Fascinating, but another time, please spare us the actor!
I've never seen it on the list of ways that little New Zealand punches above its weight, but it should be there, that the foremost Nabokov scholar in the world is our own Brian Boyd, graduate of the University of Canterbury, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland. Prof. Boyd has written two award-winning biographies of the man (The Russian Years and The American Years), a book on Ada, a book on Pale Fire, edited Nabokov's collected works for the Library of America, and for another publisher Nabokov's unpublished and uncollected writings, written the introduction to the centennial edition of Nabokov's memoir Speak Memory, published a collection of essays and personal reflections on Nabokov (Stalking Nabokov), just off the top of my head, and was now here before us as co-editor of Letters to Véra, a collection of Nabokov's correspondence to his wife, from 1923 when they met until his death in 1977.
He's also the person who taught me to say Na-bo'-kov instead of Na'-bo-kov. It promised well! And we were also going to have Michael Hurst on hand reading excerpts from the letters!
We crowded in to the Upper NZI Room, and out filed Prof. Boyd, Jan Cronin, his colleague in the English Dept. at the University of Auckland who was chairing the session, and... surprise! not Michael Hurst! He had not been able to make it, and was being replaced by another actor, Stephen L.
The first question was a surprise as well.
"Tell us about his love life? Was it different from our assumptions?"
"Our assumptions"? I looked around. Did we have assumptions about the love life of Vladimir Nabokov? Such as? Puzzling? Irreverent? Cerebral?
As it turns out, Nabokov's love life was, once he met her, really all about Véra. During their more than fifty years together, she was his first reader, his typist, his editor, his researcher, his confidante, and his love for her, as expressed in the letters which make up this book, was tender and rapturous.
Nabokov met Véra in 1923 in Berlin, where his family, in exile from Bolshevik Russia, had ended up, in the large Russian émigré community which had formed there. He was 24, and beginning to make a name for himself as a poet and translator, under the pseudonym V. Sirin.
Their paths first crossed at a charity ball, but the encounter which would change both their lives came later. Out walking one evening, Nabokov was approached by a woman wearing a black satin carnival-type mask. That woman was Véra, who had decided that Nabokov was the greatest hope of Russian Literature, and was playing the "high class stalker", according to Boyd, "high-class" in that she never took her mask off during their conversation, apparently because she did not want him to be influenced by her beauty as she recited verses of the poetry of V. Sirin to him. And that was how the two met, both in some way disguised. Nabokov readers will recognise a favourite theme.
He wrote a poem asking "Are you my fate?" and yes, she was. He did, however, have a trip to France already planned, and it was from there that he wrote his first letter to her.
Stephen L got to his feet, and read.
“I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being – well, understood, perhaps – so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke, a masquerade trick… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about – you rub off their marvellous pollen with the touch of a word…”
How exquisite is that, "You rub off their marvellous pollen"? Unfortunately Stephen L. had decided to play it as he would a pompous provincial in a Chekhov play. As I listened unbelievingly, he puffed out his chest and thundered,
"I will be in Berlin (beat) on the 10th (beat, beat), or the 11th!"
Gulp, and back to the narrative. "He and she always believed that fate was trying to push them together... They had a very romantic sense of their relationship, all the way through."
There were difficult times, too. When in France in 1937, looking for a job, for a way to get his family out of Nazi Berlin (all the more important as Véra was Jewish), Nabokov fell into an affair with an aspiring young Italian poet, Irina Guadanini. Véra apparently hears rumours. We hear from Stephen.
"Not a word from you yet my love!" trumpets Stephen, all in one breath. A long pause, and he resumes in a low, disconsolate register. "Maybe tomorrow."
Then we're back to the trumpet charge. "Can't write more today!" A long pause, and again, the sad, descending tone. "They're coming to take me out. I have to go to a party."
We moved on to the story of Boyd's relationship with Véra Nabokov, which started after she saw his PhD thesis and invited him to visit her in Montreux, where the Nabokovs had made their home after the publication of Lolita. The first suggestion was that he catalogue her husband's archives, but eventually the idea of a biography came up. He got a fellowship and went back to Montreux, spending 18 months with Véra, at that point in her eighties. He saw her every day. She never stopped calling him Mr Boyd.
He knew she had Nabokov's letters to her, though she had destroyed hers to him, and seeing them was one of the enticements which had led him to accept her invitation to work on a biography. But Véra would never let him see them or hold them, she would only read them into his tape recorder as he sat near by, leaving some personal parts, some endearments, out.
Dmitri Nabokov, their son and translator of many of his father's works, tried to help. "He was in a wheel chair [not from breaking his neck in one of his Ferraris, he had recovered from that, but from complications from diabetes]. He was a big man, he had been an opera singer, a mountaineer. He said, Search! You can search anywhere in the apartment! So I did. I found lots of things, but I couldn't find the letters!" He had to go back to using the transcripts of the readings Véra had done. Only after her death did he get to see the letters.
Time for a reading. This one ends with a hail-fellow-well-met "Hugs!" followed by a long pause, and finally a throaty, prayer-like "and adoration, V." If you know me and you ran into me at the Festival, you probably heard me imitate this. A lot of people did!
Nabokov wrote Véra every day he was away from her, during the whole time of their marriage. And, according to Boyd, "She wrote back about one in five times".
Too, says Boyd, the letters show some new sides of the great author. "He is enchanted by animals and children... Here, just let me read a couple of parts of his letters where he talks about animals."
And it's a fine reading! We can actually hear Nabokov's voice. Was this a Nabokovian ploy on Prof. Boyd's part, to present it as but a whim of the moment?
Alas, we had to return to Stephen L., for a final reading not devoid of irony.
“I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it,” Nabokov wrote, and Stephen L. read.
I'm on the request list for the book. The lyricism and wit of the letters may have been hard to catch at the session, but I've since read some excerpts online, including ten splendid ones posted by the Thought Catalog site under the title "Love letters that will make you swoon". Maria Popova compares them to Frida Kahlo's letters to Diego Rivera, or the letters between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis.
What is next for the doyen of Nabokov studies? "I want to do a book on Lolita, because I don't think any of us understand Lolita as Nabokov intended us to understand it." I'll be on the request list for that one, too.
My favourite of the stories Brian Boyd told us was the one about how Véra, aged 85 while she and he were working on the letters, was so deaf as to render some conversations difficult, especially if you add on the NZ accent, which she apparently had great difficulty understanding. At one point, he was talking about butterflies -- not an uncommon word, you'd think, for a conversation about her noted lepidopterist husband.
"She kept understanding me to be saying 'paradise'. After two or three rounds of 'Butterflies,' 'Paradise?', 'No, butterflies!', 'Paradise?', finally Dmitri rolled his wheelchair over and boomed "BUT-TA-FLIES!"
June 29, 2015
June 22, 2015
He had seemed grey-eyed, seated on the low dais of the slightly drab, multifunctional room where his two earlier sessions were held, but under the lights of the ASB Theatre Daniel Mendelsohn's eyes glittered bright blue. They called to mind those ancient Egyptian cat sculptures whose eye sockets, archaeologists tell us, were filled with blue glass. I remembered that his publicity photo had something else suggestive of those four-legged sacred beings: that raised eyebrow look which Dante called altero.
How to translate altero, derived from the past participle of the Latin verb alere, to grow, as in, a person who stands above the rest? Funnily, considering that I used to be a translator and I'm describing someone who spent 12 years translating the works of the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy into English, an exact translation escapes me. Suggestion after suggestion from online dictionaries and translator forums seem to only point up what it is not: it is not 'superior', even less so 'arrogant', and not at all 'vainglorious', a word I have never used in speech (has anyone in the last 50 years?), but which I was amused to see matched to the Italian borioso, a new word for me, from the Latin borea, meaning 'wind'. As in, I suppose, 'puffed up'. Wrong again!
Perhaps the closest word was "lordly". In fact, what the photo had prompted me to wonder -- just a bit -- was if Daniel Mendelsohn, whose writings I so admire, might not let me down in person by turning out to be someone who would lord his superior talent and taste over us.
With every appearance he made, the worry receded, until it was laid definitely to rest at this third session, in which he appeared as an "irresistible critic". He was... irresistible, with his takeaway flat white, reading glasses, and mix of impudent throwaway lines and candid, intelligent reflections.
Ian Wedde, who gets top marks as an interviewer, started off by asking about the critical mentality, or the critical sensibility. Mendelsohn's take on it involved what he called the "vivacity" of the argument, or dialogue, as a way of being social, as a way of living.
Wedde brought up Mendelsohn's descriptions of his grandfather's talent for storytelling, which we had heard him extol affectionately in his previous session, in relation to his memoir The lost: a search for six of six million. Was that a formative influence?
It was. "The allure for me is storytelling. I think that as a critic, as well as a memoirist, the activity I'm engaged in is to narrate something. You narrate the path by which you arrived at the opinion of the work that you now have".
The word "critic", he told us, comes from the Greek krinein, to make a judgement. And, "We come from a society that increasingly doesn't want to. People say, 'Who am I to judge?'. Well, you have a brain -- you are!"
The importance of using your brain led to considerations about his formation as a scholar of the classics, beginning with the study of the Greek and Latin languages. "Greek and Latin: the rigour of the grammar enforces a rigour of thought. I don't know why that had such appeal to me, but as a kid I was already trying to learn Greek."
The study of classics turned out to be a useful formation in many other ways as well.
"As a classicist you have to process an immense amount of material." He gave us a glorious vignette from his University years, in which he was in the office of his classicist mentor. "She took a drag on her cigarette and said to me, 'Of course you can't write anything until you've read everything'."
What she was describing, he said, was the "scholarly duty to a body of knowledge". In some ways, the same concept applies to criticism. "I have a wonderful editor who says criticism is a service industry. You don't have time to read everything. I do. That's my job."
The job does not include telling you what you should think or do. "Of course, I want my audience to be with me, but I don't care if you read the book or see the movie."
It played as impertinent, but at heart it's a serious creed which Mendelsohn shares with the critics he grew up reading in the pages of The New Yorker, about whom he explained, "By dramatising the process by which they arrived at their judgement, the critics implied that you also could form your own opinion".
It was a point he had made in "A Critic's Manifesto", a piece which appeared in The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog a few years ago, a thoughtful and, if it's not too strong a term, enthusiastic exploration of the role of the professional critic in our society (and of Mendelsohn's own development as a critic), which should be read by anyone interested in the topic, but above all by anyone who, like Dave Eggers, thinks that only a person who has written a book, or made a movie, has the right to dismiss a book, or a movie.
Mendelsohn quoted for us what might be considered the manifesto of the Manifesto: "Knowledge plus taste equals meaningful judgement. The key word is meaningful".
Wedde brought up the subject of highbrow vs lowbrow. Mendelsohn responded by declaring a taste for Noel Coward, and "I'm not interested in a high-low separation. It can sound funny coming from a classicist, but you know everyone went to see Greek Drama".
Our culture isolates the categories, he said, but he doesn't. "In my own enjoyment of things I don't think I'm a snooty person -- you know I watch 'Revenge'. I watch 'Scandal'. I have no patience for people who say 'I don't watch TV'. I mean, this is your culture. As an intellectual you have to inhabit your culture."
"If you're doing anything seriously, that's your invitation to me. If you take it seriously, I'll do it seriously."
He went on to express the opinion -- which had me, for one, exulting -- that one of the most non-serious pursuits of our society is the ranking of books and movies, for which we have Amazon to thank. "The idea that it is a useful criterion -- it was a 5 star book -- is completely idiotic to me."
After all, "Everything interesting is mixed".
To finish off, he read us an excerpt from his upcoming book. It was about how after his father retired from his job as a scientist, he asked Daniel if he could sit in on the class he was teaching at Bard University on The Odyssey. Partly, we are given to understand, it was because he was curious about the poem itself, which had never really appealed to him, his preference being for The Iliad. But even more, it was about getting to know his son better, to experience this thing which was such a chunk of his life.
Every day he would appear, it was the winter semester, snowy weather in upstate New York, they'd meet in the car park and walk to the classroom together, his father, already quite old, in his eighties I think, always careful how he stepped, because he was afraid of falling.
And then after the class ends Daniel sees an ad for an Odyssey cruise which retraces Odysseus's route home, and he and his father go on it together. Numerous adventures rise up before them, just like in the Cavafy poem, and in the end, again like the Cavafy poem, they never do get to Ithaca, the canal of Corinth closed by a strike, and ... and then, they come home, and soon after that, "My father fell."
He stopped reading there, but you knew what that was leading to, because he had said his father is no longer alive.
It was maybe the best reading I'd ever heard at a literary festival. Mendelsohn read beautifully, his measured cadence perfectly matching the long and lyrical sentences, which managed however to be as simply and clearly written as Hemingway could ever have wished. Write the truest sentence you know.
As I waited in the signing line, I couldn't help accosting the woman next to me to enthuse about the reading. She said, "I loved the story but I'm really not sure about having yet another term for dying -- I already didn't like passing and now we've got falling".
I said, "I think (you know how you're so polite, but inside I was sure she was completely off course, to use an odyssean metaphor) that he really was talking about falling. Remember at the beginning he said his father was always afraid of falling? I think that was meant as a premonition of what would happen at the end. Then of course with old people, whether 'falling' means falling on an icy path and breaking a femur, or falling to the floor from a heart attack, we can imagine that it will lead to death. But I'm sure falling meant falling!" She said, "Oh, I hadn't thought of that, maybe you're right!"
Looking back, however, I think she could have been right. I think that if anyone could pull it off, Daniel Mendelsohn, classics scholar and believer in the endless possibilities of human expression, could have created a new metaphor for death, born from the language of myth. "He fell."
Thanks to the iMalqata blog for the image of the Egyptian bronze cat. Now in the Michael C. Carlos Museum, it would have been part of a cat sarcophagus, and was once given as a gift by Charlie Chaplin to his wife, Paulette Goddard.
June 18, 2015
Ken Auletta's session at the Auckland Writers Festival reminded me somewhat of the historic "Crisis in a nutshell" rubric in his home publication The New Yorker, the one subtitled "A digest of last week's prophetic and interpretive thought". It doesn't feature Ken Auletta, as he has his own rubric, "Annals of Communication" (and has for 23 years), but I couldn't help being reminded, at this session, of that mix of quotes from lawmakers, activists, writers, and even Beauty Queens, this last I suppose for light relief, though they more often brought despair. Take away the Beauty Queens and I think Ken Auletta represented the rest of the thinking just fine.
"The New York Times is putting content straight onto Facebook. They did a report and found that half of the readers of The New York Times online come via social media. Facebook has 1.4 billion users. This makes The New York Times and Facebook frenemies, competing and cooperating."
"No one has yet been able to make money from online newspapers. The big question is, can I make enough money from online? Can I jettison my paper newspaper? The answer right now is still no."
"Every newspaper in the world is going to throw stuff at digital and see what sticks."
"Digital is a worrisome thing, in that they can see what people are reading. The guys in green eyeshades will see that people aren't reading the political news, the reporters who follow City Hall. They are reading about Kim Kardashian."
"The 6:30 newscasts in the US have 25 million viewers. That's half of what it used to be. And the big problem is that the average age of the watcher is 61."
"Google engineers are very good at thinking outside the box, at finding a way to get what they want. But what is the problem? The problem is that they can only work with things that they measure. When they come across things you can't measure, that's a problem."
"In 2001 Google had zero income and Page and Brin were told they needed a professional manager. They couldn't think of who, and then they heard about Eric Schmidt. They liked Eric Schmidt because he'd been to Burning Man. So they went with him."
"Non-digital people saw Google as a problem. Digital people saw Google as an opportunity."
"When I was interviewing Bill Gates, I asked him what he was worried about. I thought his answer would be Netscape, or Oracle. Bill Gates said, I worry about some guy in a garage inventing something I hadn't thought of. Someone did. Brin and Page did. Google. And now Google is worried about Facebook,"
"The positives of digital journalism are journalist-citizens, eg the Arab Spring. No question that the digital world democratises information, and that's both good and bad. But there's no question that totalitarian governments hate digital information, digital news."
"I once watched a panel where a Norwegian was saying that the Internet would bring democracy, all very rational. An Egyptian got up and said they weren't enthusiastic, that they had a different concept of democracy. 'We worry about protecting our culture', he said, meaning, 'our interests'."
And finally, a good exchange initiated by a member of the public (and this might be the right moment to note Shayne Currie's inept interviewing, AWF, please don't use him again!) : "Are we going to go back or are we going to just keep trucking on towards 'Everything is out there, nothing belongs to anyone'?"
Auletta: "I don't think that will happen, but it's good to have that prognosis to scare the hell out of us, because we should be scared,"
June 08, 2015
"Stories, stories. There isn't enough paper in the world to tell our stories."
This was a sober session. How could it be otherwise? Two authors who followed the threads of family stories through time and history to places rent by sorrow and loss, violence and evil. Daniel Mendelsohn had replaced the scarf he'd worn to talk about the art of translating poetry the day before with a necktie. Maybe a coincidence, but it seemed right, as he evoked members of his family who were denied a funeral, a grave, even; but for whom he was able to create a place of remembrance, 500 pages long.
His book The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million relates his quest to find out what had happened to his grandfather's brother, who made the decision to stay in Galicia (then Poland, now Ukraine) when the rest of the family emigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century, and who, along with his wife and their four daughters, disappeared in the Holocaust.
Helena Wisniewska Brow is a kiwi, whose book Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile is about her exploration of the stories she heard from her Polish father while growing up. He was 10 when the USSR invaded Poland. Two years later, he, his mother, and his brother and sisters were deported by the Russians to Siberia, and from there shipped to an internment camp in Iran, where his mother died. The children became part of the group of Polish evacuees who had been offered refuge in New Zealand.
In both cases, the seeds were sown early. The black moods which would overcome Wisniewska Brow's father on Christmas Day, or his obsession with not wasting food. Mendelsohn started his story, as indeed he starts his book, with an early memory which he phrases, touchingly, as he would have perceived it as a child; "I'd walk into a room and people would start to cry".
It was, as we have instinctively understood, because of how he resembled the brother who had stayed behind, reminding the gathered family of their lost ones, who in some way were doubly lost, for no one knew how their story had ended.
"At a certain point in my life around when I turned 40, I was suddenly possessed of an idea, to know exactly what had happened to them."
"No one is a statistic. Specific things are done to people by specific people. It becomes a sort of ethical duty to get them out [of the statistics], to restore to these people their own specificity."
He decided to look for these "six needles in a giant haystack", and eventually tracked down 12 survivors of the population of this little Polish town, scattered among three continents. It took three years. "Each one had a piece of the puzzle."
Peter Wells, chairing the session, asked about how they had gotten to the point where they wanted to ask about the past. They both came back to the stories, the stories of a past they hadn't been a part of, but were somehow being made a part of.
Mendelsohn's take, like all his takes, was clearly thought out. "You have to get to a point where the past becomes more important, and the mysteries are less able to be dismissed. You have to have developed the imagination." His had been fertilised by his grandfather, who couldn't go to the corner store for milk without coming back with a couple of new stories as well. "I was lucky to grow up in the presence of a great storyteller."
On his book tour, he said, someone told him "I think your grandfather knew you were listening and had decided you were the one to tell the stories".
"In every family there's someone who loves listening to the old people", he says. "I was that kid."
One of the thing that Wisniewska Brow found most compelling about her father's stories was how they were not linear. "They are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes."
Mendelsohn added, "You think of history that it starts at A and ends at B, but actually there is no end. Every story goes on."
"I'll never forget. A survivor in Sydney told me in the course of a difficult interview, 'Stories, stories. There isn't enough paper in the world to tell our stories.'"
"Man plans and God laughs", his grandmother used to say.
Still they persisted. If Mendelsohn had likened his search to solving a puzzle, Wisniewska Brow used another metaphor for piecing together and joining up. "Writing the book was like building with a giant lego set, " she said. "All these bits of information. I put them all together, and shuffled them around a bit at the end."
At the end, the two authors were asked by a member of the audience if they could describe the places of their family origins. Mendelsohn called the population of that part of Europe the first multiculturalists. His grandfather spoke seven languages.
"For my father it was Paradise, and now it's gone," concluded Wisniewska Brow.
A sober event, as I said. But not comfortless. Even if only as slightly as an hour can allow, the encounter with these two writers, their dedication and their empathy, was -- there's no other word for it -- uplifting.
Daniel Mendelsohn told a wonderful story. He was interviewing a Polish woman, one of the survivors, in her home in Israel. Describing a certain dish to him, she stopped and said, "I'll make it for you".
"So I waited 1 1/2 hours for her to make this dish. It was so important to her. She said 'I want you to know what this tastes like, because no one will ever cook this kind of food after I'm dead'."
He didn't tell us what it tasted like, and despite the widespread cynicism audience Q and A seems to inspire these days, let me tell you that no one was silly enough to ask.
May 31, 2015
It was full superstar mode for Haruki Murakami: a stern no-photos-no-tweeting message to set the tone, followed by catcalls and yelps as he emerged from the wings with John Freeman and settled into his chair, the stage itself seeming suddenly vast and, well, stagy, as all molecular activity rushed to concentrate itself in the immediate space around that one compact body in pink pants, sneakers, jacket and t-shirt reading "Keep Calm and Read Murakami", those bright eyes alert and attuned.
It was much talked about how Murakami flew in the day of his session, was brought straight to the conference, and flew out again immediately afterwards. No book signing! No signing! Dieharders could purchase pre-signed copies; it hardly seemed the same. An architect friend of mine told me that Japanese superstar architects do exactly the same at their conferences. I put it down to an amusing cultural quirk. But last night, following a trail about smiles through the internet, as you do, I came across a video clip of Rumanian gymnast Nadia Comeneci getting her perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. "The little unsmiling girl" was the title, which is how my search had brought it up. I watched it; she wasn't smiling, it's true, in the sense that she didn't have one of those forced smiles a la synchronised swimmers. But she wasn't grim or unsmiling either. She was simply at a higher level of focus than most of us will ever attain. She came out, did her extraordinary routine, and went off. Haruki Murakami was like that.
A word here for John Freeman's extraordinary interviewing skills. Had someone warned him about how Murakami answers questions in bursts of concentrated thought, with the pauses between them up to two or three times longer than the spoken parts? Each burst is accompanied by a gesture, and during the long pauses, his hands remain in the position of the last gesture, moving only to match the new thought when it arrives. It's breath-taking, or perhaps breath-holding is more accurate. His jacket being black, like the black backdrop of the stage, his hands stand out like the white-gloved hands of mimes, accompanying his thoughts like a musical score.
Every time, Freeman manages to wait out every pause without the slightest sign of nerves. Lesser interviewers would be biting their tongues to keep from suggesting a word, or treading on the thought process with a new question. Freeman doesn't even fiddle with his pen. He waits. Murakami, to his credit, seems to be aware of his idiosyncratic style. Often, when he's finished, he says cheerfully "That's all!".
How did he become a writer? was the first question, which fit well with a phenomenon I particularly noticed this year -- it seems to be positively snowballing: Festival attendees who, while doubtlessly enjoying the personal encounter aspect, appear particularly, let's say drivingly, avid to learn from the authors the secret of how to tip themselves over into the "Writers" camp, from "Readers" that they are. (Did the Festival's decision last year to rename itself Writers Festival, from the Writers and Readers which it had been, subliminally encourage this, I wondered?)
It was at a baseball game, we learn. An almost empty ballpark, a team of winners, rich and famous, playing a team of underdogs, Murakami's team. "My team are the losers. I like losers." And then Dave Hilton hit a high one, and everyone's looking up into the hazy sky, searching for the ball against the sun.
"Something fell from the sky and I caught it."
Did it really happen or was it a metaphor? Was the something the ball? I didn't quite understand. I could check -- apparently he tells the story in his memoir What I talk about when I talk about running -- but it isn't important. What's important is the epiphany. "I was so happy. I can still feel the feeling." He decided then and there to become a writer. "I went to the stationery shop and bought paper and pen."
Surely he had some writing equipment at home? But again, the important thing was that it was the beginning. A beginning which recurs with each new book:
"When I write fiction, I can be anyone. Every time I start to write fiction I think, so who am I going to be? That is great."
All his answers are so wonderful, so idiosyncratic, that I am going to give them to you as I heard them. They most often come in three bursts. You need to remember to include a long pause after each full stop. A very long pause. And then when you think you're there, give it a second more.
On his idealism:
"It was a good time to be young, in the 1960s. We believed the world is getting better. The world didn't get better, unfortunately."
"Not many people in Japan think the world is getting better. I am still holding my idealism. It is warmth. Is that okay?"
Did that mean was it okay as an answer, or was it okay as a way to feel? In the spirit of the hour, it didn't need to be pinned down. It was okay.
On his literary inspirations:
"My parents were teachers of Japanese literature. So naturally I hated Japanese literature. I read Brautigan, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Raymond Chandler."
On growing up:
"I had my books. I had my music. I had my cat. I was an only child. Cat was my only friend."
For a while, he was a cult author. But all of a sudden:
"Norwegian Wood sold 2,000,000 copies. I was hated by so many people in Japan in those days. Japanese people feel intelligent people don't read bestsellers. So I left."
On going home a decade or more later:
"After the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway gas attack, this was the time for me to go back to my country. I had to do something for my people.”
The something was a book, Underground, a compilation of hundreds of interviews with victims of the gas attack, but also with members of the cults responsible for the attack, in the hope they could explain their reasons.
Writing about evil:
"I go into the darkness of my mind. Everyone has a basement beneath the ground. Some people have a basement in their basement. It’s easy to go into the darkness, sometimes it isn’t easy to come back."
His writing style:
"My long novels are complicated. My mid-size novels are more authentic, realistic. My short stories are very experimental."
His favourite music, what he would save if his house caught on fire?
"I have 11,000 records. How can I choose. I don't know. I let them burn!"
"The strange things that have happened in my life are happy things -- to me. So it seems someone's helping me -- I don't know who it is. I am optimistic."
"I am always looking for the bright side of things. But most of my fiction are not happy endings. I don't know why. He is looking for something, finds it, but it's not what he expected."
The Q and A with the public brought, as I was saying, a request for tips for beginning writers ("Hang on!"); followed by a two-parter wanting, first, to know about Murakami's own sad experiences, and secondly, about his favourite foods, whereupon HM happily named his favourite foods (donuts and tofu) and readied himself for the next question, necessitating a reminder from John Freeman ("Sadness!"), appropriately surreal coming as it did on the tail of donuts; and finally, everyone's favourite:
"Do cats have a spirituality for you?"
"No, just a cat!"
I give him a perfect 10.
"His Twitter profile is Scottish elf trapped in a middle-aged man’s body", Michael Hurst tells us in his introduction. We laugh appreciatively. The windows to the soul of the figure on the stage with Michael laugh with us.
And yet, and yet. The thought which began to grow on me, from the first exchange, was whether it wasn't perhaps the other way around. Outside, the lightness of the elf -- nimble on the feet, slight of build, pointy chin, pointy shoes; inside, the weightiness of the mortal, the years lived, all of them.
"How would you describe your childhood?"
"Pretty bleak. Pretty awful."
Alan Cumming's book Not my father's son is not, as I had thought when I first heard about it, about liberating oneself from the conventions of a middle-class childhood as represented by, say, doilies on furniture, tea cozies, assumptions about a future in business, or who knows, the military; about coming out as bisexual, marrying a man. It's about coming to terms with a childhood passed under the thumb of a violent, sadistic father, going to school with a bleeding head from his father having sheared him as if he were a sheep, coming home from school every day hoping Dad wasn't home.
It still is about liberation; from guilt, and above all from shame.
"From an early age I knew my father was wrong," but, "Anyone who is abused becomes protective of the abuser. If it goes on you become complicit in it".
"It was not something we told the world. And now obviously I've changed that."
And it still is about gaining self-knowledge, or more colloquially, growing up.
"I realised I was the sum of my parts. Then you realise that some of the parts, you're not that happy with them."
In the book, which I've just finished reading (the first-ever book I've read in ebook format, having been inspired to take the plunge after seeing the hundreds of requests for the library's print version, vs the opportunity to be second in line for the ebook version; you might want to keep this in mind, fans), he calls the nervous breakdown he had in his late twenties his "Nervy B". This is a term I'm definitely going to be adopting. I love the way it puts the nerves at the centre, as compared to a nervous breakdown, where the emphasis is on the breakdown, and the 'nervous' seems merely to echo a certain nervousness about even talking about it. A Nervy B is something you can own, and Cumming does.
There was a "box in the attic", he explains, full of "denial and years of unresolved pain and hurt". And, "the thing about boxes like that, is that eventually they explode".
As happens in life, the Nervy B was not a nice clean turning point in the plot. There was more to come. In 2010, he accepted an invitation to take part in a BBC programme called "Who Do You Think You Are?", in which celebrities are teamed up with family historians and genealogists who expertly delve into their family mysteries. He was curious about the circumstances in which his maternal grandfather had died in a "shooting incident" in Malaysia, where he had joined the police force after serving in the Second World War. What he discovered was that his grandfather had died playing Russian Roulette, not for the first time, and offhandedly.
And meanwhile his father, from whom he was emotionally estranged but not completely out of contact, transmitted the news that he wasn't his child. A DNA test later revealed that he was, but not before Cumming had created a whole story-line for himself, where his father's abuse was due to resentment over raising another man's child, and not his own mental disorders. Just as when, upon being given the official police report of his grandfather's death, which recorded only a gunshot wound to the head at close range, he had imagined a scenario of execution by a criminal gang, his grandfather kneeling, regretting he'd never seen his family in Scotland again, but resolute and stalwart as he awaited the shot.
But no. This is real life. This is not a play.
Cumming knows a lot about the place plays and acting have in his life, or he in theirs. From his earliest years, he tells us, learning to act was necessary to his survival.
"Acting students ask me 'Alan, what is your process?'. I say, 'I'm not a cheese - I don't have a process'."
"All that mythologising of acting. You just have to pretend to be someone else -- and mean it."
He reads us a passage from the book, one of the most powerful, on rejecting shame.
"I reject shame," he says. "I think shame is a terrible thing. It's so crippling. In America I felt this wall of shame -- if you like anything too much it becomes an addiction and you need to get rid of it".
"Shame is a horrible horrible thing and I won't do it."
It was one of the moments which moved me most during the entire Festival. Maybe the most.
Alan Cumming's portrait now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, having replaced one of the queen. He is wearing a kilt; I haven't seen an image of it, but apparently the kilt is around his shoulders like a cloak, and the rest of him is naked. And unashamed.
Not my father's son is available in print version, eBook, audiobook (narrated by himself) and eAudiobook.
May 29, 2015
Parnell Library’s Laura Caygill was impressed by Xinran’s storytelling prowess and contributed this guest post about the session.
I have been a fan of Xinran since my mother gave me a copy of the much lauded Good Women of China. When I was reading it she kept asking, “Have you got to the bit about periods yet?” This was a reasonably alarming question – but not as alarming as the actual revelations about how women in a particular rural Chinese community were managing that time of the month.
Needless to say I was hooked – here was a woman who was sharing eye-opening stories from the world’s most populous country, and doing so with intelligence and compassion. Having read more of her books over the years I had built up the feeling that Xinran could not be anything but wonderful in person.
I was not disappointed when she took to the stage at this month’s Auckland Writers’ Festival. From the moment she charmed the crowd into greeting her with a tentative “Ni hao”, to her graceful and warm-hearted responses to the audience’s questions, this was a lady well-practiced in the art of storytelling.
Her latest book, Buy me the sky, focuses on the impact of China’s one-child policy on the country’s parents and children, who are now having children themselves. The title comes from an interaction she witnessed between a small child, her mother, and her grandparents.
“Buy me the sky!” the girl begged.
The child’s mother said she would not, and was admonished for it by her elders.
“Don’t say no,” they said. “Say we’ll buy it for her when she’s grown up.”
China’s only children are, to Western ears and to Xinran’s own, doted on to the extreme. To the point where some, she says, are so protected growing up that by the time they leave home (often to study in Western countries like New Zealand) they might never have used a kitchen knife. They come to loathe their parents for what they feel is this betrayal of over-protection.
“In a material way they [have] everything, but in a family way… they have nothing.”
For anyone who thought the stories might have been far-fetched, the closing questions from the floor put paid to that.
One young Chinese man approached the microphone and declared, “It’s very interesting to hear you talk about me.” He had been living in New Zealand for five years and had recently graduated from AUT.
“Can you see our [generation’s] strengths and talents?” he wanted to know. “How do you imagine we can change our generation?”
In response she spoke of the expanded view of the world that younger generations have in comparison to that of their parents and grandparents. But, she said, they were still Chinese, and were still raised with a sense of their country’s deep culture and history.
“Because of these roots you will bring China to the world,” she said. As she stood proud on the stage in her brightly coloured silk jacket, combining old Chinese traditions with modern styling, she told the young man to be proud of his background for its cultural strength, not for its social policies.
“Go to see the world,” she said, “but bring your Chinese views and beliefs [with you].”
May 28, 2015
Zoe Colling from Heritage & Research went to hear Nick Davies in "Hack Attack", and tells us about it in this guest post.
I felt poorly prepared for Nick Davies’s session. I haven’t read Hack Attack: how the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch or Davies’s earlier book Flat Earth News: an award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media. Happily, I was not at a disadvantage, as Davies provided a compelling and polished summary of Hack Attack. Each humorous, shocking or depressing anecdote in the saga spilled forth without much need for the guidance of Toby Manhire’s informed interjections.
Hack Attack is about the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, which Davies was able to investigate through a series of stories which The Guardian published. Davies began by recounting what might have remained a small story: the royal editor of the News of the World was caught listening in to the voicemail messages of staff at Buckingham Palace. The royal editor and a private investigator ended up being sentenced to prison and the case was closed. One reason it was possible for the case to be taken to court was because, as Davies put it, “The royal family are one of the few groups more powerful than Rupert Murdoch”.
Despite the case having been closed, Davies was sure there was more to the story. He began a painstaking investigation into unethical practices at the News of the World which led to the exposure of crime and corruption on a very wide scale involving people in media, the police and politics. It was a courageous act and Davies’s commitment to revealing the truth, especially since the unethical behaviour occurred in his own professional circle, is admirable and inspiring.
Davies’s talk was focused and there was a clear narrative flow. Early on, when Manhire asked a question which Davies deflected by shifting his attention to the topic of fictions the media tell – an exaggerated ‘media frenzy’ headline connected with a recent Prince Harry spotting in the South Island – Manhire expressed frustration that he had asked a question and, instead of answering, Davies “went to fucking Queenstown”. Davies claimed the tangent he went on was “more interesting than the question you asked” -- jokey banter with a slight edge.
Davies’s take on the different approaches of the Rupert Murdoch owned-newspapers in the United Kingdom was insightful. He claims the Murdoch tabloids are to some degree used to invoke fear in those who are in positions of power. He used the playground bully as an analogy: the bully beats up one or two children as an example to the rest. In the same way, tabloid newspapers expose the private lives of those in power as a way of gaining compliance from onlookers in the elite. The more respected conservative papers in the Murdoch stable are able to promote his political agenda in a direct way. Davies’s stories on unethical practices at News of the World ran in The Guardian for two years before other media outlets picked up the story.
In his talk, Davies was self-deprecating, mentioning how the public can view the job of an investigative journalist as a very tough one; yet, in the phone-hacking scandal, a source contacted him directly, which he described as being like a gift falling from the sky.
At the end of his session, Davies touched on the topic of the future of journalism and the issue of the internet busting up journalism’s business model. He spoke about the public’s desire to read unique stories. Accessing daily news reports about things like car crashes or weather events is already very easy to do online, he said, and news agencies may move away from focusing resources on these sorts of stories. Instead, Davies suggests, more attention may be given to “explanation by brilliant people”, for example, columnists who write interesting, well-researched stories. Long reads and investigative pieces may be invested in, rather than the rewriting of agency copy. It was a good thing the session ended on a not-so-gloomy note regarding the outlook for the changing profession of journalism.