Keeping an Eye Open and The Noise of Time: My Review

Since I began reading Julian Barnes's work over the past year and particularly since I read Keeping an Eye Open, a non-fiction work about looking at art, and The Noise of Time, a novel that imagines the life of Dimitri Shostakovich, I have gained enormous respect and appreciation for Barnes as a writer. I'm especially impressed by his clean, unpretentious prose, which reads so easily and is so exact, and by his deep understanding of what it means to be an artist and of what art itself is. There's much more in my review of these two books for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

What's a Novel?

Many criteria have been suggested for defining exactly what the novel is. So varied are its manifestations that it is difficult to encompass the works of, say, Fielding and Knausgaard in a single category. After wrestling with the question for a while, one is tempted to conclude that it's a novel if you say it is. Milan Kundera comes as close as anyone to a useful definition:

A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist's desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historical fact, flight of fantasy—the synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole life the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot but can be provided by the theme. (Shop Talk, Philip Roth, p. 94)

Is Your Novel Autobiographical?

One of the questions I'm often asked is whether my novel is autobiographical. I think the questioners mean, Did the events in your book really happen to you? Mostly the answer is no, though there is one incident in The Train to Orvieto that actually did happen to me and that provided the "seed" for the entire story. However, the story itself is still not autobiographical in the sense that a memoir is autobiographical.

The real question here is what the relationship between fiction and autobiography is. IMHO fiction almost can't be anything other than autobiography in the sense that it is a record of the imaginative journey a particular writer has taken and recorded. No matter what the writer's approach is, fiction is invariably a work of imagination. To read it as memoir,  journalism or history is to mistake its intent.

The best discussion of this question is one I saw recently in Shop Talk, a collection of edited conversations with well known writers by Philip Roth. One writer, Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor, sees the matter this way (p. 27): I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not "the story of my life." The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process. To my mind, to create means to order, sort out, and choose the words and the pace that fit the work. The materials are indeed materials from one's life, but ultimately the creation is an independent creature. I think Appelfeld gets it right.

The Art of the Publisher: My Review

Roberto Calasso, a founder of the Italian publishing house Adelphi Edizioni, is among my favorite writers whom I don't claim to completely understand. I saw one review that described is work as "metaphysics in literature." I don't quite understand that description either, but you know Calasso is onto something, whatever you choose to call it, if you've read The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Tiepolo Pink, or La Folie Baudelaire. This link takes you to my review of Calasso's most recent book, The Art of the Publisher, for The Millions literary website:

The Novel of Confession and Investigation

Kamel Daoud has worked as a journalist and editor in Oran, Algeria, for quite a while. Lots of people work as editors and journalists. What are the chances that someone like Daoud could write a novel? A good first novel? A first novel that successfully uses the premise of a famous novel that is now read by every college prep student in America? How about a first novel that challenges the premise of its famous predecessor and argues for a different conclusion? How about a novel that is also a novel within a novel? What about the possibility that the journalist's first novel is a brilliant work that wins three prestigious literary prizes (Prix Francois Muriac, Prix de contenients de la Francophonie, Prix Goncourt) and raises serious questions regarding the reputation and thinking of a revered Nobel laureate? Well, that's what Daoud has pulled off with his first novel, The Meursault Investigation and in the process he also became the object of a fatwa issued by an overly literal imam.

The Meursault Investigation proceeds from the work of another Algerian writer, Albert Camus, and his novel, The Stranger. It is written from the point of view of Harun, the brother of the murder victim identified in Camus' novel only as "The Arab." Harun explains that his expressions are my unclaimed goods. Besides, the country's littered with words that don't belong to anyone anymore. You see them on the facades of old stores, in yellowing books, on people's faces, or transformed by the strange creold decolonization produces. (pp. 1-2)

Before his confession ends, Harun indicts Camus, the French, the FLN, French colonialism, his own mother, his countrymen, and, not least, himself. This is a good moment to recall Clemence in another Camus novel, The Fall. Or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," both acts of confession.

Daoud isn't the first writer to use the novel as a vehicle for moral "investigation." Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez starts from a similar point: a murder already committed and the murderer already identified. The result, too, is an indictment of each person who could have prevented the murder and who "confesses" his or her reasons for failing to do so.

Daoud presents a case, but resists easy preaching. Instead, the "moral" belongs to the reader:

Do you find my story suitable? It's all I can offer you. It's my word. I'm Musa's brother or nobody's. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks...It's your choice, my friend. It's like the biography of God. Ha, ha! No one has ever met him, not even Musa, and no one knows if his story is true or not. The Arab's the Arab, God's God. No name no initials. Blue overalls and blue sky. Two unknown persons on an endless beach. Which is truer? An intimate question. It's up to you to decide . . . Ha, ha . . . I too would wish them to be legion, my spectators, and savage in their hate. (p. 143)

Run, do not walk, to your nearest library or bookstore. The Meursault Investigation is one of the best novels - first, second or otherwise - that anyone will write.

[The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud, Other Press, New York, 2015, translated from the French by John Cullen.]

What Is "Interpretation"? or The Dying Swan Lives

We say, "It's a matter of interpretation" when something is ambiguous or admits of multiple meanings (especially something requiring apologies and possibly lawyers). In the arts, "I loved your interpretation" commends the conductor, actor, dancer, writer or artist. It's easier to understand what artistic interpretation means when one can see it. Consider the following performances based on Camille Saint-Saëns' "Le Cygnet," ("The Swan"), a classic, especially in ballet repertoire, and notice the varied choices made in portraying the swan's movements. 

The Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) is perhaps the most famous interpreter of "The Swan." Appropriately, a meringue cake was named for her.

A more recent interpretation comes from another Russian ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. Here she is in 1975...

...and again in 1986 at the age of 61:

It's possible that both ballerinas influenced L'il Buck, a practitioner of Memphis Jookin'.

"Swanlike" movements also inform the chinese State Circus's astonishing balancing act. (In this case the music is from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake.")

Interpretation includes parody, too. Michael Fokine dances as Ida Nevaseyneva:

Interpretation in an artistic sense can be understood simply as the fact that all artists make choices, and the sum of those choices constitutes an interpretation.

Fish Story

It might seem that Italy exists just so people can eat and then talk about it forever. This is especially true of Sicily, where eating is an art as well as a necessity and where fish is essential to almost any menu. 

Fishing has been part of Sicilian culture from ancient times owing to its Mediterranean location. The annual mattanza, or massacre, of bluefin tuna is a long tradition here and is vividly portrayed in the well known book, Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily, by Theresa Maggio. This is what happens after la mattanza.


A meal begins with the purchase of fresh fish either from local fishermen or at the fish market, such as this one in Ortigia, an island that is part of the city of Siracusa.

fish market array.jpg

A few steps further on you'll find wine, cheese and fresh pasta.

cheese shop.jpg

Pick up some fresh strawberries and zucchini at the produce market...

produce market.jpg

...and you have all you need to make lunch or dinner. 

Such pleasures are not new. At Piazza Armerina near the town of Enna, fish was included in splendid meals eaten in ancient Roman times at Villa del Casale, the home of a wealthy trader, where these feasts and their preparation were recorded in mosaics.


Above, the fishermen present the catch to the wealthy owner, who is seated in his fine boat. There are plenty of fish in this sea, which is depicted as if it were next to the Villa del Casale, though, in fact, the Villa is located quite a ways inland.

Below, the fish motif appears in a mosaic on a floor of a of the room in the Villa. It may refer not only to the abundance of fish in the region, but also to the zodiac.

There are probably as many fish recipes as there are Sicilians. My favorite is swordfish cooked in a thick tomato sauce with capers and olives from La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio by Wanda Tornabene.

On Location with Commissario Montalbano

The pleasures of watching the Italian TV series “Commissario Montalbano” are exceeded only by seeing where the series is filmed in person. Until recently, this building in Ragusa, Sicily, served as the set for the police station where Montalbano has his office.

If you’ve watched the series, you’ll remember that the doctor who examines the corpses is often found at his club, which is just across the street from Montalbano’s “office” in what has, in fact, been a private men’s “conversation” club for more than a century. The sign, “Circolo di Conversazione,” means club, society or association for “conversation,” a term that might include not only conversation, but also gambling, billiards, making business deals, dining and entertainments.

Conversation Club, Ragusa, Sicily

Good news for Montalbano fans who thought they had already seen every episode: Filming continues now in Modica, Sicily (below).

Monica, Sicily.jpg

Modica is justly famous for its marvelous pastries, which typically incorporate almonds, and for an unusual chocolate of Aztec origin that has a grainy, almost sandy, texture owing to a low cooking temperature that leaves the sugar in its granulated form. I encountered the pastries below at the Love Sicily Cookery School.

Monica pastries.jpg

It’s unlikely that Montalbano’s stunning seaside villa is in Ragusa or Modica, both of which are inland from the warm Mediterranean waters where Montalbano takes a daily swim. But, if you can find Montalbano’s villa, you may be able to rent it.



Pop-ups—feats of paper engineering—are endlessly fascinating. One paper engineer told me he began making pop-ups because girls liked them. What a way to flirt!

I started with simple projects, such as this book of different pop-up forms.

Pop-Up Samples


Later, I tried a more complex project. This pop-up book pops out of its own case. 

Pop-Up Book in Clamshell Case

The clamshell binding above is a medieval structure used historically with illuminated manuscripts. As the outer case opens, the strings tighten, causing the book to lift out of the interior case in which the book rests.

Inside the book, I experimented with watercolor illustrations with various kinds of paper mechanisms. This lobster has a three-dimensional shell and claws that move.

Pop-Up Lobster

Pop-ups continue to grow more complex and interesting, so there's always more to learn.



Art of the Book

Book Arts includes typography, bookbinding, painting, papermaking, sculpture, calligraphy, printing and other technologies to produce artist’s books meaning a book that is itself a work of art. 

In fact, there are as many different kinds of artist’s books as there are artists who make them. The artist book collection at University of Washington has more than 20,000 pieces. Artist’s books are shown in museums, too, such as Ann Hamilton’s recent exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle: 

Here are some of my favorite creators of artist's books.

Suzanne Moore is known worldwide for her exquisite design, complex technological feats (e.g. making pastel stick to paint), and calligraphy in the service of complex ideas and concepts.

Moore was among the book artists who worked on the contemporary edition of the St. John’s Bible, a modern rendering of the Bible on vellum and animal skin using traditional techniques such as those used in illuminated manuscripts.More recently, Moore explored the concept of zero in More than Zero.

Julie Chen often creates interactive artist’s books, with complex bindings and elaborate, game-like structures. 

Guess Who? This book artist combines inventive structures with mysterious performance, delighting audiences around the world.


The Joy of Typography

“Typography exists to honor content,” Robert Bringhurst says at the beginning of his The Elements of Typographic Style. Its goals are clarity, transparency, durability, and legibility. At its best, typography is an art that “must relinquish the attention it has drawn.” (p.17) This renowned “bible” for typesetters, letterpress printers, and interested others is also a pleasure to read. The writing is clear and felicitous, and the book is itself an example of its subject: the proper placement and spacing of letterforms and their history.

As the phrase honor content implies, good typography enables the reader to take in the content absent unnecessary obstacles, such as crowding, page arrangements that don’t accord with content or meaning, and unnecessary stylistic flourishes.

Here's a photo of a spread from Bringhurst’s book. Despite my pencil marks, you can easily see the appealing arrangement of the page. The text elements ask to be read. 


Notice the sidebar on the left hand page about how typographic principles apply to other cultures and alphabetic forms. Despite my low quality photograph below, you can easily read the text and the interesting discussion of non-western serif and sans serif typeforms.


After considering Bringhurst’s typographic principles, we can understand why we’re annoyed when we encounter poor typography, why our wish to look away from certain texts isn’t necessarily a problem of content (though that could be the case, too), but, rather, of typography. According to Bringhurst, typography is an old and living art and one that affects all writers and their readers.

Location, Location, Location

We’ve all heard readers say, “Oh, I just skip the descriptions of where they are so I can get to what happens." Perhaps this is why setting is sometimes a less-discussed aspect of the novel than, say, plot, character, or theme, but it is certainly not less than these. Perhaps we assume place is static, uninteresting even, or that a story might be set elsewhere—anywhere—if the author just described it adequately and because, well, it’s just a story, isn’t it?

This idea bears examination. What about the Mexico City, the bar in Amsterdam where Clemence confesses in Camus’ The Fall? Or the distraught landscapes of Faulkner’s novels? Joyce’s labyrinthine Dublin? Miss Havisham’s decaying mansion? The chiaroscuro of Genesis 1? I believe that setting is about culture, the culture out of which the story arises and that it is fundamental to storytelling.

In Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano entangles us in stories within stories, minds within minds. Here, his narrator imagines how Paris might have looked to a young Colette when she first arrived at the Gare du Lyon on a similar day but in a time quite different from the one in Modiano's story:

…Wind from the Atlantic shakes the tree branches and turns umbrellas inside out. Pedestrians huddle in doorways. You can hear the seagulls crying. Sunlight glistens on wet sidewalks near the Quai d’Austerlitz and on the walls around the Jardin des Plantes… (p. 12-13, Yale University Press, 2014)

Perhaps Colette saw the same Paris Caillebotte saw, but Modiano’s description suggests that she felt the cold and the damp more keenly than Caillebotte’s well-heeled pedestrians. The specificity of Modiano’s passage brings to mind Orhan PamukIstanbul: Memories and the City and the combination of nostalgia, melancholy and loss — hüzün — that is particular to the culture of Istanbul and to Pamuk’s writing:

This waterway [the Bosphorous]…is not to be confused with the canals of Amsterdam or Venice or the rivers that divide Paris and Rome in two: Strong currents run through the Bosphorus, its surface is always ruffled by wind and waves, and its waters are deep and dark…if you are following the itinerary of a city ferry, you will see apartment buildings and yachtsold ladies watching you from balconies as they sip their tea, the pergolas of coffeehouses perched by landings, children in their underwear entering the sea just where the sewers empty into it and sunning themselves on the concrete, men fishing from the banks, people lazing on their yachts, schoolchildren emptying out of school and walking along the shore…

…and so on with bus windows, cats, walled villas and gardens, alleyways, mosques, slums, high rises, “an ever-mutating mirage” of neighborhoods. (p. 51-52, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) After reading Pamuk’s description, I put the Bosphorus and that ferry ride on my bucket list! Few places, however, evoke as much rapture as D. H. Lawrence’s when upon leaving Taormina he looks up at Mt. Etna:

…and then oh regal evening-star, hung westward flaring over the jagged dark precipices of tall Sicily: then Etna, that wicked witch, resting her thick white snow under heaven, and slowly, slowly rolling her orange-coloured smoke... (Sea and Sardinia, Penguin Books, 1921, p.7).

By skipping descriptions of setting, we forego place and risk missing the culture of the story. If we say that the story could be anywhere, then we may well be saying that it’s attached to no culture, no milieu, no time, no place. If a story could take place anywhere, it doesn’t mean that it’s universal. Rather, it means that the writer hasn’t considered the significance of culture and has likely written a story that is either outside of human experience or so generic as to be irrelevant to it. As a writer, my own experience has been that setting is so essential to story that attempts to change it cause the story to disintegrate.


Elena Ferrante: The Proust-Dickens-Faulkner of Naples

Although the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, a pseudonym, has been writing her fictions for several decades, it seems that she is just now being widely read. As many know, she doesn't give interviews or readings or make public appearances; however, in the Spring, 2015 issue of the Paris Review, she is interviewed by her publishers.

Her public absence has understandably aroused a great deal of speculation among reviewers and critics about whether she's someone well known, perhaps a famous Italian author, a man even. I say, "Good for her!" Enough already of writing celebrities who preen and vamp. FWIW I'm convinced Elena Ferrante is a woman. Whoever she is, and concur with those who say that she's brilliant and ferociously honest. Her writing drags you through the rough streets of Naples, the halls of academe, and assorted households then leaves you gasping on the sidewalk. And if you're a woman, she lets you know that you aren't alone with those fearsome things you've never told anyone about yourself. Her books include: Days of Abandonment; The Lost Daughter; Troubled Love; the Neapolitan quartet including: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (September, 2015). Another after that. Clear your calendar. It's doubtful you'll have time for anything else once you start reading.

Modiano: Identity Lost and Found

Patrick Modiano's works often examine the elusiveness of identity and memory. In Missing Person the question is: What if I don't know who I am? What does it mean to know ourselves? This short novel explores these questions through the eyes of a private detective who has amnesia and is trying to discover his past. Clues float by randomly. How is he to order them? He tries to piece them together, but much escapes his grasp either because his memory is faulty or because others have lost or forgotten essential information. It's an idea I worked with in my own novel in which an adult child gradually discovers the truth of her past as long hidden facts and information emerge. 

Italian TV: Commissario Montalbano

My husband and I are so addicted to "Commissario Montalbano," the Italian TV series about a Sicilian detective, that it's replaced "Downton Abbey" on our viewing schedule. Based on the novels of Andrea Camillieri, each of the twenty-six episodes (public library or television) is about ninety minutes long, just enough for a pleasant evening's entertainment, a sort of after-dinner truffle. 

The Sicilian scenery is spectacular, the characters lovable, notwithstanding the Italian male and female stereotypes, which to the American eye are cartoonish. These pleasurable little mysteries have some common features: 

  • The stories are concerned with social class, criminality, and corruption.
  • The clues don't seem to add up even after the miscreants are arrested and brought to justice.
  • There will be a corpse(s). If female, they will be naked and will often have suffered cuts; if male, they will usually have been shot.
  • There will be very sexy love scenes, but otherwise love will not be requited.
  • The innocent will suffer, but decency and justice will eventually prevail.
  • For the most part, people eat well and live amid baroque decay.

What's not to like? If you're studying Italian, as I am, and love Italy, as I do, here's a chance to practice listening to native speakers. After while, you may not need the subtitles. And if you're going to Sicily, you can even rent the Commissario's seaside villa in Ragusa.



Art & Life

It's hard not to look at Brian Williams and think there but for the grace of God go all of us. Haven't researchers documented how we remember ever newer versions of earlier events? The fictionalizing of our experience is surely central not only to the neurobiology of memory but also to creative work. When people ask me, "Is your novel autobiographical?" I say there is one incident in The Train to Orvieto that did in fact happen to me. It would be more accurate to say that the whole work is autobiographical in the sense that it is a record of my imaginary journey, one that parallels, but is not, real life. I hope that I've written about these experiences as vividly as they occurred to me.