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25/11/2008

Magazine Roundup

Magazine Roundup, which appears every Tuesday at 12 p.m., is originally published by Perlentaucher.

The Nation | The New Yorker | Nepszabadsag | Elet es Irodalom | Prospect | El Pais Semanal | The Times Literary Supplement | Rue89 | Tygodnik Powszechny | ADN cultura | Gazeta Wyborcza | The Economist | Le Nouvel Observateur | The New York Times


The Nation, 08.12.2008 (US)

The December issue is all about this season's books. Marcela Valdes writes 15 gripping pages about Roberto Bolano's posthumous novel "2666" (which also drew praise from Jonathan Lethem in the NYT). One part of the book is about a journalist who is researching the murders of young women in the Mexican city of Juarez. It is based on real events and real people. Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez is the journalist's name, and he provided Bolano with a lot of the information for "2666". Valdes, who went to meet Gonzalez Rodriguez, talks about how the information was worked into the book and also how the journalist was kidnapped when he uncovered police and mafia involvement in the murder: "He had hailed a taxi in the posh neighborhood of Condesa, heading home after a late night. The taxi drove for a while and then stopped. Two armed men jumped aboard. They ordered Gonzalez Rodríguez to close his eyes and sit between them in the back seat. The taxi took off--the driver was complicit. Though Gonzalez Rodriguez didn't resist his captors, the men cursed him, punched him, pistol-whipped him and pierced his legs with an ice pick. They would kill him in a deserted spot south of the capital, they said."

William Deresiewicz dedicates nine pages to the US star critic James Wood and his new book "How Fiction Works". For all Wood's merits which, Deresiewicz says, are considerable, the man is just not in the same league as New York critics from the middle of the last century - Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling (more here and here), Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe or Elizabeth Hardwick. "For the New York critics, novelists are people; for Wood, people, including novelists, are ideas."

Scott Sherman is utterly indifferent to Naipaul's sexuality and his relationship with women (he addresses the issue on page ten of his twelve-page review of Patrick French's Naipaul biography). He would have liked to read more about Naipaul's books but, all in all, he pronounces the biography "an impressive achievement". Towards the end he quotes Naipaul who in 1994, long before the Kundera affair, explained: "The lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry; and the truth should not be skimped."


The New Yorker 01.12.2008 (USA)

And you can judge James Wood's critical merits right here, in his review of Patrick French's "extraordinary" biography of the West Indian literary Nobel prize laureate V.S. Naipual. In it he encounters the same non-conformist "public snob" and "grand bastard" whom he interviewed in 1994. "'The World Is What It Is' is an illuminating portrait of the two sides of the "socially successful but deliberately friendless" author. "These two sides could be called the Wounder and the Wounded."


Nepszabadsag 22.11.2008 (Hungary)

"In many respects, the horrors of Slovakian and Hungarian nationalism stem from the same source," explains Slovakian-born Hungarian historian Laszlo Szarka in an interview with Gabor Miklos about the reasons for the current stand-off. "Behind these primitive prejudices that ignore the sensibilities of others are the taboos that formed in both countries during the years of communism on historical contradictions and forbidden histories. I do not believe that either the Hungarians or the Slovakians need accuse the other side of being fascist. It would be enough just to work out why the new radicalism, the old and the new nationalism or rather the authoritarian populism are coming together on such a grand scale and casting people en masse under their spell. Who needs – and what for – a Hungarian Guard instead of a proper sense of national pride and patriotism that could actually bring about something constructive? Why do we need new scape goats? (...) I think that in the current Slovakian-Hungarian conflict, history is being used to deliver buzzwords for superficial journalistic explanations, while the deeper historical causes seldom get a mention. It is our duty to start a public debate about these things, and to get the neighbours involved."


Elet es Irodalom 14.11.2008 (Hungary)

Historian and political scientist Daniel Hegedüs tries to see the Slovakian-Hungarian conflict in a positive light. "There is one thing to gain from this little Slovakian-Hungarian cold war. The realisation that it is time to start sweeping our own doorstep. A Hungary in which the influence of extreme right is becoming increasingly visible, even to the eyes of the international media, in which acts of racist violence against the Roma are now routine, in which our national symbols are set alight and minority-language street signs are ripped up – a Hungary like this lacks the moral foundations to take action other countries to protect its minorities there. And without a moral foundation there is considerably less room for political manoeuvring."


Prospect 01.12.2008 (UK)

In an essay Jonathan Ford talks about contemporary art as a vehicle for speculative euphoria which has run its course: "The bubble in contemporary art is about to pop. It has exhibited all the classic features of the South Sea bubble of 1720 or the tulip madness of the 1630s. It has been the bubble of bubbles - balancing precariously on top of other now-burst bubbles in credit, housing and commodities - and inflating more dramatically than all of them. While British house prices took six years to double at the start of this century, contemporary art managed it in just one, 2006-07. (Over the same period, old masters went up by just 7.6 per cent and British 17th to 19th century watercolours actually lost value.) Contemporary art in the emerging economies did even better. The value of its sales in China increased by 983 per cent in one year (2005-06). In Russia they rose 2,365 per cent in five years (2000-05), while its stock market increased by 'only' about 300 per cent."

Further articles: Julian Gough bravely crowns Sarah Palin poeta laureata. David Goodhart asserts that while people commonly underestimate the level of social mobility in the UK, that the extremes of society are still largely unmoving. Toby Young describes the rise of the celebritariat. And as the first flush of euphoria fades, Michael Lind asks about "The Meaning of Obama".


El Pais Semanal 23.11.2008 (Spain)

The writer Manual Rivas talks to the literary Nobel prize laureate and avid blogger Jose Saramago: "You could write in one of the major dailies everyday – so why blog instead? It is about dissidence?", asks Rivas. Saramago: "Perhaps it's the feeling of being able to start over again: writing without limits. The papers would pay, of course. But look, Obama won and I'm happy about it so I sit myself down and write an article in my blog, and I demand outright that he shut Guantanamo and lift the trade embargo against Cuba. And I can do this sort of thing whenever I want. Of course you will be eventually integrated into the system. Basically you are just a morello cherry on a cake. They tolerate you, laugh at you – that Saramago again... But I refuse to give up. I wake up feeling like a libertarian communist every morning. There are three questions which we should never stop asking: Why? What for? For whom?"


The Times Literary Supplement 24.11.2008 (UK)

Labour politician Denis MacShane has written a book about the new anti-Semitism, "Globalising Hatred", and Christopher Hitchens is convinced. "'You catch it on the edge of a remark', as Harold Isaacs phrases it in Chariots of Fire. I have felt myself 'catching' it quite a few times of late, as when chaps from the BBC insisted despite repeated correction on saying Paul 'Vulfovitz' with a special emphasis, instead of pronouncing the name correctly the first time round, as the BBC used to train people to do. Writing about the same person, the American isolationist and Charles Lindbergh admirer Patrick J. Buchanan referred to him as playing Fagin to George Bush's Oliver Twist which, an arresting image as it certainly is, makes rather the same point in an only somewhat different way."

Angus Trumbel, curator at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, derived great pleasure from reading the highly informative perfume guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. His article begins with the following complaint: "Why is great perfume not taken more seriously? While many art professionals are very serious about many branches of literature, architecture and music, I have yet to find a curatorial colleague who regularly beats a path to the fragrance counter in search of, say, Joy, the 1930 masterpiece by Henri Almeras for Jean Patou, which, if it were a painting, could hang beside Matisse's nearly contemporary 'Yellow Odalisque' in Philadelphia."


Rue89 22.11.2008 (France)

Did the Congolese writer and dramatist Sony Labou Tansi write his own books or did he have a ghost writer? Barry Saidou Alceny of the West African daily L'Observateur Paalga investigates. Suspicions were aired a long time ago, but now the book "Sony Labou Tansi, ecrivain de la honte et des rives magiques du Kongo" (L'Harmattan) by the lecturer and researcher Jean-Michel Devesa puts the matter straight: It seems the lectors at his publishing company did make considerable alterations: "Improvements carried out under the pretext that Sony Labou Tansi's writing needed tweeking before it could get past the lectors. (...) Even if it should emerge that other people had helped Sony Labou Tansi rewrite his books, it would be regrettable but not reprehensible. Which young writer would have the gumption to reject minor adjustments if the publication of his first novel was at stake?" The matter will be cleared up as soon as the examination of Tansis's manuscripts and note books are available, allowing for a "genuinely 'genetic' investigation".


Tygodnik Powszechny 23.11.2008 (Poland)

"Polish city councils are very partial to foreign Jews. But they do have a problem with Jews at home – dead or alive." Elzbieta Jaskiewicz describes how construction work in the little Eastern Polish town of Bilgoraj has dug up the remains of an old Jewish cemetery. Although important burial sites are documented, and a "Foundation for the Protection of Jewish Heritage" (FODZ) has been active in Poland for a number of years, the local authorities often have trouble prioritising Jewish heritage over threatened investments. "The cemetery issue is a moral problem, every one agrees on this point. The only problem is that there is no consensus on how to solve it. 'I would also get upset about Polish graves being ploughed up in Wilna or Lemberg. But they are being taken care of, either by the Polish minority or the government,' says the mayor. A representative of the FODZ gave the following response: 'We need to see an end to the mindset that says: we should give the Jews their graves back, but they should take care of them themselves or pay someone else to do it. There are 9 Jewish Communities in Poland and 1,200 cemeteries, not to mention the mass graves of the Holocaust."

Online only: last week saw the death of Poland's most famous comic artist, Janusz Christa. His adventure series "Kajko und Kokosz" was the Polish Asterix, writes Marcin Turkot. Although the author presents life in a Slavic village whose inhabitants spend their time defending themselves against the attacks of the robber barons ("a mixture of crusaders and a communist militia") the references to social reality are impossible to ignore. "It's amazing that the censors were so lenient towards something that was so obviously a parody of the system. Perhaps they simply ignored the comic, thinking it was written for and only for children. Perhaps they never even read it," writes Turkot. One example: the robber barons committed themselves to cutting construction time on a war machine by 100 percent and ended up exceeding it by 200 percent.


ADN cultura, 22.11.2008 (Argentina)

"The internet is a ticking bomb," Juan Cruz, a writer, journalist, blogger and co-publisher of the Spanish daily El Pais sees "journalism in flames because almost everyone believes that the internet is a medium and not just a material – but the internet is just like a biro: you have to be able to use it. The internet is mass of confusion which we journalists have to try to straighten out. After the Nobel Prize was awarded to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, rumours started flying around on the internet that he had died. One day we will realise that the sort of journalism that always checked its information with three sources, has been destroyed by the internet. To this day, no one knows how to verify the news that courses through the internet. This is extremely worrying to some people."


Gazeta Wyborcza, 22.11.2008 (Poland)

Mileta Prodanovic has brought together authors from throughout ex-Yugoslavia for a table discussion: Bora Cosic, David Albahari, Dubravka Ugresic and Nenad Velickovic talk about the role of the writer and language in the Balkan countries. Dubravka Ugresic explains, for example, why she still speaks Serbo-Croat - and not Croatian, Serbian or Bosnia. "Are we writing in a language of the past? I would call it a language of the future. The idea of a pure language is dusty and outmoded. Like the concept of the nation, it stems from the 19th century. But today languages are being mixed. For example, the Poles I met in the plane to Dublin will pick up a few words in Ireland and integrate them into their own language. Young people the world over are speaking mixed languages. In America they speak Spanglish. This is why our Serbo-Croat only seems backward-looking but it is actually a wholly modern language."


The Economist 21.11.2008

The Economist is astounded by the hype that has developed in the USA this year surrounding the English translation of Roberto Bolano's forgotten novel "2666". "'2666' is a mysterious, overwhelmingly ambitious work that ties together five novels of barely related subjects. The fourth and longest catalogues the many murders in a fictional northern Mexican town called Santa Theresa. Although the book is often frustrating to read, the critical response to it has been rapturous (Nation, NYT, Slate, Newsweek, Village Voice). Time has already named '2666' the best book of 2008. Within days, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) rushed out a second printing, bringing the total to more than 75,000 copies. 'It's special. It's weird. I don't entirely understand the commercial side of it', said Lorin Stein, editor of '2666' at FSG. At a time when book sales are flat and less than 4 per cent of fiction in America is translated from other languages, the success of an author whose books are known for being messy, difficult and cerebral seems particularly remarkable."

Other articles cover the dying profession of the scribe in Mexico City, the new Museum for Islamic Art (website) in Qatar and the future of MTV in the internet age. There are reviews of Daniel Johnson's study on the relationship between chess and the Cold War, and Frederic Spotts's study (publishers website) of French artists and intellectuals during the Nazi occupation.


Le Nouvel Observateur 20.11.2008 (France)

"Risky" is the word the Nouvel Obs uses to describe the book by the philosopher Abdennour Bidar "L'Islam sans soumission – Pour un existentialisme musulman". (Islam without submission – for Muslim existentialism) because submission is the accepted translation for Islam. In an interview Bidar elucidates: "It's true that a widespread a priori has made a pleonasm of Islam and submission. With the title of my book I wanted to show that it is possible to read Islam differently, in the sense of a freedom of consciousness, a practical freedom, which is already visible in the behavioural changes in many Muslims, particularly in Europe. It's just that this freedom has never received more than a silent acceptance in certain areas of society, and never proper recognition. Because in Islam there is no real culture of freedom with regards to religion. The question of becoming apostate demonstrates this most tragically."


The New York Times 23.11.2008 (USA)

The age of the book is coming to an end, writes Wired founder Kevin Kelly. Books are being replaced by screens and we are turning from readers into seers. But how to parse and manipulate the flood of images as we are accustomed to doing with text? "We don't have the equivalent of a hyperlink for film yet. (...) With true screen fluency, I'd be able to cite specific frames of a film, or specific items in a frame. Perhaps I am a historian interested in oriental dress, and I want to refer to a fez worn by someone in the movie 'Casablanca.' I should be able to refer to the fez itself (and not the head it is on) by linking to its image as it 'moves' across many frames, just as I can easily link to a printed reference of the fez in text. Or even better, I'd like to annotate the fez in the film with other film clips of fezzes as references."

How to get the ads to eyes in the age of the internet? Jack Hitt set three ad men Benjamin Palmer, Lars Bastholm and Robert Rasmussen two tasks: Firstly, a company which makes functional clothing for farmers is looking for a new target group. How to reach them? Secondly, CBS's "Evening News With Katie Couric" needs marketing. The answers they give, especially in Katie Couric's case are profoundly disturbing!

In the Book Review, Charles Isherwood recommends Ethan Morddens's speedily-written Ziegfeld biography. And George Packer is highly impressed by Patrick French's Naipaul biography: "French places Naipaul's tormented sexuality at the center of his creative efforts, revealed in detail through various sources, above all Naipaul himself, without ever sinking into voyeurism or what Joyce Carol Oates called 'pathography.'"

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