Context N°14

by Anne Burke

We here at Dalkey Archive Press were honored to be invited to St. Petersburg this summer to participate in the Summer Literary Seminar writers workshops (see page 24). Very interesting experience. I am not good at making penetrating comments about other countries or peoples, but this I can say about the Russians, at least those of St. Petersburg: the women are very attractive, and the men are lumpish. Other observations: it was not unusual to see men drinking bottles of beer at 9:30 in the morning on their way to work; the Russians (perhaps for obvious reasons) tend to start the workday rather late, especially the publishers; there is a bitter rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg writers, the nature of said controversy escaping me; there are also conflicts over what is seen as the “new” Russian writing and the “old” (the latter represented by Dalkey Archive-published titles); beware the police; the tour of one of Dostoyevsky’s apartments was not worth the price nor the effort (I must have walked a mile to the place, my aching feet); the visit to Dostoyevsky’s grave was well worth the price (yes, you pay to enter the graveyard of the artists) and effort (fortunately the cemetery is nearly across from a subway station); there is something very eerie about the city, as though the buildings (some perfectly re-stored, others crumbling) have witnessed too many horrors in the streets over the past 300 years (cannibalism became rather commonplace during the three to four year siege by the Nazis during World War II); I believe that the book editors from Dalkey signed on a few titles and are looking at others (they do not let me participate a great deal in these delicate matters); I think they also signed on to do a few special issues of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, something else they do not let me near, one devoted to contemporary Russian writing and the other to South African (!!!!!) writing (I’ve no idea how South Africa came up in Russia, except that a few of the editors seemed to have been drinking rather too much).

From St. Petersburg we went on to London, via Frankfurt, where the security people might better be described as muggers. The food (that is, “food”) is awful at Frankfurt. The airport’s specialty seems to be pretzel sandwiches. . . . London is, well, London. Again, I was usually kept on the sidelines when delicate negotiations came up with publishers. According to the editors, I get argumentative. We met with John Calder, and an edition of a Pinget novel was arranged for. We also met with Peter Aytron at Serpent’s Tail (Dalkey may be doing some Goytisolo), and Catheryn at Marion Boyars, Max Eilenberg at Methuen, Christopher MacLehose at Harvill, and then off to Oxford to see Fiona Sampson, new editor of CONTEXT and editor of Orient Express, just out with her second issue devoted to Balkan literature (does anyone in the States know where the Balkans are?). . . . Nicholas Mosley is working on another novel, which he again says will be his last. . . . Deborah Levy is also working on a new novel. . . . We saw Michael Schmidt at Carcanet in Manchester (very nice offices). The British Arts Council funds his mostly poetry press at a level of $150,000 per year and lets him know in advance what his funding level will be. The Arts Council also has a special fund to support translations; unlike American funding agencies, the Council sees translations as a form of diversity. The people we met at the Council seemed to have read a great deal and knew their writers. . . . In the EU, this is the Year of Disabled People. One knew this because of the large posters in the underground (i.e., subways). Strangely, almost none of the underground is accessible to the disabled unless they are willing to be thrown down a few hundred concrete stairs, or in reverse, crawl up them. As in the States, all is appearance: call something “the year of” and you have somehow addressed the issue. . . . The London newspapers are filled with book reviews and book review sections. They take their books seriously, though everyone complains that publishing has now become completely commercialized. And Borders has invaded the island, with piles and piles of the same books. . . . The best bookstores in London are the London Review of Books store, Calder’s, and Foyles.

Then on to Ireland. Not much to say about this place. Drunks falling out of bars. Those not falling out were shouting obscenities to women passing by, who seemed quite pleased to return in kind. A dirty, mean place, with a dirty river running through it. No wonder Joyce and Beckett fled. We saw Aidan Higgins, Joyce’s and Beckett’s descendent. Cranky and funny and brilliant. The man knows how to write. . . . The Irish are a sullen, angry people. It was a relief to leave them to their bitterness. We met with no publishers.

I was greatly relieved, upon our re-turn to the United States, to find that the New York Times Book Review had not changed. In a review on July 20 of Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, the critic asked this question: “Is it fair to demand of novels that they be articulate and reasonable, that they attempt in some way to make the world a better place?” You can imagine the reviewer’s answer to this question. But I would like to remind the Times that making the world a better place should be left to ministers, social workers, careful drivers, drug manufacturers, and house painters. Novels cannot make the world a better place because they are, well, a bunch of pieces of paper that have printed words on them. Some would argue that they exist as works of art, and that, in fact, is why they were made.

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