This page features 'A View From This Bridge', our blog on international literature and the art of editing by editor Ellie Steel and various guests. We also pick a 'featured read' and have a regular Top 5 about the literature of a particular country. (To see the full blog archive click here.)
From the International Writing Blog
‘Against the Current’ (Pod prąd) is the slogan of this year’s edition of the annual Conrad Festival in Krakow, the largest international literary festival in Central Europe. The mission was to take a stance against the widespread notion that in our fast-paced and competitive world we cannot afford to read (or produce) literature. The organisers’ call to swim ‘against the current’ also expresses an urge to push against boundaries of literature, traditionally defined in terms of its dominant genres – fiction, poetry and drama. The programme of this weeklong festival celebrated creative non-fiction and reportage as major literary genres. And so it seems that despite their nonconformist credo, the Festival’s organisers are au courant with the main trends of the literary scene.
It’s a little before 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day 1915, and the sun strikes broadside the picnickers waiting at Sulphide Street station. Hats and parasols give faint protection to the 1,239 men, women and children who sit or stand in the open ore-wagons, clutching spiky handles of wicker hampers, mopping temples, pointing.
The thermometer registers 101 in the shade.
Since August, many of the same faces have been seeing off volunteers to join the Commonwealth Expeditionary Forces. Now it’s their turn to board a train from this station, with ‘Broken Hill’ painted in black on a white board.
How does a colonial language become one’s own? This is a niggling question that I assume every Brazilian Tomás, Curaçaoan Dik and Scottish Harriet has found their own answers to. But since I’m a Nigerian who speaks only English and its undocumented offshoot, Nigerian pidgin, it is a question whose Nigerian answer I’m especially curious about.
To complicate my relationship to this question, my father is Jamaican. I was born into a household where my Nigerian mother spoke three languages, Kalabari, Yoruba, and English, while my father was fluent in English and passable in French. In the Venn diagram of my parents’ coexistence, the only point of intersection was marked out by English. As with most infants, I picked up language by mimicry, and so the fact that I can’t speak Kalabari, my mother’s ethnic tongue, is probably less due to her reluctance to teach it to me than it is to my eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. By the time I was grown enough to realise that the books at home – which were all in English – were good for more than ripping to mouth-sized shreds, it was too late to worry about the cultural implications of my monolingual personhood.
As a publisher of classics, I spend an inordinate amount of time hunting for anniversaries. Of all of them I think a centenary year is the perfect time to reissue a classic book. So what the blazes does the classics publisher do if 100 years ago the whole world was at war? The writing and publishing of books was not at the forefront of many people’s minds during the years 1914–1918 (although admittedly it probably occupied a pretty lowly position on the list of First World War disadvantages).
But if the First World War slowed literary production, it did provide a wellspring of inspiration, and a gripping subject. For German literature, in particular, Europe’s eventful twentieth century was to have profound and enriching effects. For me, and I think for many, First World War books written from the German perspective hold a particular fascination. All Quiet on the Western Front is the most famous example. It was first published in 1929 but, in an anniversary-obsessed world, the war commemorations of 2014 seemed a fitting moment to reissue it in hardback, which is exactly what we did.
This post was going to be about a conversation between two stars of Harvill Secker’s international fiction list, Gerbrand Bakker and Per Petterson. That conversation took place recently at the incomparable Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop in Notting Hill. But I can’t tell you about it; one of those perfect storms of train-tube-bus disasters meant I missed all but the last few minutes.
That would never happen in a Bakker novel (or a Petterson one, for that matter). They are set as far from the city and its frenetic pace as you can be. Buses don’t break down and there’s never a person on the line at Earl’s Court. They’re tuned to a different frequency – that of the natural world and its slower, deeper rhythms. They are neither breathless nor plot-driven. It would sometimes be a push to say that very much at all is happening.
We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. If you are twenty-something, you are still likely to have grandchildren, but I'm not sure your grandchildren will have grandchildren. At least not human ones. Given the pace of technological development, if we don’t destroy ourselves first, within a century or two we will upgrade ourselves into gods. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. Humans are going to acquire abilities that were traditionally thought to be divine abilities. Humans may soon be able to live indefinitely, to design and create living beings at will, to surf artificial realities directly with their brains, and to reengineer their own bodies and minds according to their wishes.
There are books that break through and find their way as if there was a before and an after their publication. Out in the Open is one of them. One weekend I received an email from someone who used to work at Seix Barral, urging me to read a couple of chapters from a novel that had made a big impression on her. The first chapter, which begins with a flight across country, immersed me in a barren world of earthy smells, sweat and fear. I read the fourth chapter of Out in the Open with my hand on my heart, struck by the unusual elegance of the prose but also by the powerful terseness of its style, by the absence of names, dates or context of any kind save for the inclemency of nature. I wrote back immediately requesting the novel in its entirety and a contact for the author. Once I had finished it, images filled my head reminiscent of the landscape in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians; of the minimalist suspense of McCarthy’s The Road; of the understated roughness of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. But at the same time I was possessed by a sense of the unique power of the authorial voice.
Cole Porter loved Paris in the springtime and so do we. There's no better place for a literary stroll than Paris and assistant editor Fran Barrie has picked its best bookshops. We’re also very excited to be publishing our beautiful anniversary edition of The Man Who Planted Trees this week, Jean Giono’s classic fable about one man’s quest to plant a forest. It comes with a new introduction by Richard Mabey and is our featured read this month. You can find out more at the bottom of this page, after your stroll through Paris.
The Tusk that Did the Damage is set in Kerala, an extremely beautiful part of India. However, just as this novel turns the generally held idea about elephants as benign gentle giants on its head, it also uncovers a darker side to this green and luxuriant place. The story follows three characters: Manu, a boy whose family struggles to make a living in the rice fields; Emma, an American documentary film-maker who is an outsider uncovering uncomfortable truths about the conservation efforts in the region; and The Gravedigger, an incredibly dangerous elephant who has been a victim of various different forces looking to profit from elephants, or their tusks. Tania James has written a superbly suspenseful narrative about how these three characters' stories connect in dangerous ways, but beyond the evident literary qualities of her work she has also given a subtle and interestingly balanced picture of the porous moral boundaries between conservation and economic necessity or exploitation. Everyone in this book find themselves compromised in some way and the background subject of the ivory trade perfectly reflects this. It is refreshing to read a book that depicts an animal as seemingly familiar as an elephant with all its wildness and mythic and cultural weight, and also to see a sympathetic portrait of ordinary people trying to make a living in this very particular environment where nature and humanity have to coexist in close quarters.
Dancing in the Dark extract
The fourth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic six-volume series is published today. If you need any convincing to get on board with this extraordinary literary endeavour then here are the opening pages from Dancing in the Dark.