Momentous minutiae

Nathalie Lemel
A reflection by fiction-creating colleague P. J. Royal (Historical Context and the Art of Exclusion) reminds me of how the minutiae we find in our research can give new twists or meanings to our stories. Some seemingly unimportant detail may reveal the mechanism that made people in another time and place act the ways they did. In A Gift for the Sultan, the way a man wraps his turban and whether and when he chooses to do it are not just costuming, but a whole attitude of defiance, or arrogance, or sometimes anxiety. In my present novel in progress, I'm looking for clues in daily lives of the people of Paris to explain their extraordinary behavior in the Commune of 1871. What made so many ordinary, working-class Parisians, men an women, risk everything — and ultimately, most of them, lose everything — for it? And just what was it they thought they were defending?

The disastrous (and utterly unnecessary) war with Prussia and the huge French casualties; the winter-long siege and bombardment of their city, along with the paralysis of production, employment and income and the shortage of food; the sense of national humiliation before Prussia and of betrayal first by their Emperor and then by a new government that promised only greater exploitation and the elimination of hard-earned rights; and the anxiety produced by all this and so little expectation of relief — these were all components for combustion of a large, proud, densely populated city, suddenly abandoned by its government and police forces. Without knowing any more, we might expect riots, crime, vandalism. Instead, we see a social revolution where hitherto unknown men and women rose to police the city, maintain the roads, hospitals and schools and keep the factories and commerce functioning, all the while fighting to defend it and making all major decisions even as to military defense by majority vote, for a few weeks from March 18 to the end of May, «au temps des cérises», spring 1871.

Why, I wonder, were bookbinders so prominent? Not only the energetic and audacious Eugène Varlin and the woman he encouraged in the leadership in the bookbinders' union he created, the equally amazing Nathalie Lemel. There were many others, now anonymous, among the most active communards. Was there something about the way they used their hands and all their senses in their craft that made them especially quick to react and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances? Or was it mainly their contact with books that enabled them to envision a better world?    

And the other crafts. What about all those metalworkers who died at the barricades? And seamstresses? Hands and hand skills, hearts, neighborhoods, trade affiliations — everything is relevant when your fighting with all you have and for all your worth. Every known detail I discover helps me imagine the others.


Blog Hop … The Next Big Thing

A day late and a dollar short. I was supposed to do my "Blog Hop" entry yesterday, but things happened — including, believe it or not, a visit by Omar Sharif to our little fishing village in Almería (Spain), where he filmed part of "Lawrence of Arabia" 50 years ago! But back to this blog hop.

Me reading at a local bookstore, Librería Nobel in Vera, Spain
Mary Tod tagged me for this "hop" which somebody (we don't know who) started and called THE NEXT BIG THING. The idea is for each author to answer 10 questions about a work in progress (WIP) or recently published book, and then tag other authors to do the same the following week. 

What is your book's title?
A Gift for the Sultan takes place in and around Constantinople in 1402, when that city was under ferocious siege by the Ottomans. I've already written here previously about its development, but answering these ten questions may be a good way to sum up the experience. My new novel, or WIP, is too fresh to talk about and as yet has not found its title.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I had just completed a nonfiction book on social issues in the U.S. (Hispanic Nation, University of Arizona Press) and was ready for something completely different. On a visit to Istanbul and from there into the interior of Turkey, I was deeply impressed by the rich mix of cultures and overlapping histories of successive invaders and settlers, especially the long period of uneasy co-existence between the Greek-speaking, urbanized Christians and nomadic, newly Islamized Turks. And while reading up on that history, I was surprised to learn two facts. First, that Christian emperors and satraps had frequently offered their daughters in marriage to Turkish chieftans in order to buy peace. What, I wondered, would that sudden immersion in an utterly alien culture be like for the young Christian bride? Second, that under the terrible stress of bombardment and isolation, the ruler of Constantinople was prepared to surrender the city to the Sultan, but, afraid of the reaction of the populace, he had to carry out his negotiations in utter secrecy.  What were the many tensions within that city?  I was also thinking of the more recent siege of Sarajevo by Orthodox Serbs and other cities under stress.

What genre does your book fall under? 

It is being marketed as "historical fiction", but it is really, or also, a sociological study of the shifting alliances and betrayals that emerge when two powerful cultural systems — in this case, urban Greek-speaking Christians and Ottoman Muslims — collide. The fictional characters are closely patterned on real social types of that place and time, and everything I have invented is something that really could have happened that way. But "historical sociological fiction" is too unwieldy a label, so let's leave it as "historical fiction".   

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

A Turkish translation of the book has just been published in Istanbul. I will be delighted if some Turkish filmmaker or TV producer takes it on, and casts some dashing, dark, 30-ish actor (there are several who might be available) as the Turkish warrior who is supposed to deliver the princess to the Sultan; a pretty young woman who can pass for the adolescent Greek princess who suddenly finds herself among the rough Turkish horsemen; and some good comic actors for the parts of the Christian merchant trying to profit from this new event, the English mercenary palace guard, and the various other Turkish, Greek and other personalities. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

A great city calls on all its resources — magical, military and monetary —to survive assault by a powerful urban force.

But there is another story, of special interest to  the readers of the Turkish translation The supremely arrogant sultan Bayezid, called "Thunderbolt" ("Yildirim" in Turkish), meets his downfall at the hands of the very astute, chess-playing war chief from Samarkand, Timur (Tamerlane). Even today, families in Turkey frequently name their sons Yildirim or Timur. 

Is your book self-published or trade published? (The original form of this question said "or represented by an agency?")  

Oddly enough, the answer is "Both". I published it myself in English in 2010. A major Istanbul publisher, Nokta Yayıncılık Dağıtım ve Pazarlama, then purchased translation rights and published it last month (November 2012).   

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

A very long time. The original idea came to me on that first trip to Turkey in 1997. But I knew almost nothing about Turkey or what we call the Byzantine empire, their languages or customs, or the details of their long, involved history. I put the work aside several times and wrote other things (several short stories, journalistic articles), but I was too intrigued by the story to abandon it. I now know an awful lot about those peoples and their history, and even began studying Turkish. I completed the draft in 2008 or 2009.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I'm not modest. I'll say Tolstoy's War and Peace, for its interplay of sociology and history, and also certainly Albanian author Ismail Kadaré, The Siege

Who or What inspired you to write this book? 

My experience in Turkey, as described above, and also my reading of the news. I think there is much to be learned from this momentous conflict about Muslim-Christian relations today, and about the terrible fear and rage against urban civilization that motivates much of contemporary terrorism. 

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?  

A very gallant, though very superstitious Ottoman warrior, and a bold and perky young Christian princess rebelling against the fate designed for her. And many dramatic and some quite comic scenes. 

And here are some of the other blog-hopping authors you'll want to check out:

Jan Alexander is a fiction writer and financial journalist, currently putting finishing touches on a fantastical, satirical novel about New York, the new China, and the process of fictional creation. She plans to tell you all about it next week (December 12) on the blog of a small collective of writer-editors that she co-founded, http://thothbooks.blogspot.com.es/ 

Mary Tod, who "tagged" me for this post, is a writer of historical fiction whose blog has just that title: http://awriterofhistory.com/author/awriterofhistory/ Thanks, Mary, for the invitation to the blog hop.

Sophie Schiller is a writer of historical fiction and spy thrillers. She has a recent book called Transfer Day. Her own blog is at  http://sophieschiller.blogspot.com
Richard Sutton has written two novels, The Red Gate and Gatekeepers about the O'Deirg family and the ancient secret they are charged to protect. He blogs at  http://www.sailletales.com
Kirstie Olley lives in Australia and calls herself a speculative fiction writer. And she is pleased to have completed NaNoWriMo. She blogs at http://www.storybookperfect.com/.


Musings : Shadow Dimensions: Plato's Cave, Wayang Kulit & the Literary Endeavor

Add caption
A reflection from a very thoughtful colleague. I loved her shadow-puppet analogy to the characters we create in our fiction. I think all of you, fellow writers and readers, will enjoy this.

Humble Musings of a Literary Kind: Shadow Dimensions: Plato's Cave, Wayang Kulit & the Literary Endeavor

And along the same lines, some of the shadow beings that populated Dickens' brain, and from there to ours.

Image at top: Shadow theater (more information at this site)
Dickens and his characters from New York Public Library Print Collection


"One World, Two Sultans"


This is the Turkish translation of my novel A Gift for the Sultan, just published by Nokta publishers in İstanbul.

The phrase at the top is Timur ve Yıldırım'in Mücadelesi —“The struggle of Timur and Yildirim”

Timur was the khan from Samarkand we know as Tamerlane; Yildirim (or Yıldırım in Turkish), "Thunderbolt", was the nom de guerre of Sultan Bayezid (1354-1403), defeated by Timur in the Battle of Ankara, July 1402.

The novel is about much more than the struggle of these two fierce warriors — it is also about how a great city, Constantinople, confronts a terrible siege and about the complicated relations between Orthodox Greeks and Ottoman Muslims in this frontier period, when neither had unchallenged dominance of the region. But Timur and Yildirim's struggle is a big part of the story, and is of special interest to Turkish readers as part of their founding history.

A Gift for the Sultan (English-language original)


Turkish edition of "A Gift for the Sultan"

I'm delighted to announce that the Turkish-language version of A Gift for the Sultan has just been published by Nokta in Istanbul and presented at the TUYAP International Book Fair in that city. The Turkish title is Bir cihan iki sultan ("One World, Two Sultans").


Top Ten Ingredients of Favourite Historical fiction - A Writer of History

Here's a thoughtful discussion, sparked by historical fiction author Mary Tod and continued in a whole series of lively comments.

Top Ten Ingredients of Favourite Historical fiction - A Writer of History

I think she's got a good list of the most common features of popular historical fiction. But I don't take it as a recipe for my own work, and I don't suppose any serious writer would. For me, the aims of re-imagining events of the past are, first, to learn something that might be useful in our future actions, and second, to understand better how things got the way they are. My novel about the 1402 Ottoman siege of Constantinople (A Gift for the Sultan) is really about how any great city draws on its most diverse resources when under tremendous stress, and also about how such a polyglot, multiethnic and territorially expansive system as the Ottoman Empire (with all its consequences down to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and Syria today) got its start.

Drifting through Paris in the 1980s

Dans le café de la jeunesse perdueDans le café de la jeunesse perdue by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully told, sad story of a lost child of Paris in the 1980s, whose brief passage through their lives has left an indelible and unresolved impression on at least four men who knew her. Daughter of an unwed mother with a night job in Le Moulin Rouge, disappointed and ashamed because of her rejection of admission by the Lycée Jules-Ferry (her one attempt to escape her poor routine), Jacqueline Delanque drifts into a cocaine habit with a new, more sophisticated girlfriend, then drifts into the Café Condé where the habitual idlers baptize her "Louki"; she also allows herself to be pulled into an insipid marriage with the much older director of a real estate agency where she finds work as a temp, but finding no satisfaction in his house or his circle of friends, simply decides not to return there one night but to stay with a boyfriend almost as aimless as she. She is remembered years later by a former student in l'École de Mines, by the private investigator hired by her husband to find her, and by the boyfriend who perhaps, in his immature manner, also drifting, perhaps loved her.

Besides all these people, the quartiers of Paris, each with its social class connotations, and their changing character since those days when "Louki" frequented the Café Condé, are characters in the novel.

This is the first Modiano I've read. I'll want to read more of such beautiful, lyrical expression. And maybe improve my French enough to review him in that language.

View all my reviews


Generations of mothers of rebellion

A good friend and colleague has commented about the Agnès Poirier article I praised here recently, disputing her characterization of the Paris Commune of 1871 as "the mother of all rebellions." In his note he reminds me of many of the earlier ones, some much, much earlier, and of course the Révolution Française of 1789. I think we should give the journalist a little latitude — she needed a quick, economical phrase. But let's consider why and how the Commune mattered, and if it was a "mother," what have been its children?

The motherhood of revolution must go back to Eve, the original rebel. That is, if we mean "origin". But of course revolution has had many generations of mothers, each spawning offspring that had to adapt to its times.

What caught the attention of everybody in the late 19th century, revolutionary or counterrevolutionary, was that the Commune erupted in one of the principal cities of industrial capitalism. This could mean either that it was the last flare of the big one of 1789 or the harbinger of an ever more potent urban revolt. And that among the declarations of the communards were visions of a society that translated Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité into what were then modern, practical terms.

The Commune and all the earlier revolutions my friend mentions were many things at once, aiming in different directions, impelled by different and often contrary groups. I'm drawn to the communards because they are more of my time than Saint-Just, Robespierre, Danton et al., in language and proposals. Europe and the world had changed enormously since the revolution of 1789, in large part because of that revolution (and American independence, and Napoleon and his wars, and of course the steam engine, etc.).

To us today, pre-1789 is a much more foreign place than 1871. When I read about poor, brave Eugène Varlin, or about the women at the barricades (there were hardly any in 1789, but they were everywhere in 1871), they stir memories of our own days of rebellion, of 20th century Communists I've known, of debates I suffered and engaged in. Like all analogies, reading 1871 through, say, 1968 or the 1970s distorts both, I know that, but still, they stir me. And I want to get to know them better, by imagining their lives in my novel. They (the metalworkers, bookbinders and seamstresses, to name 3 of the main participating occupational groups) feel closer to me than the sans culottes, but if I live long enough, maybe one day I'll want to write about them too.

In any case, the Commune acknowledged its own "mothers" and "grandmothers" — especially 1789, 1830 and 1848 —  and its offspring have included Lenin's and Trotsky's concepts of revolution, much of the language and aims of the Spanish Second Republic (the one finally defeated by Franco), the many guerrilla movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and even in rebel discourse today.


Understanding the society that produced the Commune

Paris Babylon: the Story of the Paris Commune Paris Babylon: the Story of the Paris Commune by Rupert Christiansen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wittily told and extensively researched, this brief account of the Second Empire, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune has two special merits. First, it is more sociological than ideological: Christiansen aims neither to condemn nor exalt the revolutionary Communards or the Versaillais who tried (and ultimately succeeded) to destroy them, but rather to understand all sides. He is of course appalled by the atrocities, a few by the communards (much exaggerated by Versailles propaganda, but there were some) and far more by the Versailles government troops, especially during the semaine sanglante and following, but such horrors by one side do not necessarily justify the decisions and confusions by the other. The book's second great virtue is its descriptions of curious aspects of Paris and Louis Napoleon's II Empire on the eve of the series of disasters that destroyed it: war with Prussia, then the siege of Paris and finally the Commune. There is a brief account of Baron Haussmann's transformation of the city's space, and its unintended social and economic consequences. And the chapter, "The Spermal Economy," on French medical opinion and prejudices about sex (how much to indulge and how, and how upper-class men used the Opéra as their exclusive brothel) is very amusing, though of doubtful relevance to the Commune, whose proletarian defenders' sexual behavior surely had little to do with such official notions. The account of the war is too brief to understand it, and the intense debates among Blanquistes, Prudhonniens and Marxistes, Républicains, and monarchists and other conservatives, are merely alluded to.

For readers new to the subject, this book provides a lively and fair overview of events, with bibliographic notes for those who want to understand more. And for anyone, its anecdotes and portraits, e.g. of the Empress Eugénie and of the pathetic and mysteriously uncommunicative Emperor, or Haussmann and even of the young and insolent Rimbaud (who may or may not have got to Paris during the Commune — we don't really know) make it a lively and suggestive addition to the bibliography.

For me, as I continue developing my new novel around this dramatic episode, it will be more helpful for portraying the bourgeois, in the middle between the great revolutionary and reactionary forces. 

View all my reviews


Afghanistan: a personal view of the traumas

The Kite RunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rich boy grows up with a terrible sense of shame for a childhood act of cowardly betrayal, and only decades later redeems himself in a punishing campaign requiring great courage. This is the story thread for a book that is really about the traumas of Afghanistan, in its several stages: from the almost feudal stability under the king (overthrown in 1973), when the narrator's widowed merchant father and others in the dominant Pashtun ethnic group could live very comfortably at the expense of the despised Hazara servant caste, to the Communist government where the push for rapid reforms and the rise to power of other ethnic groups (including Hazara) roused violent resistance, to the triumph of the Taliban, celebrated as liberators but then quickly become far worse tyrants than any of their predecessors. The descriptions of how such a rapid chain of disasters affected the urban, educated Kabul élite are vivid and memorable. Also closely observed and moving is their struggles to cope with their sudden plunge of status as exiles in California, the narrator's once-powerful father as a gas station attendant, an ex-general living on his pride and the dole, and both of them trying to sell junk in a weekend market. All this makes the book worth reading — though the story is too melodramatically neat, every punishment exactly fitting the crime. There's also a movie, which is much weaker and insipid, because it leaves out all that makes the book's episodes scary in order to focus on the thin story of redemption.

View all my reviews

The book should be a stimulus to find out more of what's behind the current disasters of that country. Hosseini does not pretend to any political acuity, that is, he does not attempt to evaluate or explain these huge events, but he may lead the reader to try to find out more. The conditions of the Hazara people , for example, have been a major part of the nation's drama but little discussed outside the country — or even among Afghans, because it's a source of shame. We really need to re-examine the Communist period, which began to accomplish many good things, especially in reforming ethnic relations and opening opportunities to women, before the resistance by patriarchal tribal leaders, abetted by the U.S., escalated the violence and the Soviet army invaded with all the usual clumsiness of invaders, causing the violence to escalate even more, and so on. There were some missed chances for creating a freer society. 

La Commune: a lesson in audacity | Agnès Poirier | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Here's an excellent summary which will help you understand why I feel passionate enough about this episode to make it the center of my new novel — which I am just now starting.

La Commune: a lesson in audacity | Agnès Poirier | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk


City of revolution: (my) work in progress

We were so busy in Paris these past few days that I didn't have a chance to blog about it. Here's what I wrote the night before we left, at the invitation of Red Room to write about that city:
City of revolution | Geoffrey Edmund Fox | Blog Post | Red Room

Two things I've decided about my next book: it will not be "historical fiction" in the sense that Mario Vargas Llosa dismisses that term, i.e., a costume drama of two or three characters with "history" as the stage set. Rather it will be an attempt to understand history itself, or rather one of its most world-consequential chapters. And that Paris, the whole of Paris, with its millions of individuals, factions, conflicting interests and desires, will be the protagonist. The chapter of interest will be the Commune of 1871, along with the war (France v. Prussia, 1870) and ensuing the siege that led up to it, and the repercussions still felt down to our times in places as far away as Tahrir Square in Cairo. Many of the actors and actions of the Commune are well-documented and hotly debated; more than a thousand books were published on it in the first 50 years (somebody took the trouble of counting, in the Bibliothèque Nationale). But other characters and events — including the anonymous proletarians of the Commune, the later readers inspired by their example for other movements in other lands — can only be reconstructed imaginatively.

What I propose is to try to comprehend history through characters like Weber's invention of "ideal types", but instead of leaving the "types" as abstractions, imagining them into life in all their confusions and complexity. The book I envision will be essay and novel, analysis and fiction, all meant to say something not about a dead past but about our living aspirations. Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, or Javier Cerca's Soldados de Salamina, and even Vargas Llosa's "non-historical fiction" recreations of the past (La fiesta del chivo, La guerra del fin del mundo, etc.) and all imaginative literature that aims at more than entertainment. 


Sad Europe, sad globe

A friend wrote to "congratulate" me on the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union— I suppose, because I live in a corner of Europe. I thought she was joking, but no, it's true. The Nobel Peace Prize seems like a sad joke, but maybe it's meant as a consolation prize. I had intended to write something about Europe's slow-motion disaster, as one after another of the hard-won social conquests crumbles, but the forces of disintegration have been speeding up. How Europe got into this pickle is pretty clear — I just reviewed a book (Indecentes in my Spanish-language blog) that sums it up blow by blow, the bungling miscalculations since Bear Stearns and then Lehman Bros., followed by the more-or-less covert campaign by Trichet and his successors (and allies in the Bundesbank) to shift the blame to the "middle classes" and the workers, and (the special focus of Indecentes) the totally ineffective and even counterproductive actions by the Spanish government under its man of inaction, Mariano Rajoy.

Anyway, there's no mystery about how we got this close to the impending crash that IMF head Christine Lagarde foresees. And there is no reason to expect the financial powers to change the no-growth, severe austerity policies that they are ideologically committed to and that, short term anyway, appear to benefit German capital while impoverishing everybody else. So what we need to focus on is how to force a change in those policies (while there is still some democratic room to maneuver, in demos, elections, etc.), and most importantly — longer term, for recovery after the foreseeable global collapse if we don't change direction — what kind of more egalitarian, more productive, more environmentally sensitive society we can construct. We can't foresee the future, we can only make it, by omission or commission.

I know there are lots of people working on this, and have been for generations. And though all those struggles — e.g., the Paris Commune, the Spanish 2d Republic, and later social revolutions — have failed their maximalist objectives, we can learn from all of them, to at least fail better. If you haven't already, check out the late Eric Hobsbawm's brilliant compendium of some of those efforts, How to Change the World.

Pursuit of agents

Here's something I posted in another blog, in the author's website Red Room. It's a personal account, but may be of interest to other book writers.

Pursuit of agents | Geoffrey Edmund Fox | Blog Post | Red Room


Free copy of "Welcome to My Contri"

This highly praised collection of short stories of Latin America is now available again, in an expanded e-book edition.

When the original paperback edition of Welcome to My  Contri appeared in 1989, The New York Times Book Review-er James Polk called it the work of "a formidable new writer."

Original 1989 paperback
New! 2012 e-book on Kindle & Smashwords
Now what the NY Times reviewer called “ This frequently powerful collection of short stories that enters Latin America as if through the rickety back door of a burlesque house has been re-issued in an expanded e-book edition, with a new foreword and two additional stories, published by Thoth Books editorial collective.

Free to readers of the blog until January 2013.  To get your free copy, downloadable in formats including: .mobi (for Kindle), Epub (Nook, iPad, etc.) and others, or as a  pdf. file, go to

Smashwords: Welcome to My Contri,

and enter this code at check-out for a 100% discount: WT67M

And please let us and other readers know what ou think, by leaving a review at the Smashwords or Amazon site, Goodreads, or wherever else you review.



Summertime: FictionSummertime: Fiction by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this his third fictional autobiography, Coetzee portrays the early adulthood of a man very much like himself — with even the same name, "John Coetzee" — with similar origins and history (born into an English-speaking Afrikaner family near Capetown, returned to South Africa after some years abroad including the US, later to become a well-known writer). However this fictional John Coetzee is now dead, and what we learn about this period of his life, in his 30s and before he achieved fame as a writer, comes from journal notes and interviews by an English academic of people who were somehow involved with him then: a suburban housewife in an adulterous affair, an Afrikaans-speaking cousin with whom he had as a child fantasized marriage, a younger French woman and college-teaching colleague who saw her affair with him as a way to overcome a bad marriage, a Brazilian woman he ineffectually pursued, and a male teaching colleague with whom he had a cordial but rather distant friendship. The Coetzee portrayed here is a man very sensitive to injustice, hopelessly incompetent socially, who has left his acquaintances somewhat puzzled that he ever amounted to anything. Certainly, to some extent this is an effort by the author to see himself as others see him (as the Burns poem has it), but the novel is not so much about a real John Coetzee as about South Africa in the 1970s, the limitations and hypocrisies in Afrikaner culture, the indifference of most of the world (at least in that setting) to the literature that so much matters to the fictional and to the real John Coetzee. Besides the self-deprecating and often very amusing tone of the central protrait, the book offers clear-eyed, unsentimental perceptions of Afrikaner self-isolation (with a language spoken nowhere else in the world, as the fictitious Coetzee has jotted in his journal), the mind-dulling routines of college ritual, and the sharply contrasting concepts of manliness as between the protagonist himself and, most sharply, the Brazilian widow who remembers her big, bold husband.

View all my reviews


Hunger on the Rise in Spain - NYTimes.com

Thanks to friend Jess Brodnax for forwarding this link: Hunger on the Rise in Spain - NYTimes.com

As I said to Jess, Yes, it's a terrible situation, and quite unnecessary. The government has accepted the Merkel/Brussels premise that more unemployment is the best way to increase employment — budget cuts for investment, public employees, etc., to reduce the deficit, which is supposed to make the economy grow again. It's an unsustainable policy. Either the euro will disintegrate (into a southern and northern euro, for example, or into many more fragments), or the policy will change, or the resistance will grow to massive to contain. Last Tuesday's police charges against demonstrators in Madrid a just a foretaste.


Personal update

Next spring will be the 50th reunion of my college graduating class, and the organizers have asked us for a personal essay. Here's mine, on one of the three suggested topics: the most important events for us in the past five years. It may help you understand "where I'm coming from," to judge the worth of any of my opinions here in the blog.

At the Librería Nobel, Vera, Almería, Spain, Dec. 2010
The two biggest changes in my life in the past 5 years have been our move from New York City to our new home in Carboneras, Almería, Spain, and the publication of my novel A Gift for the Sultan.

In 2009 my life partner Susana Torre and I moved into one of a complex of seven semi-detached houses, designed by Susana and built by our new Spanish company on a hillside on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Besides the constant conversation of the sea, from murmurs to roars, and our interactions with new friends and neighbors, our home gives us easy access to other parts of Europe and beyond. Leaving the hubub of 8 million for the slower, sometimes comical and always nosy life of a village of 8 thousand has also brought us the surprises and discoveries of immersion in the mother culture of the Latin American societies that we both know well— Susana from her birth and early education in Argentina, I through years of writing and research. 

The publication in 2010 of A Gift for the Sultan, inspired by real events during the 1402 Ottoman siege of Constantinople, marked a new stage in my writing career. This was my first book on anything but Latin America, and my largest work of fiction to date. The idea came to me after our first visit to Istanbul in 1996, which was a kind of celebration for completing my book on Latin Americans in the U.S., Hispanic Nation. Plunging into a period and cultures entirely new to me was exhilarating, but also challenging. But research was not the main problem. The greater challenge was to construct a coherent story and bring it to a conclusion which was not merely satisfying, but also true to the larger history and to the behaviours of such people in such a time. I think I succeeded: the book has received good reviews from readers and so impressed those in Turkey, where I’ve been invited to discuss it several times, that an Istanbul publisher, Nokta, has bought the translation rights and plans to publish it shortly.

In the summer of 2012 I invited three other experienced author-editors to join me in an editorial collective, Thoth Books , to edit and promote new works. Our first publication (August 2012)  has been an expanded e-book edition of my 1988 collection of short stories of Latin America, Welcome to My Contri.

Now that I’m operating from an ideal place to work, with good collegial relations and greater experience and confidence in my skills, I expect to have more works worth reading to share with you before our 60th class reunion. To stay tuned, check out my blog Literature & Society (http://geoffreyfox.blogspot.com.es/).


Mobilizations everywhere

Everywhere lately we have been seeing big, sudden and sometimes terribly violent rallies of angry people — the worst, with the deadliest consequences, in Benghazi, Cairo and other parts of the Islamic world beginning September 11, but almost simultaneously in Barcelona (also September 11), Madrid and Lisbon (both with huge rallies on September 15), Moscow and across China. Very different movements, but the fact that they are all happening now reflects the conjunction of two global phenomena: The explosion of electronic media, making it vastly easier to convoke a crowd, and deteriorating economic conditions everwhere.

About those violent assaults on U.S. embassies in Muslim countries that began on September 11, I think Ross Douthat is right about the immediate cause: it was not about a movie that, as far as we know, doesn't even exist (nobody seems to have seen any more than a 14-minute trailer) — though the video was sure convenient for the assailants.
It’s Not About the Video - NYTimes.com

The question remains, though: Why did such large numbers of angry people respond? Focusing on the video has got us into a useless and damaging debate about whether we should limit "blasphemy," a concept that has no place in a free society. It also encourages the notion that Muslims are generally crazed fanatics easily aroused if you push their sacred buttons. Those of us who are a little older remember when the really big political movement in Egypt and from there to other parts of the Arab world was entirely secular — Nasser and with his call for pan-Arabism could muster enormous enthusiastic crowds, even without Twitter or SMS. Religious fanaticism is not genetic or eternal, but a circumstantial response to some very dramatic circumstances.

Here, since I claim no special expertise on the region, all I want to offer is two lines of investigation to identify the forces that are inducing people to look for radical solutions. We should first look at demographics, and then who those interplay with economics, and only then do the particular doctrines of preachers, ulemas and other agitators become relevant. In the Arab world, and in almost all other Islamic countries as well, population has been growing too fast to be absorbed in a rigid, and closed, opportunity system, and the economic crisis— including in parts of the Near East, a long-lasting drought that has driven more and more people to the overcrowded cities, creating greater density of desperate folks.

There are other possible answers to the economic crisis, and other ways to mobilize mass discontent. Limiting anybody's freedom of expression, as in the proposed legislation to outlaw "blasphemy" as in Tunis, is just going to delay finding such a solution. We need the freest debate possible to find those answers.

I hope to say something about those other mobilizations (Spain, Portugal, and Catalonia among them) in future notes — not because I know the answers, but at least to clarify our questions, what is really at stake and what can we do about the really serious world problems?


Worried about South Africa? We should be

Appalling things have been happening in that country, violence and corruption that seem to betray the great hopes that came with the ending of apartheid. South Africa is important not just because of its size and economy and its example to the whole African continent, but as a vast social experiment showing what human beings with courage and vision can do — and what can happen to us when we lose that vision.

Daily Maverick - An open letter to Cosatu


Nothing lasts forever — not even eternity

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of RealityThe Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing lasts forever — not even eternity, as we learned from Steven Hawking a few years ago. The recent discovery of what may be the Higgs boson made me aware again of how little I understand about the universe. Or even about the questions now being posed by cosmologists. Greene makes it all about as clear as it can possibly be to someone — like me — who can't follow the math. For those who can follow it, he offers many of the necessary equations in the endnotes, which also include numerous references for further reading. To substitute for the math, Greene uses metaphors, generally pretty silly ones — Bart Simpson on a supersonic skateboard, for example — that at least give us an idea of, for example, what Einstein meant about space-time in the general theory of relativity. And then beyond Einstein, to quantum mechanics, and why the world and the whole universe appear to us in only three space dimensions (forward and back, side to side, up and down) and one time dimension, when quantum theory, confirmed experimentally, demonstrates that there must be ten space dimensions (but still only one time dimension). Is our universe really a kind of hologram projected by forces outside it, that is, beyond the universe we are capable of perceiving directly? Could be; Greene considers that hypothesis as at least plausible. And how did it all, everything, begin? Or did it? Was the Big Bang, the initial expansion of matter and energy that set everything in motion, just a new configuration of energy that is always, and that therefore may have been dispersed in some other entropic system(s), and may again — if our universe ever reaches the limit of its continuing expansion — shrink to extreme density, preparatory to a new explosion ("Big Bang") some billions of years hence? It took me weeks to get through this book, not because it was unclear, but because the news about the universe seemed so strange, so oddly contrary to our ordinary experience, that I had to keep checking back to re-understand parts of earlier chapters necessary for following the later ones. I remain amazed, and inspired with new speculations about philosophy and existence and what we do and cannot know. Guess it's time for me to learn some math.

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Romney Aides Scratch Their Heads Over Eastwood’s Speech - NYTimes.com

Romney Aides Scratch Their Heads Over Eastwood’s Speech - NYTimes.com

This is SO bad. Ol' Clint has never been a clear thinker, but here he's not even a decent performer. And the thoughts that come out of his rambling are just vague expressions of dislike of things he can't understand. And alas, he had an audience of nonthinkers to applaud him. (And he makes fun of Biden as an intellectual — good thing for Clint that he was talking to an empty chair that couldn't talk back.)


Ain't gonna let no (Romney, Ryan, fill in the blank) turn me roun'

Loved this! An antidote to the rhetoric spilling out of the Republican convention. Thanks to Anita Jones for reminding us of this event (she's right: we missed it the first time) and to Pete de Lissovoy for pointing me to Anita's blog.
Freedom Singers Performance at the White House in 2010 - Peach Seed Monkey


A "Look at me!" contest

They charge $40 to read your first chapter, $200 if you want them to read the whole novel. I suspect the chances of "winning" may be close to 100%, but the prize is not publication but a videotaped reading — an ego massage for the author, maybe, if you're desperate for attention, but not much use for publication. Also, this is one of the ugliest websites I've seen lately, and even with proof-reading errors. (“Just VOTED on of the top festivals in the world today!”)

1st CHAPTER and FULL NOVEL BOOK CONTEST - Submit the 1st chapter or entire novel to the writing festival

Real writers can do better than that.


"Welcome to My Contri" now available as e-book

A new, expanded edition of what The New York Times Book Review described as a “frequently powerful collection of short stories" of Latin America that "leaves us thoroughly wrung out — and aware that we are in the presence of a formidable new writer.” 
Smashwords — Welcome to My Contri — A book by Geoffrey Fox

Cheap! Only $0.99. I'm hoping for readers, and will welcome your comments on the Smashwords review page.

A publication of the Thoth Books Editorial Collective.


Creating ignorance

They just want to confuse us. Maybe because he sounds so sincere, and because few people bother to check out his misrepresentations, and mostly because he is saying what a lot of people want to believe (no matter that it's utterly false), too many folks cheer him on.

The Most Influential Evangelist You've Never Heard Of : NPR

Suppose (though it's not true) that the founders, including Jefferson, were as conventionally religious as he claims. So what? That was 1787, this is 2012, we have a lot better explanations today of the origin of the universe and everything else. But in fact, even with the more limited knowledge available to them, most of those men were skeptical enough to realize that there were no simple answers, and certainly no sect could claim to have them.


Don't laugh at the holy!

Up to two years in jail for making fun of your local imam or painting a mustache on a saint — four years if you're a recidivist! Freud needn't have worried about the future of the illusion. It just goes on and on, the powerful sacred.

Tunisie : un projet de loi islamiste pour punir l'atteinte au sacré


Gore Vidal on the creation of the universe

In honor of the late Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr., 1925-2012, a writer you may love or hate but must admire, I offer this review that I wrote 9 years ago:

CreationCreation by Gore Vidal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A 600-page travelogue on a long-gone world. Cyrus Spitama, half-Greek, half-Persian grandson of Zoroaster, boyhood friend of Xerxes, travels across the vast Persian Empire of the 5th c. BC, to India — where he marries a king's daughter and converses with holy men of various persuasions, most memorably with Gautama Buddha himself — and thence on to Cathay (China), where he becomes the prized slave of an impoverished duke, listens to Lao-Tze, and comes to know the aged Confucius intimately (they go fishing together). Finally he manages to return to Persia, in time for Xerxes' assassination and the ascension of his crippled son Artaxerxes, who sends him on as ambassador to Athens, where he hears Thucydides' distorted pro-Greek version of the Persian wars, chats with the young Pericles, and dictates his memoirs to his grandson Democritus. Lots of action, even more philosophical discussion, but only sporadic, unsustained narrative tension — ideas, rather than characters, are Vidal's main concerns here. Cyrus, one of the few purely fictional characters to appear, is seeking to solve the riddle of creation, a paradox for Zoroastrians, solved by reincarnation for Buddha, an event that never occurred for Lao-Tze, and an issue beyond human knowing and thus not worth exploring for Confucius. In an epilogue, Cyrus' grandson Democritus sums up his famous solution to the problem — all is matter, made up of "atoms," ceaselessly recombining to create new things. Fascinating as popular history of philosophy, but lacking the sustained, complex character development that Vidal achieves brilliantly in Burr. We get intriguing glimpses of Pericles, Xerxes and the others, but the only truly complex and fascinating characters are Atosa (Darius the Great's wife and mother of Xerxes) and Confucius.

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A perilous and unnecessary journey

As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A poor Mississippi family disintegrates upon the death of Anse Bundren's wife Addie, mother of the 5 other Bundrens. Through the running thoughts and memories of these family members, and of others who come in contact with and sometimes try to help them, sometimes to cheat them, bit by bit we learn the complex story of marriage, adultery, and conflicts never voiced but tearing the insides of Cash, the eldest son (about 30), his slightly younger brother Darl, and the three who came many years later and at least one of them by a different father, the rebellious Jewel who is the most loved by Addie, and his 17-year-old sister Dewey Dell, and their littlest brother Vardaman, convinced that his mother is a fish and is not really dead. The only character whose mind remains closed to us is the passive-aggressive Anse, a devious old coot who likes to see himself as a victim of fate but manages to manipulate everybody else.

Most of story is the tremendously difficult journey by wagon and mules, in the face of storm and flooding, to distant Jefferson where Anse insists is the only proper place to bury the by now rotting corpse of Addie — but Anse's real motive for this totally unnecessary trip to town is to get himself a set of false teeth, which he has been longing for for years. Flood, injury, mutual betrayal, madness, conflagration, and the exploitation of a poor rural girl in trouble by an unscrupulous city-slicker intensify the drama of their odyssey.

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The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner's Appendix (Modern Library)The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text with Faulkner's Appendix by William Faulkner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all the vast output of William Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962), The Sound and the Fury is the most often cited as an influence by contemporary Latin American and Spanish novelists (see article the day after the 50th anniversary of his death, El País 2012/07/10). It is a difficult challenge for the reader (and surely more difficult for its Spanish translators, because of the recourse to different Mississippi dialects), with abrupt unannounced shifts of time (from 1928 back to 1910 or even earlier) and of points of view, and deliberate disregard of conventional punctuation. From the beginning, we are required to decipher the ramblings of the "idiot", Benjy, a full-grown man (celebrating in 1928 his 33d birthday) with the mentality of an infant, deducing from his incoherent stream of consciousness the where and when of events vaguely described. We also have to accept that this severely brain-disabled person can, in his inner consciousness, repeat verbatim long passages that he has heard but not understood. The next sections are also 1st-person streams of consciousness, also disjointed but more intelligible, of Benjy's older, deeply-troubled brother Quentin (on one fateful day in 1910) and then his younger, deceitful and extremely cruel brother Jason (in 1928, but remembering much earlier times), and finally a beautifully rendered 3d-person account on the life and concerns of the black servant Dilsey, the only loving creature and the one who has been trying to hold this self-destructive and self-hating family together. The story of Benjy's sister Candace and of her bastard daughter, also named Quentin, we piece together from all the other narratives.

It's a wonder that Faulkner could get this published at all in 1929. It didn't sell well until years later, after Faulkner had become famous for other works. Then in 1946 he added the "Appendix," printed as an introduction, as a kind of reader's guide, adding the history of the once illustrious, now disintegrated Compson family and some hints about its survivors and providing very helpful clues to the events and personalities we are about to meet.

Reading it can be an exhausting but exhilarating experience. What other authors have taken away from it is the deep intensity of the portraits of place — mostly rural Mississippi, but also Cambridge-Boston — and the liberty to write freely in the disconnected natural way our thoughts flow. In the end, it is, as Macbeth says of life itself (Act V), "a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." But only to the ill-starred Compsons, unable to make any sense of their own lives. To the attentive reader and especially to other authors, Faulkner's manner of telling the tale signifies everything.

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'Making' sense with Celan - Guest post

Thanks to contributor Dirk Van Nouhuys for this stimulating and persuasive view of Celan, of meaning, and of language.

Paul Celan
One of the things Noam Chomsky did to revolutionize linguistics was to point out that you could make sentences that were grammatically correct but did not make sense. His observation freed linguists to devote their attention to grammar without worrying about meaning, as they had tended to do.  An example he used is this sentence: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
 It seems to me that when Chomsky asserts this he is using ‘make’ in a narrow sense. The phrase “make sense” for him means something like ‘to harmonize rationally with the speaker’s notion of the world.’ But ‘make’ can also mean create, and ‘make sense’ can mean create meaning. 

I once had a teacher, Yosel Rogat, who suggested that any metaphor, as opposed to a simile, behind the scenes evokes a universe in which the metaphor is literally true. If you say, “life is like a nightmare,” you point to certain resemblances that you might be able to list. “If you say, “life is a nightmare”, you evoke a universe of darkness and suffering where sordid details struggle for realization.

So it is with Chomsky’s sentence. If you speak it from the narrow, Chomskian perspective, then you say nothing about ideas or about sleep or about fury. But if you take ‘make’ in the sense of create, you have a resonant image of ideas, some reified (because they might have color), but without color and at once somnambulant and raging. And it does seem relevant to me that Chomsky is himself a furious wielder of abstract ideas intended to rouse others from complacency time after time.

And so it is with Paul Celan. His poems for the most part do not make sense in the narrow Chomskian definition. But they make a great deal of sense by creating meaning. Of course I’m reading in translation, but I doubt knowing German would make any difference. In fact I think the German inclination to create new words by joining old ones freely lends it self to this sort of sense making. You can put two words together in a way that does not harmonize rationally with the world, as you know it, but does create a new sense, a new batch of meaning. 

This generation of meaning is one thing that makes Celan so exhilarating to read, and, in his context so moving. You re constantly involved in making sense. Reading this book is a long struggle in which you time after time are forced to make (create) sense based on the chimeric materials Celan provides you. Nourishing your mind in the background as you work is Celan’s tortured history, his upbringing as a German-speaking Jew in what had been part of Austria, was then Romania and is now the Ukraine; the death of his mother in a concentration camp; his tormented attempts to recreate his nationality and his identity; his deep involvement with the German language though he was a Jew suffering horrors enacted by Germans; his career in France, his eventual suicide. It is the history of a chimeric identity, and the poems are chimeric. That the evocation is mostly of tragedy and suffering does not make it less wonderful because it shows the capacity of the human mind to work with such dark material and come out richer in meaning.

Dirk van Nouhuys
813 San Diego Road
Berkeley CA, 94707


Antidotes to economic/psychological depression

In response to my article about the "indignados" of Spain, friend and colleague Christopher Leo writes:
You and I have been through this movie before. The rotating protests are reminiscent of the late sixties, except that then there was one clear focus, the war in Vietnam. This time it's about many things, and no one thing in particular. Hard to guess where it's going to lead, if anywhere. 

Swarming rallies convoked by SMS and Internet are a worldwide phenomenon now. Even if the protests were completely ineffective in changing policies, they at least serve as an antidote to severe psychological depression among the millions who are suffering sudden decline in economic possibilities. (See Increasingly in Europe, Suicides ‘by Economic Crisis’ - NYTimes.com.)

Thus the protest rallies are an example of what Gramsci liked to call "optimism of the will". There are other antidotes to depression available: Jihad, neo-Naziism (as in Greece today), religious mysticism, drugs, alcohol etc. Lots of opiates for the people are on the menu. Of all of these possibilities, the big, rapidly assembled protest rallies against perceived injustice, where people of diverse class and ethnic backgrounds discover a common cause, seem to me by far the most healthful, both for the individual  and for the society.

Sustained anger and racist hatred are hard on one's health (see Anger Effects on Your Heart: Heart Disease, Atherosclerosis, and More), drugs destroy your physical and emotional defenses, and mystic ecstasy doesn't help much with practical problems. Political protest in an atmosphere of solidarity not only feels better, it may — just may — help bring about a more equitable system.