Tag Archives: Edward Said

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.

The Book Group on Edward Said’s Late Style

Edward Said, On Late Style (Bloomsbury Revelations 2006)

Before the meeting: The Book Group recently changed its system for choosing books: instead of a chaotic argy-bargy at the end of each meeting, we now take turns to be the Autocratic Book Selector. I’m pretty sure On Late Style, like earlier floats of In Search of Lost Time and something by Heidegger, wouldn’t have made it through the argy-bargy system. But here we are. It’s a short book, but disproportionately demanding.

On 25 September 2003, Edward Said, best known for his books  Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, and for his advocacy of the Palestinian people, announced over breakfast that the next major project he would concentrate on was Late Style, and that it would be finished in December. He died that morning, and what we have is compiled from what his widow Miriam Said describes in her Foreword as ‘a tremendous amount of material’ he had already written – essays, articles, lecture notes. It’s almost certainly not the book Said himself would have submitted to the publisher, but Edward Wood, who did the main work of ‘putting it all together without losing Edward’s voice’, to quote Miriam Said again, assures us in his Introduction that the ‘words are all Said’s own’.

If you’ve read any of Said’s work you won’t be surprised to hear that his notion of ‘late style’ is complex. Deriving in some way from Theodor Adorno‘s writings about Beethoven’s late works, it doesn’t mean simply a style someone has in their work when they are old and/or near death. It includes that, but there is also a lack of resolution, of coherence. Adorno’s term is ‘catastrophic’. Shakespeare didn’t have a late style in this sense: in his late plays major conflicts and dilemmas are resolved or magically transcended. But I’d say Leonard Cohen did in his final album, You want It Darker, and Bob Dylan too, in choosing to perform Sinatra classics.

Said doesn’t discuss Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. His examples are the late Beethoven, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavelier, Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, Lampedusa’s novel and Visconti’s movie The Leopard, Thomas Mann’s novella and Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, a clutch of 20th century operas that use 18th century settings and conventions, Jean Genet, and pianist Glen Gould, with brief discussions of Cavafy and Euripides.  I’ve been to maybe three operas in my life, Cosí not among them; I have a CD of Glen Gould but I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to it. That is, musically  I’m close to illiterate. I have read the Mann novella and some of Cavafy’s poems; and I’ve seen Visconti’s The Leopard, and also his Death in Venice  (which doesn’t rate a mention here). But none of that helped much.

For me, reading the book was like listening in on a conversation among very clever people about something I know almost nothing about. The main conversationalists are Edward Said himself and Adorno. Said wrestles to interpret Adorno’s dense and opaque prose, and then argues with him. A score of other critics turn up as well, always treated with courtesy, sometimes as authorities, but more often to be politely rebutted. For example, after quoting film critic Pauline Kael on Burt Lancaster’s performance in The Leopard, Said writes:

I think we can feel her enthusiasm for Lancaster’s quite noble performance without really accepting any of this at all.

I did read the whole book, and found a lot to enjoy. His discussion of Così Fan Tutte is fascinating, his comparisons of the different versions of The Leopard and Death in Venice likewise. His personal anecdotes about Genet are wonderful, and his reflections on Genet’s non-Orientalist love for the Palestinians are very rich. There are sentences worth lingering over to let their implications settle in, like these:

Identity is what we impose on ourselves through our lives as social, political, and even spiritual beings. The logic of culture and of families doubles the strength of identity, which to someone like Genet – who was a victim of the identity forced on him by his delinquency, his isolation, and his transgressive talents and delights – is something to be resolutely opposed.

In the end, though, I can’t say I followed Said’s argument. The closest I could find to a summary is this, and it’s worth quoting at some length, both for what it says about the artists and for what it implies about possibilities for ageing in general:

Each of the figures I have discussed here makes of lateness or untimeliness, and a vulnerable maturity, a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity, at the same time that each … has a lifetime of technical effort and preparation. Adorno, Strauss, Lampedusa and Visconti – like Glenn Gould and Jean Genet – play off the great totalising codes of twentieth-century culture and cultural diffusion: the music business, publishing, film, journalism. The one thing that is difficult to find in their work is embarrassment, even though they are egregiously self-confident and supreme technicians. It is as if having achieved age, they want none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability or official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines and strangely elevates their uses of language and the aesthetic.

The meeting: A couple of days before the meeting, interspersed among arrangements for food, were some comments on the book: 

First Chap: I’m an apology on Wednesday night. The company I will miss, discussion of the book I won’t. I found it very difficult to be reminded of how much I don’t know (again). 

Second Chap: I am not very far into the book as yet (hoping for time tonight)  but understand your sentiments … I thought I was very knowledgable about Beethoven … but apparently not.

Third Chap: I’ll bring a late style potato bake

Fourth Chap: I am intrigued to see that. Is it the sort of dish you make for people when you don’t give a f#@k anymore? 

We met over a barbecue and exchanged gift-wrapped books. We spent quite a lot of time on On Late Style, even though it faced stiff competition as a topic of conversation: big news about a guilty verdict that the media couldn’t tell us about, but one of us knew someone who knew someone who had been in the courtroom; one member was absent because his daughter was being honoured for a  remarkable achievement; another had very recently become a grandfather; and of course there was food, and Christmas.

Only a couple of us made it all the way through the book. At least one of the non-finishers was actually angry with it – it’s as if it promised to shed light and provoke thought on the stage of life and career that many of us in the group are entering, that is, the late stage, but then failed to deliver anything coherent. None of us know enough about music, in particular opera, to engage with Said’s arguments. He would like someone else, say Alain de Bouton, to write a version the book Said might have written using this material if he had lived to do it.

In short, this one is strictly for the Said fans.

November verse 14:

Just squeezing in my last November poem before December is upon us, I’m starting from a paraphrase of the opening sentences of Edward Said’s On Late Style, which I’m reading for the Book Group. Here’s how Said’s posthumously finished book begins:

The relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style seems at first to be a subject so irrelevant and perhaps even trivial by comparison with the momentousness of life, morality, medical science, and health, as to be quickly dismissed.

That gives you a taste. The New York Times website gives the whole first chapter, here, if you’re interested to read on. My little verse deals only with the first paragraph, and isn’t exactly a paraphrase of that.

November verse 14: Why the relationship between
bodily condition and aesthetic style is not a
trivial subject
You say: 'So trivial a subject,
the body and aesthetic style's
relationship! Why not reflect
on what's important in your files,
like life, and health, and science and morals
or medicine or the death of corals?'
I say: Of all of us it's true
because we're conscious, me and you,
we're constantly involved in making
something of our little lives, 
and this self-making builds archives,
a base of the great undertaking,
history, which sages tell,
at heart is made by human toil.

I don’t know yet where Said’s argument goes from there, and I apologise in advance for not trying to produce a verse version of the whole book.

Lehmann & Gray’s Australian Poetry since 1788: A first post

Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray, Australian Poetry Since 1788 (UNSW Press 2011)

This was a thoughtful and generous Christmas present, and it’s a daunting 1080 pages. After a bit of dipping and checking, I started at the beginning on Australia Day (after all, the title implies that in this book Australian poetry began on or after 26 January 1788), expecting to take a year or so to read it in bits here and there. Rather than wait till next January or thereabouts to blog about the book all in one go, I’ll post now and probably a couple more times over the coming months.

It’s the age of the interwebs, so naturally before I’d gone much past the Introduction I went looking to see what other people were saying. It was no surprise to come across snippets of ‘poetry-war’ conversation. John Tranter called the book the Death Star and blogged some inflammatory sarcasm. Someone on The Rereaders called it the Grey Lemon. So far so expected. I followed a trail of links to a video of a lecture given by Peter Minter at a seminar last October, and suddenly we were out of the poetry wars (in so far as that phrase implies squabbles among the marginalised) and into serious cultural issues. Minter starts out by saying that as a poet you don’t often have to take a stand, but this is one of those moments, and even though some of the lecture, particularly the discussion of the endpapers, is gleefully sarcastic, the over all feeling is a kind of passionate no pasaran. The anthology, he points out, includes only two modern Aboriginal poets. [Have a guess who they are, and if you’re at all familiar with Australian poetry you’ll probably get one right, but almost certainly your other name is one of the excluded. If ten of my readers did this in a room together we’d probably come up with ten names – that is to say, it’s an obviously significant exclusion.] This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t being sold as a grand canonising statement rather than a selection of stuff that a couple of men happen to like. As it is, though, the omission, along with the ethnographic treatment of the traditional Aboriginal songs that are here, amounts to a ‘disappearing of modern Aboriginal poetry’ (Minter’s phrase), a contribution to this country’s continuing genocide (my phrase, and though it’s intemperate I’ll defend it if need be). Minter lists numerous omissions beyond the Aboriginal poets, and says there are many errors in the commentaries (the only one he specifies is the description of the 1967 referendum as giving Aboriginal people ‘special recognition’ in the Constitution, whereas in fact it removed ‘special’ provisions). The video is well worth watching, even though it misses a lot because it doesn’t show us Minter’s slides.

Poor old Geoffrey and Robert! I’d heard one of them on the ABC’s late lamented Book Show being quietly pleased with the representation of women among their poets. ‘Whew!’ you could almost hear him saying. ‘We dodged that bullet.’ One mitigating factor is that while the book is generally being touted as in some way definitive, the actual Introduction presents it pretty unambiguously as a product of the compilers’ idiosyncratic tastes and preferences.

All the same, I gave quiet thanks for Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint (that is, roughly, rather than boycotting a work of art that is, say, racist, it is preferable to read it along side of work by the people it has belittled or slandered or erased), and promised myself that I would dig out my books of poetry by Lionel Fogarty, Kevin Gilbert, Samuel Wagan Watson and read them and other Aboriginal (and non Anglo, and so on) poets in parallel with this anthology.

The two Aboriginal poets who made the cut are Odgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson. There are quite a few versions of Aboriginal songs and stories ‘as recorded by’ white men, and in the case of those recorded by Roland Robinson, the storytellers’ names are given. This doesn’t negate Minter’s main point, but it does indicate that the editors were more aware of Aboriginal people as cultural creators than his lecture might seem to imply.

Asia Literary Review 19 & 20

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 19 ([northern] Spring 2011) and 20 (Summer 2011)

The cover image of Aung San Suu Kyi and the accompanying line ‘The Lady in Waiting’ announce that Asia Literary Review No 19 has a focus on Burma. The halo behind her head may seem to suggest a cheerful postmodern irony, but none of the irony, and very little cheerfulness, penetrates beyond the cover. The only appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi is an interview, effectively an extended sidebar to ‘The Generals’ Celestial Mandate‘, a grim account by Bertil Lintner of the world’s oldest continuous military dictatorship. The lady in waiting’s statement that there is great hope because so many young people are joining the democratic movement is like a tiny ember glowing in the horrendous darkness of state murder, incarceration, torture, and corruption. The Burma theme is continued in a number of pieces. Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah‘ is a photo essay on life on the Thai-Burma border, where refugees, mostly Karen, live perilous and sometimes heroic lives. Incidentally, it brought home to me what an inspired piece of television SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From was – having seen the reality TV version of refugees struggling to survive in a country that hasn’t signed on to the UN Convention, I found it easier to absorb information presented here in a more traditional mode. ‘Surveillance‘, a short story by Devan Schwartz in which the protagonist is broken in as an agent of the military, reads as a compassionate commentary on the former Burmese intelligence agent currently in the news in Australia (‘Maybe they kill 100 or 150 because I order them to do that. It’s not their fault, my fault. If they didn’t kill, they get killed too‘). There are poems by a political prisoner known only as Jimmy and by Ma Thida, a writer now practising medicine in Rangoon who has previously spent six years in prison.

Things don’t get any more frivolous when the journal moves away from Burma. In the photo essay ‘Qi Lihe’, Stephen J. B. Kelly explores the plight of impoverished Muslims driven from the increasingly arid countryside of northwest China to a scarcely less bleak life on the outskirts of Lanzhou. John Evans’s ‘Blood Money‘ is an ebullient but desperate tale about professional kick-boxers in Korea. In Meira Chand’s story ‘The Return‘ a young man comes home in disgrace from employment in Hong Kong that had been his family’s hope of financial salvation. These pieces contain a lot that’s rich, but it’s a grim world they inhabit.

Hsu-ming Teo’s ‘Fables of a Fractured City‘ departs from the pervasive grimness. The city of the title is, delightfully, Sydney, ‘the most Asian of Australian cities’. The fractures of the title are the four points of the compass, but also the disjunction between mainstream and Asian perceptions of the city: is the south to be represented by Cronulla, notorious for the 2005 riots, or by the fabulously multicultural ‘temple-land’ of the south-west?

Just as I’d finally got around to reading issue 19, issue 20 arrived in my letterbox. Having made the former wait, the least I could do was move the latter to the top of my teetering bedside pile. The image of a broken Godzilla toy lying amid debris with the line ‘Tales from Japan’ gives an accurate account of its content. All but roughly 20 of roughly 200 pages are related in some way to Japan.

Perhaps the most interesting items are those that deal with the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear threat. Jake Adelstein’s ‘The First Responders‘ is a fascinating account of the role the yakuza played in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and the history behind their surprising (to me) civic responsibility. While government agencies were locked in bureaucratic straitjackets the criminal organisations moved swiftly and efficiently to bring aid and maintain order in shelters where there were reports of violence and sexual assault (a yakuza organisation sent 960 ‘peace-keeping’ members across the nation, while the National Police Agency managed 30 officers). Masaru Tamamoto analyses the government’s failure to respond flexibly and effectively in ‘Conformity, Deference, Risk Aversion: Parsing Japan’s CDR Complex)’. In ‘Reaction to Disaster‘, a manga-like comic by Sean Michael Wilson and Michiru Morikawa, a British resident of Southern Japan tells his story.

There are two short stories set in the aftermath of  the earthquake – by authors described at the back of the book as a ‘Singapore-born American novelist’ and a US expat who has ‘lived most of his life in Japan and Thailand’. I felt uneasy about them, as if it might be too early for fiction-writers to exploit these terrible events without disrespect being part of the package.

Other stories and poems move away from the recent news: a crosscultural relationship blooms and dies beneath the cherry blossoms and the fires of Obon; the great poet Basho has an inconclusive encounter with a young woman, also as the cherry blossoms fall; a man is slated for ‘voluntary’ euthanasia in a dystopian future; a depressed and overworked nashi farmer falls in love with a bird.

As this is an English-language journal, it’s probably not surprising that very few of the writers are Japanese – just Masaru Tamamoto, the poet Akiko Yosano (1878–1942), whose ‘Four Poems from the Kanto Earthquake of 1923‘ are perhaps the high point of the journal, and the poet Gina Barnard, who may not be the only mixed heritage Japanese writer here, but she is the only one who makes it her subject, which she does powerfully. Most of the other writers are from elsewhere in Asia or are North American or British writers who are living in Japan or have lived there. (Featured artists and photographers, on the other hand, are mostly Japanese, not the least of them being manga artist Michiru Morikawa.) The best known presence in the journal is novelist David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who is interviewed by James Kidd. The interview addresses possible unease about this preponderance of outside voices:

Having set many of his stories in Asia, from Japan to Korea, China to Mongolia, Mitchell is understandably sensitive to charges of Orientalism. I ask whether he has ever had any reservations, political or aesthetic, about writing in English about Asian culture. ‘I worry now,’ he replies. ‘At the beginning of my career I was too young and ignorant. I read Said’s Orientalism in my early 30s. I remember thinking, “Jesus, this guy would hate me and my books.” But still.’
Today, however, he improvises a response to Said’s hypothetical objections by posing a succession of counter-questions about his ‘right’ to imagine cultures other than his own. ‘Why do you have to be Asian to write about Japan? Why can’t I have a protagonist who’s my age but Japanese? Isn’t there a reverse racism if I say, “I’m white, therefore I have no business writing about non-white people”? By the same rather crap logic, no novelist from India or Pakistan or Africa or even South America has any business writing about the British – an untenable argument leading to a mutually uncomprehending world, right?’

It’s an issue that Asia Literary Review can be seen to grapple with constantly. With the temporary demise of Heat, though, it stands out as a publication in our region that has a deep platform of cultural diversity. I feel my horizons expanding with every page.