Friday, 17 October 2014

Talking to Teju Cole @ Faber Social (07.10.2014)

Your correspondent & Teju Cole at The Ace, Shoreditch
Last week at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch I interviewed Teju Cole onstage before an enthused audience, under the banner of Faber Social, Faber’s excellent series of cross-pollinated cultural and conversational soirees. (I recall it was David Peace, Simon Reynolds and me on the bill at the inaugural Social back in June 2011.)

Talking to Teju Cole was a lively and engrossing discussion to be part of. Right at the top Cole previewed a sardonic piece that he had just written for the New Yorker (and which was duly posted online there the following day) about CNN’s coverage of the Ebola crisis. Cole is an assured and beguiling speaker, and his prefacing remark about feeling uncomfortably ‘like a slam poet’ in delivering this new text (off the screen of his smartphone, no less) turned out, you might guess, to be modesty in extremis.

Cole is Nigerian-American, or American-Nigerian – born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raised in Lagos, educated in London and New York inter alia, and now a citizen of the world in the manner of all writers who attain his level of accomplishment and reputation. (Cole was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award of 2012 for Open City, his debut publication in the US and UK.) Accordingly the conversation ranged freely. He was in the West Bank this summer past, so there was that for starters.

His most recently published work Every Day is For The Thief (actually his first discrete book, originated as a sequence of blog posts and then published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria around 2007, before Open City went out and made his name) concerns an unnamed protagonist returning to his native Lagos and encountering a society in which daily transactions seem to be endlessly debased by a climate of corruption: one that seems rather to emanate out of the yawning societal gulf between the powerful and crude-wealthy, and the mass of the people in the streets grafting for coppers and fighting among themselves.

Every Day is For The Thief is full of pained scenes and observations that stay with you: from the narrator’s desultory wander around a denuded, asset-tripped, historically dishonest national museum to his pilgrimage into a heaving marketplace where a pilfering child had been burned alive by a mob and the killing recorded on video. Reading this book certainly brought sensory elements of my visit to Lagos in September 2013 vividly back to the front of my mind, but nothing I saw was nearly so dreadful as that.

Every Day is a different sort of book to Open City, in that the latter can be read with a familiar gratified sense by anyone at home in the great city-centred literature of modernity that was born in the nineteenth century and probably attained its high watermark after the Second World War, before rolling back. Open City has been reviewed as a notable entry in the celebrated literature of the flâneur, and its narrator Julius is keen-eyed but as full of melancholy as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, seemingly unable to affect the course of events he perceives so sharply. Cole is not his narrators, though, and the depth of his engagement with politics, coupled to his facility at speaking freely on political matters in his own voice, are noteworthy.

Cole told the audience in Shoreditch that for him the novel was very much about New York in the aftermath of September 11 2001. (He also professed his high regard for Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.) The legacy of traumatic events is certainly of great interest to him. Open City, though not a heavily plot-carpentered work, nonetheless builds to a revelation of personal trauma which shows Cole working in a plangent way on more than one register.

A significant element of Cole’s oeuvre has been made on Twitter, which he has made use of in a manner of ingenuity that far outstrips any other writer of fiction I can think of. If you don’t know of his Twitter projects – Hafiz, Small Fates, A Piece Of The Wall – you should investigate immediately. Cole has been a forceful advocate of the economy Twitter presses upon a writer (‘When you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, naked, so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work’.) For the moment, though, he seems to have retired from the medium. I expect there’ll be another medium along shortly he will use just as adroitly.

Robert Aickman at the Freud Museum: Evidence

Above is a nicely shot and edited three-and-a-half minutes marking the event Faber held at the Freud Museum in June 2014 to honour Robert Aickman's centenary. Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson were our distinguished guest speakers and they read and spoke splendidly; and we were also treated to an excellent speech by Jean Richardson, a close personal friend of Aickman's in his latter years, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make in the course of this project. Mr Dyson is at the lectern in the image-capture above; mine is the convict-like profile in the lower-right corner.

Reece and Jean wrote new pieces about Aickman for the new Faber edition of Cold Hand in Mine. A new preface by me also appears in Dark Entries, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine Dark-Sea. Below is a bit of what I have to say therein:

So elegantly and comprehensively does Aickman encompass all the traditional strengths and available complexities of the supernatural story that, at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow. True, there is perhaps a typical Aickman protagonist – usually but not always a man, and one who does not fit so well with others, temperamentally inclined to his own company. But Aickman has a considerable gift for putting us stealthily behind the eyes of said protagonist. Having established such identification, the way in which he then builds up a sense of dread is masterly. His construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and our protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.

This effect is especially pronounced – Aickman, as it were, preordains the final black flourish – in stories such as ‘Never Visit Venice‘ (the title gives the nod) and ‘The Fetch’, whose confessional protagonist rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’, his pursuer a grim and faceless wraith who emerges from the sea periodically to augur a death in the family. Sometimes, though, to paraphrase John Donne, the Aickman protagonist runs to death just as fast as death can meet him: as in ‘The Stains’, an account of a scholarly widower’s falling in love with – and plunging to his undoing through – a winsome young woman who is, in fact, some kind of dryad.

On this latter score it should be said that, for all Aickman’s seeming astringence, many of his stories possess a powerful erotic charge. There is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression; and yet he also creates a deep unease whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the feminine) are forms of snare, varieties of doom. If such a tendency smacks rather of neurosis, one has to say that this is where a great deal of horror comes from; and Aickman carries off his version of it with great panache, always.

On the flipside of the coin one should also acknowledge Aickman’s refined facility for writing female protagonists, and that the ambiance of such tales – the world they conjure, the character’s relations to people and things in that world – is highly distinctive and noteworthy within his oeuvre. Aickman’s women are generally spared the sort of grisly fates he reserves for his men, and yet still he routinely leaves us to wonder if they are headed to heaven or hell, if not confined to some purgatory. Among his most admired stories in this line are ‘The Inner Room’ and ‘Into the Wood’, works in which the mystery deepens upon the final sentence.

And lest we forget: Aickman can also be very witty, too, even in the midst of mounting horrors, and even if it’s laughter in the dark. English readers in particular tend to chuckle over ‘The Hospice’, the story of a travelling salesman trapped in his worst nightmare of a guesthouse, where the guests are kept in ankle-fetters and the evening meal is served in mountainous indigestible heaps (‘It’s turkey tonight.’) In the aforementioned ‘The Fetch’, when our haunted man finally finds himself caged in his Scottish family home, watching the wraith watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall – he still has time to reflect that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland.’ This is the sound of a refined intellect, amusing both himself and us.