The Romance and Heartbreak of Writing in a Language Not Your Own: On Leonora Carrington

leonoracarrington3By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 2017

As a child, Leonora Carrington — painter, fabulist, incorrigible eccentric — developed the disconcerting ability to write backward with her left hand while writing forward with her right. This trick did not go over well with English convent school nuns. Between the world wars, Carrington was thrown out of one school after another for persistently odd behavior. When she came of age, she fled England — and her family’s fortune — for France and the Surrealists, for a life crammed with incident and adventure, occasional poverty and steady productivity. She died in Mexico City in 2011, at the age of 94, leaving behind paintings and stories full of strange, spectral charm, in which women undress down to their skeletons and a sociable hyena might venture out to a debutante ball, wearing the face of a murdered maid.

This year marks the centennial of her birth, and three of her books have just been reissued: THE COMPLETE STORIES (Dorothy, paper, $16); DOWN BELOW (New York Review Books, paper, $14), a memoir of her months in a mental institution in Spain; and THE MILK OF DREAMS (New York Review Children’s Collection, $15.95), her fables for children. Carrington never stopped writing with both hands; she is always telling two stories at once. “Leonora told me that every piece of writing she ever did was autobiographical,” her biographer Joanna Moorhead recalled. In her short story “The Oval Lady,” for example, the teenage Lucretia, who loathes her father (“I’d like to starve myself to death just to annoy him. What a pig”), is violently subdued by her nanny, who jams a bit between her teeth and climbs on top of the girl, clinging to her back while Lucretia wrecks the room. It’s a loose-limbed little exercise — Carrington is just flexing her imagination. But it is as truthful as it is playful; here is her childhood in miniature: the lifelong weirdness with food, the threat of institutionalization, the domineering father and his proxy, the nanny. (Carrington’s own nanny was dispatched on a warship to rescue her from an asylum in Spain to send her to another in South America.) Behind the special effects frequently lurks a fearful or desperate moment from her own life. As the most famous Carrington story goes, she once cut off the hair of a much loathed houseguest in the middle of the night and served it to him in an omelet in the morning. This is the best description of what it feels like to read her work: In the middle of the fluffy fairy tale, something bristles, something unpleasantly familiar, something human and frightening.

Carrington is also a member of a select group of writers — exophonic writers, they’re now called — who work outside their mother tongues. Her memoir, “Down Below,” has perhaps the most unusual translation story I’ve heard. After her first husband, the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, was sent to a concentration camp, Carrington suffered a nervous breakdown and began to believe that by purging she could purify the world. She was sent to an asylum in which treatment amounted to a form of torture: She had artificial abscesses induced in her thighs to keep her from walking and was administered drugs that simulated electroshock therapy. She first wrote of these experiences in English in 1942 and promptly lost the manuscript. Later, she told the story to friends in Mexico City, one of whom jotted it down in French. It was then translated back into English to be excerpted in a Surrealist journal in 1944. The blurriness in tone is partly intentional and partly, one suspects, a consequence of being much handled. Many of her pointed short stories were also written in her rudimentary French or Spanish. Her tentativeness with the languages accounts for the “delinquent pleasure of her voice,” Marina Warner writes in a new introduction to “Down Below.” “Unfamiliarity does not cramp her style; rather it sharpens the flavor of ingenuous knowingness that so enthralled the Surrealists.”

Sounds appealing, no? I tried my own hand at it, and first wrote the previous paragraph (slowly and unhappily) in Hindi, a language I’ve spoken all my life but rarely written in, and then translated it (slowly, with much cheating) into English. It was an unpleasant, embarrassing exercise, like being blindfolded and shoved into a strange room. Every direction I turned brought me into thudding collision with my limits. Writing can often feel like this — but rarely to such a painful degree. How puny is my vocabulary in Hindi, I realized, how muddled my thinking, how equivocal and hesitant I become; it’s as if something of myself as a child has been preserved there. To move back into English was a relief. Why would Carrington choose to hamstring herself like this? Why would anyone?

There are as many reasons as there are kinds of writers. Continue reading

Click Bait: On Diane Arbus

12-lede-diane-arbus.w750.h560.2xBy Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, June 1, 2017

“CAN I COME HOME WITH YOU?”

She’d approach you at Coney Island or Washington Square Park or on your way to work. “You look terrific,” she’d say—that was her phrase. You’d take her home; most people seemed to. You might take off your clothes, and sometimes she’d take off hers, too. She’d stalk off with her trophy: a photograph of you edged in darkness—as if seen through a keyhole—watching her warily. In the words of one biographer, you’d just been Arbused.

Almost from the beginning, Diane Arbus’s photographs were contentious for their blunt, some said cruel, depictions of her beloved “freaks”: twins, giants, dwarfs, drag queens. When she killed herself in 1971, the work became even more pathologized. She receives diagnoses in place of critical analyses. Her biographers handle her with tongs.

It’s not only her images and her lonely end that give people trouble. It’s what she prettily called her sexual adventures, which have come to light since her death in the accounts of her life by Patricia Bosworth, William Todd Schultz, and Arthur Lubow, whose Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer was published last year. Aside from photography, her adventures were her defining preoccupation. Sometimes they involved her subjects; she’d go home with people, shoot them, and sleep with them. Sometimes just strangers—a couple she followed to their Upper East Side apartment, a beautiful Puerto Rican boy she picked up on Third Avenue, a sailor sitting at the back of a Greyhound bus. Sometimes her adventures involved orgies. Sometimes, it’s said, her older brother.

Walker Evans called her a huntress—and she was as matter-of-fact about her predilections as her biographers are flustered. “She told me she’d never turned down any man who asked her to bed,” recalled one confidante at the time. “She’d say things like that as calmly as if she were reciting a recipe for biscuits.” Friends remembered her confessing compulsively or weeping while recounting these episodes. Others said she appeared dignified, coolly unafraid. They might all have been telling the truth. Her adventures were probably a combination of the desperate, dull, thrilling, numbing, humiliating—aren’t yours? But they’ve only ever been interpreted as tragic, as a symptom of depression and hideous loneliness, as proof that she was, in Schultz’s words, “a living suicide algorithm.”

Perhaps, perhaps not. Continue reading

A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores: On Ghachar Ghochar

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By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2017

Troubles — like ants — seldom walk alone. In GHACHAR GHOCHAR (Penguin, $15, paper), a new novella by the Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag, translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, a family is besieged by both and develops a taste for responding with imaginative cruelty. Sudden wealth only makes them more ruthless. “It’s true what they say — it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us,” the nameless narrator realizes, a little late in the day. “When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.”

This spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade, notable for a book in bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages. The Great Indian Novel has almost always referred to a particular kind of book: big, baggy, polyphonic and, crucially, written in English — “Midnight’s Children,” say, or “The God of Small Things.” Admirers of this austere little tale, who include Suketu Mehta and Katherine Boo, have compared Shanbhag to Chekhov. Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself.

The title is a nonsense phrase, meaning tangled beyond repair. Our narrator (who, with his excellent intentions and total lack of initiative, recalls Nick Carraway) hears it for the first time on his honeymoon. He has pounced on his new wife, Anita, in their hotel room, but can’t untie the drawstring of her sari’s petticoat. It’s all knotted up — ghachar ghochar, she says, reaching for a word from her childhood, a word invented by her little brother to describe a snarled kite string. The narrator is thrilled by this intimacy, to be welcomed into her secret language. In the morning, he gestures at the disheveled bedsheets, their entwined legs: ghachar ghochar.

All families are their own countries, with their own idioms, rites and taboos. Anita is not the only character who has grown up within the borders of a particular culture, yet when the narrator tries to share something of his own world, as new lovers will, Anita is understandably less charmed. To survive years of privation, his peculiar family has learned to move as one. The narrator can scarcely extricate himself in his own mind: “What can I say of myself that is only about me and not tied up with the others? Wherever I try to start, I quickly run into one of three women . . . each more fearsome than the other.” Everyone has a specific role. His uncle runs the family business, a spice packaging company. His fearsome mother and sister fight the family’s battles and keep his father, a co-owner of the business, appeased until he makes a will. The narrator’s job is to stay out of the way, mainly, “killing time with great dedication.”

Anita is repulsed by her new husband’s passivity and the family’s brutal, bullying tactics. “She would need to have lived through those earlier days with us,” the narrator laments. “When the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances. Without that reality behind her, it’s all a matter of empty principle.”

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The Charm of ‘The Idiot’: On Elif Batuman

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 2017

A strange thing about novels is how often, and strenuously, they proclaim the dangers of novel-reading. Consider the fates of our most famous bibliomaniacs. Don Quixote succumbs to delusions, debt and sundry humiliations. Emma Bovary to debt, seedy affairs and protracted death by arsenic. Catherine Morland, delusions. Mary Bennet, insufferable pedantry. Jo March — unforgivably — marriage to an insufferable pedant and surrender of all creative ambitions.

The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” They are about “the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.”

In “The Possessed,” Batuman detailed how her obsession with Russian novels carried her afield — to graduate school, to Samarkand and St. Petersburg, to mastering old Uzbek, with its 70 words for duck and 100 words for crying. A staff writer for The New Yorker, she continues to report from this territory, where political or romantic ideals battle it out with shabby realities, and her investigations are frequently sparked by fiction. Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” inspired an essay on head scarves; “Gone Girl,” a bleak and very funny piece on marriage.

“The Idiot” is Batuman’s new novel, and it follows a number of her entertaining broadsides on contemporary fiction. M.F.A. programs have propagated a puritan preoccupation with “craft,” she wrote in the London Review of Books in 2010, with whittling tidy, teachable, forgettable books while leaving the work of the novel — “the juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature” — to memoirs and essays. “For human interest, skillful storytelling, humor and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of ‘This American Life’ to be 99 percent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction.” “The Idiot,” a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book, is in many ways the embodiment of this essay. It lopes along like a highbrow episode of “Louie,” a series of silly, surreal, confident riffs about humiliations, minor and major. It is a rejoinder to the pressure on literature to serve as self-help, to make us empathetic or better informed, to be useful. Here, fiction’s only mandate is to exploit the particular freedom afforded by the form — to coast on the charm and peculiar sensibility of our narrator, Selin, “an American teenager, the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.”

Selin — the language-intoxicated, 6-foot-tall Russophile daughter of Turkish immigrants — arrives at Harvard in the mid-90s, almost appallingly innocent. In the year we spend with her, she flirts with one classmate, in her stilted fashion; smokes a few cigarettes; travels to Hungary to teach English; dances perplexedly at a club — “It went on and on, the dancing. I kept wondering why we had to do it, and for how much longer.” Mainly, she reads — but how she reads. Batuman is wonderful on the joy of glutting oneself on books. In “The Possessed” she describes devouring “Anna Karenina” sprawled on her grandmother’s “super-bourgeois rose-colored velvet sofa, consuming massive quantities of grapes” and tearing through Babel while baking an ill-fated Black Forest cake; her memories of the Red Cavalry sequence forever mingled with “the smell of rain and baking chocolate.” A dictionary is a fetish object in “The Idiot,” and Batuman conveys Selin’s all-night reading benders with druggy fervor. Her instincts are, in general, excellent — she is Selin, more or less — save the odd, unhappy decision to repurpose details, characters, conversations and even whole scenes from her previous book: judging a beauty contest of boys’ legs at a Hungarian summer camp, being given chase by a wild dog. Too often, the novel reads like a greatest-hits version of “The Possessed.”

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French Feminist Pulp That Spares No Pain: On Virginie Despentes

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 2016

“I AM WRITING as an ugly one for the ugly ones.” So begins “King Kong Theory,” the French writer and filmmaker ­Virginie Despentes’s agreeably dyspeptic feminist manifesto published in France in 2006 and America four years later, in a translation by Stéphanie Benson. Despentes offers the book as a love letter to her kin: the “too fat,” “too hairy,” “too masculine,” “women who don’t turn men on.” This is no ploy for pity, mind you. “I would never swap ­places,” she declares. “Being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.”

Who would disagree? A onetime enfant terrible of the French literary establishment, who went on to win the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2010, Despentes is perhaps best known for her notorious 2000 film “Baise-Moi,” based on her novel of the same name — “ ‘Thelma and Louise’ as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt,” in the words of one reviewer. But her real legacy lies in harrowing a genre all her own: the feminist pulp novel, gory and romantic screwball stories frequently featuring two well-armed, pissed-off women. One such novel, BYE BYE BLONDIE (The Feminist Press, paper, $17.95), will be released this month in a translation by Sian Reynolds, both singly and in a box set with “King Kong Theory” and the ­Renaudot-winning novel “Apocalypse Baby,” which was also translated by Reynolds and was published in America last year.

Despentes has become a kind of cult hero, a patron saint to invisible women: the monstrous and marginalized, the sodden, weary and wildly unemployable, the kind of woman who can scarcely be propped up let alone persuaded to lean in. “I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that — as a girl who doesn’t attract men — I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around,” she writes in “King Kong Theory.” “We have always existed, and never spoken. Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or to being loved by them.” These are the very women she creates: Manu and Nadine, who cheerfully carve up rapists and bad tricks in “Baise-Moi”; Gloria in “Bye Bye Blondie,” whose terrifying tantrums frighten away her lovers; Lucie and the Hyena in “Apocalypse Baby,” private investigators who spy on the wayward daughters of the rich. Her heroines are plain and very powerful; they are Roman candles, agents of chaos.

Despentes’s work is frequently situated within a ­tradition of French extremist art that examines sex — particularly violent sex — with a kind of Flaubertian detachment. Think of the Marquis de Sade; “Story of O”; Georges Bataille’s novels; Catherine Millet’s memoir, “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”; the films of Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis. The sex in the film version of “Baise-Moi” is unsimulated and, to most people’s tastes, not very pretty (gun, anus). Yet “the point is not to be shocking,” Despentes has insisted in interviews, “but to change the shape of things.” This is the idealism that is so often overlooked in her work — she makes the hidden violence explicit, and almost always leaves open the possibility of a happy ending, however unhinged. It’s a commitment to redemption that reminds you that the novels directly channel the life; there’s nothing arid, nothing emptily philosophical in her considerations. Continue reading

The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’

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Illustration by Javier Jaen

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016

FOR MOST OF her life, Virginia Woolf suffered from what she called “looking-glass shame,” an aversion to seeing herself in mirrors. She wrote about it late in her career, not long before her suicide, recalling that the trouble began with one particular mirror. It hung in the hall of her family home, and when she was about 6, her half brother Gerald Duckworth lifted her onto a nearby table and put his hands under her clothes.

Woolf’s other half brother, George Duckworth, also began molesting her a few years later, paying her almost nightly visits for a time. She would go on to speak and write publicly about the abuse, which continued into her 20s — even confronting George — but mirrors continued to distress her. “It is so difficult,” she wrote, with uncharacteristic and moving awkwardness, “to give any account of the person to whom things happen.”

The question of what posture to take toward our own pain is unexpectedly complicated. How do we understand our own suffering — with what words and to what ends? Does great suffering always diminish us? These are the kinds of currents swirling around the word “survivor,” the increasingly popular term for people who have experienced sexual violence. Commonly used to describe those who had endured the Holocaust, the word was picked up by feminist groups organizing against the sexual abuse of children in the 1980s and has since broadened in scope and gone mainstream. At the Academy Awards in February, Lady Gaga performed her Oscar-nominated song for “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape, accompanied by 50 men and women who had been assaulted, their arms painted with words like “survivor.” A day later, she spoke out about being raped as a teenager. “51, surviving and thriving,” she captioned a group photograph on Instagram. On social media, people post messages of support to themselves or others with the hashtag #survivorloveletter. “You are not what they took from you,” one woman writes to her younger self. “You are the monument of survival and recovery you erected in its place … you are a queen.”

The word has caught on with law enforcement, the Department of Justice and the White House Task Force on campus safety: “We are here to tell sexual-assault survivors that they are not alone,” its first report announced in 2014. A “survivors’ rights act” intended to “empower survivors to make more informed decisions throughout the criminal justice process” and demanding longer preservation of rape kits, among other things, was recently introduced in the Senate.

The evolving legal definition of rape has always been a bellwether of changing attitudes to race and gender, and the legitimacy of “survivor” signals a subtle but important shift in thinking about sexual violence. The historian Estelle B. Freedman has argued that the story of rape in America “consists in large part in tracking the changing narratives that define which women may charge which men with the crime of forceful, unwanted sex and whose accounts will be believed.” But, with a few exceptions, there have been few historical records of how victims of violence have named and understood their own experiences.

After all, for much of history, the “good” rape victim, the “credible” rape victim has always been a dead one, a serviceable symbol of defiled innocence around whom a group can rally — a suicide like Lucretia, whose rape catalyzed the founding of the Roman Republic, or any of the Catholic Church’s patron saints of rape victims (none of whom, incidentally, were raped; they martyred themselves instead). In literature, women have been ingeniously silenced: In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” they’re turned into birds and trees. One has her tongue cut out to keep her from testifying — a grisly and beloved trope that reappears everywhere from “Titus Andronicus” to “The World According to Garp.”

But beginning in the 1970s, books like “Kiss Daddy Goodnight,” “I Never Told Anyone” and “The Courage to Heal,” which collected first-person narratives of women who had experienced incest and child sexual abuse, brought the issue to the fore of public consciousness. Continue reading

On the Literature of Terrorism

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Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, May 3

THE WOMAN IN the photograph doesn’t look frightened, even though she has reason to be; on the other side of the crumbling wall behind her, a small boy is pointing a big gun at someone just outside the frame. Something in her posture, however, the way she cranes her head to look at the boy, suggests impatience more than anything else. She’s on her way home from shopping, it seems, and carrying a large purse and a pale, heavy object — a ­cauliflower? She’s standing on rubble, but her clean white sandals and beautiful bare legs gleam.

This is a favorite image of mine, a snapshot of unknown provenance, supposedly taken during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, 15 years of fighting, that pulverized much of the capital, leaving 150,000 people dead and more than 17,000 missing. It was a war that unleashed sustained and inventive terror, a war fought with child soldiers, and car bombs — 3,641 of them killed some 4,000 people. It is the preoccupation of the alarmingly prolific Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, whose novels are finally being translated into English, by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. The latest, the dreamlike and unhinged CONFESSIONS (New Directions, paper, $14.95), was published this spring.

What the sea was to Melville, terror is to Rabee Jaber. He knows its smell, its subtlest moods, its allure and tedium — how the sight of a child soldier, say, can provoke more annoyance than fear. In 18 novels written in about as many years, he’s traced how terror has remade his country by way of displacement and forced migration through the 18th and 19th centuries and into the present day. “The Mehlis Report,” his first novel to appear in English, was published in Lebanon in 2005, the very year it covers, and follows the aftershocks of the assassination of the prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing, which prompted an investigation by the United Nations led by a German judge, Detlev Mehlis. “Confessions,” a slender book with a high body count, is set in the middle of the civil war, in the thick of kidnappings and ambushes on refugee camps, when a child’s bag of marbles turns out to be, horrifyingly, a cache of human eyes.

Of course, the figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful? But with a few notable exceptions like “Secret Son,” by Laila Lalami, and the richly researched “Harbor,” by Lorraine Adams, there was a series of ­belly flops from our major writers. The fictional terrorist remained a creation of both condescension and envy, a tissue of projection, anxiety and stereotype informed by little curiosity or context. John Updike infamously relied on “The Koran for Dummies” while writing his 2006 ­novel “Terrorist,” which imagined an American high school student of Irish and Egyptian descent who becomes a suicide bomber.

What makes Jaber so unusual is his indifference to terrorists. He’s not curious about what impels them — he rarely bothers to even name them; they’re figures of vague dread rather than glamour. Continue reading