On the Difference between being a Reader and a Writer

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Upon the recommendation of the fine people at Argo Bookshop, I read Italo Calvino‘s If on a winter’s night a traveller, which was in and of itself an excellent read, a meditation on the multiple meanings of reading, amongst other things. I was struck by a discussion between the protagonist, The Reader, and The Other Reader, who at least got a name, Ludmilla.  Both The Reader and The Other Reader have been continually frustrated in their attempts to read a book, any book, as they are continually met with incomplete manuscripts, so they get into their novel, only to have it end.  Up to this point, it has been due to publisher’s errors and problems in the actual process of printing and binding the books.

But The Reader has made a contact within the publishing firm, who has given him reign to peruse the completed manuscripts, and he excitedly tells The Other Reader when they meet in a café.  He then wants to rush back to the publisher to continue their investigation.  But she refuses.

Why don’t you want to come?

On principle.

What do you mean?

There’s a boundary line: on ne side are those who make books, on the other those who read them.  I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line.  Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want.  This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers…I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for yourself.

It is clear that for The Other Reader, this is her own stance.  Of course, within a few chapters, she has violated her position.  But that’s irrelevant.  What is relevant is the point she raises, and the separation between authors and publishers and readers.  I had a thought similar to this last week when I was in Archambault looking for a book.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, a history book, but I did see my friend Simon Jolivet‘s book on the shelf.  Now, this is not surprising, Simon wrote a book, based on his PhD dissertation, and it got published.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work in academia.  In fact, that’s the very process I am presently engaged in myself.  And certainly I have known many, many authors throughout my academic career (to say nothing of the fiction writers I know).  And certainly, books get treated differently in academia than in the general public: we have to publish them if we want to survive in our field, it’s part of the job (which is why I find it obnoxious when people presume that because it’s summer I’m doing nothing if I’m not teaching).

And yet, it’s one thing to see my professors’ books on the shelf in the bookstore, it’s another to see a friend’s, especially when we did our PhD’s together.  It’s not an incredibly profound statement, I realise, but there is still something rather exciting about seeing your friend’s book on a shelf in a busy downtown Montréal bookstore, to know that people have bought it and read it and will continue to do so, and to finally have it sink in that this will also happen for me, my book will be on these same shelves and people will buy it and read it, beyond the academy (I hope).

But does that change my relationship with reading, both fiction and non-fiction? I doubt it.  And, of course, The Other Reader eventually realised that herself when she started to get mixed up in book production and forgery rings.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

New Bloomsday Montreal 2012 website

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I will have much more to say shortly, but for now, I just want to update my previous Bloomsday Montreal post with our new website.  Everything is coming together nicely for our celebration of Joyce’s masterful Ulysses, 14-16 June.  We’ll be updating the site soon.  In the meantime, you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

New Adventures in the Arts, or, Art, History, and “Authenticity”

September 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I met with a stage and set designer for a new play being produced at the Hudson Village Theatre in Hudson, QC (just off the Island of Montréal), opening Thursday, 28 October, entitled Wake of the Bones, written Montréal playwright David Gow.  Wake of the Bones centres around the discovery of a mass grave of Famine victims on Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montréal by Irish labourers constructing the Victoria Bridge a decade later.  The labourers were from Griffintown, at least in this version, and they decide that a wake needs to be held to send the dead souls off to their eternal paradise.

The Black Rock, erected in the memory of the mass grave. Today it's located on Bridge St. in Pointe-Saint-Charles, on the approach to the Victoria Bridge

The designer, Anouk Louten, contacted me as she attempts to get a handle on Irish culture and life in Griffintown in the mid-19th century, attempting to re-create a set as authentic as possible.

This, of course, got me thinking about the usual intersection of history, memory, and the public.  Because of course Gow is taking licence from the historical record for the purpose of creating art.  It is true that the mass grave of Irish Famine victims was found by the bridge workers, who were also Irish.  But the workers probably lived in Goose Village, not Griffintown.  A minor quibble with the historical record, to be sure, but still one that those who argue for ‘authenticity’ get their knickers in a twist over.  And, I’m sure Gow will also take artistic licence with the characters, their setting, and so on and so forth.

This week, in class, I was teaching the Persian Wars, including the legendary battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.  Of course, pretty much the entire Western world has seen the movie, 300, which fictionalises what actually happened at Thermopylae some 2,490 years ago.  The movie over-dramatises the valour of the Spartans, distorts and obscures the rationale for battle decisions made by the Greeks (including the Spartans, who are conveniently left out of the decision to withdraw 6,700 Greek troops from Thermopylae to avoid being caught in a pincer movement by the Persians), leaving the brave Leonidas and his 299 Spartan warriors to hold off the Persians.  As much as I love this film, I always find myself somewhat troubled by it, I kind of feel the film-makers made like the cops in the OJ Simpson case with the glove.  Recall that the glove didn’t fit Simpson, who more than likely got away with murder at that trial.  At the time, a friend of mine, a law student, opined that the cops may’ve planted the glove, so desperate they were to secure a conviction.  If this is true (and really, who knows?), the over-zealousness of the cops allowed Simpson to walk (though, as they say, karma is a mother, and Simpson is in the slammer for other crimes right now).  In the case of 300, the film-makers took an already dramatic story about Leonidas and his warriors and over-shot, they over-dramatised something which could’ve stood on its own.

So, as an historian, films like 300 bother me.  Not because they take licence with the historical story, but because they pull an Oliver Stone.  Stone, of course, once said that you had to hit American film audiences over the head with a mallet in order to get their attention.  I think he’s wrong, people aren’t that stupid.  But sometimes it makes great art, sometimes, most of the time, it’s just superfluous.

But artistic licence, I fail to see what’s wrong with that, it can make the story more interesting, it can allow the artist to make their point more effectively.

As for authenticity, I’m not sure it matters so much in the larger sense.  Certainly, I like Anouk’s attempts to create an authentic set.  That, for whatever reason, matters to me.  The setting of historical novels, plays, films, this is the detail, the background of people’s lives.  Take, for example, The Gangs of New York: a wildly fictional account of the goings-on in the Five Points of Manhattan in the early 1860s.  The story itself may be a load of bollocks, but the setting of it in the Five Points, from what I can see, that’s authentic, that reflects the reality of life in what was probably the worst slum in the world.

But authenticity of story or experience (in the case of museums, etc.), I’m not so sure this is desirable or even possible.  I think it is impossible to completely re-create the ‘authentic’ historical experience.  For one, there’s the obvious problem: it’s impossible, because it is no longer 1861, or whenever.  The physical setting is just that, a re-creation of the historical, it can be an authentic re-creation, but that’s as far as it goes.  And I think that by itself is a laudable goal, but that should be the end goal.  There is no need to go any further, because it is impossible to go any further.

And, so far as I’m concerned, if the story is based in this historical record, that it aims to reflect the setting, then that’s fine.  Artistic licence needs to be taken, at least most of the time, maybe not so much in the case of Leonidas’ last stand.

The Problem With Writing History

March 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

I just finished Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel, Snow.  It tells the story of a hapless Turkish exile poet, Ka, who returns to Turkey from Frankfurt.  Ka is a poet without poems.  He’s not written one for years when he accepts an offer from a friend who edits a Republican newspaper in Istanbul to travel to the distant eastern city of Kars.  In Kars, there has been a wave of suicides by young women wearing the hijab, which is seen as a challenge to the Turkish republic of Ataturk.  They were expelled from their university studies for refusing to remove them.  And so a group of them killed themselves.  But nothing is at seems in Kars, and Ka is drawn into the city’s murky underside, in part due to a bizarre coup led by an actor, in part because he falls in love for the beautiful Ipek, in part because of the radical Islamist terrorist, Blue.  Kars is a poor city, isolated, and caught in its place in history on the borderlands, caught between its Russian, Turkish, and Armenian pasts.  And Kars is isolated during Ka’s visit, it’s snowed in.  It’s a mountain city and all roads in and out, as well as the railroad, are blocked by heavy, heavy snow. This isolation has its own in-built tension between this forgotten borderlands city and the cosmopolitan capital of Turkey, Ankara, and its interntionalised largest city, Istanbul.  This tension within Kars echoes that of the Turkey that Pamuk presents, between this Europeanised cosmopolitanism and traditional Turkish culture, to say nothing of Islamism.  And Ka, as a westernised Turk living in exile in Germany, is a focal point for this tension.

Anyway, I don’t want to give away the plot, because if you’ve not read Snow, you should.  It’s not for nothing that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.

What I want to point to is a discussion the narrator of the novel has with an associate of Ka’s, Fazil, at the end of the book.  The narrator, Pamuk himself, responds to Fazil’s early declaration that he can only write about him in the book Pamuk is writing on Ka’s visit to Kars if he agrees to include what Fazil wishes to say to Pamuk’s readers.  He says this:

‘If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us.  No one could understand us from so far away.’

‘But no one believes in that way what he reads in a novel,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes, they do,’ he cried. ‘If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us.’

Fazil’s words have resonance for me as an historian.  I study the working-classes, I study people by-and-large excluded from, or oppressed by, systems of power.  The community I study is one that was an inner-city, working-class slum.  The people who lived there, grew up there, they’ve escaped, moved up the social ladder.  But that history is still there.

A few years ago, I was hired as a consultant by an advertising agency working on behalf of Devimco, the development company that was planning to radically re-build Griffintown.  Devimco was trying to make its plans more palatable, so they hired this advertising agency, as well as a consultant, an American living in London.  This consultant has done some impressive things with shopping malls across the UK and in places like Dubai.  Anyway.  He prepared a text for all of us to ponder for our 2-day summit on the future of the Griff.  Basically, he wanted us to come up with a marketable narrative for Griffintown, which was why I was there; the historian.  In this text, he wrote:

Griffintown represents the next generation in Montreal’s long history of bold waterfront stewardship.  What makes it unique is that it restores the public’s access to the waterfront, making it home for a real community, instead of simply an industrial workforce.

Leaving aside the fact that Montréal actually has a long history of the opposite of “bold waterfront stewardship” (Autoroute Bonaventure, anyone?  How about all those port facilities?), the part I’ve italicised, dismissing the former residents of the Griff as simply an industrial workforce really just echoes what Fazil says in Snow.  This consultant is dismissing these real people, arguing that because they were the working-classes, they couldn’t have culture or community.   We’re supposed to feel superior to them, we’re supposed to see ourselves as better than them.

This is something that plagues historical scholarship, going back to the days of Herodotus.  Even despite E.P. Thompson’s entreaties to be fair to the working-class (or any other subaltern group, really), to “rescue them from the enormous condescension of posterity” (to quote from his masterful The Making of the English Working Class), it’s a hard road to hoe.  Indeed, Thompson himself is partly to blame for this, by taking on this providential charge to “rescue” the working-classes.  We shouldn’t do that, either.

Instead, what we strive to do is to take our subaltern, down-trodden, excluded, or what-have-you, people is to take them for what they are/were: people like us.  This is hard to do, it is hard to be sensitive to our historical actors, to recognise them as multi-dimensional actors, with agency, just like us.  Joy Parr helps us see that in her The Gender of Breadwinners, wherein she reminds us that the roles our historical actors play were not sequential, but simultaneous.  We are many things at the same time, and so, too, were our historical actors.

This is something I think historians of the subaltern need to be reminded of regularly, it’s not something we can read in a book once and keep in mind when we’re actually doing our work.  This point needs constant reinforcement.  It’s easy to forget, really.  For me, that Devimco session helped.  So, too, does doing oral history.  And so, too, has the reading of Snow.  I must keep Fazil’s words in mind.

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