Chronic City

A while ago I read Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, but failed to write about it here for some reason. I thought I’d rectify this because it’s an interesting book, and it sheds some new light on the theme of vertigo which has been irritating my mind for some time now.

Generally speaking it’s a good book, though it has had some bad reviews for being oddly-shaped and meandering. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lethem is brilliant at treading the line between the real and the surreal, a sort of American magical realist, I suppose, though in this case he does stray a bit towards the end. The novel centres on Chase Insteadman, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped in space; he wanders around New York, befriending an eccentric man called Perkus Tooth – but I don’t want to say too much in case I spoil the details.

Part of the plot revolves around their attempt to acquire a chaldron: a type of stunningly beautiful Greek vase that sells on eBay for ridiculous amounts of money. These vases are not what they seem, but they elicit in the characters a strong sense of vertigo – they spend hours staring at pictures of these beautiful objects. Lethem describes this vertigo very well, but it has a different tone to that which I have been discussing before on this blog. Chaldrons make the beholder desperately, vertiginously covetous – everyone wants to own a chaldron, at any cost. This moves me to add possession as a layer of vertigo (alongside destruction and open-endedness). I don’t think it’s present all the time, but I think the urge to possess whatever induces this sense of vertigo is, confusingly, an aspect of the vertigo itself. Similarly to the MacCaig quote below, where those who are possessed by a landscape possess it in turn, a vertigo-inducing object can sometimes both possess the beholder and excites in them an urge to possess. This can only really hold for what Benjamin would call auratic art, where the uniqueness of the object seems to add to its value. But the mind-bendingness of that duality, especially when experienced subconsciously, would certainly induce a sort of vertigo.

Who owns this land?

Back from Edinburgh, where I saw many interesting things, including an excellent one-man play about Kafka, based on his letter to his father, which I now want to read. But I want to write about something else – my only jaunt into the Book Festival, which was really quite overpriced at £10 a ticket with no deals apparent. In fact a lot of things at the festival hovered around the £10 mark, which I think is a bit contrary to the spirit of a festival. They should offer carnet tickets where you pay a reasonable price and get entry to five or ten shows of your choosing.    

 Anyway, my Book Festival £10 went on Raja Shehadeh and David Greig. Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian writer and lawyer, and David Greig is a Scottish playwright who has adapted some of Shehadeh’s stuff. The talk began with a 15 minute play by Greig,  An Imagined Sarha, based on a scene from Shehadeh in which he meets an Israeli settler and they talk on the banks of a stream. The settler is armed with a gun and a nargile full of hashish and opium. There followed a 45 minute talk, which was fascinating.

Often literary talks are vague, with people rambling about inspiration or what have you, but the playlet at the start acted as a lens through which the discussion was sharply focused. They talked for a while about the significance of the gun in the scene performed: was it a mere prop, an unnecessary symbol of Israel’s dominance, or a concrete indication of the danger Shehadeh was in when he encountered the settler? David Greig, who I hadn’t heard of previously, was a brilliant foil in the discussion, bringing in quotes and ideas from other writers and teasing out interesting complexities around the ideas of possession and oppression. He quoted a wonderful line from the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, in relation to the love of the land felt both by Shehadeh and the settler: ““Who owns this land?/The man who bought it or/I who am possessed by it?” (from ‘A Man in Assynt’). This completely relates to Shehadeh’s scene, where both the Israeli and the Palestinian feel that part of their claims to possession stem from their love of the land – their feeling of being ‘possessed’ by it. It has a lovely symmetry: you possess that which possesses you.   

Raja Shahadeh

I could have listened to them for hours. The audience questions at the end were more than a little bizarre and some delivered quite aggressively, which was odd. There seemed to be some sort of competition of intensity going on. Shehadeh dealt with them brilliantly. He is a small, neat man, not the rugged outdoorsman you might expect from reading Palestinian Walks. I would highly recommend his writing, not only to anyone interested in Palestine, but to anyone interested in how a writer can convey complexity in simple, clear language. It’s only when you take a scene from his work – like the one from An Imagined Sarha – and unpack it that you see what a wealth of thought lies behind his work, so that a 15 minute play can produce 45 minutes of discussion and still leave you feeling that you’ve only scratched the surface.  

My Happy Days In Hell

A while ago I posted about the new Central European series Penguin have published. I’ve only just got round to reading some of them, and so far I can report that the going is good.

I started with Josef Skvorecky’s The Cowards, which is very good – reminiscent of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Ashes and Diamonds. Both are set during the immediate aftermath of World War II, with the Russians closing in on one side and the Americans on the other. However, The Cowards is Skvorecky’s first novel, written at the age of 24, and this shows. The novel is quite lightweight in comparison to others dealing with similar subject matter. It’s very well observed though, and an enjoyable and interesting read, and comes reasonably recommended.

From The Cowards I went on to read My Happy Days in Hell by György Faludy. This is just completely brilliant. It is an autobiography which offers up chunks of Faludy’s life, from his flight from Hungary during World War II and subsequent exile in Europe, to his time in Morocco, and then on to his return to communist Hungary, and his arrest and imprisonment in a labour camp. This is a necessarily complex work just because the author’s life spanned so many different worlds, and his autobiography spans a number of genres as a result – beginning with a tale of exile, going on to a Bowles-esque interlude in Morocco before descending into Levi or Solzhenitsyn territory for his incarceration. It’s very very good indeed, and I completely and utterly recommend it.

I’d write more, but I’m off to Edinburgh tomorrow morning, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it at that.