mercoledì 31 marzo 2010


Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the novelist turned playwright

Seven years after his debut novel announced the arrival of a distinct literary voice, Mark Haddon is preparing to take on the theatre

By Claire Allfree

As attempts to assert control over interviews go, things do not get off to an encouraging start with Mark Haddon. "So now we have this game of chess, in which you ask me what my new play is about, and I choose not to tell you what it's about," says the Whitbread Award-winning author, leaning back in his chair in an Oxford bistro and looking a bit too pleased with himself for my liking. "I suppose I ought to say something interesting instead. Or perhaps I should find out what you've gleaned from the press release. What do you think it's about?"

Well, er, according to the Donmar website, your play features a female character who sounds a bit schizophrenic, so, um, dissocia? "Ah, you are thinking of Anthony Neilson's [2004] play The Wonderful World of Dissocia!" he says triumphantly. "I'll admit I was thinking quite a lot about that play. My play might be about bipolar disorder. But I'm keeping it close to my chest. I will tell you it has five and a half characters, though."

The Donmar Warehouse are also keeping the script for Haddon's play Polar Bears firmly under wraps, although this is now theatre policy for new Donmar plays, rather than a particular expression of paranoia on their part, or even Haddon's come to that. Still, trying to get more information out of Haddon is a bit like playing truth or dare with someone who is selectively deaf. "It's formally very weird," Haddon will admit, shaking his head. "Very weird. And I suppose people will see it as me ticking the disability box again. But it's funny when you start writing. You often don't know what might be hovering in the back of your mind."

Polar Bears is Haddon's first play. He is, of course, known most for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his outstandingly sad and uplifting 2003 debut novel for adults which waltzed off with the Whitbread Book of the Year award and went on to sell more than two million copies. That was a perfectly formed novel about family breakdown narrated by a 15-year-old boy called Christopher who loves lists, numbers and accuracy and hates the colours yellow and brown, and being touched, and who had what was commonly assumed to be Asperger's. (Haddon is now thoroughly irritated that the word Asperger's appeared on subsequent editions of the novel, because now everyone imagines that he is an expert and he keeps getting phone calls asking him to appear at lectures.) He followed it up in 2006 with A Spot of Bother, a quietly intense, deeply bleak novel about a middle-aged man caught in paroxysms of despair over the fear he may be dying. The book's divergent reviews ranged from "enormously engaging and funny" to "undemanding" and "pedestrian". In between, he published a book of poetry (The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village under the Sea), wrote a TV drama called Coming Down the Mountain (about a boy with Down's Syndrome) and now he has turned to playwrighting. "It's been appallingly difficult. It's taken me seven years. And during that time I've written the most appalling piles of crap. I've basically been writing the opening of many crap plays over and over again."

By his own confession, Haddon is someone who likes to constantly change tack; he is also an accomplished artist. His website is testament to the magpie nature of his mind: it's subtitled "random notes about things that interest me" and in its hotchpotch arrangement of blog postings, illustrations, essays and diary entries gives as good an indicator as anything of the wired, restless nature of Haddon's creative thought processes. Still: poetry, novels, art, TV: now why theatre? "I always want to do something different," he says, perusing the menu with some frustration. "Life as a vegetarian is one long line of risottos," he adds cheerily, opting for spinach risotto with poached egg. "And I've wanted to write for the theatre for a long long time, really ever since I saw Tony Harrison's [1988] play Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. All these nice middle- class theatre-goers: you could hear the fear and clenching in the room. Increasingly I've found theatre really interesting to watch. It took me a long time to come out as someone who doesn't like film. It's a bit like when people say they don't like books: you get that sharp intake of breath."

He is visibly pleased by Polar Bears, which stars Jodhi May in a production directed by Donmar associate director Jamie Lloyd, and despite not wanting to talk about the play, keeps drawing the conversation back to what he has learned as a fledgling playwright. Haddon, you sense, is a man with obsessive tendencies of his own: since embarking on this new career in the theatre, he seems to have seen nearly every new play that has premiered in London over the last few years, despite living with his two young sons in Oxford where his wife, Dr. Sos Eltis, teaches English at Brasenose College. He talks a lot about sitting in theatres with a notebook watching how the whole thing works – not so much the nuts and bolts of plot and character, but the more imperceptible alchemy whereby energy and structure work their ineffable magic on the audience. "I sit and think: how did they do that? For me, Curious was a book about reading and books, and how people fill in the gaps when they read something on the page. But everyone said it was about Asperger's. I suspect this is what will happen with Polar Bears too – people will say it's all about bipolar disorder. Actually, it's not. It's about theatre and what you can do on stage."

Still, for all his protestations, Haddon is undeniably interested in mental and physical health, although if that suggests some sort of campaigning dimension, in person his interest in the subject comes across as more forensic and detached. In the past he has put this fascination down to having worked for Mencap when he left university, even though that barely seems to explain a flurry of novels, screenplays and now a stage play about various mental and physical disabilities – Asperger's, chronic anxiety, Down's Syndrome and now, possibly, bipolar disorder. "I am really interested in eccentric minds," says this extremely ordinary-looking man. "It's rather like being fascinated by how cars work. It's really boring if your car works all the time. But as soon as something happens you get the bonnet up. If someone has an abnormal or dysfunctional state of mind, you get the bonnet up."

Yet this glib-sounding attitude belies the underlying charge of Haddon's novels. Christopher in The Curious Incident may not have access to a conventional emotional vocabulary, but when he gets upset, bewildered, scared or frustrated, he rolls up into a ball, and the effect instantly and brilliantly hardwires the reader into the off-kilter but wholly humane pathology of his particular world view. George, the protagonist of A Spot of Bother, is a bit like a modern day Mr Pooter, living in a mundane world whose daily surface co-ordinates include cups of tea and building a new garden shed. Yet he is driven so mad and scared by what he believes to be a malignant tumour on his hip he attacks it with a pair of scissors, in a standout chapter that is as darkly comic as it is deeply distressing. Both novels are highly compassionate studies of people whose all- consuming emotional afflictions put them at a terrifying distance from the everyday world; Haddon's great skill as a writer is to find a way of reaching out to their and our common humanity. "People in situations such as Christopher's and George's really aren't often that abnormal," he points out. "People say to me: 'how did you get to grips with Christopher's mind? It's amazing'. I have to point out that the only reason people think they know him is because all the bits of him they are drawn to they probably share." He stops and ponders for a minute. "Psychiatric illness and learning difficulties are also great subjects for black humour. That whole territory puts readers on the back foot and makes them a little bit nervous. What's left? I suppose depression. That's a bit boring though, isn't it?"

Is it?

"Well I can't think of any good fictional accounts of depression," he says, that glib tone creeping back again. "One of the problems is that depressed people often don't do very much. You just lie on the sofa for six months eating chocolate and watching DVDs. There's probably a certain kind of experimental novel in there, but I doubt there's a play. But lately I've realised that really I'm interested in families. Stories about mental aberration and oddity only make sense in context. Just how do people live with someone who is peculiar, gifted, strange or alien? It's odd because there's a little part of me that wants to write about exotic, strange bizarre subjects. Instead I've rather reluctantly realised that what I write about is families."

Has he ever felt depressed? "I suffer depression only in the sense that I am a writer," he says. "We don't have proper jobs to go to. We are on our own all day. Show me a writer who doesn't get depressed: who has a completely stable mood. They'd be a garage mechanic or something. Anyway, I don't think you become a writer unless you are aware of the workings of your mind."

Haddon didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. Instead he wanted to be a mathematician. "That was a ridiculous idea," he says now. "You have to be brilliant to be a mathematician, or not at all." Still, his interest in the sciences is not that surprising given that he seems to view human behaviour rather like one enormous maths puzzle; Christopher in Curious also uses maths as a way of understanding the world. Haddon boarded at Uppingham School, which he appears reluctant to discuss ("no one is happy at boarding school are they?") It wasn't until he was older that he started reading, and not until after he left Oxford University (where he studied English) that he started writing. "I seem to have developed an allergy to maths now that will not go away," he says. "Although you are right: I can see the appeal of the order that maths offers. I just find the art of writing or painting much more interesting; it's messier and harder and you never do get the answer, you just get things that feel like the answer for a while."

Winning the Whitbread may have made him comfortably well-off, but it hasn't necessarily made him feel secure. "I kind of forget about the Whitbread," he says. "You don't wanna think about that stuff otherwise you start thinking you're really good. It's the beginning of the long slide. I'm sure it's the same with anyone who's had big sales or prizes – it's in the past, isn't it? You still get out of bed the next morning thinking, 'what shall I do now?'" But he has got his debut play on at the Donmar, which is no mean feat: surely he can relax a little bit? "The problem is I spend years thinking that I desperately want success to happen; and as soon as it happens, I think, 'oh, this is something I can do, so just how impressive can it be?' Basically I have singularly failed to be impressed by myself."

He copes with writers block and the eye-swivelling consequences of a manic need to edit by running or by painting. "After about an hour and a half to two hours running, your brain gets quite small, and that's quite good," he says. "I think of myself as lying around doing nothing most of the time, and then I look back and think: 'I seem to have produced rather a lot doing that'. But I do need to be locked into a room with no guitar or washing up in the sink with a timer on the lock to really knuckle down. Part of the joy of travelling down to London recently for rehearsals was the amount of time I could spend writing on the train and at a café at Paddington station."

Haddon gives the impression of being compulsive, solitary, slippery, needy and, for all his seeming ordinariness, frankly a tad eccentric, placed slightly at awkward right-angles to everyone else. "I used to have this fantasy that I would belong at some point, as though there were some secret club somewhere," he agrees. "But as everyone points out, there is no secret club."

'Polar Bears', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0844 871 7624 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 0844 871 7624 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; previews from 1 April, opens 6 April and runs to 22 May

Top Marks: Selected Haddon highlights

Gilbert's Gobstopper (1987)

Follow the adventures of Gilbert's amazing gobstopper as it travels from his mouth to the bottom of the sea and to the wilds of outer space. Although not a major seller, critic Carolyn Polese commented in a 'School Library Journal' review that Haddon's "irreverent entertainment will tickle many a funny bone."

The Sea of Tranquility (1996)

An inspiring story about the first moon landing, depicted through the eyes of a child, with beautiful pastel illustrations. One reader stated that "if you're over 40 you'll have a tear at the end of the story; thanks to the writer, not the illustrator."

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

This book has been hugely successful and has won a string of prestigious awards, including the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year. It follows the story of a 15-year-old autistic boy, Christopher Boone. After discovering that his neighbours' dog has been killed, Christopher sets out to solve the mystery, which in turn slowly upsets his carefully constructed world.

The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village under the Sea (2006)

Haddon's first book of poetry finds the author harnessing all his powers of human feeling and black humour. The collection met with a divergent range of reactions on its publication; while some saw it as "unusually funny, frank and wry", others found the book a "waste of money".

A Spot of Bother (2006)

Haddon's second novel for adults was shortlisted for the 2006 Costa Novel Award. Whilst George is convinced he has cancer, his wife is having an affair with George's former colleague, their daughter Katie is worried she is marrying for the wrong reasons and their son is having boyfriend issues. One critic called it, "a curiously good follow-up". Rosie Barcroft

Un film inédit sur Saint-Exupéry aux enchères


Un film inédit sur Saint-Exupéry aux enchères

Par Béatrice De Rochebouet

Ce document historique, mettant en scène Antoine de Saint-Exupéry et sa femme, Consuelo,en cabotage sur un lac, est estimé 30 000 à 50 000 euros. (Sotheby's/ArtDigital Studio)
Un zoom jamais vu d'une minute cinquante sur l'écrivain, filmé en 1942 au Canada, sera vendu le 18 mai, à Paris, chez Sotheby's.

Ce film est un petit miracle inattendu. Deux minutes et dix-neuf secondes, dont une minute cinquante de zoom sur Antoine de Saint-Exupéry et Consuelo, sa femme et sa muse des bons et mauvais jours, en cabotage sur un lac, près de Montréal. Tourné par un cinéaste amateur en 16 mm avec du film Kodachrome, matériel rare et coûteux à l'époque, cette pellicule couleur est aujourd'hui mise en vente par son fils qui l'a découverte il y a peu, en visionnant les films de jeunesse de son père.

«C'est l'un des trois films connus à ce jour sur Saint-Ex en mains privées, explique l'expert de Sotheby's, Frédérique Parent. On en connaît un où il tire au ball-trap sur le Normandie et un autre où il est sur le tarmac près de son avion. Mais tous deux ne durent que quelques secondes. Là, l'écrivain entouré de femmes, sous l'œil vigilant de Consuelo à la barre, joue au séducteur, raconte des blagues et rigole. C'est une vision totalement inattendue de Saint-Ex, pourtant à ce moment-là malade et déprimé, qu'a filmée le propriétaire du bateau, à bord duquel celui-ci a été convié.»

Au Canada, où il est invité en mai 1942 par son éditeur Valiquette à donner deux conférences, Saint-Exupéry est avisé qu'il ne peut regagner les États-Unis, ayant passé la frontière sans visa d'entrée. Les cinq semaines qu'il passe près de Montréal sont une véritable épreuve. Ses relations avec Consuelo sont très détériorées ainsi qu'en témoignent les incidents que l'écrivain raconte à Nathalie Paley et à Sylvia Hamilton, deux femmes avec lesquelles il aura une liaison.

Appel à la résistance

C'est «un exil dans l'exil» comme il le dit lui-même, alors qu'il vit depuis un an et demi déjà loin de l'Europe en guerre, ne sachant quels rangs rejoindre, ceux de Pétain ou ceux de De Gaulle. Sérieusement alité pendant deux semaines, Saint-Exupéry déprime. Il passe alors son temps enfermé dans sa chambre au Windsor, remâchant les réactions qui fusent de toutes parts depuis la sortie, deux mois auparavant, de son Pilote de guerre, à New York. Le livre connaît un grand succès auprès du public américain qui considère l'écrivain comme le plus prestigieux Français alors exilé en leur pays. Mais la communauté française est divisée. Pour les uns, c'est un livre collaborationniste car il officialise une défaite de la France. Pour les autres, c'est un livre antivichyste car il se lit comme un appel à la résistance. Saint-Exupéry s'isole alors de plus en plus. Ce film émouvant est donc un précieux témoignage sur un moment peu connu de sa vie, l'année avant l'écriture du Petit Prince.

Ce n'est pas un hasard si Sotheby's qui a dispersé, depuis 2005, presque tous les lots majeurs sur Saint-Ex, a été sollicitée en premier pour vendre, le 18 mai, à Paris, ce document historique estimé, très modestement, 30 000 à 50 000 euros et visible sur demande. Il risque de déchaîner les passions des milliers d'amateurs de l'aviateur et d'intéresser vivement la succession Saint-Exupéry d'Agay qui avait mis en vente, le 17 juin 2009, chez Sotheby's, le manuscrit du chapitre central de Terre des hommes, adjugé 312 750 euros, afin de récolter des fonds pour sa fondation pour la jeunesse. Le film est aussi accompagné d'un livre d'or du bateau signé des deux époux avec un dessin annonciateur du Petit Prince avec une bulle disant:«Le Canada… j'y reviendrai.»

lunedì 29 marzo 2010

THE daughter of poet laureate Ted Hughes has challenged the view that he destroyed her mother, Sylvia Plath, by his infidelity.

From: The Sunday Times March 29, 2010

Plath's girl to the defence of Hughes Richard Woods

THE daughter of poet laureate Ted Hughes has challenged the view that he destroyed her mother, Sylvia Plath, by his infidelity.
Frieda Hughes dismisses "myths" about her father's behaviour towards Plath, claiming his mother-in-law poisoned the poets' marriage.

The claim has sparked a literary row, with others who knew Hughes and Plath well disputing Frieda's view. Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday, to celebrate the decision to commemorate Hughes in Poets' Corner at London's Westminster Abbey, Frieda recounted how Plath's mother visited the couple and their two young children when they were living in Devon, southern England, in 1962. Plath's mother, Aurelia, tried to persuade Plath to take the children and flee back to the US, Frieda said.

"My maternal grandmother visited us . . . and, while my father was absent, tried to persuade my mother to go back to the States with her, taking my brother and me," Frieda wrote.

"The idea was that my father would arrive home to find the house empty, but it would be too late for him to get us back."

Although Plath took no such action, Frieda said her grandmother's "poison had struck home and my father was told to move out".

To highlight Aurelia as a malign influence in the marriage runs counter to the widely held view of Hughes's role in the tragic death of Plath. Feminists have long revered Plath as a martyr who was betrayed when Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill.

Distraught and depressed, Plath wrote some of her most powerful poetry -- and then gassed herself in February 1963.

Further tragedy lay in wait for Hughes. In 1969, Wevill gassed herself and her daughter after being betrayed by him.

In defending her father, Frieda went against the recollections of others. Elizabeth Sigmund, a close friend of the couple in Devon, said: "I am extremely glad Ted is being honoured . . . he deserves it. But the marriage broke up because Ted was having an affair. You can't just skid round that."

Sigmund recalled how Plath was deeply hurt when Wevill rang hoping to speak to Hughes. When Plath answered, she tried to put on a man's voice.

"Sylvia came to me that very night she received the call from Assia, who pretended to be a man," Sigmund said. "She came bringing the baby (Nicholas, Frieda's brother) and saying, `He (Hughes) lied to me, he lied to me, he's become a little man'."

Although Sigmund accepted that Aurelia could be domineering, she rejected the suggestion that the poet's mother wanted to break up Plath's marriage. "More than anything, she wanted there to be a happy marriage."

Ronald Hayman, who wrote The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, took a similar view. "When Aurelia arrived in Devon, she found Sylvia in a terrible state," he said. "If anything, she seems to have calmed Sylvia as much as possible."

sabato 27 marzo 2010

El colombiano Héctor Abad Faciolince confirma en un libro la paternidad de cinco poemas de Borges

Ficción de la realidad

El colombiano Héctor Abad Faciolince confirma en un libro la paternidad de cinco poemas de Borges. Y desde la literatura planta cara a la impunidad del asesinato de su padre que ese día llevaba en el bolsillo uno de esos poemas.

Esa tarde de Lisboa estaba escrita. Y no hubo manera de reescribirla. Terminó pasadas las cinco de la tarde con el mismo cielo pálido y el mismo tema que había empezado, aunque con una ligera variación en la despedida de Héctor Abad Faciolince, autorretratado y resumido en las 17 palabras de su adiós: "Soy un exiliado español. La próxima vez nos veremos en la frontera o allí donde murió Machado, en Collioure".

Aquí. Hoy
"Vivimos en una lucha desigual contra la mentira"

La amistad y los libros
La noticia en otros webs
webs en español
en otros idiomas
"El escritor tiene que tener una personalidad disociada. Los escritores podemos definirnos como detectores de mentiras"

"Cada vez me interesa más la realidad y menos la ficción, pero cada vez me parece que todo es ficción"
Lo dice saliendo de una inmensa nube de humo de castañas asadas que envuelve la esquina de las rúas de Garrett con António Maria Cardoso. El periodista y escritor colombiano está vestido de negro y gris, potenciando su aspecto de profesor de física con gafas y pelo blanco acaracolado, aunque en este instante parece un científico loco con el cabello revuelto. Desde que publicó hace cuatro años El olvido que seremos (Seix Barral), su nombre asciende lento en una espiral. Una novela-crónica en la cual reconstruye la impunidad sobre el asesinato de su padre a manos de los paramilitares en 1987, que deriva en una de las más hermosas manifestaciones de amor de un hijo por su papá; al tiempo que desanda los caminos que recorrió su familia hasta ese momento, que los llevó a toparse con el cadáver del doctor Héctor Abad Gómez 99 días antes de que cumpliera 66 años, en la calle de Argentina, de Medellín, donde el hijo encontró en un bolsillo un poema premonitorio y desconocido de Jorge Luis Borges.

Ahora, el nombre de Héctor Abad Faciolince (Medellín, 1958) estará más en boca de todos por sus dos nuevos libros: Traiciones de la memoria (Alfaguara) y El amanecer de un marido (Seix Barral). El primero reúne tres relatos, del cual destaca el primero, donde la realidad parece predestinada a la ficción al rastrear policiaca y literariamente el origen y la autoría del poema que llevaba su padre el día de su asesinato y que termina revelando la noticia de que cinco poemas de Borges considerados apócrifos son auténticos. "Una prueba de que si se investiga se puede llegar a la verdad". Mientras que en El amanecer de un marido sus cuentos se asoman en los vericuetos del desamor y el desencuentro. El penúltimo en elogiar al autor colombiano ha sido Mario Vargas Llosa en su artículo del 7 de febrero pasado publicado en EL PAÍS y reproducido en medios de medio mundo.

La de Héctor Abad es una vida personal, periodística y literaria de apurados trazos dramáticos y borgeanos donde la realidad parece ficción y la ficción suplanta a la realidad. Un territorio fronterizo cuyas claves revelará más tarde: "Cada vez me interesa más la realidad y menos la ficción, pero cada vez me parece más que todo, todo, es ficción". Una idea de la que no escapa la identidad, "es una ficción, no es una realidad, es una cosa que uno se inventa y se pone, como un sombrero". Lo dice un hombre que considera que "el escritor tiene que tener una personalidad disociada, ser capaz de salirse de sí mismo". Y así transcurrirá una tarde sobre búsquedas de la verdad, de falsificaciones, de azares, de determinismos, de ex futuros, de bifurcaciones y con, como si estuviera escrito, un fotógrafo de apellido Socías, que lo retratará.

Tres horas antes de aquella despedida entre la nube de humo olorosa a castañas asadas, Abad Faciolince empieza a recapitular su vida en el suave y coqueto, e incluso embaucador, acento paisa, propio de su montañoso departamento de Antioquia. La cita es en Lisboa aprovechando que él participa en unas jornadas literarias, pero, sobre todo, porque cumple su palabra de no volver a España. Una promesa que hizo en 2001 cuando firmó una carta muy sonada de escritores y artistas colombianos en protesta por la exigencia de visado a sus compatriotas para entrar en este país. De ahí su despedida de: "Soy un exiliado español".

Dos semanas antes de aquel martes 2 de marzo pasado, él ya había dicho que quería tener la entrevista en alguno de los cafés que frecuentaba Fernando Pessoa. Pero ahora, de repente, está sentado al lado de un ventanal del restaurante Tapas Bar & Esplanada donde ve cómo se descuelga Lisboa hasta la mansa y ancha desembocadura del río Tajo en el Atlántico. El fotógrafo le propone alterar los planes y cruzar en ferry el río e ir hasta la otra orilla para tomarle fotos con la ciudad al fondo. El escritor duda un pestañeo, pero accede cordial. Al final caerá un aguacero y la entrevista continuará en A Brasileira, uno de los cafés preferidos del poeta portugués.

Una vez dentro, el rumor de la lluvia es reemplazado por el del rugido de la máquina de café y el barullo de la gente. Es una especie de zaguán muy ancho y largo con la barra a la derecha y las mesas a la izquierda junto a una pared cubierta de espejos. Al fondo, en el rincón, hay una mesa disponible. Héctor Abad se sienta y todo el bar queda delante de él y a su espalda, también, gracias a los espejos. En la línea entre la realidad y su reflejo.

Pide un oporto. Saca del bolsillo de la chaqueta un cuaderno de cubiertas negras y hojas amarillas y un bolígrafo. La grabadora se enciende. La mira, y confiesa entre risas y casi disculpándose: "No soy capaz de pensar hablando. Por eso tengo este cuaderno para contestarte por escrito. Porque con otras entrevistas cuando las leía me veía muy mal, me parecía que yo no había dicho lo que me ponían a decir, aunque no podía demostrarlo. Entonces opté por nunca más leerlas para no enfadarme".

Tras este prólogo improvisado sobre su experimento, piensa un segundo una pregunta sobre si acaso lo que acaba de decir no es más que su alto grado de autoconciencia sobre lo que quiere proyectar. Levanta la mirada que parece irse hasta la entrada del café, agacha la cabeza y empieza a escribir muy juicioso en su cuaderno con su bolígrafo azul.

El silencio del rincón lo rellena el rumor de las siete mesas del café y la larga barra, esparcido por el tintineo de las cucharillas que remueven los vasos. Unos minutos después empieza a leer como en el colegio: "Cuando yo hablo me distraigo mucho. Me distrae la cara de la otra persona, la mirada. Hay demasiadas variables que tengo que controlar: mi voz, lo que pasa a mi alrededor, mientras que cuando escribo por encanto el mundo desaparece y lo único que hay es tres dedos apretando un bolígrafo que escribe sobre un papel, o una pantalla del computador. Porque en los cuadernos tomo nota, pero siempre he pensado, y las personas que me conocen lo saben, que tengo una personalidad por escrito y una personalidad hablada; y hablado tiendo a ser muy condescendiente, a darle la razón a la otra persona".

Al terminar la frase bromea sorprendido al descubrir que es la primera vez que ve a dos personas hablando a la vez que escriben. Luego aclara que la costumbre de dar la razón al otro está enraizada en su educación. "Fuimos educados en el Manual de urbanidad y buenas costumbres de Carreño. Y ahí dice que contradecir es parte de mala educación. Aunque eso hace que uno se vuelva un interlocutor idiota porque siempre le da la razón al otro". Entonces improvisa: "¿Que por qué no lo remedio? Me viene lo más ancestral, que es ser una persona cordial. Nosotros los latinoamericanos estamos llenos de cortesía, siempre envolvemos el pensamiento en buenas maneras".

Afuera la gente sigue guareciéndose de la lluvia en los marcos de las dos puertas del A Brasileira. Ante las teorías antropológicas y sociológicas de que buena parte de esa cortesía hispanoamericana se debe a los rezagos del servilismo de la Conquista, la Colonia y la Independencia, Héctor Abad está de acuerdo. Aprovecha para recordar que él creció en el voseo, en el "vos" como tratamiento entre iguales. Una característica de su tierra y de otras regiones como el Río de la Plata, Chile o Costa Rica. "No sabemos dónde está el límite entre la cortesía y el servilismo. Pero yo no soy servil. No me gusta ni mandar ni obedecer, pero sí tenemos muy inculcadas normas de cortesía demasiado rígidas que son probablemente las que hacen que para mí sea difícil comunicarme verbalmente. Y eso tiene que ver también con un problema audiopersonal, y es que viví rodeado de mujeres que hablaban mucho mejor. Ellas siempre hablan mejor que los hombres. Más rápido, con más gracia, son más ocurrentes".

Parece escucharse, entonces, el barullo de diez mujeres de todas las edades que van y vienen por esa casa de la infancia de Antioquia donde un niño se siente arrullado y apabullado por sus voces. Pero gracias a eso el niño habrá de refugiarse en la lectura y la escritura. Por eso le encanta cuando su padre lo lleva a la universidad. El doctor se va a dar clases y el niño, que aún no va a la escuela, se queda en su despacho, sentado en una silla enorme frente a una máquina de escribir enorme, colocando hojas en blanco en el rodillo que aprende a girar rápido, ¡Rrrrrrrrm! Luego empieza a jugar con las teclas, sacando con sus pequeños dedos índices sonidos como en un piano de letras. Tac, tic, toc, tac, tac, toc... Una hoja llena de letras. ¡Rrrrrrrrm! La saca y pone otra. Cuando el padre vuelve de clase el niño se las enseña y recibe una gran felicitación.

De allí procederá este experimento de contestar esta entrevista con su puño y letra y luego leer la respuesta. "Cuando escribo pienso mejor, no oigo mi voz, no vigilo mi voz, es la voz de otro, una voz no interior sino exterior que me dicta aunque no sea el Espíritu Santo, pero sí creo que mi mano se comunica mucho mejor con mi cerebro que mi lengua. La escritura también tiene su ritmo y se parece más a mi pensamiento. Sabes, siempre he fingido que sé hablar", y su burla bordea la carcajada. Hasta que confiesa: "Yo pienso muy despacio". Así es que se llega al acuerdo de que algunas preguntas tendrán una respuesta más amplia o matizada a través del correo electrónico para poder avanzar en la conversación.

Vuelve a escribir. En silencio y sin tachaduras. Con la mano derecha, mientras la izquierda la pone extendida cuidadosamente sobre el pupitre, sobre la mesa.

Acaba. Inclina un poco el cuaderno y lee: "El escritor tiene que tener una personalidad disociada, algo esquizofrénica. Tiene que ser capaz de salirse de sí mismo, de ponerse en el lugar de la otra persona. Siempre, cuando un periodista me pregunta algo, yo soy el periodista, no estoy pensando en su pregunta sino en lo que hay detrás de esa pregunta. Los escritores podemos definirnos así: somos detectores de mentiras, detectores biológicos de mentiras. Cuando tú me preguntas esto, yo pienso ¿qué es lo que me está preguntando realmente? Entonces me desconcentro y no sé qué contestar y digo: usted tiene razón, es una manera de ganar tiempo".

Tiempo. En mayúscula. Ésa es una de las presencias latentes en sus libros. Sobre todo en las tres crónicas o relatos de Traiciones de la memoria. Recuerdo, olvido, memoria, vida, vidas disociadas, sueños, futuro, pasado, reinvención; todo bajo el amparo del Tiempo. Como si apareciera el río de Heráclito citado a su vez por Borges. El último de los textos es una pieza sobre los ex futuros. "Es una idea muy bonita de don Miguel de Unamuno. Los ex futuros son esos yoes que se quedaron en la vera del camino de la vida, lo que nunca llegaron a ser, lo que pudieron haber llegado a ser. Todo el mundo tiene despojos de yoes que se van quedando ante una encrucijada...".

Rrriiinnnggg... rrriiinnnggg...

Ante la sorpresa del móvil, él coge la grabadora con la mano derecha para acercársela a la cara mientras dice: "Tranquilo, yo le voy contestando a la máquina. Cuando uno llega a una encrucijada, a una disyuntiva y toma por un lado de la ye (Y), pues en Colombia decimos una ye, sea la parte izquierda o derecha eso hace que la vida se aleje del tronco; tome por un camino muy distinto. Todos tenemos de alguna manera una cierta nostalgia por el camino que no tomamos, una cierta curiosidad por saber qué hubiéramos llegado a ser si nos hubiéramos ido por otro lado. Eso es de lo que trata el tercer relato de ese libro. Indago en eso que Unamuno dejó esbozado. Como te das cuenta, a mí me gusta más hablar solo o con una máquina o con un papel que con alguien", y sus palabras terminan entre risas que eclipsan el rugido de la máquina de A Brasileira.

Un tema perfecto en un café de Pessoa, porque él creó yoes absolutos con sus heterónimos, a los que hizo incluso horóscopos y dotó de una personalidad definida. "Una vez leí esto: 'Los cuatro poetas portugueses del siglo XX son Fernando Pessoa'. Es verdad, y se llaman Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro y Fernando Pessoa".

Es el paso a la procesión de ex futuros de Héctor Abad Faciolince. "Pienso en ellos permanentemente. La vida de cada uno está colgada de un hilito. La mayoría de mis ex futuros son muertos. Yo vivo en un mundo de pesadilla donde mis hijos se viven muriendo. Y yo sé que el hecho de que un hijo mío sufra una catástrofe transformaría mi cerebro en una mente loca y desesperada y destrozada".

Echa un vistazo atrás en su vida y ve que varios de sus ex futuros quedaron en la Italia de comienzos de los noventa. Lo esboza ahora, pero dos semanas después lo precisará por Internet fundiendo este tiempo presente con el futuro: "Hubo un momento en que yo quise dejar de ser colombiano y volverme italiano. Dejé incluso de hablar en español. La nacionalidad también es una ficción, un disfraz: algo que uno se pone, como la ropa. Tal vez la única nacionalidad auténtica es la lengua, como pensaba Canetti: uno es lo que habla. Y yo hablo una variedad del castellano que es el antioqueño: una especie de español antiguo que se habla en las montañas centrales y aisladas de Colombia. Pero no soy un nacionalista; en realidad no soy nada, o no sé qué soy. Uno tiene que inventarse cada año lo que quiere ser. La identidad -esa palabra tan antipática- también es una ficción, no es una realidad, es una cosa que uno se inventa y se pone, como un sombrero".

Pide otro oporto en medio de tintineos y el ruido de la máquina registradora por alguien que ha pedido la cuenta. Le llama la atención que la entrevista haya derivado en el tema del relato de los ex futuros, "el que a menos personas le ha interesado". Pero cuya idea del tiempo y el espacio, y concepciones de realidad y ficción, se entrecruzan en las tres piezas de Traiciones de la memoria. Incluso la última frase del tercer relato conecta y complementa al segundo al desmontar de un plumazo la realidad contada hasta ese instante difuminando lo real con lo ficticio y lo imaginado. Mientras el primero es una gran crónica periodística y literaria que se convierte en sí misma en un cuento policiaco donde el hijo quiere saber por qué su padre llevaba el día de su asesinato un poema de Borges que empieza diciendo: "Ya somos el olvido que seremos", y que todos creían apócrifo, pero que tras un largo periplo geográfico y filológico encuentra su paternidad y lo confirma como auténtico junto a otros cuatro en una historia sembrada de pistas, azares y persistencia y que al final parece más un farol del determinismo. El libro alterna muchas imágenes de las pruebas y pistas que Abad Faciolince va encontrando y que invitan a diversificar la lectura, sobre todo porque en Colombia hubo un gran debate sobre la autoría del poema de Borges, puesto como epitafio en la tumba del doctor Héctor Abad Gómez.

La pesquisa sirve para que el hijo plante cara a la justicia colombiana ante la impunidad del asesinato, al encontrar una verdad literaria.

El fotógrafo se acerca a la mesa. Es señal de que fuera ha escampado. El escritor se levanta de la silla y a medida que avanza hacia la puerta su imagen se aleja en el espejo a su espalda. Sale con Jordi Socías a la calle y hace todo lo que él le dice para las fotos. Pasan delante de la estatua de Pessoa, suben por la rúa de Garrett y cruzan la António Maria Cardoso, en cuya esquina acaba de instalarse un puesto de castañas delante de un edificio donde el fotógrafo quiere hacerle unas pruebas. A los pocos minutos vuelven a bajar por la rúa de Garrett y el pelo acaracolado del escritor está más alborotado que nunca al haberle cabestreado a Socías sus peticiones, cuyas imágenes al final han ilustrado esta entrevista.

Su aspecto de científico loco es el de un buen momento. Ya era hora. Tras una adolescencia donde el dolor y la muerte se hizo presente con una hermana y empezó sin terminar varias carreras como medicina, filosofía y periodismo. Luego, en la universidad, un artículo contra el Papa hizo que lo expulsaran, y que al final terminara, precisamente, en Italia, donde se graduó en Literaturas Modernas. Al regresar a Colombia en 1987, en agosto los paramilitares asesinaron a su padre, y el día de Navidad estaba volando de nuevo a Italia por amenazas. Después llegarían su esposa e hijos, y un periodo de incertidumbre y penurias (narrado en parte en el segundo relato). A comienzos de los noventa empezó a escribir una columna dominical el diario bogotano El Espectador, y publicó algunos libros hasta que en 2000 ganó en España, con Basura, el I Premio Casa América de Narrativa Innovadora. Un año después firmaría aquella carta de protesta por la exigencia de visado a los colombianos con la promesa de no volver hasta que eso cambie. En 2006, casi 20 años después del asesinato de su padre, se sintió con fuerzas para escribir sobre aquello, lo que le ha valido el reconocimiento de público y crítica. Ahora es miembro del consejo editorial de El Espectador, con una columna de opinión muy leída.

De vuelta en A Brasileira, la conversación va hacia su vida entre la realidad real del periodismo y la ficción literaria. Es la penúltima pregunta. Se entusiasma e improvisa, pero luego la matizará en un correo electrónico: "Yo creo que vivo siempre en la realidad; y al mismo tiempo, como lo que percibe y filtra la realidad es mi cerebro, creo que vivo siempre en la ficción. Nunca sé muy bien si algo que viví lo viví realmente o si mi cerebro se está inventando un recuerdo. Cuando uno se da cuenta de las deformaciones que hace permanentemente la memoria, cuando uno ve los sesgos con que la ideología nos hace percibir la realidad, a veces me da la impresión de que todos vivimos en un mundo ficticio. La ideología es como una lente de color rosa o de color negro y todo depende del cristal con que se mire. Dos periodistas asisten a una misma batalla y parece que nos hablaran de dos batallas distintas cuando la cuentan: un periodista cubano y un periodista español nos hablan de una huelga de hambre en La Habana, y parece que hablaran de dos cosas distintas. Yo como escritor trato de ponerme dentro de la cabeza del hombre que hace la huelga de hambre, y aparece otra historia más, diferente. ¿Cuál de las tres es la historia real? Y si la historia es contada por el mismo protagonista, y él se ve a sí mismo como un mártir o un héroe, también hace de su misma huelga una leyenda. Cada vez me interesa más la realidad y menos la ficción, pero cada vez me parece más que todo, todo, es ficción".


La máquina registradora suena ahora por la mesa del rincón. Un par de minutos después, el barullo y el olor a café de A Brasileira quedan atrás y son reemplazados por el ruido de la calle y el olor a castañas asadas. Ya en la esquina de la humareda, antes del adiós, el escritor colombiano le pregunta al fotógrafo si su apellido es con ese o con ce: "Con ce", responde. "Ya, pero viene de sosias, es decir, de algo doble o que se parece mucho, está en el Anfitrión, de Plauto, cuando Mercurio se hace pasar por Sosias el criado del general Anfitrión". Son casi las cinco y media, y la tarde va a terminar como empezó, el mismo cielo pálido y el mismo tema de tres horas antes cuando Héctor Abad Faciolince se despida, saliendo del humo oloroso a recuerdos, contestando la última pregunta: ¿Cuándo vuelve a España? Y se autorretratará y resumirá en 17 palabras: "Soy un exiliado español. La próxima vez nos veremos en la frontera o allí donde murió Machado, en Collioure...", para perderse andando por la rúa de Garrett arriba en busca de una de sus pasiones, librerías de viejo.

Aquí. Hoy
Ya somos el olvido que seremos.

El polvo elemental que nos ignora

y que fue el rojo Adán y que es ahora

todos los hombres, y que no veremos.

Ya somos en la tumba las dos fechas

del principio y el término. La caja,

la obscena corrupción y la mortaja,

los ritos de la muerte, y las endechas.

No soy el insensato que se aferra

al mágico sonido de su nombre.

Jorge Luis Borges

"Vivimos en una lucha desigual contra la mentira"
Colombia, violencia, verdad, Uribe, impunidad, verdad, justicia, dolor, amor. Colombia. Son temas que salpican la entrevista con Héctor Abad Faciolince y cuya respuesta definitiva llega a través del ciberespacio.

PREGUNTA. La investigación del origen del poema es una forma de plantar cara a la justicia colombiana y su impunidad ante el asesinato de su padre. Si ellos no fueron capaces de investigar, usted, desde la creación, sí halló una verdad a pesar de los miles de obstáculos narrados en

Traiciones de la memoria.

RESPUESTA. Los seres humanos vivimos en una lucha desigual contra la mentira, la ignorancia, la irrealidad. Los científicos tratan de arrebatarle terreno a la oscuridad; los poetas tratan de entender; los detectives tratan de hallar indicios para saber quién mató o con quién puso cuernos la esposa o el marido. La justicia debería hallar y castigar a los asesinos. Los filólogos intentan saber quién fue el autor del Lazarillo de Tormes. Puede que en últimas no importe saber quién es el asesino o el cornudo, ni quién es el autor de una novela o de un poema, o si una vacuna contra el sida sirve o no... Yo participo de ese prejuicio humano muy difundido: las ganas de averiguar y de saber: quiero saber con quién me traicionó mi mujer; quiero saber quién dio la orden para matar a mi padre; quiero saber si el que escribió un soneto fue Borges o no. Si la justicia colombiana fue incapaz de encontrar y castigar a los asesinos, al menos yo creo haber hecho bien mi pesquisa filológica: yo sí sé quién escribió ese poema que parecía anónimo, o apócrifo, o inventado, o paródico. Creo haber demostrado su autenticidad. Puede que no sea importante, pero a los humanos, en general, esas cosas nos importan.

P. ¿Hacia dónde cree que va Colombia?

R. Hay algo fabuloso y al fin nuevo: no vamos hacia otro gobierno de Álvaro Uribe. Hace ocho años vivimos como hipnotizados por su mismo discurso, que es otra ficción: un espíritu de guerra y de cruzada, en un país asediado por los malos, por los bárbaros, por los guerrilleros. En realidad, las FARC están tan aisladas y desprestigiadas como ETA, pero Uribe nos metió en la ficción de que están a punto de conquistarnos, que son un dragón cuya cabeza tenemos que cortar. Los caudillos necesitan siempre, para poder gastarse una buena tajada del presupuesto en armas, inventar la ficción de un dragón que escupe fuego. Y los ciudadanos nos tragamos esa ficción como si fuera realidad. Si uno habla de cosas normales, como escuelas, agua potable, carreteras, nada parece serio ni real. Lo único serio y real es el dragón.

P. El amor y el desamor son temas que ha abordado en anteriores novelas, como

Fragmentos de amor furtivo, y ahora en El amanecer de un marido.

R. El tema ineludible de las novelas del siglo XIX y principios del siglo XX fue el adulterio. El adulterio era la amenaza más grave a una institución sólida y en ese momento ineludible, el matrimonio. Ese gran tema del mundo de ayer no puede ser abordado de la misma manera en el mundo de hoy porque el matrimonio es una institución mucho más precaria e inestable. En el transcurso de una vida, lo más frecuente ahora es que no tengamos una relación, o un solo matrimonio, sino varios. Lo nuevo es la complejidad de los sentimientos cuando, por las libertades contemporáneas, obedecemos con más facilidad al deseo de cambiar. Esto crea nuevas tensiones, nuevos dolores, amaneceres trágicos. Ésta es la temperatura temática de los distintos cuentos de El amanecer de un marido. Un hombre o una mujer descubren un día, al acostarse o al levantarse, que ya no desean o que ya no aman a la persona con la que durmieron o con la que van a dormir. Sentir eso no es fácil; y sentir que el otro siente eso es incluso menos fácil.

Traiciones de la memoria. Héctor Abad Faciolince. Alfaguara. Madrid, 2010. 272 páginas. 19,50 euros. El amanecer de un marido. Héctor Abad Faciolince. Seix Barral. Barcelona, 2010. 232 páginas. 18 euros

Ted Hughes riposera' accanto a Shakespeare ed Eliot a Westminster

DA Adnkronos) - Nel 2011 lo scrittore inglese Ted Hughes (1930-1998) avra' un posto d'onore permamente nel Poets' Corner dell'abbazia di Westminster a Londra. Come ex ''poeta laureato'' del Regno Unito, per volere della sovrana Elisabetta II, e come lirico che evocava nei suoi versi il mondo naturale, Hughes e' stato a lungo celebrato come uno dei grandi poeti del suo tempo. Una campagna di intellettuali ed artisti, conclusasi con successo, ha fatto di Hughes un ''letterato immortale'', tanto da meritarsi una targa alla memoria tra i grandi scrittori britannici commemorati a Westminster nell'''angolo dei poeti''.

Mexico's Fuentes criticizes ban of his novel in PR

Mexico's Fuentes criticizes ban of his novel in PR


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — One of Latin America's most prominent contemporary writers accepted an honorary doctorate Friday on this island where the government recently banned his novel from public high schools.

Carlos Fuentes called dropping "Aura" from the curriculum an arbitrary decision that amounted to an "antidemocratic, anticultural" act.

He spoke to reporters briefly before addressing dozens of professors and students at the University of Puerto Rico.

The author of "The Death of Artemio Cruz" and "The Old Gringo" said that even at age 81, he is still working on several books — including one about Colombian guerrillas that he struggles with because current events constantly render it outdated.

Fuentes also urged journalists not to wait until they encounter a totalitarian government to defend freedom of the press.

"We take it for granted," he said.

His visit comes six months after Puerto Rico's education secretary announced a ban on five books — including "Aura" — because of "coarse" language.

Fuentes said that while he has a certain responsibility as a writer to speak out against injustices, it is not his main job.

"A writer's responsibility lies with language, to maintain the vitality of language," he said.

venerdì 26 marzo 2010



Flights of angels on the shelf: The literary revival of heavenly creatures

As Danielle Trussoni's thriller 'Angelology' lands to compete with Dan Brown, Peter Stanford looks at the literary revival of heavenly creatures – and the authors who claim to know them
Angelology is, as Joad Raymond points out at the start of Milton's Angels (Oxford, £30), a fairly ill-defined discipline, if indeed it counts as an academic discipline at all. Even the word is disputed. In the early modern period that Raymond chronicles in his study of the influence on Protestants of Milton's use of angels as narrators in Paradise Lost, they preferred angelomachy, angelographia or angelocracy. The earliest reference he can find in English to angelology comes in a 1663 philosophical book by Gideon Harvey who describes the three, apparently equally important disciplines of theology, psychology and angelology.

If the first two of that trinity have utterly eclipsed the third in the intervening centuries, then angelology seems to be making a come-back despite our secular, sceptical and scientific times. There have, of course, been other revivals. The Victorians were keen on angels to decorate their Christmas cards, the Pre-Raphaelites warmed to their beauty, and in the early 1990s a plague of cherubim infested calendars and candle-holders.

But this time round the manifestation is literary - or, to be more precise, in books. At the head, making as dramatic an entrance as the magnificent winged creatures it features in such abundance, is Danielle Trussoni's much-hyped and Will Smith-optioned blockbuster novel, Angelology (Michael Joseph, £12.99).

Trussoni – whose 2006 memoir Falling Through the Earth won plaudits in her native America – claims to have stumbled on angels by accident (or divine design?) after her marriage to Bulgarian writer Nikolai Grozni. He took her to the Devil's Throat Gorge in the Rhodope Mountains of his homeland, a place steeped in colourful legends of angel activity.

That, at least, is the romantic account she gives of how Angelology came about. A more pragmatic view might be to see it as the latest attempt to out-Dan Brown Dan Brown and produce a mass-market thriller based on a religious mystery. The Brown recipe is as simple as it is elusive. Pick an obscure but potentially sensational area on the margins of theological speculation, present it as wholly mainstream but obscured by the machinations of wicked clerics with something to hide, and then weave it into a complicated plot heavy on mystery and suspense.

Brown lighted on the Holy Grail legend; Trussoni hits on angels. The result is an entertaining page-turner that pivots on a stray, mind-boggling reference in chapter six of the Book of Genesis to the fallen angels, kicked out of heaven for anti-social behaviour and ambition. They descend to earth, mix with human women and create a race of giants, the Nephilim. Indeed, Angelology might just as easily be called Nepihilim, but that doesn't quite have the same ring.

Trussoni conjures up the descendants of the Old Testament Nephilim as a malign presence at the heart of modern society. The only reason we haven't heard of them is because their magnificent wings are handily able to retract into their bodies to avoid detection. It is only when cloistered with others of their kind in their gilded apartments plotting evil, self-serving deeds that they give them a flap.

In the other corner in this fight for the future of the planet is a militant band of angelologists. They bear a passing resemblance to the angelologists Gideon Harvey knew, spending part of their time in ivory towers studying the minutiae of their subject. But they also have a crusader side, taking the fight to their opponents and risking life and limb.

Trussoni's debt to Harry Potter is clear. Those who dismiss angels as nothing more than pretty pictures are the equivalent of the Muggles in JK Rowling's novels who think that magic stretches no further than Paul Daniels and Tommy Cooper. This overlap highlights the endearingly childlike quality of the novel. Yes, the violence and the suspense are, I suppose, meant for grown-ups, but the overall conceit is better suited to an imaginative 12-year-old keen on Doctor Who.

Trussoni may, however, be missing a trick, for a glance at the Mind, Body and Spirit section of any bookshop chain confirms that a different, decidedly 21st-century take on angelology is all the rage. Most will boast an "Angels" shelf overflowing with self-help therapy books. Their twist is to couch their mundane message of empowerment in terms of the traditional image of guardian angels, mystical creatures who descend from on high to watch over and encourage us in times of trial.

Doyenne of this comfort-blanket school of angelology is the American author Doreen Virtue, who describes herself as a clairvoyant and "fourth-generation metaphysician who works with the... ascended-master realms". I'm presuming the surname is made up, virtues being one of the ranks of celestial hierarchy in the time-honoured Christian calibration of angels, coming halfway between seraphim and principalities.

How To Hear Your Angels (Hay House, £6.99) and Daily Guidance from Your Angels (Hay House, £12.99) are the latest volumes to feature Virtue's trademark (and I mean legal trademark) philosophy – "angel therapy". This is "a non-demoninational spiritual healing method... to heal and harmonize every aspect of life". If others are prohibited from using the phrase, they do offer the same formula. Cassandra Eason, in Your Angel is Waiting to Help (Quantum, £8.99), stirs into the brew extra ingredients of witchcraft and magic, while self-styled "angel consultant" Jenny Smedley (Angel Whispers: Get Close to Your Angels; Hay House, £8.99) veers towards the spiritualist end of the spectrum with her expertise in "past lives". Her angels can reconnect you with previous incarnations and dead relatives.

These angel books all encapsulate a kind of religion-lite, well-suited to credit-crunched times when pollsters report that many, disillusioned by the promises of consumerism, are seeking a new, reassuring philosophy of life. Traditionally, organised religion would have been the obvious answer, but its denominations and creeds have been getting a bad press of late, and moreover require thorough-going commitment and membership of a structured organisation. They also include in their all-embracing worldview challenging beliefs about self-sacrifice, loving your neighbour and working for justice. Modern angelology, by contrast, is suited to the flaky, the busy and the dabblers. It is short on demands, all but silent on our obligations to others, and instead pedals an a la carte, feel-good philosophy cherry-picked from a variety of religious traditions and bolted on to the benign Christian picture of angels.

There is one notable exception. Lorna Byrne is a different sort of angelologist altogether. Her book Angels in My Hair (Arrow, £6.99) has been a huge word-of-mouth best-seller first in her native Ireland, then in Britain. It has now been published in 20 languages and conquered the mighty US market. It describes in simple, unadorned language how she has been able to see and communicate with angels for as long as she can remember.

I met Byrne, a 54-year-old mother-of-four from Co Kildare, when the book first came out. My instinct was to dismiss her as just another self-help author, cloaking herself in the latest fad of angels, but there is nothing cynical or self-seeking about her. When she described seeing a "spiral of light" behind each individual, their very own guardian angel, it sounded as if she was describing a long-forgotten Old Master painting or a scene from director Wim Wenders's 1987 flight of fancy, Wings of Desire, where gentle, trench-coated angels minister to war-scarred Berliners. "I live in a parallel world," she explained, "between spirit world and human world". In traditional Christian terms that would make her a mystic.

Indeed, down the ages, it has tended to be mystics who have developed the cult of angels. The institutional church always has done its best to discourage both. It distrusted mystics for many of the same reasons we now distrust the new breed of angelologists. We think they are either mad or manipulative.

But mystics always had a popular following, people convinced by their sincerity, in the flesh or in their writings, and willing to believe the apparently incredible things they described. That same quality seems to be at play now with Byrne. Those who read her or hear her are drawn to her, to her serenity and hence to her beguiling promise that, whether we know it or not, we each have an angel. Her follow-up, Stairways to Heaven, is published in September.

Each of these varieties of angelology requires some sort of suspension of logic and reason, which is fine for the 40 per cent of Britons who claim to believe in angels, but excludes the rest. There is, however, an angel book for them - David Albert Jones's Angels: A History (Oxford, £10.99). An academic in the school of theology, philosophy, and history (not angelology) at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, Jones offers a colourful and comprehensive historical overview of our fascination with angels. He asks not whether they exist but why people have wanted them to, and how that desire has manifested itself from the image of angels dancing on pin-heads and their supposedly distinctive aroma to exactly where those harps came from. Jones's prose may be a little dry, and he has taken out no trademarks on his ideas, but as a guide to the celestial realms, I would put my faith in him any day.

Peter Stanford's book 'The Extra Mile: a 21st- century pilgrimage' is published this month by Continuum



Shy maths genius leaves million dollar prize money on the table

Russian recluse holed up in apartment urged to give unclaimed reward to charity

By Archie Bland

On the outskirts of St Petersburg among the dreary high-rises of the Kupchino district, lives one of the world's greatest mathematical geniuses in a tiny apartment that neighbours say is infested with cockroaches. But Grigory Perelman, 43, is no longer very interested in maths.

He has turned down jobs at several Ivy League universities, declared himself retired and done everything he can to avoid the limelight – most remarkably in 2006 by refusing mathematics' highest honour, the Fields Medal, for his work in solving a problem that had baffled extraordinary minds for 99 years.

This week Dr Perelman, a virtual recluse, was awarded the Clay Mathematical Institute's $1m Millennium Prize for his work. But he has refused to say whether he will accept the honour. "He replied that he needed to think about it," says James Carlson, president of the Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But the indecision that Dr Perelman may have hoped would make the world go away seems to have had the opposite effect – and he has come under fire from Russian charities who have urged him to take the money and give it to them. The Warm Home charity in St Petersburg has urged him to donate it to good causes across Russia, while the city's Communists have suggested they could use it to maintain Lenin's tomb in Red Square.

Journalists have this week been hammering on the door of his apartment. But as Dr Perelman resists the insistent overtures of the outside world, he may reflect that if he had hoped to avoid the public eye, he might have been better off taking the money.

Dr Perelman has always been an outsider. When he worked in the US, colleagues noted that his fingernails were several inches long, and that he lived on a diet of only bread, cheese, and milk. At the age of six, when most children are singing nursery rhymes, he was a lover of opera.

"He is someone who sees the world a little bit in black and white," says Marcus Du Sautoy, Oxford University's Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. "He doesn't really go for greys."

Dr Perelman solved the Poincaré conjecture – a problem to do with the structure of three-dimensional shapes – in 2002, and sent his work to a group of scholars who had not heard from him in years.

The solution was so brief, and yet so complex, that it took his peers years to verify that it worked.

The $1m prize would be swiftly accepted by most mathematicians. But Dr Perelman, who turned down prestigious jobs in the US in favour of a $100 a month position in St Petersburg, sees things differently.

"I have all I want," he is said to have shouted, from behind a closed door, to a Daily Mail reporter this week. Meanwhile, his elderly mother, also from behind the door, was blunt with the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper: "We don't want to talk to anyone," she said. "Don't ask us any questions about the award."

Few people claim to fully understand Dr Perelman's rationale, but most agree that it has something to do with his perception of the moral failings of his peers. In 2006, a Chinese mathematician, Shing-Tung Yau, who also worked on the Poincaré conjecture, said that many of Dr Perelman's ideas were only "sketched or outlined", in a statement that many viewed as a shocking act of egoism. And Dr Perelman had fallen out with colleagues long before that.

In a rare interview, Dr Perelman once told The New Yorker that the mathematical community's ethics dismayed him: "It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens," he said. "It is people like me who are isolated ... there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists."

Whatever the truth, those mathematicians long for the chance to welcome him back to the fold. "It's very, very curious," said Professor Du Sautoy. "We all want to celebrate what he's done."

Poincaré Conjecture: The riddle Perelman solved

*Henri Poincaré thought explaining the proof of his famous conjecture would take far too long. But even trying to explain the conjecture itself is not easy without recourse to visual props such as rubber bands, footballs and doughnuts. It's all to do with topology, the science of surfaces, or – as some would call it – "rubber sheet geometry".

One way of looking at Poincaré's conjecture is to imagine the surface of a football. Whether inflated or not, it stays the same, and in that sense it is said to be two-dimensional. Imagine stretching a rubber band around the circumference of the inflated football. It is possible to move the band towards one end of the ball without tearing the band or allowing it to leave the surface. In this sense, the surface of the football is said to be "simply connected".

Now imagine stretching a rubber band around a doughnut, a sphere with a hole in it. In this case it is not possible to move the band without tearing the doughnut. So the surface of the doughnut is said to be not simply connected. Poincaré proposed that all closed, simply connected, three-dimensional surfaces, those which lack holes and are of finite extent, were spheres. His conjecture was a way of stating this observation, but proving it mathematically had defied generations, until Perelman came along.

The conjecture has implications for cosmology, which is fascinated with the idea of the shape of the space-time continuum. The mathematics behind the conjecture could help scientists to determine the shape of the universe. Steve Connor.

giovedì 25 marzo 2010




Par Etienne De Montety

Il faudrait écrire un traité de la dédicace. Disserter sur l'art de l'envoi que vont pratiquer les écrivains de tout poil au Salon du livre à partir d'aujourd'hui. De quand date cet usage ? Existe-t-il des dédicaces de Voltaire, Stendhal, Flaubert à de prestigieux contemporains ?

Il y a dédicace et dédicace. Dédicace de service de presse et dédicace de Salon du livre. La première est adressée à un critique ou à un juré. Elle a pour objet d'attirer l'attention et la bienveillance. Elle est toujours amicale, respectueuse. Elle peut être légèrement complice ou flagorneuse. Mais attention aux excès.

Certains écrivains doués du talent de dessinateur agrémentent leur livre de croquis. Anna Gavalda et Clémence de Biéville excellent au crayon de couleur. François Sureau à l'encre.

La dédicace de salon est plus délicate. Qu'écrire à un aimable chaland planté devant soi et dont on ne sait rien ? Faut-il faire l'important ? Le malin ? L'interroger pour obtenir quelques informations sur lui qu'on glissera habilement dans sa prose ? La banalité est souvent au rendez-vous et l'on se prend à assurer le premier venu de ses cordialités sans lendemain.

La séance de dédicace fait partie de l'emploi du temps de l'écrivain. Voire de son activité. Patrick Modiano, qui est quelque chose comme la Haute Autorité de la littérature contemporaine, a récemment raconté (à L'Express) qu'il avait commencé dans la vie en imitant l'écriture de Simone de Beauvoir et de Beckett pour donner du prix à des livres qu'il s'apprêtait à vendre.

On se rappelle aussi cet écrivain plein de culot à qui des amis bouquinistes apportaient des vieux romans signés de lui. Celui-ci se lançait alors a posteriori dans des dédicaces aussi prestigieuses que fantaisistes : à Jacques Chirac, à George Bush, à Slobodan Milosevic, à Tony Blair - c'était les années 1990. Il y eut certainement des crédules pour se laisser abuser. La littérature reste de bout en bout une entreprise de mystification.


Texts Without Context
Harry Campbell


In his deliberately provocative — and deeply nihilistic — new book, “Reality Hunger,” the onetime novelist David Shields asserts that fiction “has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself.” He says he’s “bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters” and much more interested in confession and “reality-based art.” His own book can be taken as Exhibit A in what he calls “recombinant” or appropriation art.

Mr. Shields’s book consists of 618 fragments, including hundreds of quotations taken from other writers like Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Saul Bellow — quotations that Mr. Shields, 53, has taken out of context and in some cases, he says, “also revised, at least a little — for the sake of compression, consistency or whim.” He only acknowledges the source of these quotations in an appendix, which he says his publishers’ lawyers insisted he add.

“Who owns the words?” Mr. Shields asks in a passage that is itself an unacknowledged reworking of remarks by the cyberpunk author William Gibson. “Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do — all of us — though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”

Mr. Shields’s pasted-together book and defense of appropriation underscore the contentious issues of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism that have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons. In fact, the dynamics of the Web, as the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier observes in another new book, are encouraging “authors, journalists, musicians and artists” to “treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.”

It’s not just a question of how these “content producers” are supposed to make a living or finance their endeavors, however, or why they ought to allow other people to pick apart their work and filch choice excerpts. Nor is it simply a question of experts and professionals being challenged by an increasingly democratized marketplace. It’s also a question, as Mr. Lanier, 49, astutely points out in his new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” of how online collectivism, social networking and popular software designs are changing the way people think and process information, a question of what becomes of originality and imagination in a world that prizes “metaness” and regards the mash-up as “more important than the sources who were mashed.”

Mr. Lanier’s book, which makes an impassioned case for “a digital humanism,” is only one of many recent volumes to take a hard but judicious look at some of the consequences of new technology and Web 2.0. Among them are several prescient books by Cass Sunstein, 55, which explore the effects of the Internet on public discourse; Farhad Manjoo’s “True Enough,” which examines how new technologies are promoting the cultural ascendancy of belief over fact; “The Cult of the Amateur,” by Andrew Keen, which argues that Web 2.0 is creating a “digital forest of mediocrity” and substituting ill-informed speculation for genuine expertise; and Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows” (coming in June), which suggests that increased Internet use is rewiring our brains, impairing our ability to think deeply and creatively even as it improves our ability to multitask.

Unlike “Digital Barbarism,” Mark Helprin’s shrill 2009 attack on copyright abolitionists, these books are not the work of Luddites or technophobes. Mr. Lanier is a Silicon Valley veteran and a pioneer in the development of virtual reality; Mr. Manjoo, 31, is Slate’s technology columnist; Mr. Keen is a technology entrepreneur; and Mr. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School professor who now heads the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Rather, these authors’ books are nuanced ruminations on some of the unreckoned consequences of technological change — books that stand as insightful counterweights to early techno-utopian works like Esther Dyson’s “Release 2.0” and Nicholas Negroponte’s “Being Digital,” which took an almost Pollyannaish view of the Web and its capacity to empower users.

THESE NEW BOOKS share a concern with how digital media are reshaping our political and social landscape, molding art and entertainment, even affecting the methodology of scholarship and research. They examine the consequences of the fragmentation of data that the Web produces, as news articles, novels and record albums are broken down into bits and bytes; the growing emphasis on immediacy and real-time responses; the rising tide of data and information that permeates our lives; and the emphasis that blogging and partisan political Web sites place on subjectivity.

At the same time it’s clear that technology and the mechanisms of the Web have been accelerating certain trends already percolating through our culture — including the blurring of news and entertainment, a growing polarization in national politics, a deconstructionist view of literature (which emphasizes a critic’s or reader’s interpretation of a text, rather than the text’s actual content), the prominence of postmodernism in the form of mash-ups and bricolage, and a growing cultural relativism that has been advanced on the left by multiculturalists and radical feminists, who argue that history is an adjunct of identity politics, and on the right by creationists and climate-change denialists, who suggest that science is an instrument of leftist ideologues.

Even some outspoken cheerleaders of Internet technology have begun to grapple with some of its more vexing side effects. Steven Johnson, a founder of the online magazine Feed, for instance, wrote in an article in The Wall Street Journal last year that with the development of software for’s Kindle and other e-book readers that enable users to jump back and forth from other applications, he fears “one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised.” He continued, “We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

Mr. Johnson added that the book’s migration to the digital realm will turn the solitary act of reading — “a direct exchange between author and reader” — into something far more social and suggested that as online chatter about books grows, “the unity of the book will disperse into a multitude of pages and paragraphs vying for Google’s attention.”

WORRYING ABOUT the public’s growing attention deficit disorder and susceptibility to information overload, of course, is hardly new. It’s been 25 years since Neil Postman warned in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that trivia and the entertainment values promoted by television were creating distractions that threatened to subvert public discourse, and more than a decade since writers like James Gleick (“Faster”) and David Shenk (“Data Smog”) described a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.

Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

People tweet and text one another during plays and movies, forming judgments before seeing the arc of the entire work. Recent books by respected authors like Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers”), Susan Faludi (“The Terror Dream”) and Jane Jacobs (“Dark Age Ahead”) rely far more heavily on cherry-picked anecdotes — instead of broader-based evidence and assiduous analysis — than the books that first established their reputations. And online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.

“Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet,” the scholar Susan Jacoby writes in “The Age of American Unreason.” “What we are engaged in — like birds of prey looking for their next meal — is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.”

TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY has bestowed miracles of access and convenience upon millions of people, and it’s also proven to be a vital new means of communication. Twitter has been used by Iranian dissidents; text messaging and social networking Web sites have been used to help coordinate humanitarian aid in Haiti; YouTube has been used by professors to teach math and chemistry. But technology is also turning us into a global water-cooler culture, with millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, YouTube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break. And in an effort to collect valuable eyeballs and clicks, media outlets are increasingly pandering to that impulse — often at the expense of hard news. “I have the theory that news is now driven not by editors who know anything,” the comedian and commentator Bill Maher recently observed. “I think it’s driven by people who are” slacking off at work and “surfing the Internet.” He added, “It’s like a country run by ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ ”

MSNBC’s new program “The Dylan Ratigan Show,” which usually focuses on business and politics, has a “While you were working ...” segment in which viewers are asked to send in “some of the strangest and outrageous stories you’ve found on the Internet,” and the most e-mailed lists on popular news sites tend to feature articles about pets, food, celebrities and self-improvement. For instance, at one point on March 11, the top story on The Washington Post’s Web site was “Maintaining a Sex Life,” while the top story on, a user-generated news link site, was “(Funny) Sexy Girl? Do Not Trust Profile Pictures!”

Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime. This is why Sarah Palin’s every move and pronouncement is followed by television news, talk-show hosts and pundits of every political persuasion. This is why Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Michael Moore on the left are repeatedly quoted by followers and opponents. This is why a gathering of 600 people for last month’s national Tea Party convention in Nashville received a disproportionate amount of coverage from both the mainstream news media and the blogosphere.

Digital insiders like Mr. Lanier and Paulina Borsook, the author of the book “Cyberselfish,” have noted the easily distracted, adolescent quality of much of cyberculture. Ms. Borsook describes tech-heads as having “an angry adolescent view of all authority as the Pig Parent,” writing that even older digerati want to think of themselves as “having an Inner Bike Messenger.”

For his part Mr. Lanier says that because the Internet is a kind of “pseudoworld” without the qualities of a physical world, it encourages the Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood. While this has the virtues of playfulness and optimism, he argues, it can also devolve into a “Lord of the Flies”-like nastiness, with lots of “bullying, voracious irritability and selfishness” — qualities enhanced, he says, by the anonymity, peer pressure and mob rule that thrive online.

Digital culture, he writes in “You Are Not a Gadget,” “is comprised of wave after wave of juvenilia,” with rooms of “M.I.T. Ph.D. engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks.”

AT THE SAME time the Internet’s nurturing of niche cultures is contributing to what Cass Sunstein calls “cyberbalkanization.” Individuals can design feeds and alerts from their favorite Web sites so that they get only the news they want, and with more and more opinion sites and specialized sites, it becomes easier and easier, as Mr. Sunstein observes in his 2009 book “Going to Extremes,” for people “to avoid general-interest newspapers and magazines and to make choices that reflect their own predispositions.”

“Serendipitous encounters” with persons and ideas different from one’s own, he writes, tend to grow less frequent, while “views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible or bizarre in most communities.” He adds that studies of group polarization show that when like-minded people deliberate, they tend to reinforce one another and become more extreme in their views.

One result of this nicheification of the world is that consensus and common ground grow ever smaller, civic discourse gets a lot less civil, and pluralism — what Isaiah Berlin called the idea that “there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light” from “worlds, outlooks, very remote from our own” — comes to feel increasingly elusive.

As Mr. Manjoo observes in “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” (2008), the way in which “information now moves through society — on currents of loosely linked online groups and niche media outlets, pushed along by experts and journalists of dubious character and bolstered by documents that are no longer considered proof of reality” — has fostered deception and propaganda and also created what he calls a “Rashomon world” where “the very idea of objective reality is under attack.” Politicians and voters on the right and left not only hold different opinions from one another, but often can’t even agree over a shared set of facts, as clashes over climate change, health care and the Iraq war attest.

THE WEB’S amplification of subjectivity applies to culture as well as politics, fueling a phenomenon that has been gaining hold over America for several decades, with pundits squeezing out reporters on cable news, with authors writing biographies animated by personal and ideological agendas, with tell-all memoirs, talk-show confessionals, self-dramatizing blogs and carefully tended Facebook and MySpace pages becoming almost de rigeur.

As for the textual analysis known as deconstruction, which became fashionable in American academia in the 1980s, it enshrined individual readers’ subjective responses to a text over the text itself, thereby suggesting that the very idea of the author (and any sense of original intent) was dead. In doing so, deconstruction uncannily presaged arguments advanced by digerati like Kevin Kelly, who in a 2006 article for The New York Times Magazine looked forward to the day when books would cease to be individual works but would be scanned and digitized into one great, big continuous text that could be “unraveled into single pages” or “reduced further, into snippets of a page,” which readers — like David Shields, presumably — could then appropriate and remix, like bits of music, into new works of their own.

As John Updike pointed out, Mr. Kelly’s vision would in effect mean “the end of authorship” — hobbling writers’ ability to earn a living from their published works, while at the same time removing a sense of both recognition and accountability from their creations. In a Web world where copies of books (and articles and music and other content) are cheap or free, Mr. Kelly has suggested, authors and artists could make money by selling “performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information” and other aspects of their work that cannot be copied. But while such schemes may work for artists who happen to be entrepreneurial, self-promoting and charismatic, Mr. Lanier says he fears that for “the vast majority of journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers” it simply means “career oblivion.”

Other challenges to the autonomy of the artist come from new interactive media and from constant polls on television and the Web, which ask audience members for feedback on television shows, movies and music; and from fan bulletin boards, which often function like giant focus groups. Should the writers of television shows listen to fan feedback or a network’s audience testing? Does the desire to get an article on a “most e-mailed” list consciously or unconsciously influence how reporters and editors go about their assignments and approaches to stories? Are literary-minded novelists increasingly taking into account what their readers want or expect?

As reading shifts “from the private page to the communal screen,” Mr. Carr writes in “The Shallows,” authors “will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the writer Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly ‘for the sake of a feeling of belonging’ rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style.”

For that matter, the very value of artistic imagination and originality, along with the primacy of the individual, is increasingly being questioned in our copy-mad, postmodern digital world. In a recent Newsweek cover story pegged to the Tiger Woods scandal, Neal Gabler, the author of “Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,” absurdly asserts that celebrity is “the great new art form of the 21st century.”

Celebrity, Mr. Gabler argues, “competes with — and often supersedes — more traditional entertainments like movies, books, plays and TV shows,” and it performs, he says, “in its own roundabout way, many of the functions those old media performed in their heyday: among them, distracting us, sensitizing us to the human condition, and creating a fund of common experience around which we can form a national community.”

However impossible it is to think of “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” or “Jersey Shore” as art, reality shows have taken over wide swaths of television, and memoir writing has become a rite of passage for actors, politicians and celebrities of every ilk. At the same time our cultural landscape is brimming over with parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of “appropriation art” — much of it facilitated by new technology that makes remixing, and cutting-and-pasting easy enough for a child.

It’s no longer just hip-hop sampling that rules in youth culture, but also jukebox musicals like “Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages,” and works like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which features characters drawn from a host of classic adventures. Fan fiction and fan edits are thriving, as are karaoke contests, video games like Guitar Hero, and YouTube mash-ups of music and movie, television and visual images. These recyclings and post-modern experiments run the gamut in quality. Some, like Zachary Mason’s “Lost Books of the Odyssey,” are beautifully rendered works of art in their own right. Some, like J. J. Abram’s 2009 “Star Trek” film and Amy Heckerling’s 1995 “Clueless” (based on Jane Austen’s “Emma”) are inspired reinventions of classics. Some fan-made videos are extremely clever and inventive, and some, like a 3-D video version of Picasso’s “Guernica” posted on YouTube, are intriguing works that raise important and unsettling questions about art and appropriation.

All too often, however, the recycling and cut-and-paste esthetic has resulted in tired imitations; cheap, lazy re-dos; or works of “appropriation” designed to generate controversy like Mr. Shields’s “Reality Hunger.” Lady Gaga is third-generation Madonna; many jukebox or tribute musicals like “Good Vibrations” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” do an embarrassing disservice to the artists who inspired them; and the rote remaking of old television shows into films (from “The Brady Bunch” to “Charlie’s Angels” to “Get Smart”), not to mention the recycling of video games into movies (like “Tomb Raider” and “Resident Evil”) often seem as pointless as they are now predictable.

Writing in a 2005 Wired article that “new technologies redefine us,” William Gibson hailed audience participation and argued that “an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product.” Indeed, he said, “audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.”

To Mr. Lanier, however, the prevalence of mash-ups in today’s culture is a sign of “nostalgic malaise.” “Online culture,” he writes, “is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.”

He points out that much of the chatter online today is actually “driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media,” which many digerati mock as old-fashioned and passé, and which is now being destroyed by the Internet. “Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier writes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

Creepy-Crawly, Letter by Letter


By Hugh Raffles
Illustrated. 465 pages. Pantheon. $29.95.

Creepy-Crawly, Letter by Letter


Hugh Raffles was taking a shower in his Manhattan apartment when a three-inch-long water bug dropped from the ceiling and landed at his feet. His first reaction was one that might be expected. “I admit it: I screamed,” he writes in “Insectopedia,” his new compendium of thoughts about the creepy-crawly. “Wouldn’t you?”

Then Mr. Raffles did something more unusual. He took this anecdote about the shower, labeled it “The Unseen” and made it the “U” chapter in his fluky, perversely appealing encyclopedia-style volume. There is one entry per letter of the alphabet, but why does this scream/shower/big-horrible-bug story become the “U” entry? As with all of “Insectopedia,” there’s no particular reason for what goes where. Arbitrariness is part of this book’s extremely peculiar charm.

At “N” (for “Nepal”), Mr. Raffles describes taking a trip with his friend Dan and smoking drugs with Dan all day long. “We lived in a state of sensuous, if not analytic, clarity,” he recalls. That’s more or less the mind-set of “Insectopedia,” which is not to say that Mr. Raffles isn’t lucid and full of interesting information. It’s just that a creature like the cricket can pop up anywhere in this book without warning.

Many crickets are here, even Jiminy Cricket. But not even he is anywhere near the “C” chapter. Jiminy shows up in “Il Parco delle Cascine on Ascension Sunday.” (What’s that? It’s the “P” chapter, for “Parco.”) Mr. Raffles tells the reader that he wishes he could quote the lyrics sung by Jiminy in “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from Disney’s “Pinocchio,” because this is “one of Hollywood’s most enduringly democratic lyrics, a lyric that brilliantly captures the emptiness, naïveté and consolations of the American dream.” But “the copyright holder wanted way too much money.” Most of “Insectopedia” is even buggier than that. Its “G” chapter, “Generosity (The Happy Times),” delves deeply into the weird world of Shanghai’s illicit cricket fights. This involves high-stakes gambling, issues of biosecurity, criteria for cricket excellence, special equipment like the cricket couple’s “marriage box” and Jia Sidao’s “Book of Crickets.” This last is a 13th-century book identified as “the unquestioned urtext of the cricket community.”

So what if this oddball foray into insecto-tourism coughs up occasionally empty passages? (“What is a cricket in these circumstances without its existence in culture? What is this culture without the existence of crickets?”) Mr. Raffles’s adventure succeeded in landing him in The Shanghai Evening Post as a visiting “Anthropologist Studying Human-Insect Relations, U.S. Professor Wants to Publish a Book on Crickets.” And he has learned that a male cricket will fight much better if pregame sex is part of his training regimen.

Mr. Raffles refers to sex-related insect lore as often as he can. Of course he does: he has to. Less attention would be paid to “Insectopedia” if its “S” chapter were not literal-minded enough to be called “Sex,” and if the brand of sex to which it refers were not so extra-special. Here is an opportunity to learn about the fetish that has prompted films like “Squish,” “Smush,” “Toad Trampler” and “Clogs and Frogs”: pornographic films in which small creatures (not all of them insects, but who’s counting?) are stepped on, films made for men who are excited by the thought of being messily crushed.

“What did it feel like?” the big-footed female star of one such film is asked. “It felt artistic,” she answers.

“Insectopedia” includes a close-up of a squashed critter on the sole of a shoe. This book’s photos are not in color.

So much for obvious sensationalism. Mr. Raffles, who is more philosopher than provocateur, reserves his most incendiary ideas for weightier subjects. The “J” chapter is simply called “Jews.” It describes and analyzes the virulent strain of anti-Semitic propaganda that invoked images of pernicious lice. (Mr. Raffles does not mince Heinrich Himmler’s words when he quotes Nazi invective.) The “C” is short for Chernobyl and introduces Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, whose paintings of deformed insects were published by one Swiss newspaper under the headline “When Flies and Bugs Don’t Look the Way They Should.” “M” is for “My Nightmares.” Name a slithering, burrowing, swarming thought about insect life and it has probably enlivened one of Mr. Raffles’s dreams. “D” is for “Death,” which prompts him to wonder what it would be like if all the insect specimens in a museum were suddenly able to come back to life. Answer: it would be like an out-take from the “My Nightmares” chapter.

There are also some lovely thoughts here, like the “B” chapter called “Beauty.” But even the supposedly sweet visions here have their unappetizing side, especially in the “O” chapter, which can lay claim to the most far-fetched title in the book. “On January 8, Abdou Mahamane was Driving through Niamey...” is set in Niger and describes that country’s great influxes of crickets and locusts. What are they, plagues or nutrition? Mr. Raffles cites the popular local idea that they fry up nicely and have a peanutlike flavor.

“Insectopedia” itself qualifies as food for thought. Though it sometimes threatens to come unstrung, this is a collection of imaginative forays into what, for most readers, will be terra incognita. (Mr. Raffles incidentally loves to invoke Latin whenever he can.) Its ideas are unified by the author’s genuine fascination with his material and his eagerness to follow it wherever it leads, even when it goes half-mad. “The insects are all around me now,” he writes on the book’s last page. “They know we’re at the end. They’re saying, ‘Don’t leave us out! Don’t forget about us!’ ” No problem. Whether you’re wide awake or fast asleep, they aren’t easy to forget.