The Tyranny of Experts

I just got invited to the discussion of William Easterly's new book "The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and Forgotten Rights of the Poor" but unfortunately it's in New York, where I'm not. The book sounds extremely interesting so I wanted to share the information:

Global poverty has largely been viewed as a technical problem that merely requires the right expert solutions.Yet all too often, experts recommend solutions that fix immediate problems while ignoring the political oppression that created them in the first place, accidentally colluding with autocrats who violate the rights of the poor.  The Tyranny of Experts traces the history of the fight against global poverty, showing how development has long suppressed the vital debate on the individual rights of people in developing countries, the crucial debate on whether unchecked power for dictators is the problem and not the solution.

"Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler" - and Simone

I did it again, and I enjoyed it as much as always: A Literary Cocktail. This time, two books by two completely different women, both describing their experiences of the WWII, both magically complementing each other. Trudi Kanter’s “Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “Wartime Diaries”. Ursula Doyle, the editor of the new publication of Trudi Kanter’s book found a copy of the book in a British bookstore in ‘80s. Trudi died in 1992, she had no children and all traces of here are lost. How she managed to write a book in English in her ‘80s is a mystery. Trudi was a hat designer, a truly independent woman who ran her own workshop with 20 employees on stylish Kohlmarkt 11 when Nazis marched into Vienna, forcing Trudi to turn the world upside down to escape together with her new (handsome but and completely useless) husband. 

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Simone's comment to my previous post

Something for my German speaking readers. I wanted to follow up on my previous entry – and before I did, I found almost the same description and opinion in Simone de Beauvoir’s “New York, mon amour” – her diary of her first visit to New York in 1947. Are times not changing after all? Unfortunately, there is no English translation of this book. “Wenn man in New York ankommt, erscheint einem der Glanz der Haare und des Teints wie ein Wunder – aber das ist ein Wunder, das viel Geld kostet. Eine andere Tatsache ist, wie ich glaube, besonders bezeichnend: die der Amerikanerin aufgezwungene Standardkleidung ist nicht bestimmt, ihrer Bequemlichkeit zu dienen;  diese Frauen, die bei jeder Gelegenheit so nachdrücklich ihre Unabhängigkeit fordern und deren Haltung dem Mann gegenüber so leicht aggressiv wird, ziehen sich für die Männer an: diese Absätze, die ihren Gang lähmen, diese zerbrechlichen Federn, diese Blumen mitten im Winter – all dieser Putz soll unzweifelhaft ihre Fraulichkeit unterstreichen und die Blicke der Männer anziehen. Tatsächlich ist die Toilette der Europäerin weniger unterwürfig.” Pg. 78

Literaturhaus Rezension "Tiotland"

Die 1974 in Zagreb geborene Autorin legt mit diesem als Roman ausgewiesenen Prosatext eine fiktionalisierte Autobiografie ihrer Kindheit und frühen Jugendjahre im ehemaligen Jugoslawien vor. Erzählt wird die Zeit vom unfreiwilligen Eintritt in den Kindergarten bis zur mehr oder weniger erzwungenen Übersiedlung und also Emigration nach Österreich im Zuge des Balkankrieges. Die Tochter einer Filmschauspielerin und eines Architekten blickt auf einen ereignisreichen Start ins Leben zurück, das trotz des autoritären Führungsstils eines Josip Broz alias Tito nicht nur in vorgezeichneten Bahnen verlief, sondern ungeahnte Möglichkeiten zur individuellen Entfaltung bot, was sicherlich auch dem gesellschaftlichen Status der Eltern geschuldet war. 

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Un roman français

Just finished Frédéric Beigbeder’s „Un roman français“, highly praised by the French press. Yes, the clown is finally gone. Instead, there is honesty, vulnerability, depth, Chantilly language and some fantastic thoughts. In a way it's his first book. I was very curious and excited about the book. Opening Beigbeder’s books for the first time always makes me feel like a kid opening Christmas presents. My first reaction was very emotional. After reading three pages, I had to put the book away. It was spooky. What I was reading felt like my unwritten words. My thoughts about writing, about family, about the childhood. About amnesia. Just like Beigbeder, I also suffer from a complete amnesia about my childhood. No memories whatsoever.

But this is where the similarities end. In contrary to my childhood, which was bursting with dramatic episodes, Beigbeder’s childhood is just plain…. boring. It takes artistry (and yes, some tricks) to write a whole (good) book about a boring childhood. Noble ancestors, holidays in family villas, Bently rides to the country club, parents’ divorce which magically went by without one bad word, let alone a fight, a caring mother and a cool father, a handsome brother. Beigbeder is nice to his readers, and even excuses himself for this boring childhood, mentioning that probably most childhoods are boring. That is his actual problem – or the actual inspiration for creating what is today his famous public persona – Beigbeder is extremely isolated in his French bourgeois capsule.  No Fréderic, most childhoods are everything but boring!

This extreme boredom (I actually cannot believe that one can have such a childhood. He must be romanticising it.) is for a person like me, who often complains about the challenges life has opposed on her, a very important message - boredom is actually a curse! Especially for a sensible, creative, educated person like Beigbeder who wants to feel the whole intensity of life and reproduce it in his writing. What to do when there is nothing is there? Search in all the wrong places. Search in clubs and parties and young female bodies. Search in alcohol and drugs.

And it is the drugs (cocaine) that gave Beigbeder the huge gift of finally having a dramatic experience – and a chance to grow up. After getting arrested for snorting coke on a hood of a parked car, he ends up in a jail. And hey, an eternal kid finally gets to experience a bit of “not boredom” – which he describes as horror! Two nights in jail are such a trauma that he finally decides to try growing up and writes his best book yet.

The book is honest, the book is self-critical, the book is a fantastic portrait of bored bourgeoisie. But there is a disturbing feeling that here,  he is trying to make everything right. Through self-criticism and through glorifying others. His mother is a self-scarifying saint. His father is a cool businessman heartbroken because his wife left him. His ex-wife should be pitied for her role of  a single mother. The brother is a handsome successful knight. The daughter is an angel. Jesus! What is happening here!? “I’ve been a bad boy till now, I did and said some bad things but let me try correct it here!”??? This glorifying of his family feels ... intentional. The end result is making the boring life he is describing seem even more uninteresting.

I was extremely excided for Frédéric when I finished the book. Personally. I was happy for him because he seems to have (finally) reached another stage in his life. I know how great that feels. Knowing him, I believe he has actually reached this stage long ago but it took this book, admitting it on paper and turning it into peace of art, to make it “official”. But the book also made me sad. For the emptiness. It made me want to take him by the hand and take him to Baghdad for a few moths to live with an Iraqi family. And then make him work in a hospital with very ill children. Anything that would make him a bit ashamed for dramatizing two nights in a jail.

But most of all, this book made me grateful for all challenges life has given me. I will not complain about them anymore. But honestly - I did have enough!

P.S. Definitely do read if you want to know why we write.

Susan & Charles

I have just finished reading Susan Sonntag's Reborn (Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963) and Charles Bukowski's Women. And I’ve never enjoyed a cocktail of books as much. Both completely different, both equally fantastic and both perfectly complementing each other. Sontag is a must read for any young (female) intellectual. The book shows a woman who chooses to become an intellectual and who works on this project with incredible self-discipline and austerity. She is rational, she is constructing, she is determined. She is analyzing. She is a brain, wishing to be more of a heart/soul. She is voluntarily locked inside of her elitist world of US and European intellectuals. And very confused about her homosexuality and continuously intellectualizing sexuality. What touched me personally was seeing that all of us who write go through same fights and conversations with ourselves.  It is a never-ending feeling of guilt, of not working enough, of not being disciplined enough, of not being good enough:

“From now on I’m going to write every bloody thing that comes into my head.

A kind of foolish pride which comes from dieting on high culture for too long.

I have diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the type-writer.

I don’t care if it’s lousy. The only way to learn how to write is to write.

The excuse that what one is contemplating isn’t good enough.”

Bukowski on the other hand is ..... Bukowski. The opposite of Sontag. Locked in his own world of alcohol, drugs, sex and his own writing. Avoiding intellectuals and despising anything to do with them. She is a brain looking for her soul and he is a dick looking for his. While she is trying to grab the world around her and understand it and construct it, he is locking himself away from the world around him, trying not to understand but to feel it and destruct it. Unfortunately only sexually.

When I started reading Sonntag, I found it too boring so I put her away. Few weeks later I started reading Bukowski which I also found a bit... uninteresting. But then I discovered the mix: I literally mixed the two books while I was reading them, jumping from one to the other. They started speaking to each other, each picking a different part of my brain.

And this was exciting!

So now I 'm wondering how to turn into a book-tender and always know which books to mix for the maximum effect….

(Not so) Bright Star

Warning to all helpless romantics out there – if you plan to see “Bright Star”, Jane Campion’s film about John Keats and his love for his Fanny, do not expect too much. I was yet again fooled by a trailer. I must finally accept the fact that trailers are like wonderbras. You can only get disappointed. It is sad that a woman who made “Piano”, one of the most poetic films of all times, made a movie about one of the greatest poets of all times – without poetry. The editing was clumsy, photography was average, and at times even bad, the scenes which were meant to be poetic were just touched upon and left hanging in the air. And she never managed entering Keats. What happened there? Was Keats’ grandness cramping Campion, so that she hasn’t managed to unfold her talent? Pity, pity.

But the movie struck me for another point (as all those costumed dramas do): Ah, glorious times when life was so intense! When a letter traveled for weeks and it was kissed and cherished and reread because it was the only contact to your lover. When you had to think well about what you will write or communicate because you only had a very limited chance to do it. When the other person was sacred and adored because he/she was unique. And the one you were to stick to for the rest of your life. Which made it easier to project positive feelings on him/her.

When winter was dangerous, so you stayed inside, when a ball was a grand experience so you consciously enjoyed it, when a book was a rarity so it was precious.

We just have too much of everything. People, information, excitements, experiences, possibilities, things.  Too much of everything dilutes everything. Life is diluted, experiences are diluted. We are diluted.

Thank you, Mr. Keats.

Link to The Bright Star

Miss Tajder, Mrs. Geier and Mr. Dostoevsky

No clue what happened here. A block. Fear?

Club 2 happened and I started writing for where my posts were very well read but also heavily discussed. It is new to me that my writing and my opinions are being widely discussed. It is great. But also a bit frightening. It is like all those people are trying to get into your most intimate sphere, your brain. I’ll get used to it. I guess.

And before I start bitching about the topic that obsesses me for past days (all huge crisis happen when I’m ill and locked at home so I have enough time to get well informed. About how bad things really are) – GREECE, I want to concentrate on something more beautiful. Food for the soul.

In one of the past Spiegel (German weekly political magazine), there is an interview with a lady called Swetlana Geier. Mrs Geier is 87. When she was 65, she stared translating Dostoevsky’s 5 master pieces, so called “5 Elephants”. Those new translations are apparently so fantastic that they won numerous prizes. A film about Mr. Geier just got released: “Die Frau mit 5 Elefanten”. The film is currently playing in Austrian cinemas. Here some incredible passages from the interview:

About different rhythms of life

She is talking about “crime and Punishment” which is written in a very fats rhythm, in presto. In the last paragraph of the book, a word is being repeated: “postepenny”, gradually. A slow word. She says: “Life goes gradually. If one hasn’t learned anything else after having read this book, this was enough. Violence is fast and sudden. Life goes gradually.”

About the physicality of translating (or any other work)

Her German teacher taught her to lift her nose while translating. “You don’t translate like a caterpillar eating its way through a leaf. You translate the sentence from a flight of a bird. It is about the whole.“ (Isn’t everything?)

About the language

She is explaining why she is dictating her translations and not writing them down: “Language doesn’t depend on paper. Language lives in the air and it lives from the air. Even that what has been written by some human being at some point – even “Faust” by Goethe or a Pushkin text – originated in imagination. This is why I don’t want to primarily see a new text, but to say it.”

About time and the divine consciousness

“”Suddenly” means that a realization is limited. You don’t know that behind you there is a big spider walking above your head. We know only that what we see, and that what we don’t see happens to us suddenly. It is a dimension of a mundane human being dependent on his senses. We know little, we hear little, we divine nothing. But there is a consciousness that has no “suddenly”, the divine consciousness. And it is incredibly interesting, that in “Crime and Punishment”, which talks about the limited perception of humans, Dostoevsky uses the word “suddenly” so often.”

Multiple-choice quiz of the day

I just looket at Falter Bücher and Residenz Magazin editions for the fall 2009. Falter is featuring 82 books by male authors and 18 books by female authors (that's approximate value because I didn't check every Chinese name for the sex).

Residenz is featuring 21 books by male authors and 7 books by female authors.

And here the quiz of the day!

This is because:

a) There are no female authors

b) Women write bad or uninteresting books

c) This is just another male-dominated industry

Please circle the right answer.

Satrapi on depression, creativity and adopting a foreign culture

From diverse  interviews.... "Well depressive, I don't know. If you have a little sensibility or a heart you have all the reason to be depressed once in a while. But the depression is like a motor for creation. I need a little bit of depression, a bit of acid in my stomach, to be able to create. When I'm happy I just want to dance."

“That is the capacity of the human being, that everything suddenly becomes absolutely normal.”

“If you want to have another culture come into you, it’s like you have to take out the first one, and then choose what you want from the two and swallow them again.”

“I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more.”

Satrapi vs. Nafisi. 1:0.

The Mind and the Heart of Iranian Women

Two stories about lives of women in Iran have been loudly heard in past years: Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis. They are interesting for their similarities and contrasts.

Two female Iranian voices have been loudly heard in the world of literature during past few years: first came Azar Nafisi in 2003 with her bestselling book Reading Lolita in Tehran. And then, in 2007, came Marjane Satrapi with the award-winning movie Persepolis based on her book of memoirs from 2000. There are a lot of similarities between the stories of these two women: Both grew up in Iran, both have studied in a western country, both have returned to Iran, just to flee the country for one last time. And finally, both of them have put a pen to paper to write about their lives in Iran, about the country and its people, about the revolution, the war with Iraq and the oppressive regime. But this is where the similarities end and the differences start. The first and most obvious difference being: one wrote her story and the other one drew it.

Further differences show up right upon starting to read the books. It is this game of comparing and contrasting that makes parallel reading the work of those two women interesting. Whereas they are both criticising the Islamic regime in their home country and showing a painful picture of what it means to be a woman under such a regime, there is one major difference: Nafisi does this with her mind and Satrapi with her heart.  Maybe this is the reason why Nafisi faced strong criticism - much can be forgiven to the heart.

Reading Lolita in Thehran has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over one hundred weeks and has been translated into thirty-two languages. The fact that Nafisi is an academic and that she had studied literature explains the complex construction of her book. Her book works on three levels: descriptions of every day life in Tehran, stories about meetings of her book club in which she discussed with her students the western literature forbidden in Iran, and finally, the analysis of those books. The book is divided into four sections, each with its theme. In Lolita, the main theme is oppression –and it describes how revolutionary guards assert their authority. Gatsby chapter is about the dream, in this case the Iranian dream of revolution and the way it was shattered for Nafisi. The James chapter is about uncertainty which totalitarian mindsets have a strong aversion towards. Austen is about the women’s choice.

The book covers Nafisi’s return from the studies in the USA to Iran in 1981, the years of teaching at the university in Tehran, the years of her book club and finally how she fled the country in 1997 to start a life in USA. And as much as Satrapi is bound by her medium, a black-and-white cartoon, to keep herself short and simple, Nafisi’s 343 pages of a book allow her descriptions to be detailed, analytical and colourful. She will take you, tuck you directly into a scene by describing it precisely and then still analyse the same scene for you. You will read about how it is to be arrested and spend time in an Iranian jail, how a house-raiding looks like, how it is to dare and reject wearing a headscarf. These in-depth descriptions of life in Iran will give you a feeling you are learning all about the life as a woman under a regime.

Still, despite its success in attracting many readers in the west, Reading Lolita in Tehran has not been successful with Iranians who believe Nafisi unjustly caricatures the country. The book has earned some strong criticism by Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi, who saw it as propaganda for the Bush administration. Literature professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, who wrote a book entitled Jasmines and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran, blames Nafisi's book for allowing for "many damaging misrepresentations" of Iran and its people. Nafisi’s second book, Things I’ve Been Silent About, which talks about her growing up in Iran, has not followed the success of the first.

Satrapi has not been silent about anything. Persepolis is a graphic memoir recounting her rebellious childhood in Iran, her high-school education at the Lycée Français in Vienna and her short return back to Iran after which she based herself in France in 1993. The memoir is divided into two books: The first is told from the viewpoint of a young girl making sense of a difficult world around her, and in the second book, she is a young woman trying to make sense of herself. After the unexpected success of the book, which sold in millions of copies, in 2007, Satrapi turned Persepolis into a film with the help of the French director Vincent Paronnaud. The film won numerous awards and was nominated for the Oscar in the category of foreign film, and won a jury prize in Cannes.

Satrapi’s charm lies in her simple, childlike-style mixed with honesty and self-criticism. And although she draws in black-and-white, she does not, in contrary to Nasifi, show the world in black and white. While she is scathing about the hypocrisies and cruelties of Iran's theocracy, she is equally critical of George Bush's Christian fundamentalism. In Persepolis, she will tell about the history of Iran, the problems with the regime, the meaning of war, the search for own identity. All of this is served directly, from the guts, without much construction or analysis. This is why her book has the power to touch emotionally and provoke both laughter and tears. Instead of feeding the reader a reality, she will open a space for the reader to create his own experience of a situation. Her talent for distilling complex stories into strongly moving, beautiful vignettes tend to inspire self-examination in her readers.

Following the success of Persepolis, Strapi went on to write two more books: Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. Embroideries is a Persian version of Sex & the City – it describes a group of nine women drinking tea after lunch. One story leading to the other, these no-nonsense, witty, honest Iranian ladies start discussing sex and relationships. The book is a hilarious read. In Chicken with Plums she talks about what makes life worth living through the story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, who takes to bed after realizing that he'll never be able to find an instrument to replace his beloved, broken tar.

Two different voices, two different lives, two different approaches, one main topic: women’s lives under an Islamic regime and finding a way to freedom. Let more of them be heard!

What I read and what I don't

I was asked by a very cool Austrian magazine called Datum to fill out their monthly column called “I do read & I don’t read”. Seems like an easy task, but when you start thinking about it, it is quite a challenge.I read I read books that open my horizons: which I can either learn something from or which transport me into a (better) new world. Mostly, I read non-fiction, and always a few books about one topic that currently occupies my mind. Right now, I am still reading books about fairy tales (Marie-Louise von Franz and Sheldon Cashdan). I just finished reading Iranian female authors (Marjane Satrapi and Azar Nafisi). Before that, I was reading about the influence of the capitalistic system on romantic relationships and human character (Eva Illouz and Richard Sennett). But I always read a few different books. So I am currently also reading “Elite” by Julia Friedrichs, a young German journalist writing about what/who is the German elite and how it is being defined and formed. I am starting to read Eric Berne’s “What do you say after you say hello?”. I don’t read much fiction because it is quite hard for me to find a piece of fiction that grabs, and keeps, my attention. When I do find something I like, I read a few books by the same author. I adore Jane Austin for her virtuosity with language, for her hidden critique of the society and for her happy endings. I read all her books. I like Frédéric Beigbeder, also for the amusing portrait and critique of the society. I read most of his books. I also read most of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books. And I loved books by Jonathan Carroll. The last master piece of non-fiction I read was Mesa Selimovic’s “Fortress”. The only book I re-read is Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching And then I read magazines: Falter, Spiegel, Die Zeit. On weekends, I read Der Standard. Every now and then, I make a trip through internet and read The Daily Beast, Huffington Post and Newsweek. When I want to relax my grey cells, I read Gloria (Croatian gossip magazine) or Gala. I read my horoscope on I read Maureen Dowd’s column in New York Times, I read the weather forecast on pg. 602 on Teletext. I read user manuals and package inserts. I read graffiti and stickers when I walk through Vienna. I read e-mails. I read my friends’ status on Facebook. And I read the tattoo between his shoulder blades.

I don’t read As said, I don’t read much non-fiction because mostly, it just feels like I am wasting time I could use to learn or experience something new. I don’t read chick-lit, historic novels, romantic novels. I used to read British Vogue, and sometimes Croatian or French Elle but I stopped because they bore me now. So I don’t read any women’s magazines. I don’t read daily newspapers because I have no time – I check news in internet. I never read the same book twice. I don’t read ads. I don’t read the credits after a movie as much as I’d like to. I don’t read self-help books, because they are either too simplified or repeat theories I’ve already learned elsewhere. I wanted to read Charlotte Roche’s “Feuchtgebiete” to see what the fuss is about but then I read readers’ feedback on Amazon and decided not to. Which, as I heard her read from the book on 3sat, proved to be a good decision. Shocking just for the purpose of it is not necessary. Neither in art nor in literature. I have unfortunately not read the Bible nor the Koran, which I would love to, but I haven’t found the time yet. I read the Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi and they spell bounded me. I’d like to read more of Marcel Proust, Tolstoy and Chekhov so I plan to go back to them one day. My father gave me a collection of English gothic novels, but I didn’t get to read those yet. I don’t read enough of Austrian authors, which I feel I should. I don’t read the small print (AGBs) and I know I should. And nothing else comes on my mind. Because I simply don’t. Link: Datum

Baghdad Burning

Last night, I watched Baghdad Burning in Volkstheater. I hope it will be on programme next season – if you are in Vienna and understand German, go see it.The peace (1h20min monologue excellently played by Katharina Vötter) is based on a blog written by an Iraqi woman who started writing under pseudonym Riverbend on 17 August 2003. In her blog, she describes life in Iraq during the US occupation. Although the blog has been published in two books and staged in numerous countries, her identity is still hidden. In 2007, she and her family moved to Syria and she stopped writing her blog. The fascinating thing about the piece is that it makes you grasp, more emotionally, the stuff you think you already know – what it means to live in a war (“war on TV is not same like living in a war”, “will a plane ever sound like it did before?”), the chaos which took over since the occupation (controls, razzias, life without electricity and water and the kidnapping which became part of everyday life), how the status of women has changed (before the occupation, 50% of university students and 50% of employees were women – now they are accepted to stay home and wear headscarves and long coats). You will learn how the fear and the chaos passed a moderate Muslim country into the hands of fundamentalists. You will learn about what “rebuilding of Iraq” really means. When for rebuilding of a bridge, which Iraqi experts estimated to $300,000, a US company get $50 million, the business case of this war is quite clear. When you add the war industry and the oil industry to the rebuilding industry, the business case is even clearer. But mostly, you will ask yourself (hopefully) how can a country attack and completely devastate a country under false pretences, kill hundreds of thousands of people and stay unpunished. Will countries like USA and Israel keep their carte blanche for ever? And that is the tragedy of the story.

Links: Riverbend Wikipedia

Having something to say. Or not?

Ugh, this pause hasn’t been just simple laziness. I am going through a serious blog-block and have a terrible feeling I have nothing to say that might be of any interest to anyone….Having an opinion has lately become some kind of a burden. Since past few moths, I am working as editor for the book section of The Vienna Review called – The Vienna Review of Books. I have diligently started writing reviews of books and readings. Strong on my opinions as I am, yesterday I received a first e-mail by an offended writer. The problem was not only that this book was full of stuff I didn’t really like – this writer was also very pushy and annoying. Lesson: learn to let go, because by pushing too much you might create a negative effect. On one hand, I was sorry about him. On the other hand I thought – that’s the nature of it. The moment you do something publicly, you have to be able to cope with criticism. I have experienced it myself. I remember the first negative review of Barbie. When I started reading it, my heart stopped beating. But very soon I relaxed, thinking that this was just another experience you have to make as a writer. And every experience is important. It is strange writing reviews of other people’s writing when you are a writer yourself…. Anyway, I will not give up – check this space for more bitching about bad books!

Meet Louis Begley

What’s the Hurry?Louis Begley has managed to live two parallel lives, both very successful: attorney and author. At his reading in Vienna, he explained how he did it: Without nay hurry. by Ana Tajder for The Vienna Review, March 09

When it comes to living parallel lives, all successful and all different, few have out done attorney and novelist Louis Begley. Begley was a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, a distinguished New York Law firm, when he surprised the literary world with his first novel Wartime Lies, about a young Polish Jew caught up in the inferno of the Holocaust. The novel appeared in 1991, when Begley was 57, and was very well received, winning the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for a First Work of Fiction and the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. Begley continued writing and practicing law for 16 years, working during the week and writing on weekends before finally retiring in 2007, at the age of 73. On Feb. 10, Begley was invited to read and discuss with the audience at the Hauptbücherei am Gürtel, in Vienna. After presenting several excerpts from Wartime Lies, he was asked about the autobiographical aspects of this book. He got quite annoyed, presumably because he had been asked this very question hundreds of times in the past 18 years. He later on specified that on principle, one should not confuse the literary merits of a book with the biographical facts concerning the author. By the same token, though, some parallels cannot be overlooked. Just like Macek, the main character in Wartime Lies, Begley was born in 1933 in Poland to a wealthy Jewish family, and both escaped the Nazi army. Begley’s family fled Poland in 1941 and after a long odyssey, settled in the United States in 1947. Seven years later, Begley graduated from Harvard College in English literature, summa cum laude. In 1956, he entered Harvard Law School on a scholarship, graduating in 1959, magna cum laude. Begley still resembles a lawyer, in his dark blue jacket and red tie; reserved and quietly authoritative. But the audience in Vienna quickly succumbed to his boyish charm. “Why did it take so long to write your first book?” the audience asked. “What was the hurry?” he joked. Later during the discussion, he did explain that initially he had lacked self-confidence and wasn’t actually sure that he had had anything to write about. His life in the United States didn’t seem interesting enough to him, and the wartime experience was, as he said, “unmentionable. I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear about it.” Well, everybody in the room did. He read from the book in a low and soft voice – a trademark technique that the rumours say he used in court to grab attention. Although Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights for Wartime Lies and invested $11 million in pre-production, the film never got made. The director decided to let the media hype about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List calm down, and do Eyes Wide Shut first. He died soon after the movie was finished. But another film based on a Begley novel was made: All About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt who is forced to deal with an ambiguous future as he enters retirement. Soon after, his wife passes away and he has to come to terms with his daughter's marriage to a man that he does not approve of, and the failure that his life has become. Originally set in the Hamptons and Manhattan, the movie version was reset to the Southwest, angering many Begley fans that found that this completely changed Schmid’s character. With all its commercial success, Begley sees the limitations. A movie can only resemble a novel, he said. But it can never be as good, simply because a film and a novel are two very different things. But Hollywood, he found fascinating. “There is money flowing like a huge vast river, and you only have to stand by with a little cup.” In the last two decades, Begley wrote several more critically acclaimed books, including the novels The Man Who Was Late and A Matter of Honor and The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay. For years Begley and his wife, Anka Muhlstein, have made Venice their favourite European destination. At one point, his German publisher asked them whether they would write a book about the city. At first they refused. “We are not travel or restaurant writers. Also, I write in English and Anka in French, so we found the idea absurd.” But then he wrote a speech for a charity event to save Venice and Anka wrote an essay about its restaurants and their owners. The publisher was delighted and asked for one more short story in order to complete the job. Trusting the book would only come out in German, Begley wrote a story he described as “very pornographic.” Soon after it came out in Germany, however, the book was also published in the UK and then in America. “And now I have to avoid all those women in the States”, he smiles. Begley’s charm faded as he began talking about his latest book, The Dreyfus Case: Îles-du-Diable, Guantánamo, History’s Nightmare (to be published in German by Suhrkamp in May). Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish descent who was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having been a spy for the German Army. The case against Dreyfus was so weak that French counter-intelligence manufactured evidence against him. In 1894, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement. “You put yourself at danger when you write a polemic book,” he says. But then he brightened: “But I never enjoyed writing a book this much!” When Yale University Press asked him to write something about “Why the Dreyfus case matters”, he was not interested at first. But as he researched the case, he realised that it was not only a fascinating detective story about how dishonourable behaviour was used to protect honour, but also a compelling parallel to what was going on in Guantánamo. By the end of the discussion, the audience came full circle: how did he actually decide to write his first book at such an advanced stage of his life? “I never had the nerve to say, ‘Now I am going to write a book,’” he said, “I just did it.” And how did he feel when it was finished? “I was surprised.” Of course he was – he had just embarked on a new life.

Karl Marx Manga Becomes Bestseller

After Europe re-discovered Karl Marx's work, the trend is moving on: a Karl Marx manga turned into a hit in Japan, selling 70,000 copies since December. The dramatic shift to the left in Japanese literary tastes has even revived domestic socialist tracts of the 1930s: one of the strongest selling books of the year, at nearly half a million copies, is Kanikosen - a savagely bleak, novel depicting violence, exploitation and revolution aboard a crabmeat canning ship.

It seems that we all had enough.....


Worst Sex in Literature 2008

Last year's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards took place on the 25th November 2008, at the In & Out Club, St James's Square. And I just learned that Paulo Cohelo had never had sex in his life. No wonder he is able to manufacture so many books….

You can read the excerpts from awarded works here (it's fun!):

And here are my favourites (couldn’t not comment):

“The forces of the world were penetrating her five senses and these were becoming transformed into an overwhelming energy.” That’s Paulo… Lesson to Paulo: the only forces a woman wants to penetrate her are her man’s! Forget the forces of the world.

“But the kissing, just the kissing, was heavenly [...] He made her forget she was a Communist [...]” Can just say: woahahaha!

“Sebastian's erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town. I almost started directing traffic around it.” And again: hahaha! To weird for a comment.

“She did not seem to be a woman, but something altogether stronger and sweeter.” What did she seem like? A watermelon?

“He wasn't sure where his penis was in relation to where he wanted it to be….” Is this a physics equation or a sex scene?

“With each nuzzling kiss the line extended over other parts of her body, gathering into a new constellation of improbable shapeliness - Archer, Boar, Mermaid - another point from among her scatter of solitary stars.” This woman also never had sex in her life. Maybe she should get together with Paulo and start practicing.

“Making love with men like Jordan Groves let Vanessa Cole believe for a few seconds in the sustained reality of her essential being, even though afterward she could not remember ever having experienced it as such.” Intellectual sex.... Forget it.