Gallery in London, which is how the story emerged, a spokeswoman said, adding that there was more conservation work needed and that the painting would not be revealed in its full glory for around three weeks.
              "There is much more to see. The process of conservation is still going on, we have not finished."


      Saturday, March 10, 2012

      James Baldwin / Of the Sorrow Songs

      James Baldwin
      A writer whose ouevre I have admired for a long time is James Baldwin, who was a brilliant, often controversial , novelist, poet, playewright and essayist. He was also a fierce crusader for equal rights, political thinker and black activist, friend to many. black and white, American, French and British. His books such as 'The Fire Next Time ,' 'Go Tellit on the Mountain' and 'Giovanni's Room ' have become modern classics. He was born in New York in 1924. Here he found his first public success as a lay preacher. His essays and stories began getting published in New York's leading intellectual journals.
      By 1948, however he was living in poverty in Paris, where he had gone to escape American racism and homophobia, but in a strange twist it was in France that he discovered his American identity.When he felt he could no longer ignore the problems of his own country he returned to America, where he flirted with the Black Panthers and formed a strong bond with Martin Luther King, whose death profoundly affected him.
      He spent more relaxed times in Turkey where he lived and in the South of Francewhere he spent his subsequent days. Baldwin wrote the following piece in 1979 for a small Scottish magazine.Ostesibly a review of James Lincoln Collier's ' The Making of Jazz'. It follows its own beat and becomes a sort of meditation. Writen a while back so some of parts might have got lost in the passages of time, but I feel still stands strong. Enjoy.



      29 July 1979

      I will let the date stand: but it is a false date. My typewriter has been silent since July 6th, and the pieces of paper I placed in the typewriter on that day has been blank until this hour.
      July 29th was - is - my baby sister's birthday. She is now 36 years old, is married to a beautiful cat, and they have a small son, my nephew, one of my many nephews. My baby sister was born on the day our father died: and I could not but wonder what she, or our father, or her son, my nephew, could possibly make of this compelling investigation of our lives.
      It is compelling indeed, like the nightmare called history: and compelling because the author is as precise as he is deluded.
      Allow me, for example, to paraphrase, and parody, one of his statements, and I am not trying to be unkind.

      There has been two authentic geniuses in jazz. One of them, of course, was Louis Armstrong, the much loved entertainer, striving for acceptance. The other was a sociopath called Charlie Parker, who managed... to destroy his career- and finally himself.

      Well. Then: There have been two authentic geniuses in art. One of them was, of course was Michelangelo, the much beloved court jester, striving to please the Pope. The other was amisfit named Rembrandt, who managed... to destroy his career- and finally himself.

      If one can believe the first statement, there is absolutely no reason to doubt the second. Which may be why no one appears to learn anythig from history- I am beginning to suspect that no one can learn anything from the nightmare called history - these are my reasons anyway, for attempting to report on this report from such a dangerous pint of view.
      I have learned a great deal from traversing, struggling with, this book. It is my life, my history, which is being examined -defined: therefore, it is my obligation to attempt to clarify the record. I do not want my nephew - or, for that matter, my swiss godson, or my Italian godson - to believe this 'comprhensive' history.
      People cannot be studied from a distance. It is perfectly possible that we cannot be studied at all: God's anguish, perhaps, upon being confronted with His creation. People certainly cannot be studied from a safe distance, or from the distance which we call safety. No one is, or can be, the other: there is nothing in the other, from the depths to the heights, which is not to be found in me. Of course, it can be said that 'objectiely' speaking, I do not have the temperment of an Idi Amiin. or Somoza, or Hitler, or Bokassa. Our careers do not resemble each other, and, for that, I do hank God. Yet, I am aware, that at some point in time and space, our aspirations may have been very similar., or that had we met, at some point in time and space- atschool, say, or looking for work, or at the corner bar - we might have had every reason o think so. They are men, after all, like me; mortal, like me; and all men reflect, are mirrors for, each other. It is the most fatal of all delusions, I think, not to know this: and the root of cowardice.
      For, neithr I, nor anyone else, could have known, from the beginning, what roads we would travel, what choices we wouldmake, nor what the result of these choices would be: in ourselves, in time and space, and in that nightmare we call history. Where, then, is placed the 'objective' speaker, who can speak only after, and never before, the fact? Who may, or may not, have percieved (or recieved) the truth, whatever the truth may be? What does it mean to be objective? What is meant by temperament? and how does temeramentrelate to experience? For I do not know, will never know, and neither will you, whether it is my experience which is responsible for my temperament, or my temperament which must be taken to task for my experience.
      I nationam attacking, of course, the basis of the language - or perhaps the intention of the language - in which history is written - am speaking as the son of the Preacher-Man. This is exactly how the music called jazz began, and out of the same necessity: not only to redeem a history unwritten and despised, but to checkmate the European notion of the world. For until this hour, when we speak of history, we are speaking only of how Europe saw - and sees - the world.
      But there is a very great deal in the world which Europe does not, or cannot, see: in the very same way that the European musical scale cannot transcribe - cannot write down, does not understand - the notes, or the price, of this music.
      Now, the author's research is meticulous. Collier has had to 'hang' in many places - 'has been there', as someone predating jazz might put it: but he has not, as one of my more relentless sisters might put it, 'been there and back'.
      My more relentless sister is merely, in actuality, paraphrasing, or bearing witness to , Bessie Smith: "picked up my bag, baby, and I tried it again". And so is Billie Holliday, proclaiming - not complaining - that "my man wouldn't want me no breakfast/wouldn't give me no dinner/squawked about my supper/and threw me out doors/had the nerve to lay/a matchbox on my clothes.
      "I didn't, " Buillies tells us, "have so many. But I had a long, long ways to go.
      Thus, Aretha Franklin demands respect: having 'stolen' the song from Otis Redding. (As Otis Redding tells it: sounding strangely delighted to declare himself the victim of this sociopathological act.) Aretha dared to 'steal' the song from Otis because not many men, of any colour, are able to make the enormous confession, the tremendous recognition, contained in try a little tenderness.
      And: if you can't get no satisfaction you may find yourself boiling a bitch's brew while waiting for someone to bring me my gun! or start walking toward the weeping willow tree or ramble where you find strange fruit - black, beige, and brown - hanging just across the tracks where it's tight like that and you don't let the sun catch you crying. It is always: farewell to storyville.
      For this celebrated number has only the most passing, and, in truth, impertinent, reference to the red-light districy of New Orleans, or to the politician for whom it was named: a certain Joseph Story. What a curious way to enter, briefly, history, only to be utterly obliterated by it: which is exactly what is happening to Henry Kissinger. If you think I am leaping, you are entirely right. Go back to Miles, Max, Dizzy, Yard-Bird, Billie, Coltrane: who were not, as the striking - not to say quaint - European phrase would have it, improvising: who can afford to improvise, at those prices?
      By the time of Farewell to Storyville'. and long before that time, the demolition of black quarters - for that is what they were, and are, considered - was an ireducible truth of black life. This is what Bessie Smith is telling us , in 'Back Water Blues'.This song has as much to do with the flood as 'Didn't it Rain' has to do with Noah, or as 'If I had my way' has to do with Samson and Delilah, and poor Samson's excess of hair. Or, if I may leap again, there is a song being born, somewhere, as I write, cocerning the present 'boat people', which will inform us, in tremendous detail, how ships are built. There is a dreadful music connnecting the building of ovens with the activity of contractors, the reality of businessmen ( to say nothing of business) and the reality of bankers and flags, and the European middle class, and its global progeny, and Gypsies, Jews, and soap: and profit.
      The music called Jazz came into existence as an exceedingly laconic description of black circumstances: and, as a way, by describing these circumstances, of overcoming them. It was necessary that the description be laconic: the iron necessity being that the description not be overheard. Or, as the indescribably grim remnants of the European notion of the 'nation-state' would today put it, it wac absolutely necessary that the description not be ' decoded'. It has not been 'decoded', by the way, any more than the talking drum has been de-coded. I will try to tell you why.
      I have said that people cannot be described from a distance. I will, now, contradict myself,and say that people can be described from a distance that they themselves haveestablished between themselves and what we must, here call life. Life comes out of music, and music comes out of life: without tusting the first, it is impossible to create the second. The rock against which the European notion of the nation-state has crashed is nothing more- and absolutely nothing less- than the question of identity. Who am I? and what am I? and what am I doing here?
      This question is the very heart, and root, of the music we are discussing: and contains ( if it is possble to make the distinction) not so much a moral judgement as a precise one.

      The Irish, for example, as it now, astoundingly, turns out, never had he remotest desire to become English, neither do the people of Scotland, or Wales: and one can suppose thepeople of Canada, trapped as they are between Alaska and Mexico, with only the heirs of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny between themselves and these two definitely unknown ports of call, distract themselves with the question of whether they are French or English only because their history has now allowed them the breathing space to find out what in Giod's name (!) it means to be Canadian. The Basques do not wish to be French, or Spanish, Kurds and Berbers do not wish to be Iranian, or Turkish.
      If one travels from Naples, to Rome, to Torino. it can by no means be taken for granted that the nation- hammered into a nation, after all, quite recently- ever agreec, among themselves, to be that. The same is true of an egually arbitrary invention, Germany: Bavaria is not Berlin. For that matter, to e in Haifa is not at all like being in Jerusalem, and neither place resembles Nazareth. Examples abound: but , at this moment, the only nations being discussed are those which have become utiitarian but otherwise useless, Sweden, for examole, or Switzerland, which is not a nation, but a bank. There are those territories which are considered to be 'restive' (Iran, Greece) or those which are 'crucial' and 'unstable'. Peru, for the moment, is merely 'unstable', though one keeps on it a nervous eye: and though we knoe that there's a whole lot of coffe in Brazil, we don't know who's going to drink it. Brazil threatens to become. as we quite remarkably put it, one of the 'emeging' nations, like Nigeria, because those decisions, in those places, involve not merely continents, but the globe. Leaving aside the 'crafty East' - China, and Russia - there are only embarrassments, like the British colonial outpost, named for a merciless, piatinical murderer/colonizer: named Cecil Rhodes.
      What, indeed, you may ask, has all this to do with 'The Making of Jazz? A book concernrd, innocently and earnestly enough with the creation of black American music.
      That music is produced by, and bears witness to, one of the most obscene adventures in the history of mankind. It is a music which creates, as what we call History cannot sum up the courage to do, the response to that universal question:

      Who am I? What am I doing here?

      How did King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Bessie, Armstrong- a roll-call more vivid than what is called History - Bird, Dolphy, Powell, Pettford, Coltrane, Jelly Roll Morton, The Duke - or the living, again, too long a roll-call: Miss Nina Simone, Mme Mary Lou Williams, Carmen McRae, The Count, Ray, Miles, Max,- forgive me, children, for all the names I cannot call- how did they, and how do they, confront that question? and make of that captivity, a song?
      For, the music began in capyivity: and is , still, absolutely, created in captivity. So much for the European vanity: which imagines with a single word, history,it controls the past, defines the
      present: and therefore, cannot but suppose that the future will prove to be as willing to be brought into captivity as the slaves they imagine themselves to have discovered, as the nigger they had no choice but to invent.
      Be careful of inventions: the invention describes you, and will certainly betray you. Speaking as the son of the Preacher-Man, I know that it was never intended, in any way whatever, that either the Father, or the Son, should be heard. Take that any way you will:
      I am trying to be precise.
      If you know- as a black American must know, discovers at his mother's breast, and then, in the eyes of his father- that the world which calls itself white: and which has the further, unspeakable cowardice of calling itself free - if you will dare imagine that I, speaking now, as a black witness to the white condition, see you in a way that you cannot afford to see me: if you can see that the invention of the black condition creates the trap of the white identity; you will see what a blck man knows about a white man stems, inexorably, from the white man's description of who, and what, he takes to be the other: in this case, the black cat: me.
      You watch this innocent criminal destroying your father, day by day, hour by hour - your father! despising your mother, your brothers and your sisters; and this innocent criminal will cut you down, without any mercy, if any of you dares to say a word about it.
      And not only is he trying to kill you. He would also like you to be his accomplice - discreet and noiseless accomplice- in this friendly democratic, and, alas, absolutely indispensable action. I didn't, he will tell you, make the world.

      You think, but you don't say, to your friendly murderer, who, sincerely, means you no harm:
      Well, baby, somebody better. And, in a great big hurry.

      Thus, you begin to see; so, you begin to sing and dance; for ,thoseresponsible for your captivity require of you a song. You beginthe unimaginable horror of contempt and hatred; then, the horror of self-contempt, and self-hatred. What did I do? to be so black, and blue?If you survive - as, for example, the 'sociopath'. Yard-Bird, did not, as the 'junkiei', Billie Holliday, did not - you are released onto the tightrope tension of bearing in mind: every hour, every second, drunk, or sober, in sickness, or in health, those whom you must not even begin todepend on for the truth: and those to whom you must not lie.
      It is hard to be black, and, therefore, officially, and lethally, despised. It is harder than to despise so many of the people who think of themselves as white: before whose blindness you present the obligatory, historical grin.
      And it is harder than that, out of this devastation - Ezekiel's valley: Oh, Lord. Can these bones live? - to trust life, and to live a life, to love, and be loved.
      It is out of this, and much more than this, that black American music springs. This music begins on the auction-block.
      Now, whoever is unable to face this - the auction-block; whoever cannot see that the auction-block is the demolition accomplished, furthermore, at that hour of the world's history, in the name of civilization: whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slauhtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father: or whoever pretends that the white father did not - literally, and knowing what he was doing - hang, and burn, and castrate, his black son: whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the beat which is the key to music, and the key to life.
      Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognises, changes and conquers time.
      Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide: and time becomes a friend.

      Originally Published in the 'New Edinburgh Review' Autumn 1979


      Tuesday, March 6, 2012

      Leonardo Padura / Top 10 Cuban Novels

      Leonardo Padura's top 10 Cuban novels

      Hemingway and Hijuelos are here, but the author of the Havana Quartet also looks beyond the Cuba we think we know to introduce some of the island's more hidden literary treasures

      Leonardo Padura
      The Guardian
      Wednesday 4 March 2009

      Two musicians play trombones on the sea wall in Havana, Cuba
      A view beyond the cliches ... Two musicians on the sea wall in Havana.
      Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

                    Leonardo Padura was born in 1955 in Havana and lives in Cuba. He has published a number of short-story collections and literary essays but international fame came with the Havana Quartet, all featuring Inspector Mario Conde. Like many others of his generation, Padura had faced the question of leaving Cuba, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s, when living conditions deteriorated sharply as Russian aid evaporated. He chose to stay.
                 Cuba is a country of poets. It would almost be too easy to select 10 poets or books of poetry that play a key role in the short history of Cuban literature. But there are excellent – and diverse – Cuban novelists, too few of whom are available in English translation. The 10 I've picked here will hopefully give some idea of both the country's literary tradition, and its imaginative life.

      1. Explosion in a Cathedral (El siglo de las luces) by Alejo Carpentier (1962, trans. John Sturrock)

      I am convinced that this is the highpoint of the Cuban novel, the perfect fiction and supreme expression of stylistic and conceptual ambition in narrative prose. In this account of the impact of the French Revolution in the Caribbean, the theme is the tragic destiny that awaits all revolutions: the failure of their grand aims and the perversion of their beautiful ideals.


      2. Cecilia Valdés Or El Angel Hill (Cecilia Valdés) by Cirilo Villaverde (1882, trans. Helen Lane)

      This is considered to be one of the best examples of 19th century realism and romanticism in Spanish and the finest evocation of Cuban customs of that era. Its characters departed the novel's pages long ago to become prototypes of what it means to be Cuban. The most beautiful and tragic love story ever written in Cuba, it also encompasses the horrors of the African slave trade and gives full literary expression to the city of Havana. It is the classic.


      3. Three Trapped Tigers (Tres tristes tigres) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1967, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine & Donald Gardner)

      This is the book which created a literary language of Havana. It's a kind of cathedral of words, and no translation could do it full justice, but readers throughout the world have enjoyed Cabrera Infante's fiction thanks to his wit and the stories he welds together in an unrivalled portrait of 1950s Havana nightlife, the golden age of Cuban music and the city. Once you've read this, Havana will never look the same again.


      4. Paradiso by José Lezama Lima (1974, trans. Gregory Rabassa)

      Admired rather than read or valued, and in many ways poetry rather than fiction, Paradiso is one of the most influential novels in the Spanish language. Written in a completely different register to the baroque of Carpentier or colloquial of Cabrera Infante, the author's mastery of language has created a whole school of "Lezamian" writers. In Paradiso, as in any poet's novel, the way the story is told is more important than the story itself and the digressions much more than mere anecdotes. It is a magnificent exercise in style.


      5. The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) by Alejo Carpentier (1953, trans. Harriet de Onís)

      Carpentier yet again: we could also include in this list his 1949 novel The Kingdom of This World (1957), which gave birth to the aesthetic of "the real and marvellous from America". As in all his work, Carpentier's perspective is universal: he uses the journey of a western intellectual to the heart of the South American jungle to narrate the physical possibility of going back in time to the origins of civilisation. Its great merit, however, is the way it makes us feel the vicissitudes experienced by the novel's musician protagonist, who understands that individuals have no choice but to accept the time and history fate has dealt them.


      6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

      This is, of course, the best-known novel about Cuba by a non-Cuban author. And that's fair enough: thanks to The Old Man and The Sea Hemingway was awarded the Nobel prize, the gold medal for which still sits in the famous shrine to Our Lady of Charity at El Cobre, the Caribbean version of the Virgin Mary who is Cuba's patron saint. Although it merely recounts the story of a fisherman who after eighty-four days of "bad luck" finally makes a big catch, the novel is also about man's willpower and spirit of endurance. A beautiful fable for the human condition.


      7. Temporada de ángeles (1983), Lisandro Otero; A Season For Angels, not translated.

      Another great Cuban novel that is not set in Cuba: it goes back to the English Industrial Revolution, the beheading of Charles I and rule by Oliver Cromwell. It too makes a critique, from a literary perspective, of the fate of the great ideals of justice, freedom and equality. And of the perversity of politicians.


      8. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), Óscar Hijuelos

      Hijuelos was born in Cuba but has lived in the United States from childhood and wrote this Pulitzer-prize winning work in English. Significantly, it is a novel created from all the stereotypical features that have gone into the construction of the image of Cubans for foreigners: their music, dancing, passion as lovers and romantic, rebellious spirit. Although there are more important novels written in Cuba from a literary point of view, the great international success of The Mambo Kings and its nostalgic portrait of a Cuba that is more dream than reality, make it a necessary player in the field of the Cuban novel.


      9. Antes que anochezca (1990), Reinaldo Arenas; Before Night Falls, trans. Dolores M. Koch (1993)

      A novel in every sense of the word, even though the raw materials are more or less real episodes from the more or less real life of its author, Reinaldo Arenas, one of the most intense, maudit, and visceral of Cuban writers. Arenas wrote and published this heartrending work just before his lonely and equally heartrending death in freezing New York. Its style, exuberance and rage are the stuff of great fiction, as was its author.


      10. El negrero (1933), Lino Novás Calvo; The Slave-trader, not translated

      This novel doesn't take place in Cuba, but mainly in the slave-trading centres on the coasts of Africa and in the boats that transported their human cargo to the island: the Africans who have contributed so much to Cuba's economic, cultural, religious and ethnic riches. The Slave-trader (the story of Pedro Blanco from Málaga, one of the last slave-traders from the middle of the 19th century) is a wonderful novel that, alongside Faulkner's, inspired Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, the creators of the Latin American magical-realist novel.

      Translated by Peter Bush


      Saturday, March 3, 2012

      Francesca Simon / Top 10 Antiheroes


      Francesca Simon's top 10 antiheroes

      From Just William to Scarlett O'Hara, Tom Ripley to Molesworth, the author of the Horrid Henry books picks out her favourite suspects in a line-up of classic bad behaviour

      Francesca Simon
      The Guardian
      Wednesday 21 Octubre 2009

      Antiheroes (Molesworth, Scarlett O'Hara, Just William and Tom Ripley)
      Bad examples ... Molesworth, Scarlett O'Hara, Just William and Tom Ripley. Photographs: Corbis/PR/AllStar

      Francesca Simon was born in St Louis, Missouri, grew up in California, and attended both Yale and Oxford universities, where she specialised in Medieval Studies. Having worked as a freelance journalist, after her son Joshua was born in 1989 she started writing children's books full-time.
                    Among the 50-plus books that have followed are the immensely popular Horrid Henry series, which has now sold more than 12m copies in 24 countries. The 17th book in the series, Horrid Henry Wakes the Dead, was published on October 1.

                   "I have always loved books about rebels and non-conformists, people who swagger through life with a fierce edge and a stubborn refusal to behave themselves. No one in these books would ever win Miss Congeniality or Mr Nice Guy. Their faults definitely exceed their virtues.
                    "I'm also partial to selfish, and self-obsessed characters (no surprises there), so I've picked some favourite anti-heroes and heroines. Let's face it, we all need to let our inner imp out sometimes."



      1. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

      I read book one of the Bartimaeus trilogy lying on a sofa, and did not get up until I'd finished. Jonathan Stroud has had a brilliant idea, that Britain is secretly run by a cabal of magicians who get power by summoning and enslaving "djinnies". These djinns hate their masters, and of course will do anything to break free. Our young anti-hero, Nathaniel, summons the sarcastic, powerful Bartimaeus, whom he orders to steal the Amulet from Nathaniel's nemesis. The witty, sarcastic Bartimaeus is a wonderful creation, and I loved the tense relationship he has with the arrogant, immature and somewhat amoral Nathaniel.


      2. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

      One of my all time favourite heroines, the outrageous Pippi does exactly as she pleases, because she's rich, strong enough to lift a horse, parent-free, and completely indifferent to what anyone else thinks about her. I loved the idea of a girl who tricked grown-ups and was a brilliant liar – or should I say storyteller?


      3. Just William by Richmal Crompton

      I never read Just William as a child and had to wait until I'd written several Horrid Henrys before I dared, as I was quite nervous that the two characters would be very similar. I was relieved to discover that William is actually much nicer than Henry, though they share a similar yearning for freedom and a love of plotting. I adore William's laziness, his disobedience, his refusal to be civilised. It's no accident his gang is called the Outlaws.


      4. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

      Artemis is a swashbuckling anti-hero, a teenage criminal mastermind who devotes his ruthless intelligence to amassing loot and fighting fairies. Great fun, and a great example of the anti-hero as protagonist.


      5. Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans

      My friend the writer Eleanor Updale was horrified that I'd never read Molesworth, and insisted I buy the books last year, which I did. Molesworth, "the curse of St Custards" is an irredeemably lazy and sardonic schoolboy, trapped at a boarding prep school, where he battles the gruesome head boy, Grabber, (winner of the mrs joyful prize for raffia work), assorted mad masters, and the soppy Fotherington-Thomas. The books are unbelievably funny, and the illustrations by Ronald Searle have an irresistible gothic creepiness.


      6. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

      Calvin is a stroppy, imaginative six-year-old at war with the world, Hobbes is his stuffed tiger who comes to life when no one else is around. Our whole family adores Calvin and cheers him on. The funniest, and most delightful modern comic.


      7. Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman

      These 10 rhymed stories feature disobedient, truculent children who come to horrible ends. My favourite has always been Kaspar, the strong healthy boy who won't eat his soup, until he wastes away and dies on the fifth day. My siblings and I recited this story endlessly.


      8. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

      I discovered this book by accident while on holiday in France and staying with friends of my parents. I remember lying out in the Provence sun quite unable to believe what I was reading, as I'd never encountered an amoral psychopath as a novel's "hero". Utterly gripping and creepy, one of the books that you never forget. I also got sun stroke from lying outside reading for too long, but that's another story.


      9. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

      Who could fail to be captivated by Scarlett O'Hara and her single-minded determination to have her own way and do whatever needs to be done, whether it's stealing her sister's fiance, or marrying yet another man just to spite Ashley Wilkes? What's fantastic about Scarlett is her incredible determination and bravery. She's also a rotten mother, two-faced, selfish, and a force of nature. I've read this book many, many times; I don't mean to, but Scarlett grabs me and I get swept away.


      10. Paradise Lost by John Milton

      I was stuck for a 10th choice, until my son Joshua reminded me about Paradise Lost. Milton's tormented and arrogant Satan, the fallen angel, is a great anti-hero, and demonstrates all too vividly the seductive attractiveness of the rebel who refuses to obey, despite the cost. You can feel Milton struggling to resist him.