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Black in America: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

adichie

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie               Published by Knopf, $26.95

I first read Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 collection of short stories The Thing About Your Neck earlier this year and was immediately struck by the breadth of her writing palette. Here was a writer who spoke openly of race relations – the reasons why sexual relationships between white men and black women can flounder; the condescending attitude of some white intellectuals towards black intelligentsia; the hostilities faced by black African emigrés to the West; and the turbulence, violence and social upheavals of modern day Nigeria.  Adichie, I discovered, wrote with elegance, intelligence, wit and often savage satire, wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions and tackle rough ground. I immediately chased up her best-known novel Half of a Yellow Sun, a searing account of the Biafran wars, which won The Orange Prize and is being made into a movie.  And eagerly awaited her third novel, Americanah.

To put the Adichie phenomenon into perspective, she divides her time between Nigeria and the USA where she writes and has lectured at Princeton. She was awarded a Macarthur “Genius” grant in 2010 and the New Yorker featured her in its list of 20 best authors under the age of 40 – she’s 36. Young, gifted, articulate and (though it’s not PC to admit it) drop-dead gorgeous, Adichie is a publishing PR dream.  What’s more, Americanah ticks all the boxes: it’s a sprawling, rich tapestry that spans three continents, a 20 year time frame and explores race, ambition, love, identity, Barack Obama, social media – and the politics of black hair. In fact much of the narrative takes place in flashback as the heroine, Ifemulu, is having her hair braided during an eight-hour marathon in a hair salon before returning to her homeland.

At the start of the novel Ifemulu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, but when Ifemulu wins a scholarship for post-graduate studies in Phlladelphia, they part, she bound for the USA and he to Britain. Skillfully, the novel weaves Obinze’s struggles to win the “holy grail” of a work permit with Ifemulu’s own desperate attempts to find part-time employment. Adichie observes both the subtleties – and overt knocks – of racial discrimination with keen detachment whilst depicting the rawness and intensity of the pair’s loneliness and social isolation. Ifemulu obtains her coveted Green Card; Obinze, who has been working illegally, is deported. Back in “the new” Nigeria, he becomes a wealthy business-man in a country where greed, ambition, knowing the right political allies, plus a healthy dose of corruption, can get you to the top. Adichie’s withering account of Nigerian nouveau-riches parvenus and society wannabees is  both humorous and dangerously close to the bone. So too is her account of Obinze’s discomfiture at a middle-class dinner-party in Islington, where an old school friend now married to a white solicitor is holding court, more English than the English with his pukka Sloane Ranger accent, as they dig into a series of “ethnic plates”.  Adichie is in her element as a satirist of the chattering classes, skewering both black and white, and her accounts of social gatherings in Lagos, London and New York are a highlight of the novel.

By now Ifemulu and Obinze have drifted apart. He marries a socialite; she has a series of relationships with both white and black men, and becomes a famous blogger, penning irreverent and controversial insights into race: Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  A selection of her blog posts is included in the novel. These are both challenging and confrontational and though they occasionally disrupt the flow of the book and signpost Adichie’s polemics too relentlessly, they still force readers into questioning their own attitudes to race relations.

To my Fellow Non-American Blacks in America. You Are Black, Baby

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your own country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it – you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad?” I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.”

Ifemulu’s posts cover the media’s treatment of black women in beauty and fashion (under-represented); white society’s desire to “whitewash” prejudice; the role of the black intellectual in WASP society; the Obama phenomenon; and the insidious perception that unrelaxed “native” black hair is “jungle” hair and has no place in white society. In fact, each post is a pointed reminder that the black experience remains that of the “other”, Obama or not – and is an uncomfortable truth for the liberally-minded.

The last part of the novel, when Ifemulu  returns to Lagos and is reunited with Obinze, seems a trifle rushed, a touch forced, as if Adichie had covered all bases and simply wished to conclude matters with a happy ending. Nevertheless, Americanah is a wise, perspicacious, funny, and always thought-provoking novel in which Adichie shows off her literary prowess, her impressive grasp of form and her global consciousness.

Read it: to immerse yourself in a skilful novelist’s view of politics, history and race relations.


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Wednesday inspiration from Harold Pinter

 pinter

“Never mind what it means. Get it down. Get it written. Perhaps you do not know what it means. Let others tell you what it means to them. It is your story; it is all you have. Tell it. Write it down. It is suicidal to contemplate your meaning, your theme, your reason for being before a single jot is on a page. Get it on the page, and then you can play with it; revise it; sculpt it; abort it. But get it done. There is an awful lot of not getting it done going on right now.” –Harold Pinter/Interview with James Grissom/1997 – “Follies of God”.

“Follies of God” by James Grissom (Alfred A. Knopf), a book drawn from five days spent with Tennessee Williams and two decades spent with those people he claimed helped him to matter and to write. ww.jamesgrissom.blogspot.com


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Settling old scores: Saul Bellow’s Heart

greg bellow

Pictured – Greg Bellow as a toddler in his father’s arms

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow    Bloomsbury    $26.99

Greg Bellow first heard of his father, Saul Bellow’s, death on the car radio. The media were informed before the family. At Saul Bellow’s funeral, the eulogies were given by luminaries such as author Martin Amis, Bellow’s literary “son”, but none of his own three sons were asked to contribute. Over the ensuing weeks, tributes flowed incessantly from writers, such as Philip Roth, who had been mentored by Bellow and by his many friends. So orchestrated were these testaments of public grief, that Greg Bellow wondered: “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?”

Greg Bellow’s memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart is a poignant cri de coeur of what it was like growing up in the shadow of that huge literary presence, and monumental ego. It’s a commonplace that just because you may be a great writer, you are not necessarily a great human being. Greg Bellow’s warts-and-all account of his father is refreshingly honest. Life was not easy with a man who was affectionate and easy to love but who expected much and often gave little in return. Greg Bellow recounts the many hours he spent as a child waiting for his father to finish writing in his locked study after being promised an outing that never eventuated. Saul’s Bellow’s gravestone simply states he was a “Writer”, not that he was also a “father”. Reading between the lines, it’s clear Greg Bellow ruefully understands where Saul’s priorities lay.

For a long time, Greg Bellow tried to separate his father’s public and private personae. This was partly out of respect for Saul’s privacy but also his own peace of mind. The older son of Saul Bellow’s first marriage, Greg’s early years were spent out of the spotlight, as his father struggled to write. But after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Saul Bellow’s star rose. By the time Herzog was published in 1964, he was not only world-famous but hailed by Time magazine as an icon of American literature. As Martin Amis wrote in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” Bellow’s Nobel Prize win in 1976 cemented his greatness.

For Greg, Saul’s rise to international prominence saw him change from the “young Saul” – warm, left-leaning, bohemian, tolerant – to “old Saul” – grumpy, conservative, arrogant and reactionary. It was the time of anger and recrimination. Greg, who had absorbed tolerance and liberalism in his childhood from both parents, could not accept “old Saul’s” right-wing views and the two were estranged for a time. Greg was also furious that Saul did not attend the marriage of his own granddaughter, Greg’s daughter Juliet. It was only later that he realised Saul was trying to cover up the muddle-headness that was besetting him in old age and did not wish to make a public appearance. Though reconciled at the end, their relationship was frequently a bumpy one.

This is also a memoir of justification – Greg is very keen to point out his own financial independence (he was a successful psychotherapist for over 40 years).  This is particularly relevant in view of his complex family history: Saul Bellow married five times. There were sons from the first three marriages, and a daughter with his last wife, Janis, forty years his junior. Janis became the executor of Saul’s estate after his death in 2005 and unpleasant family feuds and legal battles ensued amongst the siblings. Greg makes it clear he wanted no part in this and that he loved his father for himself alone. Part of the rationale for writing this book was to put forward his own personal view of a brilliant and difficult man.

There are many anecdotes in this memoir that shed light on Bellow’s personality: crying in the car after yet another row with his own father; the spirited, extended family dinners with everyone speaking Yiddish and talking at once; even the amusing snapshot of Saul’s sister falling asleep during the Nobel Prize ceremony, so interminably long were the speeches. Yet Greg Bellow never reconciles himself to the fact that as a public figure, his father was shared by many others, and this memoir quivers frequently on the verge of resentment.

This, then, is his final judgement of his father: “He was a man who lived for a singular creative purpose; a man who struggled with his deepest emotions; an author touched with literary genius; an authority with wisdom to impart; a father recently passed away; a father largely absent but emotionally present; and a man, father, and husband who promised more than he could deliver. And I was his little boy: a boy who felt deeply cared about; a grown son deeply influenced by the kind of love he received; and a man wrestling with the challenges of relating to a difficult father who walked away from shared family ideals.”


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Trees in the Pavement by Jennifer Anne Grosser

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Trees in the Pavement by Jennifer Anne Grosser      Christian Focus Publications, via Amazon $7.99 (US)

e-mail: info@christianfocus.com  http://www.christianfocus.com

I was delighted when fellow blogger Jennifer Anne Grosser asked me to review her book, Trees in the Pavement. However, when I began reading, I was concerned as to whether I was the right person to write about it. The book – which is aimed at children and young adults – is published by Christian Focus Publications, an organisation which is obviously keen to promote the Christian message throughout the world.  Jenn is the daughter of pastor/missionaries and has herself worked with refugees. Although she has no religious axe to grind, it’s clear her  themes revolve around finding meaning through physical, spiritual or philosophical displacement.

Now, my religious views are my business and we are all entitled to our own beliefs; so I decided that I would only review Trees in the Pavement if  the novel’s focus was neither overtly “preachy”, nor so couched in religious dogma that it would be inaccessible to a wide audience.

What I found was an insightful book that – if it preaches anything at all – endorses religious tolerance and inter-racial understanding. In fact, I think it should be on a general curriculum reading list for Secondary schools, so that they can discuss these very important topics.

Zari and her family flee to England from war-torn Kosovo in the 1990s. They are Muslims and find it hard at first to mix with their ethnically diverse neighbours. Zari – who is 4 or 5 when the novel begins – meets the Jamaican family next door, Pakistani  and British children at school and Jennifer Grosser pushes political correctness aside to talk about the conflicts that ensue between the races due to ignorance, stereotyping or misunderstanding.  Through Zari’s eyes, the reader sees the varied, cosmopolitan and multi-racial society of Britain today. When Zari’s elder sister Jasmina decides to become a Christian, huge gulfs open up within the family and threaten to split it apart.

Written in a deceptively simple style that mimics Zari’s childlike grasp of the world, Trees in the Pavement may be aimed at a young audience but it makes us all think about the nature of prejudice, acceptance and compromise. Yes, you could say that Grosser’s message is a Christian one of “love thy neighbour”.  But the take-home message is universal – whatever an individual’s beliefs, all races are part of an inter-dependent Brotherhood of Man.

Grosser is currently seeking representation for Favored One, a novel about a well-known woman in First century Israel.

Anyone interested in seeing Trees in the Pavement come out in digital format, can indicate their interest in the comments on the “That’s a Jenn Story” page on Jenn’s blog (http://thatsajennstory.wordpress.com/stories-for-sale/).


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Pageturners: August and June podcasts now online!

A little glitch saw the June podcast of Pageturners postponed, so I’m really pleased to bring you 2 this month. Click: http://www.3mbs.org.au/?q=programs-on-demand to access the podcasts!

Programs On Demand

Enjoy our Programs On Demand at your convenience by downloading them to or streaming directly from your favorite POD or media player.

Most 3MBS PODs are contained in stereo MP3 files. Some are quite large and may take a little time to download.

 3mbs

Pageturners – Episode 5

Pageturners is 3MBS’ monthly book program. In this episode, Dina Ross talks to two Australian authors: Graeme Simsion about the extraordinary success of his novel The Rosie Project and Fiona Capp about her novel Gottland.

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Pageturners – Episode 6

In this episode, Dina reviews Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser and John Collins looks at Melbourne writer Stephen Caroll’s latest novel. We also feature an interview with Monica Trapaga, author of A Bite of The Big Apple.

You can always stay up to date with Dina’s blog.


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The Map and the Territory: Infinite Boston and David Foster Wallace

I hope you enjoy this post by Adam Kelly, published in The Millions, as much as I did. Anyone grappling with the complexities of Foster Wallace’s work will find it enlightening and very much a key to deeper understanding.

Essays

The Map and the Territory: Infinite Boston

  By posted at 12:00 pm on August 13, 2013   1

Ennet House Drug and Alchohol Recovery House

1. On the overcast morning of February 23rd, snow still on the ground, I embarked with the students in my Harvard undergraduate seminar on a walking tour of Cambridge and Boston. We began at Harvard Square, walked northeast to Inman, south along Prospect St. to Central Square, and took the “T” out to the Warren St. station in the Allston/Brighton area. We toured the grounds of the Brighton Marine Health Center, and carried on up the hill to the surroundings of St. Gabriel’s Monastery, closed since 1978. From there we gazed back down at the imposing Brighton High School, and beyond that surveyed a vista of the city, and the territory we had crossed.

coverThe occasion for this outing was the inaugural Infinite Boston tour, a journey orientated by sites and events described in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. I borrow the phrase “Infinite Boston” from William Beutler’s website of that name, described on its homepage as “a limited-run essay series about the real-life Boston area locations” featured in Wallace’s novel. The site is choc-full of excellent photographs and illuminating descriptions of the various streets and spaces of the book. When confirmation came that I would be teaching “David Foster Wallace and his Generation” in the Spring semester, I contacted Mr. Beutler to see if he would be interested in leading an official tour. It turns out that he does not live in Boston, but in D.C. Instead, he kindly put me in touch with another Bill, Bill Lattanzi – Cambridge resident, playwright, science documentary maker, and part-time MIT professor – who undertook the pre-planning and did the honors in fine style on the day.

coverI myself am not a native of Boston, or even of the U.S.: I am Irish-born, and hail from Dublin, a city inextricably bound up with another great twentieth-century novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Many visitors to my hometown are attracted by their reading of this modernist masterpiece – it’s a rare novel that can make a city famous, as a friend recently commented to me – and those cultural tourists are presented on arrival with a variety of tour options based on Joyce and his most famous book. A well-known quip about Ulysses has it that were Dublin to be destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the meticulous detail that makes up the novel. The same may not quite be true of Infinite Jest. The “metro Boston area” described in the novel is reconstructed in part as a future fantasia, and with the exception of Don Gately’s jaunty drive crosstown in a pimped-up Ford Aventura, no character comes close to covering the city as thoroughly as Leopold Bloom does in his perambulations. Nonetheless, Wallace’s vision, like Joyce’s, is significantly rooted in the vagaries and possibilities of place. This is something I came gradually to appreciate while living in Cambridge and re-reading Infinite Jest for our seminar.

I have never thought of myself as having a particularly nuanced or consciously deep relationship to place. I don’t consider this a character flaw, exactly, more a trait that occasionally causes bemusement in me and mild exasperation in some of my friends, the more observant of whom might want to draw my attention to the contours of a street corner or an unusual pattern of plant life. In rural surroundings, I often find myself afflicted by the kind of gentle anxiety I imagine is common to the post-Romantic mind, whereby an abiding connection to nature is more regularly displaced by awareness of the absence of an abiding connection to nature. Even in cities, those hubs of the modernist spirit, I am capable of walking around lost in thought and the realm of ideas, barely recognizing the details small and large that make up urban life. This can be the case even upon visiting a city for the first time, when I should, in theory, be most open to fresh realities. But my natural affinity for theory over reality, for the ideal over the material, is probably what inspires the thing I like most about exploring a new city: studying and internalizing its representation on a map. Like some overly literalist version of the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, I need a cognitive map before I can begin to appreciate fully the territory that has inspired its construction.

This want of affinity for the materiality of place is no doubt a contributing factor to the kind of literary criticism I write. The essays on Wallace I have published to date, for instance, have discussed his work mainly in the context of the history of ideas. I have written on the new kind of sincerity embodied in Wallace’s fiction, on his use of dialogue to explore logical, political, and cultural ideas, and on the challenges posed by his fiction to the norms of contemporary criticism. What I lacked before coming to the U.S. was an appreciation of the rootedness of his work in a specific geography. Before living in Cambridge, in other words, I had experienced only how the map could shape the territory. Re-reading Infinite Jest, and participating in Infinite Boston, allowed me to see how the territory might conversely underpin the literary map.

2. This recurrent language of map and territory is drawn, of course, from Infinite Jest itself, and particularly the famous Eschaton scene that takes place at Enfield Tennis Academy. Our tour took place on a Saturday, and for class two days later we read a long stretch through the middle of the novel, beginning with Eschaton and culminating in Gately’s brutal fight with the Canadian gangsters that occurs outside the novel’s other primary institutional site, Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic). At nearly 300 pages, this constituted approximately twice the usual reading for a class, the previous week’s meeting having been annexed by Presidents Day. In conjunction with Infinite Boston, however, these sections of the novel provided much food for thought and classroom discussion on the question of place.

Eschaton is “an atavistic global-nuclear-conflict game,” but one renowned among the students who play it for its theoretical purity. It takes place on four contiguous tennis courts, which, as one of my own students put it in his mid-term paper, “represent a concrete war territory but are themselves only theoretical in nature.” This fragile distinction between theory and reality – an opposition that, owing to the representational quality of the Eschaton game itself, does not fold neatly onto map vs. territory – comes under pressure when snow begins to fall during the game. In response to the young participant JJ Penn’s suggestion that the snow should alter the calculations that constitute the game’s action, Michael Pemulis, an older student and “sort of eminence grise of Eschaton,” is apoplectic: “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” Pemulis might well be clear in his own mind on the rules, and on the necessary axioms that allow for the rules to apply – “Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game” – but all this “metatheoretical fuss” is both negated and sublated when Evan Ingersoll attacks Ann Kittenplan with a direct hit that he also claims is a strike against the world superpower she represents.

coverOf course, Wallace is drawing attention here to the unreal idealities of global nuclear conflict during the Cold War, where game theoretic strategies often took precedence over the lives and concerns of real human beings. But the Eschaton scene is also a comment upon the role of fiction itself as a form of representation that takes the world as its object without becoming identical with it, or even being tied to it. The fact that real events such as falling snow and inter-player fights can “threaten the game’s whole sense of animating realism” tells us something important about the artifice of realism, but it also tells us something about place, and how it gets transmuted into fiction. In his entertaining new preface to the just re-published Signifying Rappers – wherein I learned that some of my favorite haunts in Cambridge were also David Wallace’s back in the summer of 1989 – Wallace’s co-author Mark Costello offers one reading of the way place fed into his friend’s writing in that book: “There’s a bounce in the prose that captures some of the fun, god-damnit fun, to be found around Boston that summer.” This sentiment locates the affective quality of place in the experience of the writer himself: a fun time generates bouncy prose. But the “elegant complexity” of the Eschaton scene teaches us that there are also other, and perhaps more interesting, ways to consider the relationship between writing and place.

coverIn Wallace’s personal library held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, there is a book called A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. A collection edited by Michael Martone, it dates from 1988, and Wallace might have encountered it soon after its publication or later in his career. If his markings are to be our guide, however, it seems clear that Wallace only ever read one essay from the book. This is the contribution by Martone himself, a short meditation entitled “The Flatness.” On the opening page, Wallace underlines some isolated words and phrases, but the only full sentence he marks is the third one: “The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents.” This sounds, of course, like a Borgesian idea, and Wallace was a committed fan of Borges: in a review of a biography of the Argentinian author, Wallace called him “one of the best and most important fiction writers of the last century.” Nonetheless, the metaphysical conceit Martone invokes is in this case simply the precursor to a more aesthetic conceit, one that clearly attracted Wallace’s attention. Five pages later, in the final paragraph of the essay, he underlines the following sentences: “I grew up in a landscape not often painted or photographed. The place is more like the materials of the art itself – the stretched canvas and paper.” Beside this, Wallace writes in the margin, “Not object but medium.”

coverPlace not as the object of art, but as its medium. If we take this complicated idea seriously, then the “bounce in the prose” inspired by the writer’s subjective experience of place becomes supplemented, and even transcended, by a stronger claim to the centrality of place as the objective medium for art. And a medium is not only the canvas or paper on which art gets created; it can also be, as Marshall McLuhan informed us, the message itself. Moreover, for an advanced artist like Wallace, the medium is what provides the norms and characteristics whose exploration and expansion become part of his project, become part of what his art is attempting to articulate and express. Here the Boston of Infinite Jest (and its Midwestern counterpart, the flat Peoria of The Pale King) becomes the medium without which there would be no message, becomes the real boundary that limits but also enables the acts of the artist’s transformative imagination.

3. As we travelled from stop to stop on the tour, Bill alternated his commentary among relevant anecdotes from Wallace’s biography, his own reminiscences from 1980s Cambridge, and passages from Infinite Jest. Outside the Cambridge Hospital, he read aloud the scene of Poor Tony Krause’s post-seizure release back into the world. On the green line from Park St. to Warren St., I read the passage about Mike Pemulis’s drug run to obtain samples of “the incredibly potent DMZ” (the reactions of the train’s non-affiliated passengers remain unrecorded). Standing in the grounds of Brighton Marine Health Center, the students took turns reading the novel’s descriptions of the “seven exterior Units on the grounds of Enfield Marine Public Health Hospital.” Here we could remark on Wallace’s imaginative fervor in inventing the grim activities of the various Units – #1 treats “Vietnam vets for certain very-delayed stress disorders,” #4 houses “Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions,” #5 is a home for catatonics – and simultaneously test the accuracy of his descriptions of the “seven moons orbiting a dead planet” against the realities of the place that inspired those descriptions. All of these buildings we could see for ourselves, in other words, so that characters’ movements could be imagined, and their sightlines reconstructed, with a new awareness of the possibilities the place provided.

Bill and I had agreed in advance that we should end the morning by each choosing a favorite passage from the novel to read. Bill selected the scene of Mario Incandenza’s nighttime walk down the Enfield Hill to the grounds of Ennet House. When I sat down the following evening to finish the reading for class, I found myself entranced as never before by this scene, which directly precedes Gately’s fight. In keeping, perhaps, with my relative obliviousness to place, I don’t consider myself to have much of a creative visual imagination as a reader (something my fiancée likes to poke fun at me for), and so having a clear picture of Ennet House from the day prior enriched my experience in unanticipated ways. With the “real” Ennet House in my mind’s eye, I could better appreciate Mario’s warm feelings for the “crowded and noisy” authenticity of the halfway house, a place “where people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” I could see the darkness surrounding the buildings, the lights illuminating the residents of the house, the ramp on which they go outside to smoke, Mario smiling grotesquely but tenderly as he and his police lock stand tilted forward on the cusp of the hill.

For my own concluding contribution to the tour, I chose a more ostensibly abstract passage, which I read aloud as we stood on the hill by the old monastery, overlooking the high school and the city:

Schtitt’s thrust, and his one great irresistible attraction in the eyes of Mario’s late father: The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.

I don’t necessarily think that Wallace agreed with Gerhardt Schtitt’s analysis of tennis or of the self. The German coach’s “Old World patriarchal” values retain a whiff of fascism, something the capitalization of State alludes to here. Schtitt’s neo-Hegelian understanding of the relationship between self and other also denies the true existence of another who is not simply the occasion for meeting the self; this position is uncomfortably close to what Wallace will elsewhere say he most fears, the trap of solipsism. Nevertheless, when it comes to emotionally affecting passages of philosophically inspired prose, Wallace has few equals in literary history. It is difficult for me to read, even silently, those closing sentiments – “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same…” – without being moved both intellectually and emotionally, without having my head throb heartlike, as Wallace suggested to his editor Michael Pietsch he wanted to achieve with Infinite Jest.

What finally interests me most about this passage, however, is the discussion of boundaries and limits it contains. One of Wallace’s most profound historical projects involved trying to convince his generation of Americans that they needed to revalue and reestablish boundaries; rather than individual freedom inhering in a lack of restrictions, limits could be understood as animating and enabling. The boundaries of a game, and the boundaries of a self, were clearly two kinds of limits that fascinated Wallace. But there are also the boundaries set by the tennis court itself, the medium through which this particular confrontation with the truth of limits occurs. It might be, then, that the most enabling boundaries for any writer are the boundaries of the places he or she inhabits and knows well, real territories transmuted in the writer’s mind into maps of new territories that are then opened for exploration by readers. It is a well-established fact about Wallace that forging a connection between writer and reader was for him a central aim. I have found, as a reader of Wallace, that this connection can be deepened and extended by a trip around the Boston of Infinite Jest, the writer’s canvas, his territory, his map and his medium, all at once.

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Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing

GERMANY-HUNGARY-LITERATURE-KERTESZ          michener

Imre Kertesz (above) found writing an angst-ridden struggle but James Michener (below) relished every syllable

I’ve just started writing a new play after a fallow year spent licking my wounds when a promising commission failed to materialise into a theatrical production. I know, I’m too thin skinned; finding time to write has also been my greatest problem: when you work and have a family, time slips by before you know it. Of course, this is a convenient excuse. Why not get up two hours earlier and write before work? How about stopping writing this blog and turning out four pages of dialogue instead? The fact is, for me journalism and blog posts are fun, flow easily and I love sharing them, but I find creative writing tough going. I’ll make any excuse – even doing the ironing, for crying out loud, a job I loathe, rather than sitting down in front of that anxiety-producing blank page.

It made me wonder about other writers’ procrastination techniques, and their attitude to writing. Years ago, I interviewed the playwright Tom Stoppard for my university magazine and he told me that although he loved the rush of adrenalin when his writing was pouring out of him, the hardest thing for him was to get started. “I’ll do anything to avoid sitting down at my desk”, he said. “I’ll drink five cups of coffee. I’ll read the paper. If I really want to avoid writing, I’ll even clean my tennis shoes!”

He’s not alone, but not all writers  hesitate. Some relish the act of creation. “I love writing”, said James Michener. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”  For writers with a strong ego like Saul Bellow, writing was a manifestation of self-belief and “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  Similarly, Martin Amis refutes the idea of the struggling writer and the pain of writer’s block, stating he follows a “throb, a glimmer, an act of recognition” that turns, inevitably, into a novel.  For John Barth, the creative muse is awoken following an intriguing ritual which includes filling his Parker fountain pen, opening up a 40 year-old ring-bind folder and inserting crisp pages of lined paper and wearing wax earplugs to banish external noise. Writers are also notoriously superstitious. In the delightful film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare rubs his quill between his hands, spits three times and practises his signature before writing Act I of Romeo and Juliet. We can only guess if he did this, of course, but we do know Roald Dahl used to rug up to write in his freezing garden shed in the depths of winter because only when he felt uncomfortable did his imagination roam freely. To each his own.

Writing is a hard task master, an unforgiving mistress. “You must write every single day of your life”, Ray Bradbury urges us sternly. (He obviously never got up at 2am to feed a crying baby, nor spent a day with a sick toddler who vomits every half hour.) Sometimes, your best intentions go by the wayside. “I love deadlines”, quips Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” As  Ernest Hemingway put it with characteristic terseness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If only there was a blueprint to follow, things might be easier, but W Somerset Maugham dashes even this faint hope: “There are three rules for writing a novel”, he asserts. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Even the prolific Neil Gaiman recognises the frequent futility of the task. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job”, he muses. “It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins… This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”  The outcome is always uncertain and you’ll probably agree with Michael Cunningham that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  You only hope you’ll avoid writing the kind of novels, as Charles Dickens observes in Oliver Twist, “of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

So why stick pins in yourself? Are all writers stark, raving mad? Yes, says George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  As for Imre Kertész, whenever he sat down to write, “it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure.”   Again, Hemingway recognises the folly of the writing process. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Still, when the work is completed, there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction and relief.  “I hate writing”, Dorothy Parker confides, “I love having written.” And then maybe, just maybe, you might have made a difference. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” advises Toni Morrison.  After all, as Ishmael Reed notes wisely – “no-one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”

Back to the drawing board. I’ve run out of excuses. I’d better crack on with Scene 4. To quote Neil Gaiman once more: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”