Beyond Margins, Brooklyn, Obama, etc.

Jane Ciabattari, president of the NBCC and PEN Member, has written an excellent recap of "Beyond Margins: The Critical Perspective," held in connection with the PEN Beyond Margins Awards.

Those PEN podcasts from the Brooklyn Book Festival, mentioned here a few weeks back, have gone online.

The Somali-Speaking Center of International PEN is holding a literary festival, "The Word and the Way to a Better World," in London.

Amitava Kumar and Chad Post have nice things to say about the new issue. Chad particularly enjoys the conversations-- a couple of which I've mentioned before. One I've not yet mentioned features Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker, and was recently noticed by www.IanMcEwan.com.

And the Literary Saloon flags this article in which McCain and Obama are each asked to name a favorite book. They both choose novels: Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Toni Morrison's The Song of Solomon, respectively. Morrison expressed her own admiration for Obama back in January, and Obama has discussed his literary side before. In fact, the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín recently compared him to James Baldwin. (Image above via the New Pages blog.)


“A Wake-Up Artist”: Celebrating David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown organized a memorial to and celebration of David Foster Wallace this past Thursday at NYU. It was “not a short program,” as Jonathan Franzen noted, adding, “That would not have been fitting.” It was however, quite moving, and often funny—especially, of course, when people read Wallace’s own writing, whether it was fiction or an essay or a letter or notes to his editor.

Donald Antrim read from "Up Simba." Deborah Treisman read from "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley." Colin Harrison, who assigned and edited some of Wallace’s essays for Harper’s, read from "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and described what it was like “to be cleverly ridiculed in the pages of one’s own magazine.”

George Saunders described Wallace as a “wake-up artist” and a “celebrationist,” and called him “the first among us.” Don DeLillo spoke of “the offsetting breeze of Dave’s plainsong,” all the colloquial phrases that popped up casually but perfectly throughout his writing. Zadie Smith spoke of Wallace’s work as a gift to us that hangs "like Federer’s serve" between its deliverer and its recipient; he wrote a lot about prayer, she observed.

Gerry Howard called Wallace “the most idealistic of ironists.” Michael Pietsch said Wallace’s relationship to language was “one of the great romances of our times.” Bonnie Nadell mentioned that Wallace was going to write about Obama and rhetoric for GQ, leaving many, I’m sure, thinking about all the work that will never be written (what might he have made of Sarah Palin?). Mark Costello, a college roommate and lifelong friend, spoke of “a mind in splendid overdrive” for whom “humor was a bridge to the world.” And his sister, Amy Wallace-Havens, described an imaginary heaven designed just for her brother, where he can always eat Chocolate Pop Tarts and no one ever says he's “nauseous” when he has an upset stomach.

See also: Sarah Weinman, The New York Times, and the AP.


“Regardless of the Cost”: Judith Sollosy on Péter Esterházy’s Revised Edition

Back in August, I mentioned a conversation with Judith Sollosy, who translated Celestial Harmonies, and has begun work on another novel by Péter Esterházy, No Art! Below, she discusses Revised Edition, subtitled “Appendix to Celestial Harmonies,” and centered on the amazing discovery Esterházy made after finishing that book: his father, Mátyás, was an informer for the Communist secret police. (Esterházy discusses this revelation with Wayne Koestenbaum in our latest issue.)

“Regardless of the cost, human or otherwise, we will continue as long as we have raw material.” This is how Péter Esterházy’s Revised Edition begins, a quote from fellow writer Miklós Mészöly. And the raw material of Revised Edition shocked a nation, especially affecting those who had read the author’s previous book, Celestial Harmonies, a prose tribute to his father Mátyás as well as a work conceived in the tradition of the novel as total literature, claiming everything as its field of play. (Once, when Esterházy was asked by a TV reporter what one of his novels was about, he responded that if a novel can be summarized, there’s something very wrong with it.)

The boundaries of Celestial Harmonies are exceptionally broad and kaleidoscopic, just like the boundaries of the main protagonist of the book, “my father” – the generic phrase that the author applies to every male Esterházy of the past few centuries. With reference to his own father, the author closes his 841 page magnum opus with these words: “When we enter the apartment, my father is already sitting by the Hermes Baby which is clattering steadily, like an automatic machine gun, he’s pounding it, striking, it, and the words come pouring out, going pit-a-pat on the white sheet, one in wake of the other, words that are not his own, nor were they ever, nor will they ever be.” – A painful vision of dispossession, but also a magical mirage of a father’s words dancing their way toward the Spheres.

When the manuscript of Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies was at the typist, he decided to take a break from work (“I had reached the limits of my … capacities. It feels good, reaching your limits, except you’re just a wee bit helpless,”) and have a look at his files in the Historical Archive to see if they had anything on him, and while he was at it, to glance at his father’s dossiers as well to see if they had been wiretapped. (“Around here, everybody thinks that half of the secret police were set on their trail.”) But when a good natured official gently and hesitantly pushed three brown dossiers towards him (“a slight motion, but alarming just the same”) and he opened them, what he saw were not reports on his father, but rather by him. Mátyás Esterházy, who had always shown a refusal to have anything to do with the communist regime that was stifling his country, had been coerced into spying for the notorious “Section III/III” of the secret police. We have that sickening moment of realization on the part of his son to thank for the existence of Revised Edition, which is subtitled “Appendix to Celestial Harmonies”, and about which the author says in his Preface, “If I had my way, I would like only those people to read [it]… who have read Celestial Harmonies. Of course, the reader does whatever he wants, and as for begging, forget it,” – a typical Esterházy attempt to distance himself from his material.

Since Revised Edition is not available in English, there is a misconception that it is a novel. But it is not. It is a happening. (In his Preface, Esterházy simply calls the book “a diary of sorts,” but he clearly doesn’t mean it.) The text proper is set in two colors; the excerpts from the father’s reports are indicated in red ink, the son’s comments and spontaneous reactions as he is reading them are indicated in black. Everything in this book is in the present tense, including the realization that “until [something] is really finished anything can happen, everything is left wide open.”

In retrospect, there is no knowing: the father’s words at the end of Celestial Harmonies, words that were not his own, nor would they ever be, were they part of a translation Mátyás Esterházy was working on (he made a meager living as a translator), or, were they part of an agent’s secret report? In retrospect, there is also no knowing whether the intriguing opening sentence of Celestial Harmonies, “It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth,” was part of the original manuscript and is meant to refer to literature as an elaborate lie, or whether it was added after the fact, and just before the novel was actually printed – in the second page proofs, let’s say? Be that as it may, taken together, Celestial Harmonies and Revised Edition come very close to approximating the everything that total literature claims as its playing field, achieving a closure that leaves us wondering whether we are witnessing art imitating life, or life imitating art? Knowing Péter Esterházy’s mischievous side, I would opt for the latter. Still, be that as it may, to “revise” a beloved father is no small thing.

Judith Sollosy is an editor at Corvina Books in Budapest and the translator of Péter Esterházy, Mihály Kornis, Lajos Parti Nagy, and István Örkény.


Prison Writing Benefit: Monday

As I mentioned last week, the Prison Writing Program is having its first-ever benefit reading this Monday at 8 pm at the Parsons School of Design on 5th Ave. between 11th & 12th Streets in Manhattan. There's been a slight change: Colum McCann cannot make it, so Francine Prose will be reading in his place, along with Breyten Breytenbach, Suheir Hammad, Susan Kuklin, Wesley Stace, and other special guests.

You can purchase tickets at www.pen.org/pwpgala, and you can RSVP on Facebook.

Since 1971, PEN's Prison Writing Program has sponsored an annual writing contest, published free handbooks for prisoners, provided one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducted workshops for former inmates, and sought to get inmates' work to the public through literary publications and readings.

By the way, two terrific pieces (one story and one poem) from the 2008 PEN Prison Writing Contest can be read in PEN America 9: Checkpoints.

Friday update: The poem published in Checkpoints will be read on Monday evening, and is now online here; I've also pasted it below. The author is Joe Rickey Knight, who is currently incarcerated at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

An Escape Artist

At eight, I was a magician
able to slip from any confinement.
After my stepfather beat me
and imprisoned me in my bedroom,
I decided to disappear,
sneaking into the passageway
between the left brain and the right,
dropping through a trap door
and sliding down a chute
to the bottom of the cortex
where I searched a maze of memories
for a safe place to hide
and ended up at grandpa’s farm
where we flew kites all afternoon
on a hill behind the house.

And now, thirty-nine years later,
I slip out of my cell
here at the Kentucky State Pen
each time I write a poem.
Last week, I slipped out a window,
climbed down a rope, eluding guards,
then scaled the perimeter wall.
I wandered along the Cumberland riverbank,
happened upon an abandoned boat
and rode the currents to the Ohio,
Mississippi, and the Gulf, where I watched
a man hanging from a bright red canopy
above the rocking waters
parasail into the sky.


NBA fiction finalists in PEN America

Congratulations to this year's National Book Awards finalists. It's great to see Aleksandar Hemon on the list for The Lazarus Project, a book mentioned on this blog before. One of the highlights of PEN America 9 is a conversation between Hemon and Rabih Alameddine. Hemon and Alameddine are friends and have a great comic rapport, which came across in person and survives on the page. The conversation is not online, so you'll have to order the issue to read it. Here’s a snippet (they're discussing Alameddine's 2008 novel, The Hakawati):
HEMON: There are a certain group of writers—and you would call them intellectuals if you were drunk—who suddenly took up the banner of Western civilization, defending it from Islamists and Islamic fascists, which is just about anybody who is not part of the crowd. Is this book a repudiation of their position—

ALAMEDDINE: What do you think?

HEMON: —and if so in what way?

ALAMEDDINE: I hope in a very subtle way. The book is not a repudiation, actually. It is a changing of the subject. The book started a bit earlier, but I was hit at a particular point—when George Bush said "They hate our freedoms."
Marilynne Robinson, an NBA finalist for Home, appeared in PEN America 8: Making Histories, with some remarks about memory and amnesia in Iowa, very apropos of her new novel. She also appeared in PEN America 2: Home and Away, paying tribute to Proust.

The other finalists for fiction are Rachel Kushner for Telex from Cuba, Peter Matthiessen, for Shadow Country, and Salvatore Scibona, for The End. (While I haven’t read any of these, I did hear Scibona, an acquaintance, read part of his novel at a Happy Endings reading, and the section he read, at least, was terrific.)

On the subject of literary awards, here's a (somewhat belated) link to a piece about Nobel Prize secretary Horace Engdahl’s comment that “Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States.” This particular piece has very sane responses by Edward Albee, Junot Díaz, and the current president of PEN American Center, Francine Prose. It’s true, as Engdahl noted, that more literary translations should be published in the United States. But the notion that the literary world has one geographical center seems dubious, to say the least. I certainly didn't get that feeling at this year's World Voices festival.


This week's events: Beyond Margins

Don't forget about this week's events, starting tonight at 7 with "The Present Past: Celebrating Writers of Color," the 2008 Beyond Margins Award Ceremony, and continuing tomorrow with "Beyond Margins: The Critical Perspective," co-presented by PEN and the NBCC.

You can also now read work by this year's winners (Chris Abani, Amiri Baraka, Frances Hwang, Joseph Marshall III, and Naeem Murr) over at PEN.org.

Update: Tomorrow's event, which is at Housing Works, also begins at 7 pm, and should last about an hour. So there will be plenty of time to get home for the last presidential debate.


Launch party photos & video

Every fall, PEN holds a New Members/New Books Party at Housing Works celebrating the work of the past year with those who have recently joined PEN and members who've just published new books.

This year, that party also served as a formal lauch for PEN America 9: Checkpoints. Several of our contributors—including Colum McCann, Anya Ulinich, and Joshua Furst—were there, and another, Wayne Koestenbaum, said a few words about the new issue, highlighting the poem by Joe Ricky Knight and the FBI surveillance on Andy Warhol (these excellent pieces are not online: you’ll just have to order the magazine).

Someone from mediabistro was there with a video camera: watch Nick Trautwein talk about the all-editor jazz band and Joshua Henkin (author of Matrimony and frequent guest-blogger at The Elegant Variation) talk about the writing life. And the talented Beowulf Sheehan was snapping photos: on the left, PEN members survey the new books; above, Jonathan Burnham, publisher of HarperCollins, plays the keys, and author Will Heinrich chats with publicist Lisa Weinert and agent Melissa Flashman.


Prison Writing Benefit

Please join us at the first-ever benefit reading for PEN's 37-year-old Prison Writing Program. This is an enormously worthy cause: Since 1971, PEN's Prison Writing Program has sponsored an annual writing contest, published free handbooks for prisoners, provided one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducted workshops for former inmates, and sought to get inmates' work to the public through literary publications and readings.

Prison Writing Program: A Benefit Reading

Monday, October 20

Kellen Auditorium, Parsons School of Design: 66 5th Ave., between 11th & 12th Streets

What time:
8 p.m.

With: Breyten Breytenbach, Colum McCann, Suheir Hammad, Susan Kuklin, Wesley Stace, and other special guests

Tickets are $50, and include post-event wine and reception.

>> Buy tickets now

All proceeds will go to PEN's Prison Writing Program.


October events in NYC

This Sunday, October 5, at 1:30 pm, a number of writers will gather at the Bowery Poetry Club to celebrate the poetry and life of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008). This is part of the worldwide reading devoted to Darwish that has been spearheaded by The International Literature Festival Berlin.

The event will feature readings, words, and memories from Breyten Breytenbach, Pierre Joris, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Chuck Wachtel, Farah Ghniem, Ghassan Nasr, Danae Elon, Lila Azam Zanganeh, Ala Alryyes, Ammiel Alcalay, and Archipelago Books. Zafer Tawil will present a musical performance on the oud, and refreshments will be served following the event.

(You can read Fady Joudah’s translations of Mahmoud Darwish here, and his tribute to the Palestinian poet here.)

On Tuesday, October 14, PEN America 9 contributor Xiaolu Guo will talk with Ian Buruma about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution on contemporary China. They’ll speak at the Asia Society and Museum at 7 pm.

(You can read Xiaolu’s story about a call girl in contemporary Beijing, “Reunion,” here.)

Also on Tuesday at 7 pm, PEN will hold this year’s Beyond Margins Celebration at the Bruno Walter Auditorium. “The Present Past: Celebrating Writers of Color” will feature Amiri Baraka, Joseph M. Marshall III, and special guests for an evening of readings and discussion on how cultural history affects writers’ perceptions of the present and the future. The event is free but seating is limited. RSVP to awards@pen.org or (212) 334-1660, ext 108. Please give your full name and indicate whether or not you will be bringing a guest.

The next night, PEN and the National Book Critics Circle will present “Beyond Margins: The Critical Perspective,” a panel discussion about the critic’s role in championing the works of writers of color moderated by PEN Member and NBCC President Jane Ciabattari and featuring Joseph Marshall III, Ibrahim Ahmad, Margo Jefferson, and Rigoberto González. At 7 pm at Housing Works Used Bookstore Café. Free and open to the public.

This, by the way, is Banned Books Week.