http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/03/06/stories/2011030650160500.htm

The literary café is the most exciting part of the biennial Jerusalem Book Fair. In this open, informal and civilised space — in fact, so civilised that it has a working coffee counter right next to a makeshift stage — take place the encounters with the literary giants of home and abroad. I was witness to one such interaction last week: The man on the spot was Britain’s foremost writer today: Ian McEwan, winner of the Jerusalem Prize, and the man who expertly drew him out, with an understated knowledge of literary technique and rapier sharp wit, was Meir Shelev, himself a renowned Israeli novelist.

He paid homage to other recipients before him, people who had “rearranged his mind.” The list that begins with the philosopher Bertrand Russell includes Simone de Beauvoir who provided special insights into relationships and Isaiah Berlin who had shown the “dangers of Utopia” as well as fiction writers Arthur Miller and Milan Kundera whose fiction “swayed and entranced him”.

From the prize itself to the city after which it is named was a natural jump. Shelev trawled out the not-so-complimentary reactions to Jerusalem of some famous writers. Herman Melville, on visiting Jerusalem, said that “Jerusalem is surrounded by cemeteries and dead people are its strongest guild.” Actually, though Shelev did not venture that far, Melville said much more and his descriptions would never make it to a tourist brochure. He thought that Jerusalem looks at you “like a cold, gray eye in a cold, old man……Stony mountains & stony plains; stony walls & stony fields; stony houses & stony tombs; stony eyes & stony hearts. Before you and behind you are stones.” Gogol was so affected by the city that on his return he burnt the second half of Dead Souls. McEwan agrees that the city has a “sense of echo” and could well destroy his novel in progress. Like a sudden journey, which can startle you with a new insight into life and make everything written earlier sound meaningless and trite.

However, the city’s preoccupation with religion does not get to him. Ever the outspoken rationalist, he proclaims his atheism and the absence of any divine force dictating the affairs of men. “Most things that happen in life are random. You may not have been born if, say on one evening in 1948, your mother had decided to stay in and wash her hair instead of going out to a party where she met this nice young man.” Much in the same manner, he proclaims, the novel is constructed of a series of coincidences that enable the interaction between characters and move the action forward. When the conversation turns, as inevitably such conversations turn nowadays, to the issue of the survival of a novel, McEwan offers an irresistible rationale for its survival: “Human beings are social animals, profoundly curious about each other’s lives.

The novel is a kind of higher form of gossip and is sustained by our curiosity about others. It satisfies our gossipy instincts. Jane Austen was the greatest and most gossipy of novelists.”

But it is of the novella, a form with which he has had “an enduring love affair,” that he talks enthusiastically. It is this genre that he enjoys most; even On Chesil Beach is only 39000 words long; it enables the writer to move the story ahead at a tremendous speed, leaving no place for sub-plots. In a way he is a miniaturist: a confined place — whether in space or time — seems to bring out the best in him, the little visual detail, the description of every half-movement, the cranking up of the literary tension, bit by bit.

He likes gaps between books, he “tries to let some life go by.” As he said in an interview some time ago: “I’m very cautious about starting anything without letting time go, and feeling it’s got to come out. I’m quite good at not writing. Some people are tied to five hundred words a day, six days a week. I’m a hesitater.” When he does start writing, it is a tentative process – putting down fragments¸ introducing characters to see what they would do. He is elated by surprises, the surprise of a particular adjective appearing before a noun or a character making a sudden move; “in fact”, he says, “a character should surprise you.” As one would expect, McEwan writes down ideas, images, and phrases as they come in a spiral notebook. He relates how once, when writing notes in a café, he lost his notebook, leaving him with a feeling of tremendous loss. Until one day, eighteen months later, the notebook landed, in a brown envelope, with a thud on his doormat. On re-reading it, he discovered that it did not contain a single worthy thought!

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/03/06/stories/2011030650030200.htm

I wondered aloud if the pen, like the camera, was also a torch. He wasn’t sure of it. But the question of desire remained – of camera and pen as tools of desire. I was reminded of a line by Robert Bresson, about how the art of cinema is to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”. I concluded: reality is blind, but so are we. Unless we are able to “in-see”, to use Rilke’s word, and lighten up the invisible. Not in order to strip what is invisible, but to illuminate its hidden-ness.

As we walked our different ways, I recollected the lines from one of his remarkably simple poems, which captures the friendly otherness he exuded in conversation:

We walked together.

We did not know each other.

But we knew walking together.

Later in the evening I met James Kelman. I had heard him read from his controversial Booker-winning novel, How Late It Was, How Late, with the same amount of passion with which he must have written it more than a decade ago. The novel became infamous as the great “f-novel”, irritating many including Martin Amis. But Kelman’s supposed nonsense with language is strictly no-nonsense, depressing, dismal, dark and full of the drudgery of working-class life. His prose, defiantly introspective and interspersed with slang, counters the grammar and phonetics of the English language he learnt to resist.

I caught Kelman, walking alone, a little lost, near the music-stage area. I told him I found the repetitive expressions in his prose an unavoidable technique for registering troubled memory. I mentioned Jacques Lacan. Kelman had read Freud and was interested in psychoanalysis. We discussed the disturbing, neurological phenomenon of the unconscious, where it draws upon the mode of insistence to relive certain traumas, and manifests itself into pathological repetition. Kelman saw vulgarity critically: as a burden for the poor, the wayward and the out of place, for whom cursing and cussing are part of a life which is thrust violently upon them. Kelman wouldn’t abandon that language to gain any other literary merit. His alert, vagabond eyes, and his smoky, alcoholic voice, meant what they said. He didn’t mince words: “We were told to look down upon our own culture and eulogise everything British. You couldn’t stomach it, could you?” He didn’t. The seat of his passions unseated elite, literary appetites.

To hear Pamuk is to hear a naughty and candid adolescent in the heart of an exquisitely thoughtful man. He talks without airs, and with a moving honesty. Hearing him is an undetectable process of learning about the art of writing. Pamuk called the advent of literature in his life as a growing illumination of the “dark corners” of his mind. I thought of the relationship between darkness and the unconscious. That brought certain preoccupations of all three writers together. It reminded me of Kundera’s quoting the Czech poet Jan Skacel: Poets don’t invent poems / The poem is somewhere behind / It’s been there for a long time / The poet merely discovers it. Writing, Kundera explains, “means breaking through a wall behind which something… lies hidden in darkness”. In that sense, writing, like cinema, reveals to us our existing, human possibilities.