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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PEN World Voices Dispatch 2: Fame and the Writer (Talk with Daniel Kehlmann)

My second recap from the PEN World Voices festival is of a talk with German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. This was originally posted on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

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Originally slated as an event wherein “three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye,” Thursday’s “Fame and the Writer,” panel at the NYU Deutsches Haus ended up–due to last minute scheduling complications–being a much more intimate (and occasionally more literal) discussion between Deutsches Haus director, Martin Rauchbauer, and German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kehlmann’s 2005 novel, Measuring the World, has been an immense success for the young author (still under 40), selling nearly two million copies and making him one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world. Kehlmann’s follow up book, Fame, a ‘novel in nine episodes,’ has met with equal commendation, although its literal reception as a commentary on celebrity has surprised the author somewhat. The title Fame he explained, was intended to carry a little irony in the wake of his surprising success–like when Sean Connery said he’d never be in another James Bond movie and then returned in Never Say Never.

“These strong, resounding one word titles have such a force,” he said, referencing Martin Amis’ novel Money and Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1930 novel Success, “it makes it difficult to see that there are many motives and themes” that go into a novel. “I’m not complaining,” he assured. “It’s just interesting.”

Kehlmann differentiated between the idea of fame and that of celebrity, the latter of which he thinks is “not a very interesting phenomenon.” When he said that he didn’t honestly have much to say on the subject, Mr. Rauchbauer countered with a passage from Fame in which a famous actor meets his own impersonator, who seems to have better ideas about how to be the celebrity than the man himself. Kehlmann, acceding that the passage was, in fact, examining the idea of celebrity, then explained that he was interested in the experience of detachment that everyone has from their public self–the sense that “deep in our heart we are completely different than people see us.” This isn’t true just of celebrities, he said. “It’s just amplified for them. But philosophers have [shown] that the person we really are is the person we develop and put in the world. That is our true self.”

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of the reception of literature in the public eye and the an author’s obligation  to promote his/her work via book tours, festivals, and readings. Acknowledging the irony of having this conversation while himself at a festival, Kehlmann admitted that “I do think the way literature is organized in society–and many other authors have agreed with this–goes too much in the way of events…What any moderately successful writer does is spend one or two years writing a book and then one year explaining it…You spend all this time putting these things together and then you have to go publicly disassemble them.”

Kehlmann then read another short, humorous passage from Fame, in which an author explains–in response to the ubiquitous question, “where do you get your ideas?”–that he gets all of his ideas while in the bathtub. He had never understood this question, he said, even though it was what he was asked most frequently. Until one day he realized that ‘where do you get all your ideas?’ was simply “what became of the equally dreary question in the 70s and 80s, ‘why do you write?’” The question of an author’s intentions in creating, Kehlmann said, had “some social and political relevance. But in a time now when people are less concerned with writers trying to change the world, the focus has shifted.”

Dispatch from PEN World Voices: A Lunchtime Literary Conversation with Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh

My first PEN WV event this week was on Wednesday afternoon, at the regular “lunchtime literary conversation series” that is ever-so-conveniently around the corner from my office. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Past events have often featured rather unlikely pairings—for instance, all Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold  and French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme had in common, I believe, was that neither had been published in English–and often, that’s part of the appeal. In these slightly off-kilter match-ups, there can be an endearing attempt on the part of both guests–who in all likeliness, are not familiar with the work of their co-panelist–to connect with the other’s work, to find common ground in artistic practice or thematic interests. To affirm their shared status as successful, notable authors–and usually as authors whose native language is not English–carefully navigating a week-long literary event where most of the audience has never before heard of them. Yesterday’s event broke with this tradition admirably–Nicole and Zanganeh, although neither contemporaries in age, background, or writing concerns, were a delightful and well-matched pairing, who both obviously had a great deal of respect for one another’s work.

I wrote about the event for The L Magazine; you can see it here. The full text is below.

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The Lunchtime Literary Conversations series, hosted by La Maison Française at NYU, is now a mainstay of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each year, several of these events bring together two authors—usually one of French or Francophone extraction—to discuss a variety of topics over the lunch hour. Wednesday’s conversation, between Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh, was a delightful pairing, highlighting the “miraculous points of intersection [of] interests and passions” that both authors share. Nicole, who was born on the tiny North Atlantic island (and French territory) of Saint Pierre, is a respected Proustian scholar at NYU whose cycle of five interrelated novels about his native isle, L’Oeuvre des mers, has taken inspiration from À la recherche du temps perdu. Zanganeh was born in Paris to Iranian parents, and currently teaches at Harvard. She is also a respected literary critic, and recently wrote her first semi-fictional book Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, in which she pays homage to her own Great Author.

Although both speakers graciously shared the mic and consistently shifted the conversation to the other’s work, the panel clearly belonged to Zanganeh, a wholly enthusiastic, well-spoken, well-read, and charming speaker. On her impetus, they started by discussing the “anxiety of influence,” particularly when one’s work has been so affected by an author of such great stature, like Proust or Nabokov. Nicole referenced Enchanter (Zanganeh’s book), in which, he noted, she “constantly” quoted Nabokov, integrating his work within her own without ever “breaking tonality.” Zanganeh laughed that doing this was “indeed very perilous,” since Nabokovians are “very jealous of their author,” and eager to find fault with tributes that fall short of their inspiration. All the same, she said, “in order to pay homage fully” to an author like Nabokov, “you need a measure of disrespect and irreverence.” It was necessary, she said, for her to “punch him on occasion.” She then reeled off a short, happy list of censures against her hero: “He was a terrible poet! I don’t like his Russian works—I secretly don’t like Pale Fire that much.”

Nicole then suggested that Enchanter was not just about Nabokov, but rather “a lively way to say something about Nabokov, using his own words.” This got to the heart of Zanganeh’s reading of Nabokov, to her strongly felt assertion that he is “a great writer of happiness.” So her own book about him “had to be playful.”

Zanganeh then turned the conversation to Nicole’s work, starting by reading a short excerpt from L’Oeuvre des mers, which had been translated into English for the occasion by NYU professor and lauded translator Richard Sieburth. (It bears noting that none of L’Oeuvre des mershas been translated into English, nor has any of Nicole’s other fiction. Even if only based on the passage read during this lunchtime event, this clearly needs rectifying.)

When setting out to write L’Oeuvre des mers, Nicole felt a great deal of responsibility toward the place where he was born, his “filiation.” Saint Pierre, he explained, “had not yet entered into French literature.” (Chateaubriand and Celine, he mentioned, had written maybe a page each about the island, but that was all.)

The Saint Pierre that emerged in the course of the conversation was something of a no-man’s land, neither North American nor really French, a French territory, but not one that most could locate on a map—”a place that is, and yet isn’t,” Zanganeh summarized. And yet, as a child, Saint Pierre was the whole world to Nicole, to all of the residents. “We are dealing with an island,” he said. “Islanders think that nowhere else exists.” At the age of 14, in order to continue school, Nicole had to leave Saint Pierre in order to attend a private school in France. From this experience, he began to practice “focusing from far away,” a skill that has served him well in the course of his novel writing, as he very rarely returns to the island now. “I always had this dual image of being far away, and still exactly where I was [in France],” he said.

After meandering discussions of lived experience’s integration in fiction, the Proustian sentence, how “all of literature is a rewriting,” and the elasticity of English as compared to French, the conversation concluded with the question of practical writing techniques. When she starts a project, Zanganeh admitted, she has difficulty focusing. “You want to do anything else—you want to check your email, run around, eat chocolate,” but it eventually becomes easier to focus on writing. For Nicole, it’s not a matter of forcing himself to work for a specific number of hours a day, but rather to “give as much information as possible in each sentence.” He tries to capture images, to see the full possibility of a given location or circumstance. As with a child, he explained, for whom “one centimeter of asphalt is a world.”

PEN World Voices: A Mid-Week Schedule

As you, my avid readers, will doubtless be aware, the PEN World Voices Festival is generally one of the highlights of spring for me. Alas, this year’s festival–currently in progress until Sunday, May 6–falls right after I returned from a week long vacation, and life-catch-up being what it is, I haven’t been as free to dash out for daytime ‘literary conversations’ or nightly events.

I will admit, however, that the opening days’ events did not make even my earliest schedule–I’m not much for opening processions or gala dinners, and I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way for the Christopher Hitchens tribute or the Clockwork Orange Operetta. Every year’s PEN WV has a certain flavor to it, a particular tone. And this year’s seems to actually be less about literature and more about linking literature to either political-social awareness/resistance/dialog/action (this has always been a focal point of the PEN organization, of course, but it seems more pronounced this year, with events like “A Reporter’s Perspective on War,” “Children’s Rights,” “Writings from the Domestic Workers United Workshop,” “Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance” and “Occupy a New Debate” filling the schedule) or, kind of oddly for a literary festival, sexy multi-media, multi-disciplinary tie-ins.

This year’s printed PEN schedule is divided into sub-categories, one of which is “what else is literature?” According to the booklet copy, “…there are many ways to tell a story. The 2012 PEN World Voices Festival will explore the art of narrative through various mediums, such as theater, photography, and puppets [Ed: puppets?] …No matter what we do, we are always telling a story.” Examples:

  • The Kronos Quartet: Exit Strategies: “Can literature and music overlap and enhance one another?”
  • Elevator Repair Service with Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin: “…a look back on ERS’ last three pieces  through the lens of creative data analysis…” (FYI: ERS is the theater group behind the Great Gatsby-theater piece, Gatz.)
  • An Evening with Doon Arbus, Francine Prose, and Michael Cunningham–and Diane Arbus: “How might a photographer’s precise use of language illuminate and expand the perception of her pictures and the singular nature of the mind behind them?”
  • Three (admittedly, very cool sounding) events called A Citywide Event: Food for Thought, Food for the Palate

So, okay, I understand that having tie-in events with theatrical groups, musicians, chefs (!) etc. is a great way to expand a festival and add some texture to it. But by shifting PEN WV so completely toward these more politically-oriented/exploratory events, I wonder if the organizers aren’t getting a little too far afield from the wonderfully unlikely author talk pairings, readings, and interviews that made PEN WV so great in the past. A really literary literary festival is, I think, kind of a rarity.

That said, for us kvetchers out there, there are some solidly literary events worth looking forward to, and there is a whole day of translation-themed events on Thursday all around NYU. Some highlights:

Wednesday, May 2 (Today)

Lunchtime Literary Conversations: Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh

I don’t know either of these authors, but I always enjoy these short talks, often between authors with totally different styles/thematic concerns etc.

Thursday, May 3: NYU International Houses Mini Festival

There are, again, a heap of translation-related events on Thursday. If I were able to take a day off, I would attend most. But being confined to lunch hours and the after-work events, I’ll be particularly looking forward to:

Fame and the Writer

The public image of today’s international literary stars is more often defined by the Internet and worldwide book tours than by what they write. Many successful authors feel that their celebrity has little to do with their work, and even less with themselves and their personal lives. In this conversation, three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye.

Reviewing Translations

This one has my name on it.

When a translated work is under review, what exactly is being critiqued? Is it the work itself or the quality of its translation? How does reviewing a translation differ from reviewing a work in its original language? Should the critic be bilingual? An expert in the literature and history of a foreign culture? Join an expert panel of international authors, critics, and translators as they explore the nexus of translation and criticism.

Friday, May 4

A Literary Safari

Here’s an example of a creative and unique event that is still very grounded in the literary. I attended this last year and it was literally the Best Thing Ev-Er. There are still tickets available–I got mine this morning–so I’d highly, highly recommend shelling out the $15 for this. Totally worth it, even if you don’t know a lot of the authors.

Saturday, May 5
(Coincidentally, events this day have the honor of taking place on Cinco de Derby Day, which being deeply studied in both Mexican history and the ponies, you of course, already knew.)

Best European Fiction

Following two years of sold-out events, the “Best European Fiction” program hosted by Aleksandar Hemon has become a staple of the PEN World Voices Festival. This year the event returns with three new authors—Noëlle Revaz (Switzerland), Patrick Boltshauser (Liechtenstein), and Róbert Gál (Slovakia)—reading from their work, discussing their ideas about writing, and sharing their perspectives on what’s happening in literature in their parts of the world.

In Conversation: Brian Selznick

This is a paid event and I probably won’t make it, but I so loved Wonderstruckand I bet that Selznick is a really interesting guy, especially when interviewed by YA editor extraordinaire/authorial sensation David Levithan.

Sunday, May 6

A Place Out of Time: Gregor von Rezzori’s Bukovina Trilogy

In the early 20th Century, what is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine was Czernowitz, Bukovina, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the birth place of the dazzling writer Gregor von Rezzori. For Rezzori, this city was a place full of color and laughter, but also of terrible uncertainty and latent violence, a polarity captured in his Bukovina trilogy Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography, and An Ermine in Czernopol. Explore Rezzori’s lost worlds and enduring works in a discussion with some of today’s finest writers.

So, happy PEN WV, everyone! I’ll recap those events that I can get to.

The 2012 PEN World Voices Author Lineup

So, for all of you who have been chomping at the bit waiting for the PEN World Voices schedule to be announced (me too!), the wait (or, at least, some of it) is over! The PEN 2012 World Voices Festival will be held from April 30 – May 6, 2012 this year. There’s an author lineup available on the website, but the schedule at this point is rather skeletal, so I won’t start planning my days just yet. But I’ve penciled it in my calender. I’ll post a preview of events once more of them have actually been announced.