PEN World Voices Festival Recap #3: The Literary Safari, 2.0

My last PEN event this year was the second Literary Safari at Westbeth, which was another remarkable event that I was able to write about for The L Magazine. The full post is available on their website, cleverly titled by someone-not-myself as “Stalking the Exotic Author at the Westbeth Literary Safari,” here. The full text is below.

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An opportunity to “[e]njoy intimate readings by Festival participants inside the homes of famous Westbeth residents” the second Literary Safari held during this year’s PEN World Voices Festival was, in response to the whimsical chaos of last year’s event, ever so slightly more streamlined. In addition to the simplified map of Westbeth’s winding hallways and the reading schedule that was handed to each guest, this year, attendees had the advantage of signage throughout the hallways and balloons taped to each hosting apartment’s doorway. It lent a cheerful suburban party vibe to what is otherwise the single most hip literary event to have ever been conceived.

Last year’s attendees came to this year’s safari with plenty of tips on how to maximize the experience and see, depending on your predilections, either the most readings or the most apartments. (Lurk near the back of each apartment for an easy exit during the inevitably late-running Q&A; don’t revisit an apartment you went to last year.) Scheduled in optimistic twenty-five minute increments with five minute ‘passing periods’ in between, the maximum number of possible readings/apartments that one could see during the course of the night would have been four; my group was proud to have successfully seen three.

Colson Whitehead was this year’s marquis participant, but part of what makes the Literary Safari such a unique and pleasantly awkward event is the opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to sit knee-to-knee with luminaries who while unfamiliar to you, are important participants in their home country’s literary milieu. (There are undoubtedly downsides to this arrangement from the writer’s perspective, as attendees just love forcing international authors to shill their country’s cultural output wholesale, asking hugely generalizing questions about “the state of fiction” or sometimes, even non-literary traditions in another country or geographic region. Example: “Is fiction less popular than film in [insert country name here]?”)

In her first reading of the evening, Romanian author and journalist Gabriela Adamesteanu, was asked a battery of such questions, which she kindly qualified with nuanced responses. When asked to talk about how literary reception in Romania might be different from that in the U.S., she explained that following the country’s revolution, the public’s main reading interest was in non-fiction, particularly the memoirs and essays that had been censored during communism. In the intervening ten years, however, a new wave of young authors is reinspiring an interest in novels and poetry.

Adamesteanu herself has been a leading member of the Romanian intelligentsia and was an outspoken advocate for a civil society during the communist years; she was an editor of the socio-political magazine 22, and also the president of an activist the Romanian chapter of PEN for several years. She was at the festival to read from her novel Wasted Morning (first published in 1984; translated into English last year), which was identified by the attending Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute as “one of [Romania’s] major modern novels,” and an incisive portrait of the country during the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Though Adamesteanu was very quiet and self-effacing, listening first to a reading of her novel in English and then selecting a small passage to read in Romanian herself, the passage chosen was an assertive one–an emotional scene in which a man believes that his partner has recently had “an adventure” with another man, resulting in a clandestine abortion.

An event monitor in the back of the room ensured that all attendees got to their next reading on time, so we were able to dash to our next, that of prolific Lebanese author, critic, and playwright Elias Khoury, whose novels Archipelago Books has been in the process of releasing in English since 2006. Khoury was perched in one corner of a comfortably cluttered living room in one of Westbeth’s coveted duplex apartments, with attendees crowded around on couches and curled up on the oriental carpet, sipping the wine that was laid out on an end table. Both hosts being painters, the walls were covered in large canvases and multi-media pieces, to which Khoury gestured: “I hope my words can match the beauty around us…This is not an official reading, so I cannot behave like writers behave. We can speak like friends.”

Khoury read a passage (in English, and briefly, in Arabic as well) from As Though She Were Sleeping, which was just released in April. But before doing so, he gave extensive background about the book and its context–a meandering discussion which sweepingly encompassed Palestinian history, comparative Biblical and Quranic traditions, dream analysis, and Khoury’s belief that language should be “feminized” in order to better represent marginalized experiences. “Literature and religion are in the same register–they both speak about love, about death. Religion is totally masculine [because] with monotheism, god became masculine. Literature [and therefore language] can play the other role, can represent the oppressed.”

Khoury spoke of the novel’s character, Milia, so intimately that one attendee thought she was a real person in his life; the author clearly has a rich and full relationship with his creations. “This is the story of a woman I met in my imagination,” he explained. “We became very special friends–she allowed me to enter her inner life…I loved this woman.”

Another Archipelago author, the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard, read a few doors down the hall, in “the smallest duplex in Westbeth,” according to one of the hosts. Knausgaard was clearly less taken with the chatty intimacy of the event, and stationed himself in a corner from where he could more easily fend off idle remarks about Brooklyn and the frequently botched pronunciation of his name. When the hosts suggested that he might start his reading a little early, Knausgaard demurred–”two minutes: we will start on time”–and then, at the stroke of 8:30, stood up, button his linen suit jacket, and introduced his reading. “There is no action in this passage,” he warned. “No real characters or dialog. This is a meditation–a meditation on death.”

If this sounds intense, it was, but it was an appropriate tone for the passage, and Knausgaard is a very forceful, very engaging reader. The passage he read came from his autobiographical book My Struggle, in which he explores the death of his alcoholic father in the context of his own life. It is the first of six books that Knausgaard has written about his life, but is not strictly a memoir. “I’m a fiction writer,” he explained. “I wrote two novels before this. If I’d have known that I’d write six books [about my life], I wouldn’t have started.” The book did start as a piece of fiction, a project that Knausgaard worked on unsuccessfully for three years. When he started to write about himself, using real names and real situations, however, the project fell together. “I have a language for everyday life,” he said simply.

Following the reading, Knausgaard remained standing and looked to his audience. “If you have any questions, I’m supposed to answer them.” One question asked dealt with how Knausgaard handles writing about his life now, given that his books are no longer narrating past events, but rather his current daily life. “I have to write very fast to get distance from myself,” he said. The first 3,000+ pages of his work were written over the course of three years, although most was done in just one, with very little revision after the fact.

The next–important and inevitable–question was about the significance of Knausgaard’s title, which in Norwegian (Min kamp) carries perhaps a much more direct reference to Hitler’s manifesto of the same title. “[Its significance] besides being a provocation?” he asked, smiling ever so slightly. The title My Struggle, he explained, is meant to work on multiple levels. On one hand, it is a series of books about his life, and therefore, his tribulations and experiences. On the other, it is a gesture toward the intertwining of art and life, and a question about the nature of taboo. “You can’t just go to a cafe and sit down and start reading Mein Kampf–it’s totally forbidden.” But an awareness of the content of that book, Knausgaard asserted–with reference to the similar manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed over seventy people, many teenagers, last year–is vital. “I think everyone should read Mein Kampf, it’s an obligation we all have. It’s healthy to see what that is.”

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