joseph conrad says: WTF?

What makes this funny is that it’s no joke. From

WordBridge Publishing has performed a public service in putting Joseph Conrad’s neglected classic into a form accessible to modern readers. This new version addresses the reason for its neglect: the profusion of the so-called n-word throughout its pages. Hence, the introduction of "n-word" throughout the text, to remove this offence to modern sensibilities. The N-word of the Narcissus tells the tale of a fateful voyage of a British sailing ship, and on that voyage the ability of a lone black man to take the crew hostage. The ability of this man to manipulate an entire ship’s crew can no longer be seen as a mere exercise in storytelling. Conrad in fact appears to have been the first to highlight the phenomenon of manipulation based in white guilt.

john cheever on why he wrote short stories in his underwear

"a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear"

Why I Write Short Stories

John Cheever


To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.


This is not to say that I was evera Bohemian. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker magazine, but I am one of these. The Ross editorial queries were genuinely eccentric. In one short story of mine, I invented a character who returned home from work and changed his clothes before dinner. Ross wrote on the galley margin: “Eh? What’s this? Cheever looks to me like a one-suiter.” He was so right. At the space rates he paid, I could afford exactly one suit. In the mornings, I dressed in this and took the elevator to a windowless room in the basement where I worked. Here I hung my suit on a hanger, wrote until nightfall when I dressed and returned to our apartment. A great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts.


A collection of short stories appears like a lemon in the current fiction list, which is indeed a garden of love, erotic horseplay and lewd and ancient family history; but so long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature, and without a literature we will, of course, perish. It was F. R. Leavis who said that literature is the first distinction of a civilized man.


Who reads short stories? one is asked, and I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist’s office, waiting to be called to the chair; they are read on transcontinental plane trips instead of watching a banal and vulgar film spin out the time between our coasts; they are read by discerning and well-informed men and women who seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.


The novel, in all its greatness, demands at least some passing notice of the classical unities, preserving that mysterious link between esthetics and moral fitness; but to have this unyielding antiquity exclude the newness in our ways of life would be regrettable. This newness is known to some of us through “Star Wars,” to some of us through the melancholy that follows a fielder’s error in the late innings of a ball game. In the pursuit of this newness, contemporary painting seems to have lost the language of the landscape, the still-life, and—most important —the nude. Modern music has been separated from those rhythms and tonalities that are most deeply ingrained in our memories, but literature still possesses the narrative—the story—and one would defend this with one’s life.


In the short stories of my esteemed colleagues—and in a few of my own—I find those rented summer houses, those one-night love affairs and those lost key rings that confound traditional esthetics. We are not a nomadic people, but there is more than a hint of this in the spirit of our great country—and the short story is the literature of the nomad.


I like to think that the view of a suburban street that I imagine from my window would appeal to a wanderer or to someone familiar with loneliness. Here is a profoundly moving display of nostalgia, vision and love, none of it more than 30 years old, including most of the trees. Here are white columns from the manorial South, brick and timber walls from Elizabethan England, saltbox houses from our great maritime past and flat-roofed echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright and his vision of a day when we would all enjoy solar heating, serene and commodious interiors and peace on earth.


The lots are acres, flowers and vegetables grow in the yards and here and there one finds, instead of tomatoes, robust stands of cannabis with its feathery leaf. Here, in this victorious domesticity, the principal crop is a hazardous drug. And what do I see hanging in the Hartshores’ clothes-yard but enough seasoning marijuana to stone a regiment.


Is forgetfulness some part of the mysteriousness of life? If I speak to Mr. Hartshore about his cannabis crop, will he tell me that the greatness of Chinese civilization stood foursquare on the fantasies of opium? But it is not I who will speak to Mr. Hartshore. It will be Charlie Dilworth, a very abstemious man who lives in the house next door. He has a No Smoking sign on his front lawn, and his passionate feelings about marijuana have beenintelligently channeled into a sort of reverse blackmail.


I hear them litigating late one Saturday afternoon when I have come back from playing touch football with my sons. The light is going. It is autumn. Charlie’s voice is loud and clear and can be heard by anyone interested. “You keep your dogs off my lawn, you cook your steaks in the house, you keep your record player down, you keep your swimming-pool filter off in the evenings and you keep your window shades drawn. Otherwise, I’ll report your drug crop to the police and with my wife’s uncle sitting as judge this month you’ll get at least six months in the can for criminal possession.”


They part. Night falls. Here and there a housewife, apprehending the first frost, takes in her house plants while from an Elizabethan, a Nantucket, and a Frank Lloyd Wright chimney comes the marvelous fragrance of wood smoke. You can’t put this scene in a novel.




—from John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America, 2009), pp 996–998. Originally published in Newsweek, October 30, 1978.

scenes from the writing life: clancy sigal, novelist & agent

Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures.


‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’ by Tom Kemper


A history of the rise of ‘that most despised of human specimens,’ the Hollywood agent.

By Clancy Sigal


Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures. Although in one form or another agents, as the middlemen brokers of human talent, have existed since the dawn of 19th century mass entertainment, they are a nearly perfect metaphor for a late-blooming capitalist economy. They don’t make anything except spit and hot air. Or, as author Tom Kemper writes, giving it an academic polish, "agents serve in the commercial fabrication of individuality," selling "personality [as] a commodity" including, especially, their own commission-hungry personalities.


However loftily the business of agents is described  and Kemper is fond of euphemisms like "embedded field of routine transactional and social relationships" (I think he means schmoozing) we in the movie business cannot function without a go-between as our link to the money. Indeed, as Kemper reminds us in his scholarly history of early Hollywood agentry from the 1920s into the early 1950s, one pioneer agent used to publish a "Sears catalog of stars" that listed his clients in a magazine bluntly titled "Link."


Kemper tells us that there was an "agent problem" right from the start. The Motion Picture Academy, itself no paragon of business ethics, accused agents of "racketeering, double-dealing, arrogance, failure to live up to obligations [and] semi-legal trickery" and that was long before CAA, UTA, Endeavor, ICM and West Coast MCA had been invented.


Studios and their talent suppliers, the agents, had yet to figure out a true business model of how to live with each other on the backs of the people who actually made the movies: "The skirmishes between studios and agents . . . essentially erupted over stars . . . [that were] a studio’s most visible assets." Agents connived in the most lucrative deals for their clients and themselves, and studio executives, under relentless pressure to maintain a 50-picture-a-year slate for theatrical release, connived right back. Cat and mouse, predator and prey, but which was which?


Even a loyal agent as I guiltily know from experience  weighs "negotiations in terms of the relationship with his client and the long-term relationship with studio executives." You walk "a fine line between representing a client’s grievances and alienating the producer." Kemper points out that "these steady relationships formed an almost conspiratorial syndicate between the agency and production executives." I like that "almost."


As studios matured, accommodation (and a form of industrial efficiency) came in the form of two temperamentally opposed uber-agents who ushered in the modern era. Kemper builds his book around the files and archives of neurotic, "taciturn and brutish" Myron Selznick, who pushed client Vivien Leigh into the Scarlett role in his older brother David’s "Gone With the Wind"; and the "finely tailored," dapper, graceful-in-his-skin "career engineer" Charles Feldman. The angry, insecure Myron Selznick and the socially adept Feldman pretty much monopolized Hollywood’s high-priced talent, including almost all the stars seen today on Turner Classic Movies.


Keep the money in mind. In one year alone, 1949, when a school teacher’s annual salary was $1,400, Feldman, with a few phone calls, earned a $250,000 commission on a single deal.


Like many agents at the time, including me, Myron was an alcoholic; unlike most agents, "Charlie" Feldman was legally trained and could read a contract the way Einstein read an algebraic equation (which a lot of studio agreements resembled, then as now).


What both men shared, Kemper underscores, was a crucial Southern California family background in the movie business. The Hollywood agency racket was a deeply tribal phenomenon. (My boss, Sam Jaffe, head of his own agency, was the brother-in-law of Paramount mogul B.P. Schulberg, and Jaffe hired relations galore who hired their sons.) For years, New York-centered agencies like the band-booking MCA and stage-and-radio power William Morris failed to gain a foothold in Hollywood because they had no blood connections here. Then, choosing their moment, they rudely bought their way into Hollywood by corporate takeovers that squashed the char- ismatic, personality-driven, "one-stop powerhouse[s]" like Feldman, Selznick (for whom contracts were "a form of trickery") and Leland Hayward.


Reading Kemper’s original and deeply researched study, I couldn’t help thinking of Hollywood’s golden oldie days. Then agents tended to be a colorfully mixed (mainly Jewish) bag. My colleagues were war veterans who included a furniture-removal man, a tennis bum, a secret-ops military officer, a former labor agitator, a trust fund baby rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves with some considerable wild, woolly life experience. Today’s agents go to film, business or law school and come up through the mailroom, guzzle sparkling water instead of gin and work out at the gym. They are healthier, cooler, more handsome, less emotional and less angry and much, much more innocent about life.


A glaring omission in Kemper’s book is the absence of any mention of Hollywood’s then-current labor racketeer troubles, violent strikes, criminal conspiracies and the blacklist in which the agents played a key, and unheroic, role. Kemper’s de-politicalization of what was, in fact, a lasting trauma for the entire industry one hopes he will remedy in a forthcoming history of talent agencies in a later period.


Sigal is a screenwriter, novelist and a former Hollywood agent whose firm represented, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Palance, Joseph Cotten and Peter Lorre.


—from the Los Angeles Times, December 24, 1009

a new translation of vivant denon’s point de lendemain


Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (Point de Lendemain), now translated by Lydia Davis!


The famous opening sentences, which Milan Kundera admired for "the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose:"


J’aimais éperdument la comtesse de ——; j’avais vingt ans, et j’étais ingénu; elle me trompa, je me fâchai, elle me quitta. J’étais ingénu, je la regrettai; j’avais vingt ans, elle me pardonna; et comme j’avais vingt ans, que j’étais ingénu, toujours trompé, mais plus quitté, je me croyais l’amant le mieux aimé, partant le plus heureux des hommes.


Davis’ translation:


I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de —— ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive—still deceived, but no longer abandoned—I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men.



Davis’ translation reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009:


Peter Brooks opens his fascinating introduction to Lydia Davis’s translation of Vivant Denon’s novella by asserting that "No Tomorrow may be the most stylish erotic tale ever written. Erotic, while not at all pornographic". Set over the course of one night and the following morning, it is the lush account of the seduction of the twenty-year-old narrator by the beautiful Mme de T ——, who knows that he is in love with her friend the Comtesse de——. A game of love and sex played out with the consent, it emerges, of Mme de T——’s lover, closes with her parting words "Don’t give the Countess cause to quarrel with me".


Point de Lendemain was first published anonymously in 1777, five years before Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses, in which such stratagems were given a more brutal twist. Brooks refers to the "male fantasy" aspects of Denon’s libertine work, and draws profitably on Marcel Mauss’ s theory of the gift — "the eighteenth century’ s erotic version of the ‘potlatch"’. He reveals that Balzac so admired Denon’s conte that he recycled it in his Physiologie du mariage (1829). Milan Kundera, it could be added, also paid homage, in his novella La Lenteur (1993).


Vivant Denon (de Non, before the Revolution) was born in 1747 into minor French nobility. He became a favourite of Louis XV and spent seven years with the French embassy in Naples where he developed an interest in antiquities. A skilled engraver, he accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign and published his Travels through Lower and Upper Egypt in 1802. Napoleon later appointed him first Director of the Louvre. He died in 1825. Point de Lendemain is his only work of fiction.


Lydia Davis’s translation is equal to the challenges of Denon’s formal , elaborate prose, and there is little to choose between her version and the excellent one produced by David Coward in 1995. Where Denon writes "Le château ainsi que les jardins, appuyés contre une montagne, descendaient en terrasse jusque sur les rives de la Seine", Davis gives us: "The château as well as the gardens, resting against a mountainside, descended in terraces to the banks of the Seine", while Coward goes for the topographically more realistic " … built on the side of a hill, sloped down in terraces to the Seine". Elsewhere, the narrator tells us "J’étais d’ailleurs trop ému pour me rendre compte de ce que j’éprouvais"; Davis renders it "Besides, I was too moved to realize what I was experiencing", while Coward gives us "But truth to tell l was too distraught to know what I felt". Both appear to fit. This elegant edition reproduces Denon’s original text. which remains, by common consent, a masterpiece.

sharp-tongued dubravka ugrešić on european t.v. & literature

ugrešić on her life as a literary exile (pretend to be a cleaning lady), and the concept of european literatures (it’s like the eurovisionsong vision contest on t.v.!)

In Nobody’s Home (her fourth work of nonfiction to be published in this country) Dubravka Ugrešić writes, "I have been on the road ever since [1991 — when the former Yugoslavia descended into war], changing countries like shoes."With hardly a touch of jetlag, Ugrešić’s essays latch onto matters of ethnic, national, and transnational identity. In surveying topics such as her former countrymen’s wont to line their conversations with curse words, or the condescension she has met with as a Croatian woman, Ugrešić lays into an assortment of au courant stereotypes (e.g., "…I put up with it when people explain to me how to use an iron, or when waiters in restaurants deliberately avoid setting my place with a knife…. I usually write ‘cleaning lady’ in the box under OCCUPATION; it’s what is expected of me. Because my cosmopolitan countrywomen are known far and wide as excellent housekeepers in EU apartments, houses and public lavatories." 

—from The Barnes & Noble Review



What is European in European Literatures?

European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest

By Dubravka Ugrešić

To the question of what is European in European literatures,

I have only one answer, the shortest variant of which would be: 
                               Mr. Bhattacharaya, an Indian who lives in America.   

Na pitanje što je danas evropsko u evropskim
književnostima imam samo jedan odgovor čija bi
najkraća varijanta bila: to je Mister Bhattacharya, Indijac
koji živi u Americi.

The concept of European literatures — as it is generally used by EU
politicians, cultural managers, publishers, old-fashioned university departments, and often by writers themselves — is not very different from the concept of the European competition for the best European song.

Let us recall, the Eurovision Song Contest is the favorite annual TV entertainment of many Europeans, and the hottest point of mental unification of Europe. The Eurovision Song Contest is a grandiose (grandiose European-style) presentation of European pop-music kitsch. But nevertheless, there is greater enjoyment to be had from things other than the pop music itself, ranging from costumes (this year the Cypriots were the best!) to spectacular performance (this year the Irish used so much smoke on stage that they nearly started a fire!). Enjoyment is to be had in the method of voting (Croatia, ten points! Belgium, two points!); picture postcards of various countries, linking up with studios in Tallinn and Dublin; then “politics” and its transparency (everyone knows that the Croats gave the Slovenes the most points, and vice versa); the participation of new European representatives (Hey, this year we’ve got Bosnians!); the absence of all non-participants (The Serbs will never sing in Europe, not in a million years!). And as far as the actual music is concerned, one expects the Turks to bring something of their oriental musical kitsch, the Swedes to defend the colors of West European musical kitsch. The greatest European TV show also has an educational function (viewers learn the names of new states: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia!), a political-ideological function (OK, we’ve taken in the Estonians, but we won’t have the Turks, singing with us is quite enough for them!); and, incidentally, of course, it makes a financial profit. There are sometimes excesses, such as the Diva (Viva la Diva!), the Israeli transvestite, but excesses within the framework of the mainstream are always welcome.

European literary life, with its literary representatives, whose names are always (always!) backed by the name of a state, frequently does not differ greatly from the show described above. It’s true that there is less of the spectacular. However, TV broadcasts of the annual Booker Prize ceremony increasingly confirm that literature too is a spectacle. The winners leap onto the stage (Canada, ten points!) and pronounce words of gratitude in the manner of pop-singers. It is true that the judges’ speeches are more eloquent, which is understandable — after all words, and not musical notes, are the writer’s craft. If we take into account the commercial effect of the Booker performance, and also the principle of exclusivity (the Booker is awarded only to books in English), then all of that combined supports our initial comparison, however unjustified, malicious, and inaccurate as it may seem to some.

The Participation of G. Drubnik in the Whole Thing 

Some thirty years ago, in 1971, an issue of The New York Times published a spoof article about Gregor G. Drubnik, a Bulgarian writer who had ostensibly been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature that year. The article was full of discriminatory epithets, such as the remarkably stupefying quality of Drubnik’s works, and it was supposed to be highly amusing. The very idea that some Bulgarian could ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature brought a smile to everyone’s lips. Had I come across that article at the time it was published, I too would have laughed. At that time I was studying comparative literature, and I was full of myself. I read European and American writers, wrote student essays on Proust and Joyce. I read well-known and less well-known Russian writers, I studied literary theoretical schools at a time when, it seems, literary theory was at its height. I was convinced that I was in tune with the great literary world. It was also a time of a great publishing boom in the former Yugoslavia, a lot was being translated, and I followed every accessible foreign literary innovation. When in 1982 I found myself in America for the first time, the choice of translated literature in the bookshops seemed to me modest. Of course I could not admit that to anyone. No one would have believed me, and besides, only a few years later, the picture of American bookshops, as far as translations are concerned, changed radically for the better. And my conviction that big things happen only in big places remained unshaken. At the beginning of the 1990s the situation was to change: both Zagreb and Belgrade bookshops would become terribly empty, in terms of both local and translated literature. At that time my books began to set off into the world, and somewhat later I myself followed them. In my conviction that I was communicating masterfully with the big literary world, whatever that meant, I forgot the possibility that this world was not communicating with me nor was it unduly interested in communication.

When my novel was published in England in 1991 one critic ended his review with the question: But, still, is this what we need? It was only later that I realized what the critic’s sentence meant. As I traveled I did not notice that I was dragging with me the label Made in the Balkans. And if someone comes from the Balkans, he or she is not expected to perform cultural mastery in front of us, but to conform to the stereotype which WE have about THEM, the Balkans or about the places where all of THEM come from. I had, therefore, forgotten where I came from and where I had landed, or in other words, I had overlooked the established codes between the cultural center and the periphery. I was expected to confirm stereotypes about the periphery, not destroy them. As far as my literary mastery was concerned, I could have chucked it in the bin since it appeared simply to irritate my foreign literary surroundings. It turned out that Drubnik’s cold-war phantom shadow had not quite disappeared during those thirty or so years. With time the number of labels that others stuck on me and my books only increased. In addition to the label Made in the Balkans, there were new ones: the collapse of Yugoslavia, the fall of communism, war, nationalism, new states and new identities. My texts communicated with the foreign reader weighed down with voluminous baggage. I often seemed to myself like a traveler dragging several suitcases in each hand and trying at the same time to retain a certain elegance. Unlike me, my West European colleagues traveled without luggage, and all that the reader saw was them and what they wrote. While in my case the luggage buried both me and what I wrote. The situation changed radically in my local literary landscape as well. There too labels appeared, there too it suddenly became crucial for an understanding of my writing to know whether I was by nationality a Croat or a Serb and what my mom and dad were. 

Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and — without asking me — the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport (it had resolutely rejected red, the Communist color, but the hardness of its cover reminded one of the old Soviet pass for the Lenin Library). The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill. Since in my case it did not work very well, they excluded me from their literary, and other, ranks. With my Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired “homeland” and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo. At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it. 

What is actually my problem? Am I ashamed of the label Croatian writer? No. Would I feel better with a Gucci or Armani label? No. So what do I want? If by the will of some criminals, and then by the ostensible majority will of the people, I lost the label Yugoslav, why now — again not by my own will — should I wear the label Croatian? What’s more, if the Croatian cultural criminals angrily stripped the Croatian label from me (because I publicly snarled at a time when, according to them, I should have kept quiet), why do others, people who are in any case completely indifferent, continue assiduously to stick this label on me? 

And why am I so sensitive to labels? Because in practice it turns out that identifying baggage weighs down a literary text. Because it continues to be the case that an identity tag alters the essence of a literary text and its meaning. Because an identity tag is a shorthand interpretation of the text, and regularly wrong. Because an identity tag opens the way to reading into a text something that is not there. And finally because it is discriminatory, discriminatory for the literary text itself. Because I come from the periphery. An American writer, I imagine, does not have this problem. 

Why do some of my colleagues, unlike me, find it important to retain their identity tag? Because identifying writers according to their nationality, according to the country to which they belong, is implanted in literary and also in commercial communication. Because that is the easiest way to travel from the periphery to the center. Because for many people an identity tag is, at the same time, the only way to communicate, not only locally, but also globally, to be accepted and recognized as a Bosnian writer, as a Slovene writer, as a Bulgarian writer. Because a label is the fundamental assumption of every market, including, therefore, the literary market as well. Because identity and trafficking in identity is a well-tried market formula that has enabled many writers from the periphery to move, justifiably or not, into the global literary market. 

Europe As Far As India 

Having learned from the American commercial and ideological example, and then from the international success of Indian, Caribbean, Japanese, African, or Chinese writers who live in Great Britain, the cultural bureaucrats of the European Union, and all those who are concerned with culture, “culture buffs” in other words, all endeavor to adapt to the situation. 

The culture of the EU is, on the one hand, worried about globalization, which is another name for American cultural imperialism. And while the Americans themselves use the term imperialism without much embellishment, the Europeans beat about the bush. They are afraid of being accused of excessive anti-Americanism, like the French, who become animated every few years over the protection of their cultural products, but equally over what has been taken from them, over their lost cultural primacy.  It turns out that anti-Americanism is not culturally, or politically, or strategically, or financially profitable: besides, in the American cultural industry, it is not only American sellers who earn good money, but also European buyers. 

European “cultural identity,” whatever that means, is “threatened,” on the one hand by the omnipresent American cultural industry and, on the other hand, by the East Europeans, who are waiting to enter, carrying their cultural bundles in their hands; and then also — and this is the most painful point of the European cultural subconscious — by émigrés from the non-European cultural circle, whose number is growing dangerously with every passing second. And where, really, do these numerous Moroccans and Algerians, all these Chinese and Arabs belong? How should they be classified? According to their passports? According to the language they use? According to the cultural circle to which they belong? Proud of its ideology and practice of multiculturalism, for the time being the cultural bureaucracy of the EU perpetuates its well-tried formula — Me Tarzan, you Jane — that is, the formula of recognizing different cultural identities, stressing regional and other variations, and, of course, integration, although no one knows what that is supposed to mean. To everyone, therefore, his place of worship, to everyone her burka. And as long as the Moroccans lay out on their counter something Moroccan, whatever that means, and we display something of ours, something European, whatever that means, everything is all right. That is, on the whole, how cultural products are exchanged, that is how the global market works, that is the established mechanism driving the dynamics of cultural life. And everything would be all right if there were not nonmainstream individuals, dysfunctions in the system, which subvert canonized concepts regarding culture, about what it is, and what it ought to be. These individuals outstrip the conceptual apparatus of cultural promoters, managers, and the cultural bureaucracy of the EU. These individuals outstrip the conceptual apparatus of critics and interpreters, university departments, teachers, and readers. No one knows what to do with them and where to place them. And really, what are the Dutch to do with Moses Isegawa, an African writer who lives in Holland and writes in English? What are the Dutch to do with me? I live in Amsterdam, but do not write in Dutch. What are the Croats to do with me? I do write in Croatian, but I don’t live there. What are the Serbs and Bosnians to do with me? The language I write in is BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, the neat abbreviation dreamed up by translators at the Hague Tribunal). What are the Dutch to do with a Moroccan writer, who, instead of writing profitable prose about the cultural differences between the Moroccans and the Dutch, which everyone would understand, has undertaken to recreate the beauty of the Dutch language of the nineteenth century, which present-day Dutch writers have forgotten. What are the French to do with an Arab who aspires to be the new Marcel Proust, and what are the Germans to do with a Turk who aspires to be the new Thomas Mann? There are similar examples, the only problem is that their number is growing. 

Among the dysfunctions in the existing literary system I have my favorite example, my hero. I met him at a book fair in Budapest. Joydeep Roy Bhattacharaya was born in Calcutta. He left Calcutta when he was twenty and took a degree in philosophy in America. He lives in New York and teaches at one of the neighboring universities. Joydeep has written a novel that attracted a fair number of positive reviews. The subject of his novel is Hungary and a circle of Hungarian intellectuals in the nineteen-sixties. The Hungarians promptly translated his book. One Hungarian writer, an intellectual, complained to me, that, er, the novel was indeed concerned with Hungary, but in an Indian way. It would be better if he wrote about India, was his brief comment. 

Joydeep is a young and attractive man. And very photogenic. His American publisher brought out his novel in the secret hope that Joydeep would have second thoughts and write something about India. Something like The God of Small Things, only from a male perspective. My mother, to whom I showed Joydeep’s book with his photograph on the back cover, instinctively took the American publisher’s side. Why doesn’t he write about India, she sighed, he’s better-looking than Sandokan. 

As I talked to Joydeep I was astonished at his knowledge and passion for the former Eastern Europe. “It wouldn’t occur to me to change my mind,” he told me. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “The novel I am writing is set in Dresden, in the nineteen-fifties. After that I’ve got a novel about the battle for Stalingrad, written from a female perspective,” he added. 

As I said, Joydeep is my hero among my writer colleagues. In a world in which an identity kit is something like a toothbrush — that is, something one cannot do without — he has chosen the most difficult path. He has thrown his identity kit into the garbage, in the name of freedom of literary choice, in the name of literary freedom. Joydeep is absolutely conscious of the consequences of his symbolic suicide. “At home,” in India, I presume, they don’t like him, and it is debatable whether they have ever heard of him. People in the places he writes about complain because they are firmly convinced that only they can write about themselves, that only they have the copyright to their subject matter. American and British publishers tolerate Joydeep’s Eastern European “virus,” because they look forward to his recovery, to the moment when Joydeep will return thematically to the place he belongs, India. 

To the question of what is European in European literatures, I have only one answer, the shortest variant of which would be: Mr. Bhattacharaya, an Indian who lives in America.

—from The European Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4, 465-471 (2003). Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. Later published in a slightly different version in Ugrešić’s Nobody’s Home (2008).  


historian vs novelist: felipe fernández armesto takes down j.m.g. le clézio’s take on mexico

The Mexican Dream is a book of dreams: the dream that was the religion of the Aztecs, the dreams of the Spanish conquistadores, the dream of a counter-history, of a continent still inviolate from European contact and conquest, and finally a dream of the present—a lyrical meditation on how indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations affect the European imagination. Le Clézio said of this book, “What motivated me was a sort of dream about what has disappeared and what could have been.”

Le Clézio on the literary aspects of history:

It is, I believe, the primary charm of poetry to give the lesson of mirage, that is, to show the fragile and vibrant movement of creation, in which the word is in a certain way human quintessence, prayer….


In their purest form myths, not unlike tragedy, are perhaps the most important moment in the troubled history of Mexican civilization. The cement of dreams, the architecture of language, made of images and rhythms which respond to and harmonize with each other through time and space, their wisdom is not of that which can be measured on the scale of the everyday. They are concurrently religion, ritual, belief, phantasmagoria, and the primary affirmation of a human coherence, the coagulating strength of language against the anguish of death and the certainty of nothingness. Myths express life, despite the promise of destruction, of the weight of the inevitable. They are without any doubt the most durable monuments of men, in America as in the ancient world. (pp. 9 – 11)


Le Clézio on the collision of cultures:


From that imbalance rose the tragic results of the coming together of two worlds. It was the extermination of an ancient dream by the frenzy of a modern one, the destruction of myths by a desire for power. It was gold, modern weapons, and rational thought pitted against magic and gods: the outcome could not have been otherwise. (p. 3)


We know of no other event like it in the history of the world, except perhaps the first confrontation in Europe between the neolithic peoples who came from the East and the primitive hunters. But no witness ever wrote of that great drama. (p. 6)


Abruptly, with the shock of the Conquest, the sober and puritanical man of the Christian Inquisition encountered, through their violent and upsetting nature, peoples who through their rituals were identified with the gods. (p. 48)

—all quotations from Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations

Cover Image

But wait! This prominent historian takes issue with Le Clézio:

“Evil victors, easy victims”

By Felipe Fernández Armesto

J. M. G. Le Clézio


Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations


Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

232pp. University of Chicago Press.

$25 (paperback, $15); distributed in the UK by Wiley.

£17.50 (paperback, £ 1 0.50).

9780226 110035


The argument of The Mexican Dream — as far as it can be made out — is that "Mexico is a land of dreams", by which, J. M. G. Le Clézio explains, he means a culture with an idiosyncratic notion of reality, or "made of a different truth", as he says in his characteristically obscure way. In the episode commonly known as the Spanish conquest, rival dreams collided: the conquerors, with their "dream of gold", dreamed their victory, while the natives, obsessed with a nightmare of self-annihilation, dreamed their defeat. The conquest "interrupted Mexican thought" because the conquerors effectively suppressed and "silenced" indigenous cultures. Had those cultures survived, aspects of the natives’ civilizations that Le Clézio thinks were "ahead of Europe" – including "medicine, astronomy, irrigation, drainage, and urbanism" as well as "harmony between man and the world, that balance between the body and the spirit, the union of the individual and the collectivity" – would have enriched the West. We might have enjoyed "a new scientific and humanist way of thinking", established ecological equilibrium, and, under shamans’ instruction, "integrated dream and ecstasy into daily life". No one knowledgeable about Mexico is likely to find any of this persuasive, from the vapid initial assumption to the feebly sententious, faintly ludicrous conclusion.


The Mexican Dream originally appeared in 1993, since when scholarship has revolutionized understanding of the history of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The author has not taken advantage of the appearance of a paperback edition to make revisions. Because he reads texts uncritically and ignores most of the findings of the last twenty years, he presents seriously warped and outdated pictures of the conquest and the colonial period. He treats colonial-era chroniclers as authorities on the pre-conquest world. He cites Bernal Díaz as an authority on native religion. He thinks the writers Las Casas and Motolinfa were "witnesses of the conquest".


Le Clézio further thinks that all the indigenous cultures of Mexico — and even most of those of the New World — were foredoomed to disaster by fatalistic and apocalyptic superstitions. He accepts colonial stories of Aztec morale subverted by "omens" that no reliable evidence attests. He believes Spaniards’ self-interested claims that natives accepted the invaders as superior because they mistook them for gods. The publishers’ blurb tells us that Le Clézio has studied Mexican history for thirty years; yet he thinks the search for El Dorado began before the conquest. A look at some accessible recent works, such as Matthew Restall’ s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003), Michael Smith’s archaeological study of the Aztecs, or even Charles Mann’s painstaking vulgarization, 1491, would have saved him from his most egregious howlers and enabled him to bring the text into line with current scholarship.


Le Clézio’s account of the colonial period also traduces the facts. He realizes that millenarian movements exhibited continuity from pre-conquest times, but if he had read Frank Graziano’s recent book on the subject (2006), he would have been able to re-evaluate and date these accurately. He also seems to sense that the conquest did not put an end to native mythopoeia, which, he claims, "still vibrates in the work of Agustín Yáñez, in the poetry of Gilberto Owen and Octavio Paz". In general, however, unaware of the durability of indigenous culture, the vitality of native agency and the cultural creativity of many colonial encounters, he sees the colonial epoch as merely destructive, and wildly overestimates the extent of Spanish power over the natives. The collaborations between intruded and indigenous elites, without which the colonial regime is unintelligible, pass the author by. In Le Clézio’s account, evil Spanish victors, who seem to have stepped straight out of the "Black Legend", crush uniformly resistant and noble but hopeless native victims.


A chapter on indigenous myths represents a pitiably old-fashioned style of anthropology, which Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch would recognize, concerned with finding universal symbols and themes. The cultural differences, which make the native worlds of Mexico enthralling, vanish. A couple of interpolated short chapters struggle for relevance, on the poetry attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, pre-conquest ruler of Texcoco, which Le Clézio unquestioningly accepts as authentic, and on Antonin Artaud, the drug-crazed ex-Surrealist who briefly, in the 1930s, sought refuge in Mexico from the supposed decadence of Western civilization. The rambling conclusion, with its mawkish romanticization of indigenous societies and its confidence in the myth of the "ecological Indian", seems to arise not from the book but from prejudices in the author’s head.


No doubt, because of its author’s literary prestige (J. M. G. Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, mainly for his novels), it will attract sycophantic reviews and receptive readers. The effect will be to set back the good work of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists in creating a realistic picture of Mexican history, with its blend of continuity and change, and of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, unbenighted by mentalité sauvage, with their fascinating and profound differences, and their subtle, multivalent relationships with the Europeans and Africans who joined them in the colonial era.

—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009


long-forgotten american decadence: the book of jade

Pronounced “brilliant” by William James — one of his professors at Harvard — David Park Barnitz (June 24, 1878 – October 10, 1901) was an American poet, known for his one and only volume of poetry, a homage to the decadent writers of European letters, The Book of Jade. Within weeks of its publication Barnitz would be dead, a rumoured suicide.


From Wikipedia: 

Barnitz adop[ed] the decadent style to create a monument of unrelieved and unrelenting oblivionist verse, fit to take its place alongside the works of such other gothic and macabre anti-luminaries as Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Count Stenbock, James Thomson (B.V.), H. P. Lovecraft, and the German Bonaventura. A classmate of fellow poet Wallace Stevens, Park Barnitz was a visionary who prefigured modernism in his adoption of new paradigms and literary styles as a form of mask. And the mask which Barnitz adopted, that of the decadents, fitted his intellectual cynicism and misanthropy precisely. The decadents, Barnitz wrote, though they “do not lecture at Harvard”, “seem to me the most delightful of contemporary French writers.” “All these slaves of the opal,” Barnitz goes on, “as one of their obscurest members proclaims them, with their one great man (Verlaine) and their hundred pathetic poets, it is surely a fitting thing to admire. ‘How nice of them,’ one feels like saying, ‘to be so dear!’ They have not produced a new art, but they have amused.”


For more, see the comprehensive — a real labour of love (although “love” may not be the correct word to employ in connection with Barnitz’s milieu of decadence) — and this great post, too, at the wonderful rare books site,

An example of Barnitz’s ontology:



They do not know that they are wholly dead,
Nor that their bodies are to the worm given o’er;

They pass beneath the sky forevermore;

With their dead flesh the earth is cumbered.


Each day they drink of wine and eat of bread,

And do the things that they have done before;

And yet their hearts are rotten to the core,

And from their eyes the light of life is fled.


Surely the sun is weary of their breath;

They have no ears, and they are dumb and blind;

Long time their bodies hunger for the grave.


How long, O God, shall these dead corpses rave?

When shall the earth be clean of humankind?

When shall the sky cease to behold this death?


If you’ve ever had to read Hegel, then you’ll appreciate Barnitz’s take on the great German nineteenth century metaphysicist:


Because my hope is dead, my heart a stone,

I read the words that Hegel once did write

An idiot gibbering in the dark alone

Till on my heart and vision fell the night.


Both poerms are from David Park Barnitz’s The Book of Jade (1901), which may be downloaded here.