On Fate

My sister just asked me whether I believed in fate. She is afraid of flying and about to fly to Asia, her heart in her pocket and her fears in her throat. It is an odd question. She asked whether I believed in all choices leading to the same result and I said I believe in nothing. I barely believe in the floor bearing my weight as I get out of bed. I am never more cartesian as when I find myself under the blankets in the morning with a whole day, or whatever is left of it spreading out ahead of me, fanned out like carpet samples. These past weeks I have found myself tortured by the question of who I am. So now I am asked about fate. It is the wrong day to ask me. I am tempted to make some joke. I cycle through possible puns. Schicksal. Schocksal. Schmocksal. Scheusal. I improvise a poem. My sister gets impatient. Do you believe in fate? Would I have met the man of my dreams, she asks, had I not taken this class or that, had I remained friends with this friend or that? Would I now stare down the barrel of this flight, or this sickness or the implacable drumbeat of loneliness at this stage of my life, she prods me, unhappy with my silence on the other end of the line. Would I have always become who i am? I cannot answer this question. We are who we are. Beloved sister, I am who I am, and contemplating other paths will not help me continue breathing, will not help me look at daylight with a welcoming frown. I have nothing, I am barely anything, but this is who, where, how I am. Could my life have taken a different turn? I have to look at all the turns and choices in my life and for everything that went wrong, other things went well. Going down a different path, I would not be me – and more importantly, you would not be you, I told my sister, as we both slowly slipped into a tub of pathos and obviousness. Pathos is thick like molasses, but it smells like that milk in the fridge that could be off, but you’re not entirely sure, so you’re sitting on the kitchen floor, smelling the milk, contemplating trying it, but what if it is truly, terribly spoiled and nobody wants to start their day drinking spoiled milk on the kitchen floor especially if you’re busy pretending the afternoon sun is really the morning sun, I mean unless I look at the clock nobody knows, that’s how that Heisenberg theory goes, right, and so you put the milk back in the fridge because you’re not that thirsty anyway and life is full of choices and that should answer your question. What was it again?

 

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The Nobel Prize 2017 and literary awards

It’s two or so days until the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. I have not made a list myself yet, and after especially Dylan, I am not especially optimistic about the outcome this year. However, since last year the award did not go to a writer, and generally speaking, the award has been bypassing the global heavyweights, in favor of the Modianos and the Munros of the writing world, my picks from 2016 are still valid.

As far as I can tell, most of the writers I picked are still alive despite the horrible loss of John Ashbery this year. So please read this blog post if you are interested in who I think would merit a win this year. I have also, as a slightly puerile reaction to last year’s award, drawn up an alternative set of candidates. Now, this list may look silly, but it is at least half-serious, in a world where the literature award is no longer awarded to literature. Read the blog here.

But while you hopefully click these links I wanted to add one more thing. I am aware, following Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Simone Winko, Bourdieu and others, that awards are not a sign of “true excellence,” with the idea of an objectively best set of books or writers already being a problem. And yet I am still following book awards, and can get a bit cranky about, say, the ridiculous longlist of this year’s German Book Award, not to speak of my upset at last year’s Nobel award.

Look, whatever weaknesses awards have, I feel that some of the dismissive reactions to prizes come from people who are already well read. I mean I don’t have time scouring the lists of current novels in the languages I read, but I have ways of getting at recommendatios, but let me tell you, as a German/Russian teenager, the Booker longlist and the list of Nobel winners was a very helpful shortcut to learning about writers outside of the narrow borders of my reading. I was not surrounded by a circle of readers or writers, I wrote poetry alone and secretly, and similarly, much of my reading happened in shadows, on attics, in the quiet spaces where words from all over the world came to life.

Without awards and longlists my reading would have been restricted to that of my circle of friends, or of newspaper reviews. Germany, by the way, if you want some insight on the latter, is a country where Jonathan Franzen is taken seriously as a Nobel Prize candidate.

I found some of my favorite books and writers on the lists created by awards, award discussions and longlists, most at a time when I wouldn’t have been able to find these books. There were three distinct sources for me as a teenager, discovering literature, two of them being two bookshops in Heidelberg, both long defunct, and one my trawling through lists and awards.

Scoffing at awards is well and good for those who already know about books, or meet people they can ask. In my opinion, awards have a powerful function in the literary discourse, beyond what they say about how the field of literature works, and how value hierarchies are constructed etc. etc. They are also just lists of books that we can easily access, look up, read.

And that’s why last year’s stupid award made me angrier than a misplaced award like the Munro did. Books. They matter. And I’ll wait for the announcement this year again. I won’t be as excited as in previous years because to an extent, they broke the award last year. But I’ll be waiting. And hoping. And please, dear GOD, don’t give it to Murakami or Marias.

On My Sister’s Birthday

There are things you can never repay. I am a writer today in part because I told my sister stories upon stories. at home, on family trips, as a way to escape terror, boredom or fear. I paint because of her example. I have the strength to meander along my path because I have my sister’s example.

During this period of my life, my sister stood by me; she visited me, she sorted out my affairs, she anchored me to life, she made me want to come back into the world of the living. I have a cherished picture somewhere of me and her in the hospital. She is one of two people who visited me, and the only person I trusted with my keys, my life and everything.

I worry about my sister, every day. She has developed into an enormous person, with a sense for the permeability of reality, the joy and terrifying sadness of words, and the complexities of human beings. She may not have developed the calluses that help many of us to move on, forward, without major injuries. She worries me.

She’s one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever met.

I am a writer today because she is my sister. I am alive today because of her. There are things you can never repay.

On not writing poetry

A great deal of effort is invested in the act of not writing poetry. You write a line, and another one, and a third, slower one and you are alarmed by the sour unmusicality of the stanza, and the overall lack of skill. So you strike them all out, get up, and take a walk down the street. After five minutes you reach the local bakery that has closed three times in the past year but appear to still serve customers. The person at the counter wears a paisley skirt and a look of defeat. I start writing a poem in my head as I am waiting for my loaf of rye bread. This is a bad sign so I leave without my bread, running down the street, and back up the stairs to my apartment. I do the dishes, breaking one out of every five plates into exactly twelve pieces. I sit down and stare at the wall, carefully not writing poetry. The act of not writing poetry, when you have no talent for it, costs a great deal of effort.

Schweblin’s Poisons

This is to add a short note. In my review of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream, I wrote, ignorant buffoon that I am:

It’s a sense of evil lurking in the very ground – and Schweblin makes it an ecology issue, by connecting it to some unnamed barrels with some unnamed fluids. Some of the symptoms line up with radiation poisoning. […] But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is.

So I asked Argentinian academic Magdalena López and apparently it’s about a pesticide illness connected to the recent flood of transgenic crops, specifically transgenic soy, in Argentina. Here is an overview by Walter Alberto Pengue of the problematic trend of Argentina’s transgenic crops. Deutsche Welle has an article about protests related to the poisons, called “Pesticide illness triggers anti-Monsanto protest in Argentina.” Notably, the symptoms described in the article fit the ones in Schweblin’s novel pretty well.

“When he was four years old, he came down with the illness that left him temporarily paralyzed,” she recalls. “He was admitted to the hospital. They told me that they didn’t know what was wrong with him.”

And finally, to round things out, here is a 2015 article by Vice, titled “Argentina’s Soybeans Help Feed the World But Might Be Making Locals Sick.” I hope these suggestions make up for my initial mis-/ill informed blunder in the review. If you haven’t read the novel yet, you should!