Thursday, May 29, 2014

London performance Sat 31 May: Get off my back will you and give someone else a chance!

The UEA Library still hasn't managed to bring in my Netherlands book, so here's an advert for an event I'm doing this Saturday:

Jay Bernard and Evan Ifekoya present "Get off my back will you and give someone else a chance", a workshop and evening event about queer activism, art and performance.

Date: Saturday 31 May 2014
Time: Workshop at 2pm, performance 7:30-10:30pm
Venue: Institute of Contemporary Art, ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH
Free workshop, £5 for evening performance

During the day we're running a free workshop based on the work of David Robilliard, whose retrospective is currently on at the ICA. We'll discuss the state of LGBTQI affairs, radical approaches to social change and the way artists have used their work to tackle injustice. There will be writing, discussion and performance. All participants will have the opportunity to devise a piece that will then be performed at the evening event in the Theatre space alongside a host of other great artists:

Ollie O'Neill
Ng Yi-Sheng
Olumide Popoola
Evan Ifekoya
Andra Simons

Alongisde the performances we'll be showing two short films that challenge the political and aesthetic status quo: "Feed/Kill" by Tejal Shah and "AfroOdyssey III" by Adejoke Tugbiyele

Book here:

And find out more on our facebook page:

The workshop is free and begins at 2.00pm (all participants get free entry to the evening event)

The evening event is £5 and begins at 7.30pm.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book 150, Germany: "The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Guess what? We're now in Western Europe! And with a blessedly short book, too!

For a while I'd been thinking of doing Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, as my Read the World... Proportionally! post recommended. But that's 576 pages, in three volumes in the UEA Library. 

Given that I'm cultivating my fiction writing now, how much better to go with a classic of the Romantic era, Goethe's big breakout novel, the one that turned him into an overnight celebrity and inspired a slew of copycat suicides in yellow pants and blue jackets... 

Seriously, some sociologists call it the Werther Effect. Trigger warnings may be necessary.

The story's presented as a profile of a dysfunctional young man, collated by an invisible narrator, consisting of his letters, arranged by date, accompanied by a final series of notes surrounding the circumstances of his suicide.

Werther himself is an upper-class young man who's just secured a position in court. He's also a poet, of a rather excitable nature - his opening sentences are, "How happy I am to be away! My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of Man!" And he's spending some time in the village of Garbenheim, revelling in the serenity of the rural surroundings, delighting in the simplicity of the peasants and their children, declaring that he needs no other books to stimulate his soul than Homer and Ossian.

But of course, he's invited to a stately home where he falls in love a pretty dark-haired girl named Lotte, although he's been expressly told not to, since she's already engaged. (Yeah, he's a bit of an idiot.)

The rest of the book is mostly him going nuts over this girl. It actually has a surprising amount in common with Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman. He goes around explaining his philosophy of Romanticism and the sensations to all the well-tempered Enlightenment folks around him, including Lotte's fiancé, Albert, whom I do not blame for lending him a set of pistols at the end of the story. (He'd seen Werther experimenting with the guns in suicidal contexts before, mind you.)

What I do wonder is how satirical a figure Werther is supposed to be. Is his justification of suicide a thought experiment on Goethe's behalf, or is he a genuine mouthpiece for Goethe's own thoughts? It's said that the novella was written really quickly - so was it written in the heat of passion, giving voice to emotions he had felt unable to express in polite society? None of which precludes a self-consciousness, an awareness that one is being absurd.

I've recently watched Kyle Kallgren's Brows Held High review of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, and he was pointing out that Shakespeare's success with R+J is that he manages to make the giddy-headedness of teenage passion feel genuine - not that he validates it, with all the bloodshed that ensues. And I guess that's what this book does.

And on a side note - how sensible is Lotte? One of the first things we see her do is calming everyone when a thunderstorm surrounds the house party: all the ladies are scared out of their wits, but she forces them to play a counting game, in which anyone who loses count has their ears boxed. Which is a weirdly violent way of establishing order, but it works, and she admits herself that she was one of the most frightened (did they not understand how thunderstorms work?).

Why on earth would a level-headed woman like that put up with Werther? At the end of the book, after his suicide, it's stated that there are fears for her life. Did she pick up hysteria from her gentleman friend? Though I suppose a lot of people would be nervous wrecks if someone they knew shot themselves in their house. Even now.

My fellow UEA coursemate Dani Redd assured me that this would be a good read, by the way. I guess it is - but more in a freak show kind of way. Romantics, man. They so crazy.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
'Ah, you sensible people,' I cried, with a smile. 'Passions! Intoxication! Insanity! You are so calm and collected, so indifferent,  you respectable people, tut-tutting about drunkenness and holding unreasonable behaviour in contempt, passing by like the priest and thanking God like the Pharisee that you are not as other men. I have been intoxicated more than once, my passions have never been far off insanity, and I have no regrets: because I have come to realize, in my own way, that people have always felt a need to decry the extraordinary men who accomplish great things, things that seemed impossible, as intoxicated and insane. How intolerable it is in everyday life, too, to hear them say, the moment anyone does something remotely free or noble or out of the ordinary, "The fellow's drunk, he's off his head!" You should be ashamed of yourselves, you sensible people, you sages!'

Next book: Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven, from the Netherlands.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book 149, Lithuania: "Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections" by Czesław Miłosz

We’re at the last of the Baltic states – and the end of Northern Europe! Woohoo!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Miłosz is a Polish poet – he wrote in Polish, lived in Warsaw (before his defection to the USA) and was a cultural attaché for Poland, for crying out loud.

But it turns out that he always identified as both a Polish and a Lithuanian. He was born in Vilnius, which he knew as Wilno, at a time when the city was under the Polish government. Polish-speakers and Lithuanian-speakers lived alongside each other in his youth (along with Russian and Hebrew and Yiddish speakers), attending different schools and participating in different communities. And the memory of that city haunted him throughout his entire poetic career.

Miłosz wasn’t an obvious choice, of course. Back in Singapore, I thought I was going to do Ričardas Gavelis’s novel Vilnius Poker; scanning WorldCat in Norwich I thought I’d do an inter-library loan for Selected Lithuanian Short Stories from the University of Essex.

But he was a Nobel Prize winner and one of the Righteous Among the Nations (he saved a bunch of Jews during World War Two), plus I’d never read anything by him before.

And there were loads of other Polish writers I could read for Poland. Why not choose this, a volume of essays named for his memory of his childhood in the boulevards of Vilnius/Wilno?

Well, the reason why not is because the book’s effing boring.

I don’t think I was the right reader for it – it seems to be for die-hard fans of Milosz’s poetry, who want every last scrap of wisdom from his mind, and so are willing to wade through esoteric monologues by him about obscure writers (Dwight Macdonald? Robinson Jeffers? Aleksander Wat?) just because they’re there.

And while the fragments of Miłosz’s poems scattered throughout the volume seem nice enough (I don’t quite grasp their transcendence, but that’s true of my relationship with many a great poet), his prose style is just so ambling and leached of any sense of humour or urgency or passion that I come away from it quite uncharmed.

Not that all the pieces here are without interest. You do get an awful lot of the texture of Vilnius/Wilno from the titular essay, “Beginning With My Streets”, and his dialogue with the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. 

Details of his own life leak through in the various transcripts of interviews with him, in “A Poet Between East and West”, and “The Sand in the Hourglass” – his discomfort with Californian hippie mysticism in the ‘60s and ‘70s; his simultaneous comfort with his role as a university lecturer to the same young Californians; his childhood pathos upon reading a condensed volume of James Fenimore Cooper’s works wherein he saw Natty Bumppo age from being a young vigorous Deerslayer to an old man Leatherstocking, bereft of his friends and the wilderness he loved so well. Also his constant surprise when amongst Nobel Laureates, expecting them to be otherworldly higher beings, as he suddenly remembers that he is one himself.

And some of his literary musings are pretty cool – his insistence that Dostoevsky must have been influenced by Swedenborg (he notes that Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment has a Lithuanian name). Plus his ruminations on the in-betweenness of culture for Central Europeans during the Cold War, caught between Russification and Americanisation.

Ah, but I suppose it’s his Nobel Lecture which is most moving and lucid. Go read it. In it, he considers this terrible tension in his role as a poet, wherein he desires to describe reality from an abstract distance yet with utter detail, rather as the hero of Nobel laureate Selma Lagerhof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils does when he flies above the earth. The brutality of the real world keeps getting in the way, he sighs – the horror of the Holocaust and the double horror that there are still those who deny it; the misery of exile and of the human rights crimes for whom dictators remain unpunished. “I hope you will forgive my laying bare a memory like a wound,” he says. “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.”

Ah, but I won’t leave you with just the pithy bits of Milosz. Here’s the end of his essay “On Creators”, which is both infuriatingly opaque and also inspiring with its last two sentences.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map Representative quote:

Some fifty years ago anyone who took a stand against ritual in praise of ritual, observing that, after all, it would lead only to sterility, to intellectual chaos, would have been labeled a reactionary, a defender of old-fashioned “content”. Alas, today one can prove to oneself experimentally what happens to the language of symbols and myths when it is deprived of its deepest reason for being and yet is honored as if nothing had gone wrong. He pursuit of a truth that is otherwise impossible to express used to be its raison d’être, and whatever names that truth might have borne, however much it may have been valued, a language that speaks to itself, with symbols and myths that mean nothing outside a particular closed system (a poem, a painting), gradually loses all its charm and receives its just deserts: indifference. The indifference of others – let us assume not of the creator himself. Thus, the result of the activity ceases to be its goal (for a result is in some sense objective and thus destined for others); the goal becomes the activity itself. It, too, is supposed to be rewarded by society.

“What then must we do?”
“Rethink everything from the beginning.”

Next book: Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, from Germany.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Broken Telephone, Saturday 14 June, 7:30pm

I'm reading at UEA Live in Norwich tomorrow!

Thursday 8th May, 7.15pm
Epic Studios, 112-114 Magdalen Street, Norwich, NR3 1JD

But since I imagine rather few of my readers are in Norwich, I'd also like to take the opportunity to advertise this event in London:

Poetry about (mis)communication, (mis)understanding, (mis)interpretation and human (mis)connections. What can go wrong, will go wrong.

Featuring words by Aaron Maniam, Jasmine Cooray, Jerrold Yam, Ng Yi-Sheng & Tania De Rozario.

This event runs in conjunction with Ghost on the Wire, curated by Gavin Maughfling and Suzanne De Emmony.

For some reason, all of us involved are from Singapore or, in the case of Jasmine Cooray, have recently taken part in residencies in Singapore.

Broken Telephone
Saturday, 14 June, 7:30pm
Bermondsey Project Space, 46 Willow Walk, London, SE1 %SF
Tube: London Bridge Burrow
Event page here