(This is the second installment in a short series. Stay tuned for more about the PEN World Voices Festival.)
Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. This year’s theme was Bravery, and audiences were privy to diverse happenings that occupied 24 venues, included almost 120 writers, and brought to the public seventy-plus events. It would be impossible to attend everything on every day, but, next year, even if you can get to only a few, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget.
Resonances: Contemporary Writers on the Classics: Thursday, May, 2 2013.
This is one of my perennial favorites of the Festival, always full of revelations and surprises. Four international writers each discuss the influence of a particular “classic” writer on his/her work, alongside brief readings from that writer’s work and his/her own. This year opened with the Glaswegian author James Kelman, who traced his palpable iconoclasm to Rene Descartes. Kelman’s “primary influence is not in the Anglo-American literary tradition,” and he finds blessings in his limited early education: “Fortunately I didn’t go through higher education, so I was not subject to writers I hated.” “I am sensitive to ideas of language, imperialism, identity,” he continued in lauding Descartes. The “Meditations,” in particular, are characterized by “the primacy of the individual’s vision,” an underlying anti-authoritarianism, and the emphasis of the unbreakable union of mind and body.
Kelman’s latest US publication is the novel Mo Said She was Quirky, which Kirkus calls “A bracing stream-of-consciousness tale of life on London's lower rungs...a gritty and wise snapshot of urban life.” Descartes’s Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings is available as a Penguin Classic.
Nadeem Aslam, whose family fled from Pakistan to the UK in 1980 for political protection, has a boyish soft-spokenness that neatly disguises his own devout politicism. “I vote every time I write a sentence,” Aslam stated, and invoked the Polish writer Bruno Schulz as his classic hero. “It’s almost as though a color of the spectrum would be missing if Bruno Schulz and not been alive and writing,” Aslam said, and read a passage from “The Street of Crocodiles,” a short story from the 1934 collection of the same name. Though clearly Schulz’s lush prose and “mythologized reality” has had its influence on Aslam’s own work, it is perhaps more the fearlessness of his life that has left the greatest impression on Aslam. Schulz, a Polish-Jew with great intellectual prowess, worked in the first half of the 20th century, a dangerous age for the author on many, many levels. He was 50 years old when was gunned down by a Gestapo officer on a street in his hometown in 1942.
Nadeem Aslam’s latest novel is The Blind Man’s Garden, the second of his novels to explore the post-9/11 lives of Pakistani and Afghani citizens. Bruno Schulz’ Street of Crocodiles is available as a Penguin Classis paperback.
Thomas Mann’s work is notable for its symbolic insights into the psychologies and fates of artists and intellectuals, and the Japanese writer Gen’Ichiro Takahashi drew parallels between Mann’s novella Death in Venice and his own Sayonara, Gangsters. Takahashi describes his own work as “contemporary, experimental, and post-modern,” and read a grisly passage describing a debauched version of “body art” and one of the character’s violent revulsion and reaction. The book’s jacket describes Sayonara, Gangsters as “an inventive novel about language, expression and the creative process that unfolds through hilarious sketches.” Death in Venice, according to Mann himself, is “the story of the voluptuousness of doom, but the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist’s dignity.” Takahashi, who first read Mann’s novella in high school, noted the deep impact re-reading the work had on him when he reached the age of Mann’s anti-hero, Gustav von Aschenbach.
The final speaker of the afternoon was Eduardo Halfon, the Guatemalan-American author of The Polish Boxer. An engineer by training and trade, Halfon describes himself only as a “reader,” not a writer, until he read Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. The author’s note in Hopscotch invites the reader to choose between linear and non-linear ways of reading the novel, by making suggestions of chapter orders, noting chapters that are “expendable,” and telling the reader s/he can also feel free to choose a chapter order herself. “The lack of structure spoke to the engineer in me,” Halfon said, and went on to discuss the continually evolving structure of his own book as he adds, changes, and subtracts chapters as publishers print translations into different languages. The Polish Boxer is available in the US through Bellevue Literary Press, and Hopscotch is published by Pantheon Books in a dual Spanish/English edition.