Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Owen Sheers, Luis Pescetti, and Gary Shteyngart with David Aaronovitch

Saturday 29 January 2011

Close to Home
Owen Sheers, interviewed by Gaby Woods

Owen Sheers's book Resistance, published in 2007, has just been made into a film. Better known as a poet, Sheers was making an encore appearance at the Hay Festival in Cartagena.

Staying true to the advice offered to every author, Sheers has written a story about a landscape that he knows well, a secluded valley in the Welsh countryside. The story is an alternative reality account of how a successful German invasion of English might have unfolded.

The inspiration for the story came from a real life valley neighbor who confirmed that he had been recruited for the "Auxiliary Units" that would have constituted an underground civilian resistance force in case of a German invasion and occupation.

The story is told in the voice of Sarah, a 26-year-old sheep farmer's wife, who wakes up one morning and finds that her husband is gone. The husbands of all the women in the valley are missing. The understanding that their men have been involved in some sort of secret war effort comes as a shock, as well as the realization that they must now fend for themselves and manage their farms and families on their own.

Historically, the winter of 1947 was especially harsh. Sheers laughingly admits that he transposed the records about survival during that winter into the year 1944, to fit the purposes of his story. The women and the German soldiers are trapped in the isolated valley, and this inability to escape is what forces the story to its logical, emotional, and thematic climax. Personal resistance is about what we are willing to sacrifice, and how through this sacrifice we are ultimately true to ourselves.

The resistance is that of the civil forces, ideological resistance, and resistance of the heart. Sarah has steeled herself to "do the right thing," but she wins the sympathy of the readers, who want her to do "the wrong thing." The ending of the book is left deliberately ambiguous, although Sheers himself says that he has no doubts about how it ends.

Sheers worked closely with screenwriter Alan Gupta to develop the script for the film, a process he likens to a marriage, which he described as a "prolonged period of mutual gentle criticism." Whereas many authors express deep dissatisfaction with the film adaptations of his book, Sheers is pragmatic. His book is safe from change, he notes; the film is an opportunity to change and experiment. He has not yet seen the final product, but he expresses the hope that it will retain the voice of the novel. The process of working on the screenplay may him rethink the elements that make up the heart of the novel. He stresses that these are the things that must be retained; other things can change.
Sheers acknowledges that novel writing and screenwriting are disciplines that require dedicating blocks of time. Poetry, his primary vocation, can be written in smaller snatches, he says.

In response to a question about dealing with writer's block, he defends these false starts as a necessary part of the process, likening them to a rocket launch in which you have to jettison the burnt out earlier stages in order to get to the place where you need to be.

His is currently working on a hugely ambitious project: a three-day and night performance of the Passion Play cycle to be performed with the National Theatre of Wales in Port Talbot in April 2011.

As a poet, not surprisingly Sheers's writing is beautiful and evocative. By popular request, Sheers recited "Not Yet My Mother" a poem he had presented at a previous festival:

Yesterday I found a photo
of you at seventeen,
holding a horse and smiling,
not yet my mother.
The tight riding hat hid your hair,
and your legs were still the long shins of a boy's.
You held the horse by the halter,
your hand a fist under its huge jaw.
The blown trees were still in the background
and the sky was grained by the old film stock,
but what caught me was your face,
which was mine.
And I thought, just for a second, that you were me.
But then I saw the woman's jacket,
nipped at the waist, the ballooned jodhpurs,
and of course the date, scratched in the corner.
All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.

I am reading Resistance now, and loving it.

Luis Pescetti in Concert: A Rollicking Good Time

I had seen the concert by Argentine children's singer and author Luis Pescetti listed, but had not been able to buy tickets online. On Saturday morning Sally went by the box office and was able to get tickets.

The performance was classic Pescetti: songs that are a mix of playfulness, tenderness, parental love and exasperation, and mildly gross childish humor, interspersed with games to keep the audience from getting restless.

Some of the highlights included:
A blues song: "Momma, I don't want you to go to work today"
A song inspired by the sight of a child in a Spiderman costume, complete with Batman gloves, garbage bag cape, and El Zorro sword, asleep on his mother's shoulder.
A hearty response to Harold Bloom who panned Harry Potter as not being literature: "I read Harry Potter, and I liked it! Thanks goodness Harold Bloom is not responsible for designing a reading curriculum."
A dreamy, echoey song of an unborn baby's experience in the womb. I loved this piece, which is new in Pescetti's repertoire.
A song about a parent attempting dialogue with an adolescent, entitled "Good; Nothing" "How was the party? Good. What did you do? Nothing? Etc.
One about nose-picking, more inspired than it sounds.
A participative song in which the audience members were asked to raise their hands if they have ever said, or been told….: Sit up straight, tidy your room, don't chew with your mouth open, cut it out or I'll swat you, put on a sweater, don't put a plastic bag on your head, say thank you…" Well, you get the idea.

Sally and I had the good fortune to be seated near a little girl, about 5, who was completely enraptured by the experience of being at a live concert with Luis Pescetti. She was obviously familiar with his music, and she responded to every song, every comment, every game as if he were speaking to her directly, and she answered back every time. She was completely given over and engaged in an intimate dialogue with Luis, as if they were they only ones present. She was great.

Sally was very impressed with Pescetti's music and said she would look into acquiring some of his albums for her school.

All in all it was a rollicking good time.

Gary Shteyngart, interviewed by David Aaronovitch
Between Capitalism and Communism: Illusions of a Happy World

Gary Shteyngart almost didn't make it to the Hay Festival because of bad weather in New York. The third participant in the conference, German writer Inge Schulze, did not make it. This was a surprise to Shteyngart and Aaronovitch, who gave their conference with occasional requests for comments from the third empty chair, particularly when they were stumped for what to say. In fact they started the conference asking each other who had come up with this topic, concluding that it must have been Schulze.

Aaronovitch, whose parents were members of the British Communist Party, grew up in a world that was communist within the confines of his home, and capitalist outside. Shteyngart spent his early childhood in Russia. He recounts that as a child he was raised to adore Lenin. He wrote his first novel at age five: a story about Lenin conquering Finland with the help of a magic goose, although through some twist of fate Lenin winds up eating the goose at the end.

He moved with his parents from Leningrad to New York in 1979, a transition that he describes as being like moving to a different planet. He says that his father, a mechanical engineer, wanted to emigrate from Russia to live somewhere where he could experience a fuller sense of his Jewish identity. His mother, a professional pianist, wanted a better standard of living. In the United States he swapped his adoration of Lenin for Reagan. At Hebrew school in NYC, he found that being Russian was not considered cool, to the point that he started to pretend he was German, which was more socially acceptable. He reconciled himself with his Russian roots at a college of socialist bent in Ohio (where he ended up not because of the academic program, but because he had followed a girlfriend). At college he was urged by his adviser to write a thesis about the Soviet Union regrouping and crushing the United States.

Shteyngart considers that although the United States is considered to have a lack of economic fairness and an income gulf, that gulf basically exists between the hyper-rich and the rest of society. Otherwise the discrepancy between the moderately rich, the middle class, and the poor is not that large. He comments on the squeeze of the middle class and the phenomenon of outsourcing, joking that he'll have his next novel written in India to save on costs. He says that no system ever worked satisfactorily in Russia, not feudalism, communism, or capitalism.

He notes the irony that his parents were happy with the lifestyle in the United States but dissatisfied with the culture, and they banned the icons of US pop culture from their home: the television, comic books, etc. He also observes that the education system was excellent in Russia, whereas despite its wealth, public education in the US can be pretty shaky.

Shteyngart feels that fewer people are reading nowadays, but many more are writing. (To which Aaronovitch countered that more books than ever are being sold in the UK.) Shteyngart persisted in his point that the US ethos is one of self-expression: reading requires surrendering yourself to someone else's text, whereas writing is the act of placing your mark upon the world. The modern day and age, he says, is the writers' world.

In a token attempt to address the conference topic that they were assigned, Shteyngart and Aaronovitch comment that communism aimed for perfectibility with the aim of building a better world. Whereas capitalism maintains that the freedom to choose will eventually lead to the right choices. Both warn against putting too much faith into any one person or one system. Overall they feel that government policy should maximize potential and capacity, and that the role of government is not to guarantee happiness.
They note that as countries develop, the individual country's needs are often not compatible with considerations of global sustainability. They don't pretend to provide any solution to this problem, but it is nonetheless a valid observation

Overall this was lively conference. These two can banter like nobody's business.

Gary Shteyngart's dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story narrates two doomed romances: one between a man and a woman, and one between a writer and his country. It is apparently of the darkly funny genre. On my to-read list.

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