Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category
In A Tale of Love and Darkness, the 2002 masterpiece by Amos Oz, Israel’s pre-eminent novelist, there is a scene involving cheese. The question, as debated by customers in a grocery shop during the years of Israel’s youth, was simple: “To buy or not to buy Arab cheese?” On the one hand, the Arab cheese was tastier and cheaper. “But if you bought Arab cheese, weren’t you being a traitor to Zionism? Somewhere in some kibbutz or moshav, in the Jezreel Valley or the Hills of Galilee, an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, packing this Hebrew cheese for us – how could we turn our backs on her and buy alien cheese? Did we have the heart? On the other hand, if we boycotted the produce of our Arab neighbours, we would be deepening and perpetuating the hatred between our two peoples. And we would be partly responsible for any blood that was shed, heaven forbid . . . Could we be so heartless as to turn our backs on [the local Arab producer’s] rustic cheese? Could we be so cruel as to punish him? What for?”
So this quasi-Talmidic analysis goes on. Then a wry authorial voice breaks in: “Imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference of religion, nationality, or race! What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? . . . Shame! Shame and disgrace! Either way, shame and disgrace!”
This extract captures perfectly the peculiar power of a novelist’s voice to portray and interpret circumstances of political complexity. Oz cuts through the temporal, focussing instead on the fundamental universals of, as he would put it, “the human condition”; as a result, his rebuke has an almost Old Testament gravity.
Amos Oz is almost as renowned for his journalism – which he has relentlessly used to advocate the pursuit of peace via a two-state solution – as for his fiction. Yet he has always been careful to maintain a partition between the two, even using a different type of pen – one blue, one black – for each mode of writing. “I never mix them up,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “One is to tell the government to go to hell. The other is to tell stories.”
It is undeniable that the moral authority that Oz commands through his fiction lends his journalism an especial power. This dynamic has many precedents. Ernesto Sábato, the Argentinian novelist who died last year at the age of 99, is a case in point; he grew to be regarded as the foremost moral authority in the country on account of his writing. In 1983, towards the end of his career, he was appointed to lead an investigation into the fate of the 30,000 “desaparecidos”, or “people who were caused to disappear”, during the military dictatorship of the Seventies and early Eighties. His report, Nunca Más (Never Again), was a remarkably thoroughgoing, dispassionate reckoning of the human rights abuses that had occurred. At first glance, it may seem strange that a novelist was selected for this job. The circumstances were complex, but there is no doubt that it was Sábato’s moral standing – which he acquired primarily as a novelist – that gave him both the gravitas and impartiality to conduct the affair. Indeed, when he was appointed, there was a real sense that nobody else in the country could do it.
But the fact remains that there are some things a novelist can’t do. Despite decades of campaigning by Amos Oz and his friends, for instance, the two-state solution seems more elusive than ever.
Earlier this month, another distinguished Israeli novelist and peace campaigner, David Grossman – whose son, Uri, was killed in action in 2006 in southern Lebanon – joined forces with the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal to launch a fresh lobby for peace. Supported by a range of respected literary figures from around the world, they presented their appeal at the closing session of the World Forum for Democracy. The creation of a viable Palestinian state, they argued, would require “painful compromises for both parties,” including “the abandonment of settlements or their exchange for land, the renouncement of the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the sharing of Jerusalem.” They stated that there is still a “possible solution” for the Israel-Palestine conflict, but “maybe not for long”. But as moving and commendable as their speeches were, it is unlikely that many of those present believed that they would yield any significant results. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
We must answer Rushdie’s call to ‘be braver’. The only alternative is abandoning our free speech (Telegraph blog)
Last night, I was having a drink in one of the bars at the Palace of Westminster with a Tory MP. I mentioned that I’d written a couple of blog posts recently about the Muslim world, including one about the film riots and another about anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt. Neither of these had been particularly inflammatory.
“You’d better be careful,” said my companion, from his position at the heart of British power. “You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Muslim fanatics.”
Yesterday, Salman Rushdie – who has had his fatwa reinstated by an Iranian Ayatollah, with an increased bounty of $3.3 million – said that a “climate of fear” would make it impossible for the Satanic Verses to be published now. In an interview with the BBC’s Will Gompertz, he said that the opponents of free speech used a “medieval vocabulary” of blasphemy, heresy and apostasy, which has had a cumulative cultural effect. This burgeoning Islamic intolerance, he argued, forms a “straight line” from his 1989 fatwa to the 9/11 attacks. This represents a cycle of oppression in which aggressive Islamist rhetoric sparks popular violence, which in turn gives future threats teeth.
There can be no doubt that the message of intimidation has been amplified since the late eighties, with protests and attacks sparked by countless books, cartoons and films. My conversation with the MP highlighted just how successful this concerted campaign by Islamic radicals has become in suppressing free speech in Britain. The defining characteristic of terrorism is that a little bit of terror goes a long way; blow up one bus, and all passengers will worry about their safety. These days, the “climate of fear” is so pervasive that even in the mother of all parliaments, the mere mention of an article related to Islam makes MPs suck their teeth and advise you to watch your back. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Nine decades ago, on February 2 1922, Ulysses was born. It arrived in a handsome turquoise cover, its face embossed in gold. (At least, it did in Paris. In the UK it remained banned for a further fourteen years, on account of a masturbation scene.)
Over the years, this iconic Modernist text has been written about and written about. But one of its most important lines is not often enough discussed. It occurs in Episode 3, Proteus: “remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world.”
By the time he scrawled those words, James Joyce had long been working to claim the term “epiphany” on behalf of secular literature. Hitherto, the word had an ancient, and predominantly religious, history. It has its genesis in ancient Greece (ἐpιfάνeιa), where it was used beautifully to refer to the first glimmer of dawn, the first sight of the enemy in battle, or the first vision of a god. It became Judaised in 2 Maccabees, when it was used to describe the God of Israel, and was Christianised in 2 Timothy, where it mainly referred to the Second Coming; thereafter it came to describe the personal realisation that Christ was the Son of God. In AD 361, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus used the word for the first time to refer to a Christian feast (epiphanion). In the centuries that followed it was mainly used in connection to a variety of Christian festivals, which were celebrated differently, and at different times, by the different Churches.
Joyce, however – an atheist with profoundly Catholic roots (which he described as “black magic”) – felt that the term could more usefully be applied in a humanist context. Each of his Dubliners stories is structured around a central epiphany. Moreover, his less widely read autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero, contains an explicit exposition. Epiphany, Joyce writes, means “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” It is for the “man of letters” to “record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”
(Several years prior to writing this passage, Joyce himself had begun to create a group of seventy-one fleeting, disembodied epiphanies, ranging in content from the supoernatural to the mundane. Forty of these survive in manuscript form, and are collected at the American Universities of Cornell and Buffalo; they were reprinted in the early nineties by Faber.)
At first glance, Out Of It, a debut novel by the short story writer Selma Dabbagh, seems – stylistically – more easy reading than literary fiction. It is set aside, however, by the weight of the material: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Or rather, the Palestinian side of it.)
The story centres around a pair of twentysomething boy-and-girl twins, Iman and Rashid. We first meet them in Gaza in the midst of an Israeli barrage (although the precise details of place and political context are curiously obscured). Rashid is excited that he has won a scholarship to London, giving him the opportunity to finally get “out of it”. Iman, meanwhile, traumatised by the death of a friend, resolves to take a more active role in the hostilities. Read more on the Independent website
It’s not often that Radio 4 clears its entire drama schedule for a week and replaces it with a single nine-hour radio play. Yet on the week of the 18th September that is precisely what will happen. The play—Life And Fate, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role—is an adaptation of the postwar novel by little-known Russian writer Vasily Grossman.
Although Life and Fate centres around the moribund physicist Viktor Shtrum and the epic battle of Stalingrad, the novel weaves hundreds of interrelated stories and characters together to show a vivid cross-section of life under Stalin. Grossman was a high-profile frontline reporter during the war, and his fiction displays the same perceptiveness and honesty for which his journalism was renowned. Stories and characters arise and subside like waves in the broad river of humanity, winding through the horrors of the Eastern Front; the result is a novel that manages to be at once sweepingly panoramic and minutely detailed.
Life and Fate, by all accounts, is a work of colossal genius. Martin Amis called Grossman “the Tolstoy of the USSR,” and the historian Antony Beevor—speaking on a special Grossman edition of Start The Week on Radio 4 today—described the book as “one of the greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century.” Mark Damazer, the former controller of Radio 4 who commissioned the drama adaptation, was more laudatory still, calling Life and Fate “the best and most important novel of modern times.”
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, but because of the novel’s dissidence—it dared to compare Nazism and Stalinism, for example—the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB, who famously seized the typewriter and carbon paper that Grossman used to write it. A decade and a half later, a small group of radicals managed to smuggle a microfilm version of the book under the Iron Curtain; an English edition was finally published in 1985. Frustratingly enough, by that point all eyes were on Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and Life and Fate was eclipsed.
This new radio adaptation should bring the work to light again, though for the best parts of Life and Fate, you have to read the book. Continue reading on the Prospect Magazine website
The first thriller by Jake Wallis Simons, writing as Jake Simons
A renegade Mossad operative in London. A mysterious woman with CIA connections, running a drugs cartel. An important Israeli politician killed by a suicide bomb. Wikileaks. And the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, coming closer with every breath.
Coming March 2012
JWS and the Kindertransport survivor Walter Kammerling, Ayot Festival 2011
A couple of weeks back, I appeared at a festival at Ayot. (That sounds a bit like I’m a wizard. But I kind of like it.) I read from my new novel, The English German Girl, which is about the Kindertrasport. I’ve done quite a lot of readings recently while promoting the book. But this one was different. Appearing on the stage alongside me was Walter Kammerling, a Kindertransport survivor whom I interviewed six years ago, when I was just starting to write the novel. Walter was whisked out of Vienna at the age of fifteen, which is the same age as my protagonist, Rosa, leaves Berlin.
Needless to say, it was an honour to share a platform with such a courageous and inspiring man. At one point, the host, Fiona MacIntosh, asked me to read a few paragraphs from the novel. Then she turned to Walter. “Did that extract ring true?” she asked. “Has Jake accurately captured the mood of the period?” There was a long pause. This was, as they say, the 64,000 dollar question. (What does that phrase actually mean? 64,000 dollar question? Should I google it? Can’t be bothered.) Anyway, my heart was in my mouth. Walter took a breath. “Yes,” he said, decisively. “Jake captured the atmosphere very well.” Relief doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt at that moment.
At the same time, what I felt was deeper than relief. Walter had brought home to me more vividly than ever before the greater meaning of my novel, which is to keep the memory of the Kindertransport alive in the minds of future generations. Or, on an even more fundamental level, to allow people to empathise with the persecuted and oppressed. Walter had travelled halfway across the country to appear at Ayot, determined – even at the age of 91 – to spread his message of pluralism and tolerance. My book, in some very small (and perhaps incomparable) way, is contributing to this effort.
After the event, there was a signing. A few people asked Walter to sign the novel as well. Before long this became the form; I would sign it, then he would sign below. I was humbled. This seemed to be exactly the right way to end such a very unique event.
The grief of child mortality, and the wonder of faeries in San Francisco (from the Independent on Sunday)
Now, in an attempt to “crash-land him on to the British literary scene”, two of his books are being published simultaneously in the UK: A Better Angel, which contains nine of his short stories, and a novel called The Great Night, a work of magic realism based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
One key to understanding Adrian’s work (The New York Times’s reviewer of The Great Night admitted to feeling “unsure of what has just happened … and why”) is to consider it through a biographical lens. Adrian is a Fellow in Paediatric Haematology-Oncology in San Francisco. He is also a theologian, having studied at Harvard Divinity School. This gives him, as he told The Paris Review recently, “some way to think about the suffering of children that does not make you want to kill yourself”. Accordingly, his writing is almost exclusively concerned with hospitals, dying children, corporeality and existential sorrow, counterpointed with the supernatural and fabulous. The result is a beguiling, troubling and undeniably potent brand of fiction.
“Bring me the head of Kermit Warm”; a review of “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick deWitt (from the Independent on Sunday)
Turning the final page of The Sisters Brothers, the second novel by the Canadian-born writer Patrick deWitt, the reader comes face-to-face with a mug shot of the author, an angular-jawed young man wearing a deadpan expression.
So this was him, then. He was the creator of this unsettling, compelling and deeply strange picaresque novel.
The Sisters Brothers is one of those books that they call “genre bending”. The story, set against the backdrop of the 1850s Californian gold rush, goes something like this: two gun-toting brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are instructed by their boss, the shadowy “Commodore”, to hunt down and kill a chap by the unlikely name of Hermann Kermit Warm. They embark on a thrills-and-spills adventure across California, encountering a quasi-Beckettian “gallery of moribunds” on the way. The dénouement is at once serendipitous and circular.
Join Jake Wallis Simons at P&G Wells — the iconic bookshop that nestles snugly between Winchester College and Winchester Cathedral — to celebrate the publication of his new novel, The English German Girl. The evening will feature readings, discussions, and wine flowing like water. An event not to be missed.
6:30pm, P&G Wells, 11 College Street, Winchester | 01962 852016 | email@example.com