The Irises Are Blooming Early This Year

by William Benzon

I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan. I have been photographing the irises in the Eleventh Street flower beds since 2011. So far I have uploaded 558 of those photos to Flickr.

I took most of those photos in May or June. But there is one from April 30, 2021, and three from April 29, 2022. I took the following photograph on Monday, April 15, 2024 at 4:54 PM (digital cameras can record the date and time an image was taken). Why so early in April? Random variation in the weather I suppose.

Irises on the street in Hoboken.

That particular photo is an example of what I like to call the “urban pastoral,” I term I once heard applied to Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

Most of my iris photographs, however, do not include enough context to justify that label. They are just photographs of irises. I took this one on Friday, April 19, 2024 at 3:23 PM. Read more »

Kingdom of the Solitary Reader

by Ed Simon 

As an émigré from the dusty, sun-scorched Carthaginian provinces, there are innumerable sites and experiences in Milan that could have impressed themselves upon the young Augustine – the regal marble columned facade of the Colone di San Lorenzo or the handsome red-brick of the Basilica of San Simpliciano – yet in Confessions, the fourth-century theologian makes much of an unlikely moment in which he witnesses his mentor Ambrose reading silently, without moving his lips. Author of Confessions and City of God, father of the doctrines of predestination and original sin, and arguably the second most important figure in Latin Christianity after Christ himself, Augustine nonetheless was flummoxed by what was apparently an impressive act. “When Ambrose read, his eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out for meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest,” remembered Augustine. “I have seen him reading silently, never in fact otherwise.”

Such surprise, such wonderment would suggest that something as prosaic as being able to read silently, free of whispering lips and finger following the line, was a remarkable feat in fourth-century Rome, so much so that Augustine sees fit to devote an entire paragraph to his astonishment. Both men were exemplary theologians, Church Fathers, and eventually saints, but only Ambrose was able to accomplish this simple task which you’re most likely doing right now. For Ambrose – as for you and me and billions of other literate people the world over – literacy allows for a cordoned off portion of the self, a still mind as if an enclosed garden from which words may be privately considered, debated, ,or enjoyed, while for Augustine, by contrast, all of those millions of arguments he constructed could only be uttered aloud by their author, and by the vast majority of his readers. Read more »

Why Johnny Can’t Read Now; An Elegy

by Deanna Kreisel [Dr. Waffle Blog]

About a third of the way through a first-year humanities honors course, one of my more engaged and talkative students pulled me aside after class for a private chat. She waited, clearly anxious, while the rest of her classmates filed out and then turned to me with her eyes already filling up with tears.

“I can’t read,” she said, her voice shaking.

I waited for her to elaborate, but nothing else was coming out. “Do you mean you’re having trouble finding time to do the assigned reading?” I ventured.

“No. I mean, yes, I am, but that’s not what I mean. I’m trying to read Pride and Prejudice,[1] I really am, but I don’t understand it.”

“Yes, well, as I’ve explained the language is antiquated and it takes some time to—”

“No, no!” she cried impatiently. “I know that. I mean I don’t know how to read a novel, a whole book. I can’t concentrate on it; my mind wanders. And then I can’t remember what happened, and I feel lost. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I just….can’t read,” she trailed off.

I clucked sympathetically as I tried to figure out what on earth to say.

“I’ve called my mom a bunch of times and cried on the phone to her. I am just so embarrassed. She said I should talk to you. Also, she suggested I listen to the audiobook. But I mean, is that cheating?”

I seized on the idea like a lifeline. “No, that would be fine,” I reassured her. “I suggest that you do both, though—listen to the audiobook as you’re following along with the text, so that you can eventually get better at comprehension.”

She was grateful; I gave her some tips on dealing with distractions and suggested she work with a tutor; she struggled through Jane Austen; tragedy and disaster were both averted. She got a little better at reading the assigned texts but continued to worry that it didn’t come naturally or easily to her.

This was an honors student. Read more »

Rumi, Adab, and the Beauty of Boundaries

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The author with Esin Çelebi Bayru, Rumi’s granddaughter (22nd generation) in Konya

I was so excited to meet Azra Bayru Kumcuoğlu, Rumi’s granddaughter (23rd generation) for breakfast on my latest visit to Istanbul— that I wore my pearls early in the morning and popped into a salon across from Boğaziçi University campus where I had been staying. Halfway through the blowout, it began to rain and by the time I stepped out, there was a proper downpour. I was irked, as was the hairstylist, but somewhere in my Pakistani heart, rain remains a thrill, a secret, contradictory gift that comes to awaken our dormant spark. Waiting outside the museum where we had planned to meet, I saw Azra Hanim rushing towards me; her spirit was instantly apparent. With the smile and embrace befitting a descendant of Maulana Rūm himself, she held her umbrella over me as we walked down slippery stairs; a stranger a millisecond ago suddenly felt like a sister. As we negotiated the traffic, the whipping wind and wet streets, Azra Hanim kept one arm firmly hooked into my mine to prevent me from slipping. This moment inspires a reflection on courtesy but its sweeping grace defies language; words slip like “a donkey in mud” when it comes to love— to offer that unforgettable metaphor of Rumi’s making. Azra Hanim’s was no ordinary social courtesy but a courtesy shaped by love, a value rigorously honed in the Sufi cultures as Adab.

Earlier on my visit, I had met Azra Hanim’s mother, the honorable Esin Çelebi Bayru in Konya and had interviewed her regarding her new book Love is Something Beautiful. The book is part family memoir, part history of the Mevlevi school of Sufism, and reveals, amidst the ebbs and flows of circumstance and socio-political demands, how the Mevlevi culture has survived in recent centuries. The theme that prevails throughout the book is the centrality of Adab. When I met her, I immediately felt her warmth. She carries herself with the ease of a satiated spirit, happy to pass on to others the peace she feels. We had multiple conversations in the days I spent in Konya, each was memorable. The two things that interested me most in the context of my own work of original poems and translations of Iqbal, was Mevlana Rumi’s early life and influences, and the practice of Adab in the Mevlevi culture and beyond. Read more »

Decoding a Language, Part Two: An Interview with Andrea Scrima about Her New Novel “Like Lips, Like Skins”

by Andrea Scrima

In her second novel Like Lips, Like Skins (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl, 2021) Andrea Scrima unpacks a family story of strong emotional ties. When the first-person narrator Felice finds her deceased father’s diaries, she combs them for clues to a past riddled with blind spots. She abandons a drawing series because she’s afraid she’s no longer able to tell the difference between reality and abstraction; years later she wonders if she studied art to make good on her father’s unfulfilled childhood ambition. In Like Lips, Like Skins, Scrima transplants her own works of art into fictional settings. Artistic perception permeates everyday life and speaks a formal language that, much like the first-person narrator’s recurring dreams and the symptoms of her trauma, lends itself to interpretation.

Part One of this interview was published December 20, 2021 on Three Quarks Daily.
For Part Two, which focuses on the function and presence of art in Like Lips, Like Skins, Ally Klein corresponded with the author over the course of several weeks via email; the following is an edited version of a talk the two gave on December 11, 2021 at Lettrétage in Berlin. Read more »

Decoding A Language: An Interview With Andrea Scrima About Her New Novel “Like Lips, Like Skins”

Like Lips, Like Skins, Andrea Scrima’s second novel (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl 2021), is a diptych; the first half of the book is dedicated to the first-person narrator’s mother, the second half to her late father. We meet Felice in the early eighties as a young art student in New York and as a newcomer to West Berlin before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall; ten years later, she returns to New York to install an exhibition of her work. Another fifteen years pass and we encounter her as a single mother poring over her father’s journals in search of her family’s past. Like Lips, Like Skins is about art, memory, and the repetitions of trauma. The first chapter was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte. Ally Klein interviewed the author over the course of several weeks via email.

Ally Klein: There’s a scene in Like Lips, Like Skins in which the first-person narrator, Felice, recalls studying the Sunday comics as a child. She buries her nose in the newsprint; when she fetches a magnifying glass to get closer, she discovers an “accumulation of tiny dots.” Individually, they’re no more than “lopsided splotch[es],” but together give rise to a bigger picture. I see a parallel here to the way the novel is stylistically conceived. Memories pop up seemingly at random, and in the end, they produce an image that works intuitively. The book eludes a stringent retelling, but leaves the reader with a sense of understanding something that can’t be expressed in terms of an idea or concept. The discoveries, if that’s what they can be called, are situated elsewhere.

Andrea Scrima: As a child, Felice doesn’t yet know that the interaction between the eye and brain fills in the gaps, the missing information between disparate points; for her, it’s just magic. I use language to create imagery that can exist outside of description or symbolism. In literature, images often have a function, they’re there to convey a certain idea. But some images are irreducible, they’re not all that easy to explain. And these are the ones that interest me most: they’re autonomous, they have a life of their own. Sometimes they’re a bit uncanny.

I’m interested in literature’s resilience, its ability to find a formal language for phenomena that can’t be easily captured in words. A language the reader somehow perceives as “true,” even if they can’t necessarily say how or why. Read more »

Historical Memory 2: Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

by Dick Edelstein

Modernist Irish poet Lola Ridge

This is the second of three articles on the theme of historical memory. The first, which can be found here, deals with issues related to archival data on casualties and victims in the Spanish Civil War. In the present article, I discuss the activities of a movement to redress the exclusion of Irish women writers from the historical record.

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon is a collective that became publicly known in 2017. It emerged from discussions among a group of women of varied backgrounds in both Northern Ireland and the Republic who shared a common interest in the status of women in the arts, and it was launched in response to the publication of the current edition of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry, an authoritative compendium that is re-published periodically in updated editions.

The exclusion of women in that volume and others like it was neither remarkable nor novel; what was noteworthy on this occasion was the existence of a body of recently published research on the careers of a number of successful Irish women poets in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. (A notable example is Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology 1870-1970 by Dr. Lucy Collins.) This research brought to light the poetry of several Irish women who had enjoyed important reputations in the past. The Cambridge volume ignored this research, and just four of its thirty chapters were devoted to female writers, while only four female critics had been commissioned to provide chapters.

The response was the launch of Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon through two lines of action: a pledge aimed at redressing the gender imbalance in Irish poetry and a series of readings throughout Ireland and abroad to focus attention on historical Irish women poets. Read more »

Words And Galloping Illusions

by Thomas O’Dwyer

El Cid
El Cid monument in his birthplace, Burgos, Spain

¡Buen Dios! Is it already 60 years since they filmed The Cid? A couple of weeks ago, I caught it again on Amazon Prime. All I remembered of first seeing it decades ago was the white-clad Cid thundering along Valencia beach, riding through the gates of history and into eternity, propped up dead on his beloved warhorse Babieca. Like a visit to a childhood home, the image proved to be grander in memory than in the rediscovered reality. Most of us ageing romantics prefer dreamy time-fixed images to duller realities. However, Anthony Mann’s cliche-soaked Tinseltown love story squeezed into medieval costume had first set me reflecting on the relationship between the visual and the verbal in our engagement with literature.

The noble Cid leading his warriors to battle even in death stuck at once in my mind as typical of elusive long-dead virtues I had been struggling to understand in the Greek and Latin texts pounded into our unwilling secondary-school heads. He had the virtutas of Aeneas, the arete of Achilles. I had seen the film of the Cid long before I came across The Poem of the Cid, translated from its 12th century Spanish and, though the two had little in common, the images I carried from the film lent some familiarity to the ancient tale. Likewise, I had less trouble with Virgil’s Aeneid because I had absorbed powerful images of the epic from, believe it or not, an English comic book. The weekly Eagle used to run stories from the classics in garish comic strips across its back page. It featured a vividly illustrated White Eagles Over Serbia, by Lawrence Durrell, for instance. I never got around to reading that book, but later read everything else Durrell wrote. Read more »

Memoria: Journeys with Weerasethakul, Swinton, Sebald

by Danielle Spencer

Memoria - film posterLast night I (Danielle Spencer) went to the New York Film Festival screening of Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) in Alice Tully hall at Lincoln Center. I last joined a large gathering 19 months ago, in March of 2020.

The film opens a soundscape, memoryscape, landscape—and a bodyscape, all of us in the vast hall sloping gently down towards the screen like a nighttime jungle floor. The opening scene is still, close and quiet, and then there is a very loud sound, which startles me. It also startles Jessica (Tilda Swinton) who awakens in surprise. I am anxious that there will be more surprising loud sounds. Then Jessica rises and sits in a room of the house. She looks at what in my memory is a small bright aquarium in front of the windows, warmly lit with orange fish. The space and sound around the aquarium are dark and oceanic.

In the opening passages of Austerlitz (W.G. Sebald) the narrator travels by train to Antwerp. He finds his way to the zoo and sits beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about, and then visits the Nocturama, peering at the creatures in their enclosures, leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. He returns to the waiting room of the Centraal Station, remarking that it ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches, and aquaria for sharks, octopuses, and crocodiles, just as some zoos, conversely, have little railway trains in which you can, so to speak, travel to the farthest corners of the earth. As the sun sets and the light dims in the station waiting room, he sees the waiting travelers in miniature, as the dwarf creatures in the Nocturama.

When I was ten my father and I spent the spring in Budapest, where he proved theorems at the Institute of Mathematics and I was enrolled in the Kodály music school. Our small apartment building was near the top of a hill on the hilly western Buda side of the city, home to several mathematicians and their families. Some nights we went up the street to eat schnitzel at the restaurant on the corner. Read more »

Writing the Virus: A New Anthology

by Andrea Scrima

An anthology I’ve edited with David Winner, titled Writing the Virus, has just been published by Outpost19 Books (San Francisco). Its authors—among them Joan Juliet Buck, Rebecca Chace, Edie Meidav, Caille Millner, Uche Nduka, Mui Poopoksakul, Roxana Robinson, Jon Roemer, Joseph Salvatore, Liesl Schillinger, Andrea Scrima, Clifford Thompson, Saskia Vogel, Matthew Vollmer, and David Dario Winner—explore the experience of lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, and the politicization of the virus from a wide variety of perspectives. The majority of the texts were written exclusively for the online literary magazine StatORec, and a keen sense of urgency prevails throughout, an understanding that the authors are chronicling something, responding to something that is changing them and the social fabric all around them.

The range of this anthology is broad: there’s a haunting story that explores the psychological dimensions of an anti-Asian hate crime with a curiously absent culprit; hallucinatory prose that gropes its way through a labyrinth of internalized fear as human encounters are measured in terms of physical distance; a piece on the uncomfortable barriers of ethnicity, civic cooperation, and racism as experienced by someone going out for what is no longer an ordinary run; and a jazz pianist who listens to what’s behind the eerie silence of the virus’s global spread. Read more »

Down With The Flu

by Claire Chambers

At the time of writing President Donald Trump is an inpatient at the Walter Reed Medical Center. He is of course receiving treatment for coronavirus, a virus he has repeatedly downplayed as being ‘like the flu’. Influenza causes a temperature, achy muscles, often a headache, and some upper respiratory tract symptoms such as a cough. Transmission is through droplet spread, handling of passive vectors like objects and surfaces, and physical contact with the infected. To be fair, this does sound rather like Covid-19, but it is there that the similarities end. Flu is a completely different virus, from which people mostly recover within a week. By contrast, with SARS-CoV-2 it is often in the second week of the illness that some sufferers become alarmingly sick. Influenza tends to kill younger people, because they sometimes have an overactive immune response to the virus leading to organ failure. Meanwhile, one of the reasons for the particular concern for Trump (out of all the Republicans who became infected in the last extraordinary week) is that it is old, obese men who are most at risk of dying. Thinking about the similarities and differences between influenza and Covid-19 brings me to two contemporary pandemic novels by women writers.

‘Changed utterly’: The 1918 Flu in Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars

Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue sets her latest novel The Pull of the Stars in Dublin against the backdrop of the final year of the First World War and the ‘Spanish Flu’ that killed more people than had died in the conflict. The intriguing creation story behind this publication is that Donoghue was almost at the proof-checking stage when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold globally. With the help of her publishers (Picador in the UK, and in America Little, Brown), the book was brought out quickly, and she was able to count on a readership sadly better educated about pandemics than she ever expected. Read more »

Death The Leveller

by Thomas O’Dwyer

The Shakespeare family, a 19th-century German engraving. From left, Hamnet, Susanna, William, Judith, Agnes (Anne).
The Shakespeare family, from a 19th-century German engraving. From left, Hamnet, Susanna, William, Judith, Agnes (Anne).

A book subtitled A Novel of the Plague might appear opportunistic at this time. But in Maggie O’Farrell’s new and much-praised Hamnet, the only opportunity the author seems to be taking advantage of is our ignorance of the life of William Shakespeare. “Miraculous,” The Guardian wrote, “a beautiful imagination of the short life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and the untold story of his wife, Agnes Hathaway, which builds into a profound exploration of the healing power of creativity.”

Around the world, library shelves creak under the weight of books, some centuries old and in a babel of languages, about England’s undisputed greatest genius. Analyses of his works aside, all that is written about the life and character of the man is speculation, fabulation or infatuation. A pencil and a postcard suffice to jot down the facts we know. Sifting through his plays and sonnets for clues to his life, beliefs and relationships will not do – though it has been done ad nauseam. The names Hamlet and Hamnet appear to have been interchangeable in documents dating from his time. Therefore, it must follow that William named his great play in memory of his only son Hamnet who died at the age of 11. That is one great burden of proof to place on the swapping of two letters, n and l, in one word.

A striking feature of O’Farrell’s novel is that the name Shakespeare appears nowhere, although it is entirely about the family of the playwright, a shadowy figure who slips in and out of his native Stratford-Upon-Avon.

“Everyone thought the glover’s son would amount to nothing, what a wastrel he had always seemed, and now look at him – a man of consequence in London, it is said, and there he goes, with his richly embroidered sleeves and shining leather boots.”

It is tempting to respond with Petruchio explaining in The Taming of the Shrew why he moved to Padua:

Such wind as scatters young men through the world,
To seek their fortunes farther than at home
Where small experience grows.

But there we go again, drawing conclusions from random quotes from the man’s theatre world. This novel is not the young man’s viewpoint or biography. Its theme is of women in the roles their times dictated for them. It chronicles their emotions and desires, their sorrows, their work and their ferocious protection of their children in a world where “the man” is absent, but nonetheless makes sure to provide money and a comfortable home for his family, as Shakespeare did. Read more »

“Trapped Inside the Gaze of Strangers”: A Conversation with Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess

Andrea Scrima: Girl Zoo, which has just been published by the FC2 imprint of the University of Alabama Press, is a collection of stories that takes contemporary feminist theory on an odyssey through the collective capitalist subconscious. Scenes of female incarceration are nightmarish, hallucinatory: each story exists within its own universe and operates according to its own set of natural laws. But while there’s a fairy-tale quality to the telling, none of these stories departs very far from the everyday experience of institutionalized sexism: the all-too-familiar is magnified just enough to reveal its inherently devastating proportions.

Aimee, Carol, I wonder if we could begin by talking about the collaborative process. How did the idea come about to write a book together?

Aimee Parkison: As an artist, I’m always trying new things. I have a wide range and want to expand and explore. My creative process is vital to the way I experience the world. I like the excitement of a new project, a new idea. I write all sorts of stories, from flash fictions to long narratives, from experimental to traditional, from realism to surrealism. Some of my fictions are character-based and others more conceptual. I often focus on the lives of women and am known for revisionist approaches to narrative and poetic language. My writing is often categorized as experimental or innovative. I’ve published five books of fiction, story collections, and a short novel. I’ve been published widely in literary journals. Among my previous books are Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman (FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize) and a short novel, The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc). I admire Carol’s writing and had interviewed her for a couple of articles I was writing for AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle magazine. A year or so after the interview, she emailed me, inviting me to do a collaboration.

Carol Guess: My approach to writing came through music and dance. Years ago, I studied ballet and moved to New York to try to make a career in that world. Obviously that didn’t happen, but my early experience with failure made me determined to be good at something else! I’d always written for pleasure, so I began taking my writing more seriously, initially focusing on poetry. I did my MFA in poetry; I’ve never actually taken a class in fiction writing. I put my first novel together as an experiment. I wanted to teach myself how to write a novel, and so I did. Since then I’ve published twenty books, each one an experiment and a challenge. I’ll ask myself, “What would happen if …” and then set out to answer my own question. Read more »

“The Writer’s Heart”: A Conversation between Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima

Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima are two of the authors in Strange Attractors, an anthology that’s just come out with University of Massachusetts Press, edited by Edie Meidav and Emmalie Dropkin. The thirty-five pieces in the collection explore unsettling experiences of magnetism and unanticipated encounter irresistible enough to change or derail the course of a life. In chaos theory, “strange attractor” is the term given to the fractal variety of attractor that arises out of a dynamic system; its defining unpredictability makes this mathematical concept an apt metaphor for the twists of fate that send us reeling, but can sometimes feel oddly inevitable in hindsight. In her piece for the anthology, “Children and All That Jazz,” Liesl Schillinger weaves the music and heartache of Joan Baez into the lives and longings of a family in the American Midwest in the 1970s; in Andrea Scrima’s excerpt “all about love, nearly,” the narrator explores the dimensions of a world transfigured, and then dissembled, by passion.

A.S.: Liesl, I love the part in your story where a pack of kids is playing “Murder in the Dark” and the young narrator’s crush, who plays the part of the killer, draws near her in the dark yard: “I didn’t try to back away, I thought maybe he was going to kiss me, but then he killed me which was so predictable.”

L.S.: It’s funny, as a child, my belief in the importance of love—fed by the nineteenth-century novels I devoured—from Louisa May Alcott to Dickens and Austen and Stendhal—was unshakeable. I was always waiting for the coup de foudre. But that was paired with an instinctive pessimism, or maybe resignation. My mother gave me a reading list, I was expected to read a book a week, and didn’t consider not doing that. But I also read the twentieth-century novels on my parents’ bedroom shelves. John Irving, Shirley Hazzard, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene did a lot to temper my romantic idealism. Or maybe to undermine it. I hoped for love to work out, but didn’t expect it to; and was somehow always relieved, I think (eventually), when one of my castles in the air collapsed, and I was back on solid ground.

A.S.: I guess my piece in the anthology covers the other, unhealthier side of things: when love makes you lose your footing and even your hold on reality: “my crazy, exalted, euphoric collusion in my own demise.”

L.S.: There’s a conversation between (Shakespeare’s) Antony and Cleopatra that I’ve never forgotten, though this is a paraphrase—Cleopatra says something to the effect of: “I will not have love as my master.” Antony responds, “Then you will not have love.” I’ve had a long and occasionally turbulent romantic history, and Antony and Cleopatra’s exchange reflects my experience. Read more »

“Insanity is never trusted”: A conversation between Andrea Scrima and Ally Klein

by Andrea Scrima

Ally Klein was born in 1984 and studied philosophy and literature; she lives and works in Berlin. Carter (Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria, August 2018) is her first book.

Ally Klein. Photo: Pezhman Zahed

The novel’s plot is easily summarized. Carter, the main character of the eponymous novel, is dead. When the narrator hears the news, he or she—the sex is never clear—is caught by surprise. The book opens with an introductory recapitulation of events, but reveals very little in the way of biographical information about the person telling the story. When the story proper begins, the narrating self wanders ghostlike through the streets of an unknown city until, one night, it runs into Carter—a striking figure bursting with so much life energy that she immediately pulls the narrating self into her orbit. Fascinated, this self tries to court Carter; the ensuing relationship wavers between intimacy and distance, the respective degree of which always lies in Carter’s hands. In the end, everything ends in catastrophe, while the narrating self gradually appears to lose its sanity and its grasp on reality.

Andrea Scrima: In one sense, Carter reads like a fever dream; when the narrating self moves to a small city divided by a river, its mind is already beginning to break down. Whether or not Carter might be a product of the self’s imagination or a projection of a part of the self is something the book leaves open. Without focusing too much on interpretation, my question is: does the novel allow for this read?

Ally Klein: Yes, among all the other possible interpretations, you can also see Carter as a product of the imagination. The question is where this imagination begins, and how far it carries. As the book opens, the reader learns that Carter had been suffering from a heart condition that, in the end, proved fatal. The narrating self, which came close to getting a degree in medicine, is shocked by the news; somehow, it managed to ignore all the telltale signs.

Perhaps the self doesn’t want to face the obvious; when they meet the first time, it sees nothing but vitality in Carter. It interprets the sound she makes inhaling a cigarette as a potent life force, whereas for Carter, breathing presents a real struggle. This is where the so-called imagination begins. Carter’s entire identity is filtered through the perception of the narrating self. Read more »

A Faint Distrust of Words

INTERVIEW BETWEEN ANDREA SCRIMA (A LESSER DAY)

AND CHRISTOPHER HEIL (Literaturverlag Droschl)

Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.

When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.

In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »

The Real Deal: Authenticity in Literature and Culture

by Claire Chambers

Goodness Gracious MeIn the late 1990s, the BBC comedy team Goodness Gracious Me produced a radio sketch entitled 'Authentic Artefacts'. In it, an artefact buyer for a chain of London stores visits an Indian village. She expects its rustic denizens to be 'connected with the flow of the seasons, the pull of the earth, the soft breathing of the ripening crops'. Despite her naïve fears that these apparently simple people will 'never sell [their] heritage', they are attracted by the buyer's evident wealth. They take a pragmatic approach, selling her a rusty pail as a birthing bucket − 'three generations of downtrodden dung-handlers have squatted over its rim' − a deck-chair ('my maternal uncle's prayer seat'); a formica coffee table with a leg missing, which is presented as a 200-year-old bullock slide; and a can-opener as 'an authentic turban winder'. The villagers' constant refrain is that these modern-looking items are 'authentic', and the Western woman is easily duped out of two thousand pounds.

Authenticity is a term that often comes up in postcolonialism and especially my own subdiscipline of Muslim literary studies. But what does it mean to be authentic, and is the quest for authenticity a productive or stifling one? As the Goodness Gracious Me example suggests, a fetishization of authenticity can trap apparently 'authentic' cultures in picturesque poverty and a pastoral past that never existed, ignoring their plural present.

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Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

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The Northern Moment

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

– Emily Dickenson

FadingAway

The wise emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrian, says to his successor Marcus Aurelius that his frail, diseased body is fast approaching its demise. It is the evening of his life. Despite the “vague formulas of reassurance” that his loyal physician Hermogenes offers him in an attempt to mask the imminent end, the sage old man knows that he is sure to die of a dropsical heart. The time and place is uncertain, and he “no longer runs the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parths…” but he does know that his days are numbered. His body, a faithful companion all these years, may well turn out to be “a sly beast who will end by devouring his master”. But what of the moment itself, Hadrian contemplates:

I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift towards evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.

Often enough in literary descriptions we find familiar tropes: the inner light dims, an ethereal illumination brings in the uttara kshanam, a phrase used in literary Telugu to describe the dying moment. A most intriguing phrase if ever, it can be translated in numerous ways but the most literal one appears to me the most elegant. The moment exists ‘up there’, in some mystical northward quadrant, and as we approach it, it reveals itself. As we apprehend it, it embraces us. The Northern Moment is then the final one. It is the peak of earthly life. There is a wide fascination for the dying moment – how will it come to pass, in what circumstances, will it be filled with pain and suffering or under the comforting shroud of sleep, will it be in the presence of loved ones, or alone, on some forsaken highway? Will it be a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death’? How indeed do we imagine our final moments?

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Sliced, Frozen and Lapsed

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The world about us is a set of ends to be reached or avoided, and the spatiotemporal distance of the ends is organized in perception as the means by which these ends may be so reached or avoided.

– George Mead in The Philosophy of the Act

Eadward Muybridge’s pioneering experiment Sally Gardner at a Gallop revealed more than just the gait of a galloping horse – it oracularly hinted at an entire range of spatiotemporal possibilities of cameras capturing motion. Subjects, objects, and phenomena move in time and space, but then so can cameras. How cameras and what they film are linked within time and space, and how technological variables can shape, refine and elevate this complex consanguinity is a fascinating area which has profoundly influenced science, art, cinema and popular culture in general, not to mention shaped our ideas of perception of the reality that envelops us, and the meta-realities that we thereby unfailingly, and unwittingly conjure up. The image can transform in a multitude of ways – from progressively slowing down to an intractable stasis, to accelerating at blinding speeds with iridescent blurs and light trails, achieving in some sense, cosmic values. The moving image can warp, slyly morph and shape shift as it travels; it can do so very many things that we can only see in our restive dreams. There exists a rich cosmology of how things move, how plants move, how we move, how friends, and lovers move, how indeed absolutely everything moves about within our minds; it is then our attempts to reframe these movements within, these feints and flights of our indefatigable, cunning minds, that is a human endeavour of significant creative proportions. This endeavour, an enriched (or impoverished) translation of what resides within, is tinctured with ‘an existential gloss’, as Iain Sinclair says on the English translations of WG Sebald’s work in the thoughtful, engaging film Patience (After Sebald).

What Muybridge tantalizingly suggested were the possibilities inherent in the use of an array of cameras on a predetermined path. In effect, he presciently suggested timeslice photography, also known as ‘bullet time’ or ‘frozen moment’ photography, made popular by the film Matrix. What if, asks Mark.J.P.Wolf in Space, Time, Frame, Cinema (pdf), a schematic theorization of spatiotemporal possibilities, Muybridge had placed all his 24 cameras on a curve, and instead of tripwires at periodic distances setting them off, they were instead all triggered simultaneously? It’s a simple enough idea – a series of cameras in a straight-line, a curve, or an arc, photographing the same event at exactly the same time. Although Muybridge did set them in a semicircle for certain motion studies, Wolf writes, he did not simultaneously release them, and it would take another century for this filmic effect to be realised. This temp morts (see also this) is but one of the many intriguing possibilities, Wolf indicates, of how cameras can move in space and time.

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