Authorities find lots of reasons to suppress books that don’t follow the right politics. Blasphemous! Amoral! Obscene! This has been going on a long time, and happens to the best of us. Although it’s never really a good idea to openly question the state, usually they can find a reason to come for you and your book anyway. In fact, it can be especially brutal if you try to make the critique subtle or subversive, as opposed to rushing for the front gate. Authorities can go to bizarre lengths to remove the bad apples. Here are some particularly rotten examples.
An Area of Darkness was published in 1964, less than 20 years into Indian independence. The fledgling nation despised the social critique offered by the Trinidadian writer and, with the fragile economy struggling, such detailed critiques frightened officials. Although Naipaul eventually found his calling with fiction, it’s this early work that set the tone for his controversial career.
The lesser the power, the more creative the retribution. After publication of Greene’s 1966 novel set in Haiti, The Comedians, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier denounced the book as propaganda and declared Greene Haiti’s Public Enemy Number 1. Running out of ideas, Duvalier commissioned his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to print a repudiation: “Graham Greene Finally Exposed.” Suffice it to say, the pamphlet wasn’t nearly as convincing as The Comedians.
Many fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930′s. Babel’s slight to the Red Tsar was two-fold however. His gory and bleak Red Cavalry is a masterful war narrative of atrocities committed by Cossack armies during the Polish-Soviet War. But it was Babel’s affair with the wife of a secret police chief that sealed his fate. He was shot in 1940.
Rushdie is possibly the most famous exile alive. Since his publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 and the issuing of a fatwa by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Rushdie has lived with the vitriol that comes with insulting the Islamic prophet. He might not be welcome in half the world, but seems to get along well with America.
Maybe he didn’t receive death threats like the others, but Joyce suffered persecution from an international authority: US censorship. In the land of the free, his iconic work Ulysses had been pirated for years before the book finally went on trial for the obscenity charges that kept it from publication. Joyce’s success was a deep crack in the growing wall of US authority over creative work.
Like Ulysses, Howl came at just the right time to force the censor’s hand. Riddled with anti-America rhetoric, street drugs, and eroticism–homo-eroticism in particular–Ginsberg’s poem was a salvo in the Fifties culture wars. And like everything else in the US, the question of whether Howl should be considered ‘art’ fell to the courts.
Fiction, unlike journalism, has the handy power to depict the true nature of an event, or situation–even if by omitting some of the facts. After all, sometimes facts can be overwhelming, or misleading. And by having no pretense of being an impartial account, fiction can speak to nuanced truths, truths too elusive for mere facts.
Last week a truly surreal episode took place in North Korea. Supreme leader Kim Jong-un, reviving a tradition from his grandfather’s regime, sentenced his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, to a formal execution. His arrest at a political meeting was nationally televised, and a bizarre document from the Korean Central News Agency (a state controlled outlet) detailed his crimes. The over-the-top writing in the article reads like a parody.
Against the backdrop of these shouts rocking the country, a special military tribunal of the DPRK Ministry of State Security was held on December 12 against traitor for all ages Jang Song Thaek.
Every sentence of the decision served as sledge-hammer blow brought down by our angry service personnel [on this] despicable political careerist and trickster.
It is an elementary obligation of a human being to repay trust with sense of obligation and benevolence with loyalty.
However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.
The special military tribunal… vehemently condemned him as a wicked political careerist, trickster and traitor for all ages in the name of the revolution and the people and ruled that he would be sentenced to death according to it.
The decision was immediately executed.
The time between Jang getting led out and executed was just a day or two. The West thought this was a big surprise — no appeal process, happened so fast, making it seem like these decisions were willy-nilly. But what if this thing had been underway for some time in North Korea?
Also, some say that this is all about money. And that Jang had too much of it.
The full interview is a hard-boiled look at the complicated situation and illuminates much more of the situation than anything else I’ve read. Earlier this year Adam Johnson won the National Book Award for his novel set in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, which depicts the conditions there with clarity and patience. Maybe for trying to understand one of the most opaque countries in the world, fiction paints a clearer, fuller picture than traditional ‘news.’
This past weekend at the Words & Music Literary Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana one of the more contentious panels focused on the evolution of the novella as a literary form. Digital publishing seems to be changing the rules of this in-between tradition. On the dais were novelists Lisa Zeidner and Moira Crane along with the festival’s novella prize winners from the past two years, Daniel Castro and David Appel. Moderating was agent Chris Parris-Lamb from the Gernet Agency. Quickly a fundamental question divided the panel: is the novella an essential form?
Apart from length, what separates a novella from a novel? What about a short story? Crane spoke about the tradition of the novella, works like The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka that defined the form. She argued that all three can be read in one sitting and maintain a tight focus on a single subject, yet encompass a narrative scope that cannot be recreated in a short story. Castro brought up an Ian McEwan New Yorker article that spoke about perfectibility: “The poem and the short story are theoretically perfectible, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect novel… The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life. It doesn’t need or look for perfection… I could at least conceive of the perfect novella. Or, rather, imagine one approaching perfection like an asymptotic line in coördinate geometry.”
It was Parris-Lamb who contended that the novella really isn’t anything unique in its own right, merely a term used to denote a short novel. He spoke about the tradition of publishing novellas. Usually too long for magazines, too short for most houses to publish economically, it has taken on a taboo quality. With the recent options for digital publishing, most literary agencies would rather market a “novella” as a novel, so as not to trivialize the work. Why demote a work to novella status when it can be marketed as it’s more prestigious older brother?
But the novella seems to be going as strong as usual in genre fiction, with both the Hugo and Nebula awards giving out prestigious annual prizes in the category for Science Fiction. Now that the traditional barriers on publishing works of this awkward length (or elegant, depending on perspective) are quickly breaking down, what is the future of this form? It seems perfectly tailored to audiences craving the breadth of a novel while maintaining the precision of a short story. What do you think? Is the novella a quirk from the past, or a category worth maintaining as an essential form?
Possibly the bleakest entry on this year’s best books for Fiction is a lurid tale out of 17th century England. Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate fictionalizes the brutal Pendle witch hunts of 1612, which saw ten people hanged after a well documented public trial.
Winterson has clearly done her research. The locations are precise, the characters all plucked from the record books. Refusing to aggrandize or belittle the hysteria that inspired the executions, Winterson paints a believable portrait of how a mix of superstition, jealousy, and local politics could mobilize so many people to support such a bizarre and atrocious act. The awful reality of that historical moment lands hard in Winterson’s unrelenting hands; she spares no detail of the imprisonment and sadistic punishment. The short book captures the swift and arbitrary justice with stark sentences and simple observations.
Where another book could easily delve into the psychology of the time and the peculiar motivations of the accusers, The Daylight Gate only sets up the facts and lets the atrocity unfold. The motives stand faintly in the background for the reader to judge for themselves. This unsentimental style allows the origin story and all it’s irrational turns to land with fullest impact. If you’re into historical fiction–or well constructed sentences–this story will keep you thinking for far longer than the few hours it takes to read it.
As I crawl through my bedside stack of books, I’ve only now reached those I accumulated during the summer. In a July article for PW’s Tip Sheet Laura Frost called Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight one of the 10 Best Modernist Books (in English). It’s a short work with an underdog history, falling into obscurity before a late revival. It was this sentence from Frost’s article that sunk the hook for me: “Rhys is modernism’s Amy Winehouse, and I mean that as a compliment.”
Having read Wide Sargasso Sea in grad school, Frost’s sentiment immediately struck me. Rhys, like Winehouse, was a self-styled outsider and lived a meandering, booze-infused life–maybe not quite as destructive as Winehouse. Both utilize the techniques and traditions of their respective medium as a springboard for innovation, their work feels playful, even spurious at times, on top of being extremely technical and conscious of tradition. They re-purpose old hats in striking new ways, and do so loudly. Rhys had Charlotte Bronte; Winehouse, Frank Sinatra and Motown.
Good Morning, Midnight is a surprisingly modern novel. Although the plot lacks the flair of Sargasso Sea, the style is loose and full of emotion. The protagonist, Sasha Jensen, is an English ex-pat floating around Paris, chatting in the cafes, organizing her days around where to drink. Unable and unwilling to hold on to a job, she is an aging wastrel at the mercy of those who haphazardly lend support . Sasha is sad, but biting and clever in her sadness. Her melancholic, blunt personality attracts a mix of men and this seems to have sustained her over the years. Many have called Rhys’s style stream-of-consciousness, but it doesn’t feel as detached from narrative realism as the voice of other writers of the 20′s and 30′s. As Sasha’s choices begin to dwindle and the world closes in on her, the sentences becoming equally claustrophobic. She is in one room or another, one with a bath, another without. The cafe that tolerates her, the one that doesn’t. You can feel her desperation as these circles repeat, the acquaintances and cafes change but the archetypes never do.
Rhys vanished from public life after the novel was released and didn’t write again for another decade. But the times would change and catch up with her work. As Frost says: “Modernists felt that they were living through a period of momentous change that called for equally radical changes in literature… Out went clear, coherent, linear plots, omniscient narrators, and straightforward language. In came fragmentation, multiple points of view, stream of consciousness, dense allusions, and ambiguity.” Reading Good Morning, Midnight it’s hard not to see Rhys as a game-changer. An advocate for the disenfranchised woman, she exposes the hypocrisies of gender norms through the eyes of an outcast too sharp not to point out the obvious. It was a 1949 stage version of the novel that forced the literary world to reconsider Jean Rhys, and she confessed this resurgence sparked the ambitions of her later writing. But Rhys was uninterested in her late fame, it didn’t go with her outcast self-conception. If Rhys is the Amy Winehouse of modernism, it’s good the fame wasn’t there when she craved it, or else we wouldn’t have the rest of her remarkable work.
One of the more peculiar choices on this year’s long list for best books is Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 from Princeton University Press. Selected and introduced by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin, the collection is a mesmerizing peek inside the thinking of the great modern fabulist. While Calvino’s fiction is, as Wood says, “part of a greater literary project of hinting and suggesting, making memorable shapes and images, rather than giving information or offering explanations,” the epistolary Calvino is straightforward, direct, and unrelenting.
Early letters deal with the turmoil of Fascist Italy–a young Calvino spars with fellow “comrades” over the future of the Communist Party (he withdrew in 1957). There are grandiose debates over the fate of the movement and it’s eventual unwinding: “‘Russia’ and ‘America’… were two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias, and the sum added up to the great country of utopia that was…the true objective of the Resistance.” Much of his letter writing seems to be an exercise in clear expression. Included from World War II are a short note from hiding, informing his parents that he and his brother are safe, and a letter that begins with the eerie line: “the first night of the curfew imposed by the Germans.” After the war, Calvino worked tirelessly for the leftist publishing house Einaudi, as both editor and writer, and many of his letters are directed to Italian colleagues and authors: Cesare Pavese, Paolo Pasolini, Elio Vittorini, Natalia Ginzburg. Some of the best entries are Calvino’s “hatchet jobs” (a term he uses for critiques of his own work) delivered on thinkers, politicians, authors, periodicals, friends, you name it. He is often hard on those closest to him, particularly childhood friend Eugenio Scalfari who would go on to found two preeminent journals. Calvino’s letters to Scalfari show a writer with prodigious skills discovering his own voice, defining himself in relation to the thinking of a close friend. As Calvino admits in a later letter, these early reflections are those of a “young man at the end of the forties [trying] to find his way in the worlds of politics and literature.”
Calvino’s later life sees his literary star grow, and so does the breadth of his letters–an entry from his birthplace of Cuba, where he met Che Guevara, and correspondence with Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and Michelangelo Antonioni. The suicide of his good friend and renowned novelist Cesare Pavese sends ripples through Calvino’s close-knit circle of intellectuals and brings out some of the barest moments: “For months I almost avoided Pavese, because I knew he was full of private worries, though still I followed them with anxiety. Now I can’t get rid of the remorse that perhaps even from a conversation with me he might have had–by pure chance, maybe–an idea that would have borne fruit, a discovery of ‘the broken mesh in the net.’” Although he’d later feel embarrassed by statements of such youthful confidence and unbridled conviction, these very attributes are what make his formative letters so consuming. He is a writer as scrupulous and demanding on himself as he is on the world around him. Calvino took the role of public intellectual very seriously, convinced in his job to explore the fringes of thought. In response to a letter concerning Pavese’s suicide, he writes to a friend: “You always move as though you were in a china shop whereas I believe that one can also fling ideas into the air or on the ground or against the walls, too bad about those that end up in pieces.” He practices this motto throughout the collection, tossing around ideas and suggestions he’d formerly discarded. But as the letters move through the years, one can see Calvino gradually drawing away from the public world, becoming disillusioned with politics and the fickle nature of celebrity.
When considering Calvino’s legacy, it’s hard not to see his published letters as a gross intrusion of sorts. Wood addresses this in his Introduction: “Italo Calvino was discreet about his life and the lives of others, and skeptical about the uses of biography… [He] was inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. But then what are we to make of the letters of such a writer, and what are we doing reading them?” Effacement in service of the work, the role of the author in society, these were Calvino’s concerns throughout his career; this is also the tension that drives these “literary and political letters”–Woods excludes the majority of his personal correspondence. A writer of such great control and refreshing playfulness, Calvino reveals how serious and unsure his journey was in this collection of candid letters.
Some books are so gripping the first time you read them that, no matter the time lapse, every subsequent reading feels like slipping into a lukewarm tub. It’s an unnerving feeling, sliding through pages without a thought. It makes you consider: why exactly this book? Recently, for some R&R, I slipped into The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.
Like other young and disillusioned males, I found Murakami to be a voice of calm during a hectic time of life. His books–particularly the earlier ones–depict listless college students and corporate drop-outs struggling against the deadening efficiency of the Japanese economic machine. Its a thread that runs through all his novels and finds its zenith in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
The story begins unassumingly, with unemployed Toru Okada making spaghetti when he receives a mysterious call from a woman he doesn’t recognize. Seemingly innocuous events like this slowly become pivotal turning points–a lost polka dot tie, the cranking screech of a bird, a long-dormant well. Commissioned to locate his wife’s missing cat, Toru becomes entangled in a series of otherworldly dramas that augment as he explores his quiet Tokyo neighborhood. The domestic setting provides a serene backdrop to the bizarre and magical situations, the long meta-tales on the history of Japan.
In some circles Murakami is reviled as vehemently as he is loved elsewhere. An Eastern writer that steeps himself in Western cultural references and attitudes, he is both the star and pariah of his home country. It’s this contradiction that I believe appeals to so many around the world: Murakami is both native and other. Here are the major players in the the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, each balancing carefully between divergent worlds.
Although he’s the protagonist, Toru is possibly the book’s blandest character. Apathetic and whimsical, he gets himself into jams by simply doing nothing, allowing opportunities to pass until it’s nearly too late. A former legal clerk, Toru is taking time off until he thinks of something better to do. His dead-pan humor and penchant for whistling at strange times make his agendalessness easier to follow. But his most compelling attribute is easily the fact that everyone around seems to find him so compelling.
Malta Kano and Creta Kano
Malta is the first clairvoyant Toru meets. A connection of Toru’s father-in-law, she takes the task of finding his cat and infuses it with the metaphysical, warning Toru of his home’s “bad flow” and stating bluntly: “this will be a longer story than it seemed at first.” Where Malta represents the unknowable and intangible, Creta is “[p]lain, ordinary, direct, physical.” Cursed by unceasing bodily pain since childhood, she attempts to kill herself at age 20 only to find, somehow, the pain has completely disappeared, replaced by a hollow nothingness.
Food and Music
Two of Toru’s passions and the main structure of his lazy days. He begins with spaghetti (while whistling The Theiving Magpie by Rossini–his favorite tune) and moves on to sandwiches and Cutty Sark, beef stir-fry and beer. His tastes are haphazard and never Japanese. ”Billy Jean” and “Canadian Sunset”. Classical music on the radio. It seems there’s always a tune in Toru’s head.
Another clairvoyant, old and deaf Mr. Honda lives alone in a small Tokyo apartment, playing with his divining sticks and blasting NHK on the TV. As a prerequisite for marriage, Toru’s father-in-law forces the newlyweds to visit Honda monthly to take in his obscure advice. It’s here that Toru glimpses his destiny: be wary of water, stay with the flow. In his younger years, Honda witnessed the atrocities perpetrated on the Chinese and Mongolian mainland as part of a special envoy to the Manchukuo border. His story grounds the novel in Japan’s complicated history of oscillation between war and pacifism. An old acquaintance of Honda’s visits Toru with a keepsake that turns the story upside down and deepens it. After all: “A person’s destiny is something you look back at afterward, not something to be known in advance.”
One of the eeriest and most disturbing characters in all of Murakami’s work. Wataya is Toru’s loathsome brother-in-law. A pompous over-achiever, he fully subscribes to the “earn the highest possible marks and shove aside anyone and everyone in your path to the top” that his father professes. Rising to the level of public intellectual after coining the terms “sexual economics” and “excretory economics,” Wataya has perfected his TV persona and is now running for office. Being around him is like having “some kind of sour-smelling, alien gunk growing in the pit of your stomach.” He is the one character that seems to flit easily between worlds: the visceral and the indefinable. As a young man he used his power to defile Creta Kano, an act that represents his stop-at-nothing desire to get what he wants. “We all have psychological problems to some extent, but his are a lot worse than whatever you or I might have. They’re a lot deeper and more persistent. And he has no intention of letting these scars or weaknesses or whatever they are be seen by anybody else.”
The most finely-faceted character in the book, May Kasahara grounds all the supernatural in pure realism. Bed-ridden after crashing on her older boyfriend’s motorcycle, May watches the alley that snakes behind yards in her neighborhood with opera binoculars. She befriends Toru after noticing the odd man loitering about an abandoned house and takes it upon herself to find his cat. Uninterested in returning to school, she has been working for a wig company, counting the amount and degree of bald men within Tokyo train stations. She only smokes Hope regulars, always philosophizes about death, and slowly pulls Toru from his self-imposed cell.
The Wind-Up Bird
Always present, never fully conceivable. The Wind-Up Bird winds the spring of this quiet little world. Reading this in light of recent developments, the bird seems not too dissimilar from the Higgs Boson–the barely-tangible evidence of an underlying field of energy that runs through any and everything.
In a separate, nearly identical article in the Paris Review, Franzen embeds the same bold claims in the footnotes of his translation of the Karl Kraus essay “Against Heine”—an essay taken from his forthcoming The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, publishing October 1st from FSG. It’s a neat experience to read the mirror articles against each other. Doing so reveals some of Franzen’s analytic tectonics. What is lost in the Guardian essay is the rigorous commitment he has to his source material in the translation—each extrapolation springs from his thinking on Kraus. In “Against Heine,” Kraus considers the 19th century author Heinrich Heine’s place within the Romantic and Germanic literary traditions, laboring to define what he sees as the central difference between the two: their diverging relationships to content and form. It’s an intricate, compelling argument. Kraus pits Romantic effusiveness against Germanic starkness, considering how art should relate to the visceral world. Is content central to art? Or is the presentation of an idea what makes something artistic? What’s remarkable about Franzen’s essay and the many responses is that people are actually taking these questions seriously. How often is an article that takes up the relationship between content and form legitimately considered by the mainstream? Franzen, no matter his specific opinions, showcases a singular ability to not only explain these nuanced literary concepts, but to practice them. Where the Guardian essay is tailored for mass consumption, his translation in the Paris Review is tweaked for the literary crowd. The two articles display this same concern with form and content. Franzen slides his authorial register to reach multiple audiences. It’s a breath of fresh air to see someone practicing what they preach, and Franzen does so at a remarkably high level.