Open Seas: The Interpretive Impulse


As a writer of fiction, the act of filling the blank page gives me an exhilarating sense of imaginative freedom. The horizons seem endless. The same must be true for composers and painters.

Yet sometimes I envy the interpretive artist.

Maybe these thoughts have been prompted by listening to András Schiff’s humane and amusing lectures on each of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, an open invitation into a great musician’s workshop. They reveal the mad ambition necessary to record the whole cycle. Beyond mere technical virtuosity and interpretive artistry, the task requires total immersion in the works, years of study and research. But what could be a higher calling than anchoring your creativity to a master?

I think that’s why writers are frequently drawn to the supposedly subservient roles of translator, adaptor, or critic. The impulse to interpret an existing text — in another language, in another medium, or in an essay — represents the desire to be the best kind of reader, to grasp the intimacies of a book’s structure, to know the contours of its sentences. Ray Bradbury showed that impulse at a fantastical extreme in Fahrenheit 451 — the reader who memorises and in essence becomes a book in order to preserve it.

Of course, the Fahrenheit 451 approach is too selfless and too much like religious worship for any kind of creative, critical reader. It is not enough merely to absorb a work of art. The ultimate homage is to re-express the work by filtering it through the self — personalised, recontextualised, embellished, contested. See, for example, Picasso’s obsessive studies of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. This week I visited the Museu Picasso in Barcelona to look again at his forty-five canvases from 1957 that comprehensively analyse, break apart, and remake the forms, motifs, and characters of the original in his own style. Picasso wound up with what he acknowledged would be “a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter.” Nevertheless, it had become Picasso’s Meninas.

Fortunately Velázquez was by then safely in the public domain and available to Picasso’s appropriation and sacrilege. Pablo Katchadjian, a contemporary Argentinean author, has not been so lucky. He has been weighed down with outrageous legal problems since he self-published a chapbook called El Aleph engordado in 2009. He had taken Borges’ classic 1945 story ‘El Aleph’ and, as an experiment, “fattened” it to twice its original length. Borges’s widow, exercising her powers as heir to the copyright, has unrelentingly pursued Katchadjian for his supposed criminal “plagiarism.” Apart from the basic wrongness of the charge and staggering disproportion — the chapbook was published in a mere 200 copies — the legal action ironically demonstrates an indifference to Borges’s influence on successive generations of authors. In effect it advocates banning certain types of critical and creative reading.

It is as absurd to prohibit writers from creatively wrestling with great books as to silence pianists exploring Beethoven. Most writers discover a few crucial books early on that help them understand aspects of worldly experience, furnish them with powerful myths and metaphors, introduce them to characters they come to know as intimately as friends. Consider Orson Welles as a reader. Throughout his career, he returned repeatedly to the same books and, perhaps more importantly, to the same characters as source material for his films, theatre, and radio dramas. He never seemed to want to give up reinterpreting Don Quixote and Falstaff, Moby Dick and The Merchant of Venice, Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen.

As a film critic and historian, I’ve come to specialise in adaptation studies. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the hand-annotated manuscripts of Welles’s screenplays, many of which were never produced. It has been intimately illuminating hanging out with Welles at the point of his pen, being able to relive his thought processes as a writer. Comparing an original novel or play to its adapted screenplay, I attempt to fathom the reasons behind Welles’s choices. Why this specific change? Why this cut? Why this new and original scene?

Most of Welles’s interpretative choices were designed to re-tell a story cinematically rather than with words. On this point, Welles was a formidable translator. Sometimes Welles argued against the original author’s worldview, as in his 1962 version of Kafka’s Trial. He refused to allow Josef K. to submit meekly to execution “like a dog” because he found it unbearable after the Holocaust. Welles also personalised his source material, incorporated autobiographical elements, and even synthesised different literary touchstones. Welles’s and Oja Kodar’s late 1970s screenplay The Dreamers, for example, adapts two stories by Isak Dinesen about an opera singer named Pellegrina Leoni. Several settings are relocated to places of autobiographical significance to Welles. This includes the Triana neighbourhood of Seville, where Welles had lived as a teenager amid the brothels and the bars. In Triana, Pellegrina briefly becomes an unacknowledged incarnation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, another of Welles’s favourite books which he had attempted to adapt directly for screen and which fed into The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Radically reinventing his beloved books, Welles’s adaptations wound up more personally expressive than his own original stories. Certain books become part of a writer’s inner life. Heirs may own the copyright, but these books belong to us. In turn, we belong to these books. They call for our interpretation.

Edinburgh, December 2017

Open Seas: Ozick’s Opening Salvo


The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick. 270 pp. Knopf, 1971.

Cynthia Ozick’s ear for the vernacular cadences of Jewish-American English is equal to the great writers of her generation. Like Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and Philip Roth, she writes dialogue that seems to leap from the page and grab you by the shirt. She can be as funny as those masters, too, but otherwise Ozick goes her own way. She’s a challenging and cerebral writer intensely engaged with Jewish identity, history, and mythology.

Ozick’s first story was published in the journal Prairie Schooner in 1956. Her first collection, The Pagan Rabbi (1971), doesn’t reach back quite that far. Most of these seven longish stories were first published in periodicals between 1966 and 1971, with a concentration of activity at the turn of the decade. Her prose is always a delight, but among a couple of unqualified successes several stories seem slightly suffocated in the fusty air of their historical-mythological inspirations.

‘Envy, or Yiddish in America’ is the masterpiece of the collection. It recounts a point of crisis in the life of Hershele Edelshtein, a 67-year-old widower, an obscure poet, who doggedly, provincially, even quixotically equates Jewish culture almost exclusively with the Yiddish language. After forty years in America, he resents the “puerile, vicious, pitiable, ignorant, contemptible, above all stupid” younger American novelists defining Jewishness for the contemporary world. He reads them ravenously. Edelshtein has always been a provincial who never saw the great European capitals — “for him Western Civilization was a sore point,” Ozick writes with a particularly Bellovian cadence. Western Civilization is a “pod of muck.”

After the genocide of Europe’s Jews and the adoption of Hebrew in the new state of Israel, Yiddish literature is dying — “lost, murdered”. It is a loss unique to history:

“Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil? Where are the speakers of Ancient Etruscan? Who was the last man to write a poem in Linear B? Attrition, assimilation. Death by mystery not gas.”

Edelshtein contributes poems to his friend Baumzweig’s biannual Bitterer Yam (Bitter Sea), a Yiddish language journal that is forgotten and almost without subscribers, enduring only because of the philanthropic bequest of some long-dead laxative manufacturer. Poor Edelshtein earns a meagre living as a lecturer on the death of Yiddish literature to synagogues and community centres. Here we are on the pathetic fringe of the poetry world, and the Yiddish fringe at that — a double whammy of obscurity. Roberto Bolaño would have liked this milieu.

By now the only shot at writerly immortality — even writerly recognition — is English translation. The only translated Yiddish writer is Yankel Ostrover (clearly inspired by Isaac Bashevis Singer), the man who once cuckolded Edelstein. Ostrover is celebrated and feted by Americans for his stories of a fictional Polish shtetl. Edelshtein and Baumzweig, ageing Yiddishists, are united by their jealous hatred for a man they call ‘Pig’ for his white skin that appears like “a tissue of pale ham.”

Edelshtein writes to Ostrover’s New York publishers to attack their star author as well as beg for a translator. The publishers pass on the opportunity because “reputation must precede translation.” That smarts, and Edelshtein fires off a riposte to these “Jews without tongues.” Next Edelshtein tries to persuade some of Ostrover’s put-upon translators to take up his cause. One rejects him with a hilarious letter describing the thankless and ill-paid work of the translator. She writes of a gruelling session with Ostrover and his meddling wife as they struggle to come up with a more idiomatic word for ‘big.’ “We go through huge, vast, gigantic, enormous, gargantuan, monstrous, etc., etc., etc., and finally Ostrover says — by now it’s five hours later, my tonsils hurt, I can hardly stand — ‘all right, so let it be “big”. Simplicity above all.’”

Ozick must have had the inside dope on Singer’s methods. Lester Goran, one of Singer’s translators in the 1980s, told me how their work sessions would sometimes remind him of the fate of the man forced to read aloud to his captor in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’. “I often felt like I was being held prisoner by Isaac,” Lester told me. “We would finish up and I would be stunned. My ears would be ringing with boredom.”

Edelstein may be a mediocre poet with an inflated sense of self-worth, but to his credit he checks his self-pity. After all, what is his dilemma in the scheme of his people’s suffering? He carries the burden of survivor guilt. He is a man who has lost everything, including the eyes and ears of his people. His crisis turns ugly as he pursues a young Jewish woman who knows one of his poems. Will she translate for him?

Not all of the stories in The Pagan Rabbi unite Ozick’s cerebral exploration of Jewish life with such zest, humour, and moving tenderness. At times she jumps into the downright bizarre. Remember Alexander Portnoy’s exasperation at his parents’ extreme naivety, their scepticism that “there are women who are homosexual persons”? “Momma! Poppa!” Portnoy cries. “There are people who fuck chickens!” Well, in title story of her collection Ozick gives us a rabbi who fucks a tree. I am not sure how this subject could ever be the basis for anything but bawdy comedy, but Ozick plays it straight. Or maybe I just missed the joke. Obsessed with ‘free souls’, a rabbi goes madly pagan in a public park, copulating with a tree who appears to him as a dryad. She helps him separate his soul from his body and he hangs himself. The rabbi’s dense letter of romantic mythopoeic pedantry is quoted at length.

‘The Dock-Witch’ is another metamorphosis story about a woman emerging from wood — in this case the lyre-strumming figurehead on a ship’s prow. The narrator is a young man from Ohio, a former landlubber now living in New York. His provincial kin frequently pass through the city on their way to the port to take superficial European vacations. The man-destroying siren who hangs around the docks sets her sights on him.

The main character of ‘The Suitcase’, a very finely constructed short story, is Gottfried Hencke, a former WWI air force pilot for the Kaiser, a German long-resident in America. The setting is New York, Hencke’s son’s self-funded art exhibition. Gottfried Jr. has a rich and stupid gentile wife as well as a Jewish mistress, Genevieve. Hencke is at pains to insist he admires Genevieve even if she relentlessly provokes him with suggestions he is a Nazi sympathizer. He rejects any culpability for the Holocaust. He wasn’t there. “Who could be blamed for history?” he thinks. Hencke is haunted by the thought of his sister’s eleven year old daughter, killed by Allied bombing. But finally, desperate to prove his innocence in the surprise theft of Genevieve’s pocketbook, Hencke opens his suitcase and exposes his underwear, even though he has not even been accused of the crime.

Ozick has subsequently published another five collections of short stories. For some reason her Collected Stories, which rounds up everything to 2006, has only ever been published in the UK. In The Pagan Rabbi we meet a still-maturing writer, with one long novel already to her credit (Trust, 1966), sketching a preliminary map of what would become her terrain.

Edinburgh, November 2017


Open Seas: Lonely Avenidas


People back home in Australia wondered if the streets of Buenos Aires were dangerous.

“Very dangerous,” I’d say. “Because on rainy days the cavities below the paving stones fill with water. If you step on a loose stone a jet of mud will splash over your shoes and your feet will be wet all day. You have to be on guard!”

Okay, they’d say with a roll of their eyes, stop being disingenuous. What about thieves?

Well, the most successful thieves were the corrupt elite who ran the country. But certainly times were tough. Nearly fifteen years after 2001, Argentina had not yet recovered from its devastating financial crisis. Many lives had been ruined. Now the main paranoia of the struggling middle class seemed to be a strike by a motochorro, a bandit on a motorbike who would swoop past to seize a handbag or, worse, stop the bike and pull out a handgun. This kind of thing, though rare, was hardly surprising when a large part of the population were forced to survive by scavenging the city’s garbage.

“Still,” I had to admit, “the only person who robbed me in Buenos Aires was my landlord.”

For me, the main danger of the streets of Buenos Aires was to be swallowed up in their enormity, to be reduced to just another lonely blur in the night. As a new porteño, I was a stranger to the people, to the language, to the culture. I was lucky, because Buenos Aires quickly became a city of new friends. Still, there were inevitable nights of solitude. I found the immensity of the city’s avenues–particularly Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world–eerily intimidating when the darkness closed in. I began to understand how this strange metropolis of the new world, always full of immigrants and exiles, had given birth to its beautiful poetry of loneliness and desire. Tango was the most famous manifestation. But inevitably these sentiments more frequently gave birth to despair. Sometimes I encountered it in the streets.

When I was at a loose end, I would vanish into book browsing. This pastime reliably replaced my present preoccupations with absorbed distraction. It was fortunate that Avenida Corrientes, between the obelisk and Avenida Pueyrredón, was probably the greatest book browsing street in the world. The bookshops were staggered between theatres, cinemas, restaurants and cafés. They stayed open late. They could be elegant or bluntly utilitarian, small boutiques or open warehouses. Many of the cheaper second-hand shops had concrete floors. Their wide entrances let in the wind and the dust and the traffic noise, and in winter people had to prowl the tables with their jackets zipped up. Some of the larger shops, with their seemingly limitless inventories of old books in numerous languages, functioned as a historical museum of the city, curated by accident. Almost every bookshop had a small English language selection full of unpredictable titles. Since it was almost impossible to have English books sent in from outside—the Argentinean postal system did not work—finding a battered mass-market paperback of Saul Bellow’s stories was thrilling. It was like running into an old friend.

Some nights I encountered strange lonely people in search of some obscure solace. I remember one man in a small restaurant on Calle Esmeralda in the Microcentro. The cheapest way to eat in the city was to visit one of the many take-away buffet restaurants, usually operated by Chinese immigrants, which advertised comida por kilo or comida por peso—food by weight. The customer could fill a thin plastic container with any combination of meat, fish, pasta salad, rice, hot baked potatoes or papas fritas, fresh tomatoes, warm empanadas, and vegetables from the can (lentils, chickpeas, beetroot). It usually only cost twenty-five or thirty pesos for a meal.

In that comida por kilo on Esmeralda the left side of the dining floor was full of plastic tables and chairs. To the right chafing dishes sat under hot lights. A stairway at the back led up to the bathroom. The fluorescent light rendered everything in cold white except the front counter, which glowed green beside a fish tank. I was the only customer. I paid for my food and sat down to eat and read.

A few minutes later a man came in from the street. His grey beard and longish hair were greasy and clotted. His overcoat was unbuttoned and his pilled black sweater was tight across his belly. He came over and insistently shook my hand. He pulled out the small plastic chair in front of me, sat down heavily, and began to talk. I broke in and told him I didn’t understand, that my Spanish was rudimentary. He kept talking anyway. It was a long story with periodic questions directed at me, who couldn’t answer. I said again I was sorry, but…. As time went on his voice rose in pitch. He was upset, although not with me. I guess I struck him as simpatico. He beat his fist against the plastic table and then began to cry out four syllables that were musical and infinitely expressive—“Ar-gen-ti-na!” He said it again with even more passion—“Ar-gen-ti-na!” The manager behind the cash register, a big guy who had been typing into his phone, began to yell in Spanish that he should shut the fuck up. The man ignored the manager and looked me in the eye. He was silent for half a minute.

Then he mumbled, in English, “I love you.”

His pained eyes convinced me that he was sincere, at least in that moment. Now he decisively got to his feet. Relieved of his weight, his tiny plastic chair toppled onto its side. Oblivious to the obstacle of chairs and tables, he tried to walk through them to embrace me. “No, señor!” I said with an embarassed smile. “Por favor!” I managed to scramble to my feet before the table edge wedged me into my chair. The manager yelled again, came out from behind his cash register, and began to argue. The man was distracted. Their argument was elaborate and inaccessible. It went on for several minutes while I stood there. I decided it was a good moment to go to the bathroom.

I left my food and went up the stairs at the back of the restaurant. I followed a dank-smelling, blue-walled corridor that ended at a bathroom where water was dripping and the light was buzzing. A minute later, coming back into the corridor, I saw the man again. He had followed me up the stairs and was now stumbling towards me. I found this outrageous and threatening. “Señor!” I said. “Basta!”—enough. But he didn’t seem to hear me. His eyes were on the ground, as if searching for a coin he had dropped. Then I saw the manager right behind him, grabbing the sleeve of the man’s overcoat, eager to resume their argument. I was able to squeeze past both of them and go downstairs. I left without finishing my food and walked out into the night.

I walked along Calle Lavalle with an occasional backwards glance. I turned left into the darkness of Suipacha until I was a little way south of the obelisk, then right until I reached the edge of 9 de Julio. The brightly lit chain of bus stops, running for blocks through the centre of the avenue, was far away across many lanes of empty grey road. Here, under a dim yellow streetlamp on the avenue’s periphery, the wide pedestrian footpath was deserted. All the shops had closed. The wind blew south and fluttered the leaves of the swaying jacaranda trees. Plastic rubbish rolled and scraped along the uneven pavement. Half-crumpled newspaper sheets swept past my shoes and were sucked into the darkness beyond the brief zone of lamplight. A block away towards San Telmo, under another streetlamp, I could see the backs of solitary, unknowable walkers before they also vanished into the shadows. I heard their shoes trotting away along the wobbly, mismatched patches of paving stones.

At that moment I was thankful I had friends in Buenos Aires.


Edinburgh, October 2017

Open Seas: Sodom with Piña Coladas


The Reef by Juan Villoro, translated by Yvette Siegert. 246 pp. George Braziller, 2017.

Juan Villoro is not only a leading Mexican novelist but also a popular football journalist with 328,363 followers on Twitter. That hasn’t mattered much in the doggedly provincial Anglosphere. Until recently he has suffered the usual fate of any writer outside that tiny elite whose work is comprehensively translated. Very few English readers had heard of him.

My own small evangelism for Juan Villoro was to commission the first translation of his short story ‘El silbido’ (‘The Whistle’) for the journal Contrappasso in 2013. After reading ‘Coyote’ in The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, I’d looked for other examples of Villoro’s work in English. The harvest was small, but Villoro had been lucky to attract two of the best contemporary Spanish-to-English translators. Chris Andrews, champion of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira, had optimistically published a few chapters from the novel El Testigo (2004), widely considered Villoro’s masterpiece (it still awaits a publisher). Lucas Lyndes’ exemplary translation of the story ‘Mariachi’ had turned up in the electronic literary journal The Portable Museum, a brave publishing endeavour initiated by American expatriates based in Lima.

‘Mariachi’ was one of seven stories from Villoro’s collection Los Culpables (2007). I didn’t consider it much of a gamble to invite Lucas to choose another one to translate for Contrappasso. ‘The Whistle’ is a football story about a hapless and recently-cuckolded player hired to play in the desert for the Mexicali Toucans. The team is owned by a pair of identical Chinese triplets. A terrorist bomb puts the hero in hospital, and later he winds up on another team playing against the Argentinean teammate who rescued him from the rubble. The punchline is a hilarious acknowledgement of the futility of our best efforts.

Two years later the entire story collection was published by George Braziller as The Guilty, translated (or in some cases retranslated) cover-to-cover by Kimi Traube. It is a wonderfully funny book. In lean and punchy sentences, Villoro creates a kind of over-cranked satirical realism full of tenderness for human failure amid the absurdities of contemporary Mexico.

The momentum continues to grow. In 2016 Restless Books published a collection of Villoro’s soccer writings, God is Round, translated by Thomas Bunstead. And now from George Braziller comes The Reef, originally published as Arrecife in 2012. It is Villoro’s first novel to appear in English, courtesy of yet another translator, Yvette Siegert.

The setting of The Reef is the fictional Kukulcán, the Mayan name for their plumed serpent deity, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán. It is a Cancún-like destination for gringo tourists and an ecological disaster thanks to oil rigs, bad city plumbing, and the garbage dumped by passing cruise ships. Rain is a constant. While the development had meant “jobs for people who used to suck mango seeds to curb their hunger,” the already decaying hotel rooms of Kukulcán will be eventually occupied only on paper by Gogolesque ‘Dead Tourists’, a scam for international money laundering.

The Pyramid is a hotel resort that has staved off closure by offering chronically bored Westerners the thrill of pseudo-dangerous pseudo-experiences of Mexico: encounters with fake guerrillas, staged kidnappings, jungle snakes pretending to be deadly, plastic machine guns, etc. It provides a kind of “recreational paranoia.” The Pyramid is now “a Sodom with piña coladas, a Disneyland with herpes, or a ‘Nam with room service.”

Tony Góngora is a typical Villoro hero, a passive and resigned middle-aged failure. His father was supposedly killed in the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. He is, in fact, overloaded with traumas and literally walking woundedwhen he was a child he had permanently damaged his leg in a car accident and later lost a finger to an exploding firecracker. The former bass player for a group called Los Extraditables, Tony idolises Jaco Pastorius, whose uninhibited indulgence shortened a brilliant career. Tony is also a drug addict. Los Extraditables had once been selected to support a reformed Velvet Underground, but Tony had blown their big chance. The Velvets had mandated “a tyrannical code of wholesomeness” but Tony had betrayed Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sun glasses”, with a spectacular binge. Another casualty of that relapse was his relationship with a woman from Guadalajara.

Tony’s post-addiction gig is to synthesize ambient music from the movements of the fish in the Pyramid’s aquarium. Nepotism landed Tony this ridiculous job. The resort is managed by a fellow former Extraditable, Marcus Müller, who fills in the gaps in Tony’s drug-destroyed memory, although the stories are rarely flattering. Müller has misguidedly encouraged ‘Maya Pride’ in his indigenous workers, installing a replica of an ancient tablet from Palenque in the lobby, but the workers really believe their ancestors came from outer space. Meanwhile the Pyramid’s major shareholder El Gringo Peterson, Tony’s unlikely confidante, regrets never fighting in Vietnam and is obsessed by his failure to save his infant son from drowning.

The plot is vaguely centred on a ludicrous murder mystery. An American diving instructor, Ginger Oldenville, is found murdered in the aquarium with a spear in his back. Almost simultaneously his lover, Roger Bacon, is found drowned. Each has a hammock rope tied in a knot around his penis. Some bizarre gay suicide pact? Bored with normal life, the dead men had been part of the Cruci/fiction group, a “risk club” for “ultra-sports” where “there are no injuries, just deaths.” Señor Roger also had a tattoo in Arabic. Was he a terrorist? Or is all of this just an intentional distraction from a greater conspiracy? For some reason the CCTV cameras were shut off during Ginger’s murder.

The discovery of Ginger’s corpse interrupts a drunken sexual encounter between Tony and Sandra, the hotel’s American instructor in “Ashtanga yoga, Tibetan kung fu and contact improv.” Her backstory is a dead boyfriend, alcohol, and cage-dancing. Nearly every character in this probably overpopulated novel is living life in the aftermath of bad decisions. Lacking the proper work visa, Sandra has been sexually blackmailed by the hotel’s detestable security officer. Her eventual one-off consummation with Tony is decidedly unsexy (“The lubricant smelled like window cleaner”). We never really learn Sandra’s fate because she vanishes from the narrative. Women in Villoro’s work tend to be assertive, alluring, but elusive. Villoro’s heroes take their female punishment with a shrug, as their due.

The short unnumbered chapters zip past in a flurry of blunt dialogue and manic characters. The murder mystery is solved but without much urgency. Tony’s unlikely acceptance of the role of an adoptive father to Müller’s illegitimate daughter, who lives in a shelter for battered women, offers hope for a purposeful future. Villoro makes wry observations about Mexico and the state of humanity in this nearly-plausible contemporary wasteland. The English-speaking world deserves more of his books.

Manchester and Edinburgh, October 2017

Open Seas: Homage to Granada


I visited Granada at the end of spring when the drifting pollen of its olive trees was triggering severe asthma. Some unfortunate locals were forced to wear allergy masks out in the sunbaked streets. But luckily I had no asthma and ample time to sit in the shade with friends enjoying beer and tapas. For me, it was pleasure to stop and take a breath in the city.

Granada’s air was also filled with musicmostly frequently the hit ‘Despacito’. It took me several days of scouting to find quality flamenco. I finally discovered El Tabanco del Tío Gregorio on the edge of Albaycín, the old Moorish quarter. Unlike the tablaos aimed at tourists, El Tabanco is a modest and inexpensive peña flamenca designed for intimate recitals. Obviously run by true believers, it can accommodate no more than twenty-five listeners, who sit on tiny wooden stools that wobble on the smooth stones cemented into the floor. We drank beer and ate cheese, pickled carrots, and bullet-shaped crackers. María García Toque, a young dreadlocked singer, introduced her fandangos and ferrucas with courtly grace and sang with fire. She was accompanied by a suited, ponytailed guitar player named Pablo Giménez.

Later, out on the descending cobblestones of Cuesta de San Gregorio, the smell of jasmine travelled with the breeze. A cross-legged busker was playing two hang drums in the moonlight. Surprisingly, these drums do not originate in, say, ancient Persia, but are recently invented and catching on with hippies everywhere. A hang looks like a upside-down wok that has been attacked by a man with a hammer. The drums are permanently tuned. People were sitting on the stones in rapt contemplation of the melancholy and resonant timbre. Without discounting the skills of the percussionist, I wondered if musical profundity should be harder earned.

After some manoeuvrers, I snared a ticket to wander through the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, the last reconquered site in Muslim Spain. In The Buried Mirror (1992), Carlos Fuentes wrote, “Perhaps only a people who had known the thirst of the desert could have invented this extraordinary oasis of water and shade.” I also come from a desert country, so maybe that explains why I was so awed by this voluptuous monument to flowing water. Back outside, I was also awed by the view from the gardens of the Generalife. Looking down at the neighbourhoods of Sacromonte and Albaycín, I contemplated the high-leaping dark-green poplars, the narrow streets notched into the hills, the terracotta roofs and interior patios of the white houses. The hazy air above the city beautifully diffused the sunlight. It wasn’t always that way. Inscribed on the wall of the Hall of Two Sisters: “Never have we seen a palace so exalted, with so clear and broad a horizon.”

A less exalted palace is that of Charles V, an ugly Renaissance addition to the Alhambra, the Spanish reconquistadores metaphorically pissing on the site to mark their reclaimed territory. A few years ago its open-air patio was the stage for a summer concert by Jordi Savall, the Catalan musical archaeologist, viola da gamba player, and cultural impresario of boundless ambition. He attempted to use music and texts to narrate the history of multi-faith, medieval Granada. I was curious about the pre-flamenco musical traditions of this great and ancient city, so I bought the recently released recording of that concert, Granada 1013-1502 (Alia Vox). The performers are Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, with a number of solo instrumentalists and singers.


This is not the first time Savall has created early music programs centred on cities with shared Jewish, Christian, and Islamic histories. There is one on Jerusalem (subtitled The City of Two Peaces: The Celestial Peace and the Earthly Peace) and two on Istanbul (The Sublime Gate 1430-1750: Voices of Istanbul and Dmitrie Cantemir 1673-1723: The Book of the Science of Music and the Sephardic and Armenian Musical Traditions).

Savall’s laudable purpose goes beyond the merely musical and historical. When Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Seville, it was an idealistic political gesture: to have Jewish and Arab musicians playing music together in defiance of the political stalemate and apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories. Still, the West-Eastern Divan play music in the European classical tradition. I saw them perform Pierre Boulez with formidable panache at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Like Barenboim, Savall is also engaged in defiantly humanistic political gestures, reassuring in this era of rising European nationalism and Islamophobia. But Savall not only brings together musicians of different religious or ethnic backgrounds; he also juxtaposes different musical traditions within his narrative programs, a timely reminder that Europe has always been multiculturalalthough rarely peaceful.

A terrifically prolific recording artist of dauntless ambition, Jordi Savall calls the more lavishly-packaged recordings ‘CD-Books’, but that still does not indicate the idealistic scope of these multilingual, multimedia musical-historical projects. In fact, Granada is one of his more modest presentations. In the past I have contemplated Erasmus of Rotterdam: In Praise of Follysix hybrid CDs/SACDs containing two alternate versions of the same musical program (with French narration or without) and a heavily annotated hardback book in multiple languages with glossy colour illustrationsbut quickly put it down in total intimidation.

Lest we allow the evocative music to simply inspire Orientalist fantasies, Granada comes with a full-colour 280 page booklet with numerous illustrations, photographs, and dense explanatory texts in six European languages. (Strangely, considering its focus and idealism, there is no Arabic translation.) I had to set aside an hour or so to come to terms with this project’s scope. Unfortunately the method of annotation is inconsistent, forbiddingly pedantic yet without precision, a hurdle to be jumped by those unacquainted with early music performance conventions. What exactly is this music? Who were the composers and who are the performers? How did these pieces survive centuries to be performed today?

The English text of Savall’s essay is a slog through translatese. The text is pointlessly repetitivewe’re told twice in successive paragraphs that ‘Garnata al-Yahud‘ means ‘Granada of the Jews’. Spellings are inconsistent, too. Is the Arabic musical genre called ‘muwashshah‘, ‘muwashah‘, or ‘muwassah‘? Somebody should decide, or else stick with ‘موشح‎‎.’ Definitions of unfamiliar terms arrive paragraphs after they have already been used. There are also confusing leaps back and forth in time as Savall attempts to explain historical cause and effect. (Comparing the printed booklet cover and the one on the Alia Vox website, the title of the disc is not even consistent. Does this story end in 1502 or 1526?).

The show is presented chronologically with bridging passages narrated in Spanish. We start a thousand years ago in the time of the city’s founding as a Moorish kingdom on the site of the ancient Garnata al-Yahud (which means ‘Granada of the Jews’, in case you’ve already forgotten). We pass through dynasties, wars, massacres, and persecutions until Isabella and Ferdinand take the city in the fateful year of 1492 and decree the expulsion of the Jews. Muslims are forcibly converted.

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic medieval music is reconstructed from disparate sources, and performed with elements of improvisation. The Visigoths had been in Spain before the Moors, and influenced forms of Christian religious music that continued to be practiced in what became al-Andalus; this is now called ‘Mozarabic’ music. Savall includes prayers from the Mozarabic repertoire, songs from the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria and the Codex Las Huelgas, and other surviving ballads and villancicos. Much early Christian music was preserved in imprecise and difficult-to-decipher forms of musical notation, but Savall makes an attempt to interpret these scores.

The Jewish pieces are settings of Hebrew texts by medieval poets, by the rabbi Maimonides, and from the Song of Songs, performed in the traditional styles of the Sephardic diaspora, specifically in communities that endure in Morocco and Thessaloniki. The Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh is prominently featured in these pieces. The Muslim segments include muwashshahs and improvisatory maqams, texts and poems, and dances surviving in Muslim communities in North Africa and the Middle East. I’m sceptical that these musical forms have endured essentially unchanged after half a millennium, but I guess that’s a question for the musicologists.

It is difficult to encompass five hundred years of a city’s history in any sort of dramatic narrative. Instead there is a parade of historical figures and wavering levels of religious tolerance and persecution leading to the fall of Granada. It must have been serious stuff in the stifling air of a summer night, but the music is evocative and beautifully performed by the solo singers, the choir and an embellished ensemble that stretches from Savall’s viola da gamba to the ney, the oud, and the kanun. Putting the heavy scholarship aside, the recording works as a perfect stimulus for anybody who wants to drift into dreams of this glorious and tragic city.

Edinburgh, September 2017


Open Seas: Lester Goran, Wiseguy


Lester Goran? I’m going to steal one of Saul Bellow’s opening pitches:

Sure, I knew the guy. He was wonderful.

Lester was only an occasional writer of comic fiction, but that’s what I read first—one of the funny books. As a result, his big kindly grin in person didn’t surprise me at all. And yet, practically beatific as he drove me around Miami, Lester said he considered William Trevor and Joyce Carol Oates his two best living writers. Okay, LG, but not really wisecrackers. Worlds of grimness!

“Yeah, they play it pretty straight,” Lester said.

Lester had grown up poor in Pittsburgh and read the proletarian fiction of James T. Farrell (vintage grimness). Then he’d joined the army, gone to university on the GI Bill, written his thesis on Henry James. It was an unlikely identification—the underclass tenement kid and the aristocratic expatriate. “I was here and James was there…and yet we both saw the world very much the same way: greed, manipulation,” Lester told me. “His eye was so cold.” He didn’t think middle-class critics could grasp James’ writing about loneliness.

I figured he liked Chekhov, too.

“Oh, yes,” Lester said with reverence.

Now, I can’t think of a writer who doesn’t revere Chekhov, but with Lester Goran the influence seems unavoidable. The unsentimental compassion for the small and large tragedies of ordinary people, of lives blighted by loss or mere lost opportunities. What sustains Goran’s characters through the darkness is the hope of transcendence through acts of imagination, no matter how pathetic or bizarre or borderline crazy—a corset with magical properties; a romance with the ghost of an Episcopalian preacher; aiding and abetting ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. For most of his writing life Goran bound himself to the honorable task of sketching the lives of humble Pittsburghers—the underclass of the Hill District (disguised as ‘Sobaski’s Stairway’) and the Irish working class of Oakland—restricting his prose to what he called the “earnest expression of the consciousness that my characters are capable of.”

He published nearly a dozen books in this mode. But let’s not forget the rare funny books—what Lester called his “wiseguy” comedies—which gave him a chance to display the dexterity of his prose and his considerable comic abilities.

I discovered one of these comedies by accident in a thrift shop in Sydney, Australia, in the early 2000s. (I think Lester liked the idea of his books scattered around the world from Australia to Iran, emissaries on patient standby.) The book was The Keeper of Secrets (1971). The price: $1. What stood out was not the author’s name—I’d never heard of this Lester Goran—but the Portnoyesque typeface on the plain off-white dust jacket. Its lurid swashes evoked the first Nixon administration and an oppositional attitude embodied not only by Philip Roth but by Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Leonard Michaels, J. P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, Robert Crumb, Frank Zappa, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Elliot Gould, Jack Nicholson, and the ghost of Lenny Bruce: liberated heterosexual mischief fuelled and given moral dignity by outrage at American injustice. Men collecting the late fee on overdue freedom in a frequently hilarious, masculine, virile, sweaty, occasionally misogynist Great American Fuck You.

Of course many books were sold with a Portnoyesque dust jacket around 1971. In the case of The Keeper of Secrets, I guess the designer recognised a few affinities—Jewish irony, a schlemiel with a roster of ex-wives, (slightly) bawdy comedy—and tried to hitch it to a passing mood. But it doesn’t really fit in.

The Keeper of Secrets is Shimen Groff, a mess of a human being but a Nobel Prize contender if only his epic long-in-progress novel, scattered in manuscript across the United States among ex-wives, can be collated and published. It’s the set-up for a road story and riotous farce. Goran freely moves between third and first person to distinguish Shimen’s ideal and actual selves. Ideally Shimen is “dapper, clean, resolute, entirely admirable”; in actuality Shimen proves a slob, unreliable, wilfully obscure, a betrayer—”a forest fire,” Lester told me. But we can hardly hate him. After all, we need novelists. Lester said he was interested in how “the writer draws the conclusions to all of the uncorrelated parts of experience that are moving in so many directions.”

The dust jacket for Goran’s earlier comedy The Candy Butcher’s Farewell (1964) is also a lazy period piece, illustrated in the style of a cheap morning cartoon like Roger Ramjet. Again it fails to communicate uniqueness.

I think Candy Butcher is his best novel, the one most deserving of rediscovery and republication. A ‘candy butcher’ is a seller of sweets at an Atlantic City burlesque house. The titular narrator is Henry Sneffer, Jr., plucky, hopeful, enthused—“Count me in!” is the novel’s first sentence. Henry is born to an absent father and a ‘nurse’ he calls Big Sister with whom he travels across the United States in the 1930s. When Big Sister dies Henry is sent to live with his Uncle Jonas and Aunt Alma in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He eventually flees to Atlantic City after discovering that Jonas has committed arson at one of his slum properties and has no remorse about the death of a little black girl.

In Candy Butcher the pull between Goran’s ambitions—almost a question of loyalties—is explicitly referenced. Henry, a budding writer, says he “kept one of Uncle Jonas’ rent lists, thirty-six gray names, thinking I would one day write a story about every gray name behind every one of Uncle Jonas’s gray doors. I lost the names with a collection of Unknown Worlds and Amazing Stories, science fiction that Aunt Alma sent to a trash collector for the worth of the paper. I’m sure that, except in the aggregate, none of those 36 names would make anything but bad news as they hanged themselves or slashed with a razor their own image in someone else. They would probably have made…a failure of a book for any young writer dumb enough to try them.”

And yet in his future books Goran repeatedly came back to the gray names, risking novelistic failure for the greater cause of reimagining lost Pittsburgh. He wrote about the sort of people who not only rarely appear in novels, but rarely even register on the consciousness of society. He told me he wanted to return to the subject of burlesque in an altogether darker mode—a novel imagining the life of one of the Green River Killer’s victims. What astonished him was that “most of these women were so anonymous nobody even knew that they were gone.”

Goran greatly admired Bellow—the admiration was apparently reciprocated—but didn’t recognise what he called Bellow’s working class “Delphic expressionistic people” who toss arcane philosophical debates back-and-forth like baseball raps or tabloid gossip—wiseguy gab applied to the cosmic. For Bellow, living in a modern city like Chicago stirs and demands contemplation, prompts the Big Questions. His leading characters may be emotional disasters but they are all questing and curious—protagonists with a vengeance—and are surrounded by characters on the make, schemers for success, money, women. Perhaps Goran’s bravest act as a writer was to take his characters as he knew them from the streets of Pittsburgh—often paralyzed, wounded, bewildered, timid, or passive; people haunted by grief, guilt, fantasies, and visions. Sometimes Goran risked inscrutability by this act, his surrender to inwardly directed subjectivities. But damn the consequences—this was Lester’s universe.

As he wrote in the introduction to Tales from the Irish Club (1996):

“No one except a fiction writer would want to perpetuate a cast of all the unremembered delegates from an abandoned time.”

That said, I considered it great news when Lester resurrected his comic mode forty years after Keeper of Secrets in the sequel, Unnatural Expectations, and in a short story cycle about the ‘Air Man’ A. C. Laredo, based on the life of Goran’s immigrant father. I was honoured to be able to publish excerpts from both as-yet-unpublished manuscripts in my capacity as the editor of Contrappasso.


The Keeper of Secrets marked the end of Lester’s first period, an impressive run of six novels in a dozen years. Then there was a long silence of more than twenty years broken only by the indie appearance of the historical novel Mrs. Beautiful (1985) and his collaborative translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s late stories (I’m discounting the two paperback ‘saga’ novels Goran wrote for money). The intensity of Goran’s second period of publishing activity is extraordinary: five books published between 1994 and 1999. These are a memoir of Singer, the novel Bing Crosby’s Last Song, and three collections of short stories focusing on the denizens of Oakland’s Irish Club (a fourth collection was mooted but never appeared). Suddenly Goran, in his late sixties, had a critically-acclaimed corpus of fifty stories. His earlier novels entirely out of print, he was now best known as a short story writer. This was unusual because he hadn’t concentrated on stories in the past nor sold these ones individually to magazines and journals.

But bibliographies are misleading. Like any writer attempting maneuvers without ever having the good fortune of penning a bestseller, Goran’s published work—twelve books—is merely what he was able to smuggle out to the world as he moved from publisher to publisher. He enjoyed two brief periods of regular publication in a career of more than fifty years. I don’t believe he ever stopped writing. He told me his archives held many other manuscripts, including a novel that was supposed to be published following The Keeper of Secrets but was cancelled.

Although he surely promoted his work to agents and publishers when necessary, especially in the early days, it is difficult to imagine Lester as a hustler. That would indicate a need for outside affirmation. In the brief time I knew him, Lester seemed eminently self-sufficient, a modest man rather chuffed by where he’d found himself. He’d come a tremendous way from his slum youth, but he said the biggest leg of the journey was from the 5th to the 4th Ward of Pittsburgh. He never betrayed a sense of injustice that his work remained largely unknown.

He continued to teach and write into his mid-eighties. He confidently expected to follow his brother’s lead and live to a hundred. His emails to me as he worked on the Shimen Groff sequel and ‘Air Man’ communicated an undiminished glee in the simple act of writing—again, transcendence through imagination. Swapping reports of our respective novel writing, Lester wrote to me on February 16, 2012, in his standard telegrammic style:

“Revived work on Shimen mss., should be done well before 21st century ends. All very exciting. Fun like all hell. Happy to hear you are in throes of creation, all there is between artist and lunacy of the world. Best and thanks. LG.”

Buenos Aires, July 2014

Presented at ‘Goran’s Gifts: A Tribute to Creative Writing Professor Lester Goran’, University of Miami, 24 October 2014; Originally published in Mangrove (Fall 2014). Photograph by Matthew Asprey Gear.