You Should Really Be Reading This…

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In this series, Noah Charney asks an author to choose a favorite novel that he or she thinks is a hidden gem, deserving of more attention.

Noah Charney talks to Eimear McBride about Agota Kristof’s The Notebook.

When Slavoj Zizek writes of a book that, “awoke in [him] a cruel and cold passion,” attention is due. And when a novelist of the talents of Eimear McBride says to read it, I grab the nearest Kindle and get moving. Agota Kristof’s The Notebook is actually a novella, one of three linked works (along with The Proof and The Third Lie) but it functions perfectly well as a stand-alone book. Set nominally in Kristof’s native post-war Hungary, and originally written in French, The Notebook tells the story of twin boys who are left at their grandmother’s house in the country, very much against the will of all parties. The work is written in a minimalist style, stripped of adjectives and emotion, which is something of a mercy, because horrible things happen here, and thanks to Kristof’s remarkable narrative voice, we are able to approach them. Eimear McBride selected in the first installment of The Believer’s new monthly series, “You Should Really Be Reading This…”

Eimear McBride was born in Liverpool to Irish parents and tore onto the literary scene in 2013, with her acclaimed novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Written in six months, it took nine years for the novel to find a publisher, and was finally released by Galley Beggar, a small press in Norwich, England. The novel won her the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Literature Award and the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, sent her on a world tour, and made her a household name among those who love literary fiction. Her novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness that recalls the final chapter of UlyssesBeckett’s monologuesor Arthur Kopit’s Wings

Read along with us for next month, when we will speak with Kate Zambreno about A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning by Catherine Mavrikakis.

—Noah Charney 

I. MORE THAN HUMAN

NOAH CHARNEY: Why did you choose The Notebook?

EIMEAR MCBRIDE: It’s a book that I was only introduced to, myself, at the beginning of the year. I was amazed that I had never heard of it before. I found it profoundly disturbing, incredibly well-written, and very brave.  And the fact that it was written by a woman—it has a startling brutality and ferocity about the style that I find very inspiring. 

NC: The voice is very simple, fairy-tale-like, masking the brutality. What do you feel that narrative choice allows, that another style of writing might not permit?  From an author’s perspective, does it let you get away with something more stark and brutal than something that might, for instance, be hyper-realist?

EM: I think it’s a sophisticated technique, and there are not a lot of writers who can do that well. The paired-down style is in fashion, but there aren’t many writers who can make it their own, and make it individual. Kristof really does that. That she strips everything she does of emotion, entirely, and forces these really horrific scenes to be played out in a simple, straightforward, unemotional text makes it doubly powerful. 

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"In order to be free enough, you have to love deep enough."

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An Interview with Cornel West

Deep love is the chief motivator for demanding justice, according to Cornel West, a trailblazing philosopher, theologian and uncompromising activist who wields a fist for justice powered by an empathetic heart heavy with radical love for all his neighbors. Tim Keller, a theologian, like West, and the closest person the broad Christian sphere has to a spotless guru, once stated that misplaced love is the force behind all violence and destructive actions. James Baldwin, author of Another Country and The Fire Next Time, believes it is a “battle,” a “war” in which we are torn “limb from limb” in its name. Classic literature insists love is worthy of our death. Looking at our summer of widely publicized police brutality and harassment through the lens of love as motivator, it is clear the love of power and authority that corroborates superiority—once safeguarded by the guarantee of white skin’s historical reign, now verified by blue uniform’s proven invincibility—led a California Highway Patrol officer to pound Marlene Pinnock’s head into a highway median strip fifteen times. That same love clutched Eric Garner’s neck until he relinquished his last breath to a gum-crusted, spit-soaked Staten Island street. In Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson fired six rounds into Michael Brown’s reportedly surrendered body and ended an 18-year life with miles of unfulfilled triumphs and mistakes in its future, love pulled the trigger.

Love does not limit its influence to zealous law enforcement; it abounds throughout life’s public and private, astronomical and misdemeanor offenses. Hatred didn’t lead jihadists to hijack and steer commercial planes into New York’s two tallest buildings or ISIL operatives to behead kidnapped westerners; unconditional love for culture, religion and belief in its supreme truth did. Likewise, a love for religious supremacy leads fundamentalist Christians to terrorize the secular and coerce LGBT congregants into identity-destroying conversion therapy. Love of control and dominance drives an abuser’s fist into a victim’s face. This is not to disclaim hatred as an operative force guiding cruel offense. On the contrary, it is love’s ever-present calling card, a symptom of its existence. Hatred, the heart’s allergic reaction to that which threatens its reason to beat, is always poised to defend love’s honor.

On my walk back from police detainment with dozens of other protestors at 42nd Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan on August 14, 2014, following the Day of Resistance protest that led thousands of us from Union Square to Midtown with a failed attempt to return via the same mode we came—the street, I thought of Cornel West. I’d witnessed raw love in the streets that night and throughout the week following Ferguson, Missouri protest livestreams. At the time, Twitter.com’s @theanonmessage, Ferguson’s most vigilant, omnipresent, and thoroughly unidentifiable avenger, was my rallying source. I hadn’t a clue Dr. West was behind Stop Mass Incarceration’s leading presence at the march and defiant stance against the injustices inflicted on Brown, Garner, and Pinnock. At protests, on network television, in popular film, songs, and lecture halls at Yale, Princeton, Harvard and lastly Union Theological Seminary, Cornel has offered us decades of insight on race as defined, categorized and subjugated by the political sphere, and mobilized movements to further civil rights for the marginalized. Stop Mass Incarceration, one of his most recent endeavors, co-founded with Carl Dix, was birthed as a direct response to New York’s Stop and Frisk. SMI is upheld by a band of activists determined to educate groups targeted by police brutality, racial profiling, and mass criminalization while bringing officers whom engage in misconduct to task. October 2014 will bring their nationwide Month of Resistance, with demonstrations scheduled to launch simultaneously in cities across the country. I visited him at Union Theological Seminary to discuss police brutality and efforts to combat it, limitations on the black-American male image, passing his torch, and our hot summer of love.

Riayn Fergins

I. WE NEED TO HAVE FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS WHO HAVE ENOUGH SPIRITUAL MATURITY TO EMPATHIZE WITH PEOPLE

THE BELIEVER: What is Stop Mass Incarceration’s October Month of Resistance?

CORNEL WEST: Different events around the country making the connection that mass incarceration and miseducation equals genocide. By genocide, we mean the psychic, social, and in some ways the physical annihilation of significant groups of people—especially black, poor males and females, disproportionately poor black males. It’s one project and one voice among many others. We’ve got the revolutionary activist Carl Dix, the Organization for Black Struggle; they’ve been at it twenty-five years. All of these are coalescing to connect mass incarceration, arbitrary police power, the decrepit school system, indecent housing, not enough jobs with the living wage, and what was happening in Gaza. Because the young people in Ferguson got contacted by young people in Gaza telling them how to deal with the teargas. That was a beautiful connection.

BLVR: Can you think of anyone who’s coming close to taking some of your flame?

CW: There’s a young brother by the name of Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defendants. He is part of the rich legacy of Martin King—which is my own legacy—of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I met him in 2006 at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and was deeply impressed with him. He surfaced when they took over the governor’s office right after Stand Your Ground with Trayvon Martin. They took over that office thirty-one days, pushed through and got some major concessions. He emerged as a very important person of integrity.

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An Interview with David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis spoke to me over the phone from his home in Toronto. He has a kind, NPR-type voice, one that carries certain American inflections, but really comes alive when pronouncing Russian words. Midway through our hour-long conversation, his young daughters burst into his room in an explosion of laughter and affection. I greatly regret having to edit out their appearance, and Bezmozgis’s subsequent interaction with them, from the transcription that follows.

As for his writing: it is serious and good. Bezmozgis’s debut short story collection, Natasha, depicted the life of a Latvian Jewish émigré family in Toronto. His second book, The Free World, a sort of prequel, follows recently escaped Soviet émigrés from Riga, who are spending six months in Rome as they attempt to acquire visas to a viable port of emigration. They won him awards (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Governor General’s Award) and critical acclaim (The New Yorker, 20 Writers Under 40).

Bezmozgis’ latest book, The Betrayers, is a moral thriller that centers around 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a celebrated Soviet Jewish dissident turned disgraced Israeli politician. In a prose style that is understated, but always achieves what it sets out to do, Bezmozgis not only presents complex, endearing characters in dramatic situation, but also poses (and attempts to answer) difficult questions about how the individual can affect politics, and how politics in turn affects the individual. Aleksandar Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, Edith Pearlman and Joshua Ferris have all already praised it in no uncertain terms.

I read The Betrayers straight through in one sitting as if it was detective fiction. Then I reread it because it was so affecting.

—Ratik Asokan 

I. LANGUAGE IS A PERSONALITY 

THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with The Betrayers’ first sentence: “A thousand kilometers away, while the next great drama of his life was unfolding and God was banging His gavel to shake the Judaean hills, Baruch Kotler sat in the lobby of the Yalta hotel and watched his young mistress berate the hotel clerk—a pretty blond girl, who endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression.”

Your use of passive voice is striking. The politics occupies the first of the sentence, and Baruch arrives only in the second. It’s as if politics so powerfully affects his circumstances that it must be mentioned first. The passive voice is employed throughout The Betrayers. It seems symbolic of the way your characters live their life.

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: It’s hard for me to speak beyond that first sentence. You’ll have to quote me some other sentences.

BLVR: Well, in Natasha’s conclusion, Mark says, “By the time I got home I had already crafted a new identity: I would switch schools, change my wardrobe, move to another city. Later I would avenge myself with beautiful women, learn martial arts, and cultivate exotic experiences. I saw my future clearly.”

In The Betrayers, Tankilevich says  “To walk the kilometer was never pleasant,” rather than “It was never pleasant to walk the ten kilometers,” or “But in any season, even in the mildest weather, there was still nothing to enjoy about the trek,” rather than “There was nothing to enjoy about the trek, in any season, even in the mildest weather.”

DB: Yes, it’s deliberate. I think, perhaps, the way you phrase it is correct. In sentences like that, it would be assuming too much of the active voice, because they are victims of circumstances. I don’t know if I was conscious of it while writing. I don’t know if I feel comfortable confessing to it now, even in conversation. When you compare that with the last sentence in Natasha, the people’s situations are quite different, so their headspace is quite different. So it’s hard for me to say, without comparing dramatic moments in both books. But yes, I see a difference when you quote them like that.

BLVR: Francine Prose wrote that in The Free World, you were able to create sentences with “rhythm that echoes the ever-so-slightly stilted diction of someone who has almost but not entirely mastered a new language.” Is a similar thing—an attempt to capture a different culture’s mode of thinking—happening here with regard to the prominent passive voice?

DB: I still think it’s circumstantial. People everywhere feel differently at different times of their lives. Did you think the prose in The Betrayers was also filtered through another language?

BLVR: It reminded me of certain post-colonial novels: characters seem to talk, and engage with the language on the page (English) simultaneously.

DB: When writing dialogue, I hear it in both Russian and English, and try to find a language that combines the two. Which is an English that is informed by Russian speech.

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