Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Literary "gentlemen"

A while ago (Is it already a month? Ack!) I attended a reading as part of Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. The event was to feature 3 "literary gentlemen."

As should be obvious from the amount of time I allowed to lapse before filing this report, I felt no pressing need to tell the world about what I'd seen and heard. Still, it was nice to get out.

Tim Parks
I wondered why the name was so familiar. Of course, I'd seen the name splashed across his novels but was never tempted to pick one up. It turns out that I know his name because he has translated the work of Italo Calvino.

Tim Parks is an odd little man. He seemed friendly enough, cracking jokes about the coffee and chocolates some of the audience carried in with them. After about 50 of us have taken our places, he is introduced. In response to the host's remarks, he mutters audibly and with a wink that there's "no such thing as an important literary prize."

He chats briefly about the book tour circuit (something to the effect of: People read! They come to these things!), and manages to disparage the quality of Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code while implying he is more worthy of their rankings.

Parks will read from Rapids. He provides some context, warns about the use of kayaking terminology, for example "stopper" — "not a word you're familiar with, but we'll see." He reads from a paperback, well-worn and dog-eared. I can see he has marked passages, scribbled notes in the margins.

He's nervous. His eyes dart. His hands are shaking. I'm sitting quite close and am distracted by the rustling of the cloth over the authors' table; I realize he's kicking.

The reading is animated, expressive. He does voices, accents. The story is boring.

There's time for only 2 questions: One had something to do with age or experience and elucidated the audience as to how the questioner spent his morning and his delayed reaction to an art exhibition he saw last week. The other question, posed by the moderator, pointed out that Tim Parks, living in Italy, is essentially cut off from the evolving Enlgish language. He responds vaguely but wisely that when you know something is going to be one way, you'd better decided early on it was an advantage.

Later, as I'm leaving, I overhear someone asking Parks about translating Calvino. Parks seems modest, clarifies that he's only translated a couple works (interestingly, I find these to be among the very least engrossing of Calvino's oeuvre); then, looking over his shoulder as if to ensure he's overheard by only the right people, "Most of them are translated by William Weaver, and not very well."

Gentleman? Not so much.

José Carlos Somoza
Somoza looks serious and suspicious. There's no doubt he is taking in everything.

This is only the second time, he says, that he's given a reading in English. He mispronounces (for example, "you-nexpected" for "unexpected" — quite charming really after the initial moment of deciphering), stammers and repeats, but he is very composed. The story speaks for itself.

From the book jacket of The Art of Murder:
In 2006, the art world has moved far beyond sheep in formaldehyde and the most avant-garde movement is to use living people as artwork. Undergoing weeks of preparation to become 'canvases', the models are required to stay in their pose for ten to twelve hours a day and, as art pieces, they are also for sale. After being exhibited, the 'canvases' can be bought and taken to the purchaser's home, where they are rented for weeks or months.

Many beautiful young men and women long to become a 'canvas' — knowing they are a masterpiece and worth millions seems to make all the sacrifices worthwhile...


Excerpt.

Somoza pauses to give us some context for the various snippets he reads. He clarifies that artists work not only on the canvas bodies, but on their minds, to prepare them to be art.

It's worth noting that Somoza gave up a career in psychiatry to pursue writing. His training is put to obvious use in developing symbols, themes, character psychologies — attics hold the secrets of childhood, the attraction of the forbidden. Some of the writing comes off as cliché, but it's gripping nonetheless.

I will be reading this novel.

Gentleman? I think yes.

David Bezmozgis
The reason for which I purchased a ticket. Cancelled. His father ill.

Perhaps he's too young to be seriously considered a gentleman. His writing: decidedly ungentlemanly, if at times gentle.

Ironically, Bezmozgis's casual style, his material, family stories, short stories — the idea of his writing — appeals to me least (compared with the other authors at this event). But his book was undeniably touching and entertaining, and it's what drew me there. Parks is the self-proclaimed literary one, boring in his book and a bit of an asshole in person. Somoza strikes me as a happy medium, his novel like literary pulp (maybe a little like Arturo Perez-Reverte), and I'm glad to have discovered him.

(More readings should be multiauthor events! How better to be introduced to work that is vaguely similar to that by an admired author but new!)

Bonus gentleman: José Saramago
No, I did not see him that weekend. However, while wondering around the festival venue and perusing various flyers it came to my attention that, at long last, the transcript of his conversation with Adrienne Clarkson, to which I was witness last summer in Ottawa, is allegedly now available in English (though I am unable to find it among the archives).

His latest novel, Seeing, is recently released. (No, I haven't read it yet.)

Ursula K LeGuin: "It's hard not to gallop through prose that uses commas instead of full stops, but once I learned to slow down, the rewards piled up: his sound, sweet humour, his startling imagination, his admirable dogs and lovers, the subtle, honest workings of his mind. Here indeed was a novelist worthy of a reader's trust."
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