There’s a mini polemic on in France right now about a series of photographs depicting professors (apparently real professors– call me, Monsieur X–) in their birthday suits to protest the “dépouillement” (or dispossession– literally: plucking) of the education system in France. These photographs are part of a calendar which you can see in its entirety here. On the news the other day, some conservative bureaucrat was complaining that these photographs “dévalorisaient la profession [d'enseignant]” [devalued the teaching profession]. What do you think?
My friend Kaitlin Cordes is a Research Fellow in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, and is responsible for that report you may have heard about which was published last week and made the front page of the New York Times. Kaitlin's report revealed that most of the manpower behind South Africa's wine and fruit industry, worth about $811 million a year, lives in squalor– literally in pigstalls with no electricity, toilet, or protection from frequent flooding. Working conditions can be extremely dangerous, and wages are nearly nonexistent. The wine growers have been slow to address these dismal working and living conditions, and the government has done little to ensure that labor laws are respected.
When shopping for wine or fruit, consumers should ask the merchant where it comes from and under what conditions it was produced. They also should explicitly ask for products that are grown, harvested, packed and bottled by producers who are subject to ethical audits. This will send a clear message throughout the fruit and wine supply chain – up to the corporate buyers and down to the farmworkers in the field – that consumers want to enjoy South Africa’s agricultural products with the confidence that they were not produced on the back of abuse. Knowing that the wine we savour is not tainted by abuse is something we can all toast.
I'm cross-posting something I wrote on my Tumblr, because it's the kind of thing I would have normally written here, except it happened to come out over there.
I'm thinking about what Orhan Pamuk had to say at the Jaipur Literary Festival this past weekend, which I find fascinating, whinging, problematic, and wrong-headed, all at the same time:
"Most of the writers at a festival such as Jaipur [write] in English," he said. "This is maybe because English is the official language here. But for those writing in other languages, their work is rarely translated and never read. So much of human experience is marginalised."
He goes on to complain that literary critics "provincialise" his work:
"When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can't love be general? I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience this humanity," he complained. "You are squeezed and narrowed down, cornered down as a writer whose book is considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropological curiosity."
1. The fascinating part is the way this intervenes in a larger conversation about national literature that I've been observing and writing about for some time (sometimes in public, sometimes in this Word doc I keep on my computer).
2. The whinging part–isn't it obvious?
3. The problematic part is that Pamuk implies that the Anglophone literary world is the only world that really counts, and if you don't publish in English it's as if you don't publish at all. "…their work is rarely translated and never read." As if to have one's work read only by other speakers of your native language is about the same as no one reading it at all. [I just realized I've been all hey, my novel's coming out soon, but it's coming out in French and not English, so I guess I'm marginalized too. Awesome.]
So he's arguing that non-Anglophone writers need to be translated into English to be "read" (by Anglophones, who it would seem are the only readers that matter). But then he's complaining that once translated, those writers are treated as representatives of their countries in ways they find limiting.
I'm sorry, but how can a work in translation not be treated as a work in translation, and therefore as a representative of another culture? Especially if a plea is being made to translate more for the sake of translating more? To what extent is Pamuk suggesting we erase cultural difference in the service of Literature?
4. The wrong-headed part: because I don't think this is the conversation we should be having anymore. The horse is dead. We need new ways of thinking about world literature that don't presuppose the Anglophone world to be the center of anything. (Cf the world literature manifesto that came out in France a few years ago, in which the Paris was declared to no longer be the "center" of Francophone literature.) It's at least someplace to begin. Words are powerful. Ever hear of performative speech acts? (No? Ok, read this.) If you don't want to be a Turkish writer, what kind of writer do you want to be? Don't just complain: change the conversation.
The new translation of Simone de Beauvoir's foundational feminist work The Second Sex was published in the UK in late 2009 (I wrote about it here). It took some time for Beauvoir scholars to work their way through it, and one critic in particular–feminist scholar and Duke professor Toril Moi– found the re-translation to be mostly a failure, tearing it apart in a recent essay in the London Review of Books.
Moi's essay has made such waves that Margaret Simons, philosopher professor and Beauvoir expert (and author of the original essay alerting everyone to the fact that the Parshley translation was incomplete and inaccurate), sent out a call on a philosophy list-serv for corrections to the UK edition, "which
the translators have another day or two to correct in the US edition." It's a relief, then, to know that although this translation may not be ideal, the howlers which Moi identified can at least be put right for the US edition (and future UK editions). I tend to think Moi will consider the flaws to be more than simply cosmetic; Simons, on the other hand, calls it a" tremendous advance over the Parshley translation in accuracy and completeness."
I guess we'll all have to stay tuned for la suite.
What a lot of sound and fury about this new "restored" version of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast! After A.E. Hotchner's New York Times Op-Ed attack,Thomas Lipscomb wades in with his own attack, although he makes a show of trying to untangle fact from fiction (the lone commenter begs to differ with Lipscomb's version). Brenda Wineapple has the fairest assessment I've seen, at the Wall Street Journal.
Yesterday afternoon, out of curiosity and disbelief, I stopped by Bryant Park to witness James Wood play the bongos with John Jeremiah Sullivan's band Fayaway. It was a sight to see! But no one else in the audience seemed to find it as incongruous as I did. Wood acquitted himself well, with much concentration and the occasional tympanic flourish. He has quite the ear for a triplet, something you can't say about just anyone, which made me appreciate his criticism all the more. [Update: via Mark Sarvas, I learn that Wood suffered a tambourine-inflicted wound during one song. Let it be said that the injury did not in any perceptible way affect his performance.]
After the set, Peter Terzian took the mic and led a panel of writers (Joshua Ferris, Stacey D'Erasmo, Clifford Chase, Asali Solomon) in a set of readings from the new collection he's edited, Heavy Rotation– in which these and other writers (Wood, Sullivan, Benjamin Kunkel, Kate Christensen, etc.) discuss the albums which had the greatest formational impact on their lives. The collection sounds great– you can read more about it here. Caleb Crain has some photos up on his blog, here. (I did see some people filming in the front row– I wonder if there's video available anywhere?)
Speaking of Caleb Crain, I came across his face-off with Alain de Botton today. Though I'm usually a fan of ADB (his Proust book and his architecture book to be more precise), this one– on the pleasures and sorrows of work– sounds deadly boring. In case you missed it, here's what happened: Crain reviewed ADB in the New York Times. ADB freaked out on Crain's blog, writing “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will
in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and
schadenfreude." People took note and wondered how ADB could make such a blunder in the same week as Alice Hoffman. (Ed Champion did an interview with ADB in which he claims to have been unaware of L'Affaire Hoffman.) Then, ADB revealed that he intended his comments to be for Crain's eyes only, which begs the question of why he would leave a private message on a website, where– I know this is tough to comprehend but stay with me– other people can see it.
This hullabaloo over Alain de Botton’s comments is more interesting than the book, which seems to will itself to be a lyrical-philosophical-britannical updating of Studs Terkel. If you want to read about work, I recommend instead Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To the End, which I picked up yesterday after hearing him read at Bryant Park. It’s so good– a pitch perfect of the way we (i.e. contemporary, everyday, Joe Schmoe Americans) tell stories, tell jokes, and misunderstand each other. Ferris captures the sense of quiet desperation in the work environment of a group of people working for a Chicago advertising firm– but he doesn’t condescend or push the pathos envelope. He achieves this through the use of a choral narrator, a loose narrative structure, and a relentless determination to find the humor in absolutely everything, which is occasionally cruel, until you realize they’re laughing for their lives.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work.
Heard about this last week but didn't get a chance to comment until today. At NPR, Dick Meyer summons his chutzpah and posts his list of the best 100 novels of the last 100 years. Says he:
I am not a learned or prolific reader of novels. My taste is
probably medium-brow, male and parochial in many ways. Tough. It's my
list. I included two books that probably aren't novels: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Fabulous Small Jews. Lots of innovative, modern stuff didn't make it because I am not good at reading it.
criteria were essentially how much the book hit me, moved me, made me
see — and how it stuck with me. The books are all English-language
novels written after 1900.
In other words, the man has absolutely no qualifications to make such a list, which in our bizarre (post-?)post-modern world apparently makes him the perfect candidate to do it.
Of course such lists are by nature subjective and silly and change radically depending on who you ask. Probably no one would argue with The Great Gatsby or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; some would argue with Lolita but for the wrong reasons. But there are only seven books on there by women, and one of them is the atrocious A History of Love. (As one commenter put it: "Seven women and one of them is Nicole Krauss? What a joke.")
But it's not the numbers that get me. It's the pride in mediocrity and ignorance. It's the unabashed "I really don't know the first thing about novels, but I'm going to make a list of the best ones anyway." It's the chin-jutting "My taste is probably medium-brow, male and parochial in many ways. Tough." His taste is thoroughly middlebrow and outrageously male. And though he's encountered some criticism for this, the fact is Dick Meyer is right there on NPR being accorded the right to be parochial and male, and getting away with calling his list the best novels of the last century. Can you imagine had they asked a woman to make a list like this and it was full of female writers with only 7 male writers (one of whom was Herman Wouk?)? The list would be categorized "feminist" and therefore marginalized. But a parochial male view is lauded as the centrist point of view, not a list of the best male novels, but a list of the best novels. Simone de Beauvoir called her study The Second Sex because, then as now, men were where it was at. Women were an after-thought, a modification. There was the universal male, and then there was the feminine.
I mean, ugh. Ugh. Herman Wouk has two books on the list but Virginia Woolf is only represented by To the Lighthouse? You really want to imply that The Caine Mutiny is a better novel than Mrs Dalloway just because you liked it better? Dick Meyer, you're embarrassing yourself. Go read your boy books.
You've probably seen this already, but Robert Darnton's article for the New York Review on Google and the future of books is not to be missed. Darnton, a literary historian whose works include The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (excerpt here) and The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 is the director of the Harvard library system. In that capacity he has a particular interest in the digitalization of books, but he situates his argument within the context of the Enlightenment, and the hierarchies which structured the Republic of Letters:
Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of
Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies
in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to
aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of
letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by
exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear
legally without a royal privilege and a censor's approbation, printed
in full in their text.
One way to understand this system is to draw on the sociology of
knowledge, notably Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literature as a power
field composed of contending positions within the rules of a game that
itself is subordinate to the dominating forces of society at large. But
one needn't subscribe to Bourdieu's school of sociology in order to
acknowledge the connections between literature and power. Seen from the
perspective of the players, the realities of literary life contradicted
the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment. Despite its principles, the
Republic of Letters, as it actually operated, was a closed world,
inaccessible to the underprivileged. Yet I want to invoke the
Enlightenment in an argument for openness in general and for open
access in particular.
If we turn from the eighteenth century to the
present, do we see a similar contradiction between principle and
practice—right here in the world of research libraries? One of my
colleagues is a quiet, diminutive lady, who might call up the notion of
Marion the Librarian. When she meets people at parties and identifies
herself, they sometimes say condescendingly, "A librarian, how nice.
Tell me, what is it like to be a librarian?" She replies, "Essentially,
it is all about money and power."
You have to read the article for yourselves; I can't do justice to Darnton's argument here. But for my part, I would like to know why a subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology costs $25,910 per year.
Speaking of the Republic of Letters, why do writers hate each other so much? asks an article on the Nouvel Observateur's books blog [in French]. Can't we all just get along?
It would seem the answer is no. And tant mieux! A new book just published here, Une histoire des haines d'écrivains, de Chateaubriand à Proust, by Étienne Kern and Anne Boquel (Flammarion), looks back at some of the most virulent and entertaining literary feuds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France. Sainte-Beuve and Victor Hugo called each other "Cyclops" and "Sainte-Bave" (Saint Drool); Barbey d'Aurevilly said of Prosper Mérimée that he had "the legs of a peacock but not the tail," and George Sand piled on Mérimée: when Alexandre Dumas called his virility into question, Sand said that she herself had sampled it, and that it was "nothing special."
Août 2007. Pierre Assouline sort le stylo rouge sur son blog, contre «un livre franchement sans intérêt, ni fait
ni à faire, à partir d'une idée qui ne vaut rien»: c'est «Fin de l'histoire» de François Bégaudeau. Une palme d'or plus tard, l'auteur-acteur d'«Entre les murs» se représente, avec son «Antimanuel de littérature» soigneusement dédicacé: «Cher P. A., toujours un
plaisir d'être brocardé par les réacs, vous gênez pas.» Le réac prend la consigne à la lettre: «Même là, il parle en djeune! Te
gêne pas! Nique ta grammaire! C'est écrit comme c'est dédicacé.»
Let me try to do justice to the French:
August 2007. Pierre Assouline gets out the red marker on his blog, against "a book that is frankly without interest, a botched job of an idea that was worthless to begin with": End of the Story, by François Bégaudeau. One Palme d'or later, the author/actor of "The Class" returns with his "Anti-User's Guide to Literature," carefully dedicated: "Dear P.A., always a pleasure to be mocked by the neo-cons, don't worry about it [hard to render in English-- he omits the "ne" in "ne vous genez pas" which is very slang]." The neo-con takes this advice literally: "Even there he talks like he's in the ghetto! 'Don't worry about it! Fuck your mother tongue [grammaire/mère]! Spelled how it's dedicated."
If there is a brighter example of the pompous Frenchman than Bégaudeau, I would like to see it. There is just no beating him, I'm afraid. To wit:
Bégaudeau isthe one in the black v-neck t-shirt who bobbles his head around like it's come loose from his shoulders. UPDATE: To be fair, perhaps he's just nervous or feeling persecuted. There's a pretty good interview between him and Alain Finkielkraut here in which he acquits himself decently.
Part One: Moratorium
I am mildly embarrassed to have let my feathers ruffle so because of a puff piece in the Wall Street Journal called “Why the Expats Left Paris.” For me, it was one puff piece too many, because the more these articles are published, the more a certain idea about Paris is reinforced, and the American reading public deserves better stories of that city than what they’ve been getting. I am not naive enough to think that because one writer voices her
discontent, the quality of articles about Paris will improve; still, I
must speak up.
I hereby call for a end to clichéd articles about literary Paris, all those which invoke the names of the deities (“Sartre” and “Beauvoir”) in an incantation to raise from the dead the spirit of a Paris that never existed.
Newspaper editors must think these stories are romantic in some way, but the subject has been utterly emptied of its original meaning, and now signals only “here is another article about that place everyone likes with the tower and the bridges.” What is written is incidental to the fact that it is being said, again, and it is in this way that sloppy mistakes and misconceptions creep in. Besides which, aren’t newspaper editors in the business of printing news? It seems to me that any other travel story on any other location would have been researched and fact-checked. But because it’s Paris, and we’ve heard this story before, touchy-feely clichés based on one person’s very limited experience are apparently acceptable. This is called “reification.”
Do not misunderstand me: this is not a moratorium for all invocations of literary Paris: only those which tell us nothing, add nothing, and flatten out an important moment in literary history. I call for this moratorium in favor of better, truer writing about Paris. Let us agree no longer to reduce Paris to this tired cliché, and to produce, if not works to rival Being and Nothingness or The Ethics of Ambiguity, at least better travel writing.
What is the difference between a cliché and a myth? Myths are stories we tell ourselves, to explain why we form affinities with certain things, or to help cope with a necessary but unpleasant rite of passage. Myths can be productive; myths can be powerful. But they can also create a false sense of communal agreement—false because the terms are assumed, not specified. Myths can also be untrue.
Literary Paris is a potent myth. An entire cottage industry of books has cropped up around it, some of them quite good, some of them horrid. But how do we tell the difference? Not long ago, I reviewed a book called Paris Cafe: the Select Crowd. This book treats the myth in a way that both pays homage to the past and makes it relevant to the present. The ineffable quality of the cafe comes through in the gossipy and insightful writing, and the visceral, well-wrought illustrations.
Clichés, on the other hand, are dead thoughts. The term cliché, in French, can also be used to mean “snapshot.” As in “here, let
me show you the banal pictures I took on my last trip to Paris.” The article
in question employed enough clichés to fill up a Flickr account.
In writing about Paris, clichés are easy to use and hard to avoid. They must first be acknowledged, and then excised: a new way of speaking about an old subject must be sought, and failure to conquer the cliché will ensue your argument rests on a weak foundation. The writer or the artist with Paris as his subject must find his own vernacular.
This “manifesto,” if you will, may seem out of proportion to this particular article. Surely it is a bit of light reading for the weekend’s Wall Street Journal, destined for the trash bins on Monday. Nothing anyone should take seriously.
But the writer, Dinaw Mengestu, is the kind of guy you do take seriously. He has written a well-received first novel (The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, which won the 2007 Guardian First Book Award as well as the Prix du Meilleur Premier Roman Etranger that year, which is more than most of us can say), and he has also published engaging articles on Darfur and Uganda. Surely what Mengestu writes bears the stamp of thoughtfulness and commitment— is worthy of our scrutiny more than, say, some hack journalist trying to make a buck off of a pile of clichés. (I say this with all due respect for hack journalists, being one, on occasion, myself). It is all the more disappointing, then, that instead of delivering an insightful look at Paris, we are served an interesting idea wrapped in nonsense.
His premise is that black American writers once fled the racial (no mention of homophobic) discrimination of their native land for the “refuge and sanctuary” of Paris, whereas nowadays, America has caught up with France, and France has in fact become more conservative, judging at least from the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis.
This is an interesting and thought-provoking basis for an article. But then he gets bogged down with wondering where the expat American literary community has gone, looking from left to right on the Blvd St Germain, finding only tourists in a café lamenting the price of a bottle of water (presumably they are too dense to know they could get a carafe of water for free). He concludes, like Robinson Crusoe, “I am alone on the island,” and goes on to extol the joys of being in a Paris that is no better or worse than any American city. Moreover, he rejoices that there are no other American writers hanging around to cramp his style or force him to feel “fashionable.”
The Wall Street Journal’s weekend paper was perhaps not the market for a 9,000 word think piece on the comparative environments for African-Americans in the US and African immigrants in France, which I am sure Mengestu could write ably, given more time in France. But to make the article marketable—for the editors, the readers, and the advertisers—it needed a catchier hook. And this is how Paris becomes a cliché: when it is reduced to a marketing concept. The result: “Why the Expats Left Paris.”
Sorry to disappoint you, Dinaw, but we haven’t left. You’re just not looking for us in the right places.
Part Two: Now versus then
Mengestu has been living in the 6th, he tells us, where he finds the lure of nostalgia too strong to resist; he fantasizes sitting in the Café du Flore with Sartre and Beauvoir, overhearing an argument between Wright and Baldwin. Fair enough; we all have these moments (they do tend to happen more in the beginning of one’s time in Paris, and fade after the first year or so).
His version of the “good old days” is as vague and unspecific as the bad new days. It amounts to a misreading both of our era and of theirs. Paris then is presented as a grand old place to live, with Sartre and Beauvoir placidly presiding over the intellectual scene. Nevermind that Beauvoir and Sartre sat and wrote for hours in the Flore, or was it the Magots, because they couldn’t afford to heat their apartments. Mengestu’s version includes no mention of the vicious infighting amongst the literati, the casual racism and anti-Semitism, even after the Holocaust. Richard Wright moved to Paris in 1946, Baldwin in 1948. Where is the post-war épuration in Mengestu’s account? Where is the Sétif massacre? The rumblings of war in Algeria? No, in the mythic version of the postwar days, Paris was just a happy land of philosophers. But to romanticize this era within the context of an article that ventures into the political waters of our day (at least by the invocation of “Seine-Saint-Denis” and the 2005 riots, which have acquired a mythic stature of their own), is in bad taste.
There was indeed a culture of relaxed mores which flourished in Paris between
the wars, as well as in the 50s and 60s, which attracted writers and
artists from around the world; and yes, Wright and Baldwin did enjoy
more freedom from prejudice in France than they did in the States. This
is not in dispute. But building a mythology around those eras because
of those freedoms is kind of a flat, un-nuanced reading of history. What were Baldwin and Wright arguing about? This article gives us myth without matière.
Blinded by his nostalgia for Paris in the 50s, Mengestu has a hard time seeing contemporary Paris. “What’s really missing these days isn’t just café literary life, but a palpable and vibrant American cultural life.” Missing from where? From the Blvd St Germain? Or from Paris altogether? The first might be accurate; the second would be deluded. Does he hang out with no one
under the age of 40? Francophone or Anglophone, they would have
informed him that the creative types are hanging out predominantly in
northeast Paris. He need only look away from the 6th to find communities of writers and artists making a living as best they can, and living in Paris for one reason or another—some, like James Baldwin, just to get away from where they’re from, some because they are inspired by and in sync with the city. Look to the 13th, to the Butte aux Cailles, where American blogger Aimee Gille has recently opened her own cafe. Look to the outskirts of Pere Lachaise. Look to Belleville. These are places that have their own mythologies as well now (which I’ve complained of in the past, but it seems amazing to me that Mengestu would not mention them). If Baldwin and Wright were to sit down over coffee today, they would do it at Café Chéri(e), and it would cost €2,20, or $3.50 a cup– roughly what they’d pay in a cafe in Brooklyn
“Today it’s impossible for me to imagine the sense of refuge and sanctuary that other Americans once found here,” Mengestu writes. But even if the atmosphere “back home” these days is kinder to racial and sexual minorities than it was in Wright’s day, Paris is still a refuge and a sanctuary for the expatriate, by virtue of its being far from home, a different culture, a place to reinvent oneself in a completely foreign context. If Mengestu had bothered to talk to any expatriates other than himself, he might have found this out.
Still to come: Part Three: Beyond an “American” in Paris, and Part Four: So who are these creative types and where can I find them?
James Baldwin noted shortly after he first arrived in France, “I didn’t go to Paris. I left New York.” Inherent in that statement is the idea that it wasn’t the destination but the departure that mattered most. I can’t help but think that to some degree that sentiment still holds true, although for drastically different reasons than before. Paris has lost some of what once made it so special and unique, enough so that it’s hard to imagine another outburst of American cultural creativity taking place in Paris again anytime soon. Why Paris when there’s the rest of the world, much of which is cheaper and more unknown? It’s a question I hear constantly, less so from Americans than Parisians who seem baffled by my decision to be here.
I am still seething over Dinaw Mengestu’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why the Expats Left Paris,” but I’ve narrowed it down to this particular paragraph, which rings polemical to me (but maybe I’m just overly sensitive on this subject). I’m still working on articulating my response (right now I just have a growing Word document filled with indignant sputtering), and I’ll post it as soon as possible.
In the meantime, I invite all the expats who are reading this to leave comments or email me privately, answering Mengetsu’s question, “Why Paris?”
Why did you come to Paris, and not anywhere else in the world? What is it that makes Paris special and unique?
Mengetsu concludes his article by professing his affection for the quietness of Paris, extolling the absence of an expatriate scene which would presumably deafen his thoughts. “There’s no romantic ideal to be lived out here anymore — no cafés, readings or events that can’t be missed.” I can’t speak to the romantic ideal part– that’s up to the individual. But as for the readings and events– how very, very wrong he is.