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.
Read This: Rabih Alameddine recommends Sepharad by Antonio Muñoz Molina.
Rabih Alameddine is an icon of the San Francisco literary world, and wields not only a pen (or its digital equivalent) but a brush, too. He is an accomplished painter, but is best known for his novels, beginning with Koolaids: the Art of War, The Hakawati, and 2014’s An Unnecessary Woman. Born in 1959 in Jordan, he grew up in Lebanon and Kuwait, moving to England at age seventeen and then to California, where he studied engineering.
Muñoz Molina began his career as a journalist in Madrid, before releasing his first novel in 1986, Beatus ille, about an imaginary city that recurs in his work, which consists of over twenty books to date. He is perhaps best known for Winter in Lisbon, which won numerous prizes and was well-received abroad, and more recently, In the Night of Time, which was translated by Edith Grossman. Muñoz Molina is the director of the Instituto Cervantes in New York.
Sepharad (the Hebrew word for Spain) is a sweeping novel in a scatter of pieces, jumping around in time and place, always focused on the residents of Spain who were unwelcome, cast out, passed over. The novel is not so much picaresque as frog-like, leaping from lily pad to lily pad, stories that may or may not have any link to them beyond a general geography, and with no traditional protagonist or narrative arc. I found it lovely, with some haunting images, but a bit hard to get through, which is why I looked forward to affixing my rudder to Rabih, to guide me through Sepharad’s glittering waters.
NOAH CHARNEY: I’d love to begin asking you why you chose Sepharad.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Oh, God, um, I can actually remember the first encounter. I found it in a bookstore when it first came out and I was intrigued by the cover and, you know, I started looking, and found it truly astounding. I fell in love with it the first time I read it. And I looked at it again while I was on holiday, because I knew this interview was coming. So this is the fourth time that I’ve read it.
NC: Oh, wow.
RA: And I still get dazzled by it every single time—it’s one of those books. I have a few books I really treasure. Most of the others are probably more well-known. This one is the one that I’m always surprised that nobody really talks about. I can’t figure out why.
NC: Well, one of the things that I encountered is that people find the narrative structure difficult, having a barrage of different stories with different people in different time periods. Your own work has kind of a similar quality to it.
RA: Oh, yes, well, I put it this way: I tend to like authors who, shall we say, go on different tangents on the way. So for me, if you ask what’s my favorite book, they tend to be the sort where you never know if it is fiction or nonfiction. Whether it’s literary criticism or travelogue or… it would be difficult for me to sit down and say, oh, this is a book about such and such, and I like that.
The difficulty in narrative structure is because, for most people, they want to read a story with a straightforward linear narrative, which, you know, everybody loves, including me.
RA: But it doesn’t always work, in terms of shocking the reader. And I don’t mean surprising the reader, you know. The kind of work that I like, and with this book, is that it sort of meanders and then, all of a sudden, I’m taken more into the mood than anything else. I just love that.
NC: When you’re writing your own work, could you tell us a little bit about the process before you actually started writing, how much outlining you did? And how would you imagine Molina approached it for Sepharad?
RA: Well, I don’t outline, I just don’t. I start writing and see where it takes me. Of course, I have a general idea, and know what I want to write about, but everything changes when I start writing. I wonder whether Molina does the same thing.
For the last book I wrote I had to reread a lot of my favorite books. And I found it interesting that I read this one, I read a lot of Claudio Martinez. They all have this sort of, you know, feel of meandering. Whether consciously or unconsciously, these books are my plotlines—or at least were for my last book, where one thought and one place leads to another. But with Sepharad and what he did, it’s different. Molina separates the book into chapters, and I think if you take each chapter by itself, they could actually stand alone.
NC: Yeah, sure.
RA: They are interrelated. The novel, in actuality, is a book of essays, so that each section, each essay, stands on its own. And you know what he puts into them would probably require more of a plotline than what I did.
NC: What about the distinction between novel and nonfiction essays, and when it’s blurred? Do you think it matters that the author, or rather the reader, knows ahead of time what sort of book they’re getting into, or is it good when it’s blurred?
RA: I actually find that a little troubling that we now have to work outside of the book. In a novel or essays, just to give the reader something to hold onto, like some form of structure, and I find that sad, in some ways, kind of like, what are we going to do next, “this is a book with pictures in it?” It’s a bit weird that we are taking away, ah, I don’t want to say the power of the reader, but it’s as if the reader needs help, and all he needs to do is just sit back and, you know, be taken. Sort of like watching a movie.
A book has to engage me on many different levels, so that the fact that something is fiction or non has become irrelevant. Now, of course, there is a difference between fiction and nonfiction and, hopefully, one makes up things in fiction. In nonfiction, one doesn’t know one’s making things up.
NC: Sure. [Laughter]
RA: I’m not a big fan of packaging something as memoir, and you know I don’t particularly write or like to write memoir, but the whole idea of why, why should we not discuss, for instance, the Lebanese novel, and it’s been done forever and ever and ever. It’s just that, all of a sudden, now we like to balkanize things, like, “this is gay fiction” or “this is black nonfiction”. It doesn’t make sense to me. It takes away from the mystery of what you’re reading. Does that make sense?
NC: Yeah, absolutely. Let me ask you this, is there anything particularly Lebanese about your writing?
RA: Well, you can separate Lebanese novels into those written before the war and those written after. If you look before the civil war, the only thing that separated the novels was race. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, Lebanon is very heterogenous. The influence of having Christians educated by monks, to Jews—they influenced each other in ways that was not available elsewhere in the Arab world, except perhaps in Egypt. In my opinion, the novel in Lebanon took off during and after the civil war. Something became urgent and necessary to talk about.
NC: Is there one you might recommend to someone as an introduction to Lebanese literature, for someone new to it?
RA: Of course! Elias Khoury is probably the biggest name. But there was an explosion of women writers, like Etel Adnan. Najwa Barakat and her sister, and Iman Humaydan Younes. There’s also a wonderful book coming out from City Light Books called Penguin’s Song by Hassan Daoud.
NC: Of your many books, is there one you’d recommend to someone to begin with?
RA: For me, every book is different. The most accessible is The Hakawati. The last one was long-listed for the National Book Award, so what do I know?
NC: You’re also a painter. I’m a professor of art history, and it struck me to ask you this: back in the 16th century it was a popular pastime for intellectuals to discuss the merits of poetry versus painting and decide which was the better art form. The ut pictura poesis debate. I’m interested in asking you what the two art forms do differently. Sepharad reminded me of Picasso’s Guernica, in that you have this scattershot of things happening within one plane. Sepharad felt to me like a painting in book form, rather than a standard linear narrative.
RA: It’s funny that you mention Guernica. Let’s put it this way: at one point, I thought that my first book, Koolaid, was influenced by David Hockney’s photo collages. When you constantly look at something from different angles. I’m not the first person to do this, the interaction between various art forms is old. But I worry we’re losing that. I’d almost say I gave up on public painting. I no longer paint to show, because I don’t think I’m that good. I was talking to a friend this morning, a poet, and he was saying he just doesn’t understand why so few novelists read poetry. I have a poetry blog, I put up a poem almost every day. I’m not just fascinated, but I feel most of my ideas come from poetry. I met a writer who did not know who Piero della Francesca was…
RA: To me, that is stunning! We no longer require that of our novelists. When all a novelist has to do is tell a linear straightforward story, then there’s no need for anything else. But for me that’s not what writing is. I don’t have to tell you that Molina probably looked at pictures! The idea of art is where we get our influences. For me, the fact that I paint and looked at a lot of paintings influences my work tremendously, though I wouldn’t know how to pinpoint exactly how.
Noah Charney is a professor and best-selling author. He teaches a Guardian Masterclass in London this May called “How to write about art.”