Sam Byers
17-11-2013

Today’s column reaches you from what must be the most child-friendly cafe in Antwerp. Every table is occupied by a baby. Three of the babies are crying, two have just finished crying, and one is taking a quick break from crying in order to consider his options with regard to further crying. Everyone, babies and parents alike, is looking at me as if I am slightly mad even to attempt to work in here, but actually the atmosphere seems strangely appropriate to what I wanted to write about.

If Friday was a day of music, Saturday was a day of literature, beginning in the afternoon with an extraordinary, and very moving, talk by Andrew Solomon.

Solomon’s latest book, Far From The Tree, deals with the challenges of parenting children who are, for whatever reason, ‘different,’ be this through disability, mental illness, criminality or even prodigious talent. His focus, primarily, was on parental love: its power; its limits. How can we love a person who has made our lives so difficult? A person who is not the person we had hoped them to be?

For me, Solomon’s most memorable remarks focused on the notion of difference. He talked about the idea of ‘curing’ disability, or autism, or deafness, and made the point that not all people with autism, for example, regard it as something that needs to be cured in the first place. He pointed out that even though we live in an ever more tolerant society, we also blindly accept the developments in science and medicine that seek to erase any trait we regard as unwelcome. As a result, we are moving towards the ability to create societies where difference and diversity are eradicated.

In the evening, before our first performance, I met my Dutch publisher for the first time. He told me of a friend of his: a person who, for most of her life, had felt the continual urge to analyse and discuss her every feeling. Some years ago she began a new relationship with a man who told her he just wasn’t as capable of discussing what he felt. He suggested, rather counterintuitively, that they talk less, and have a little more faith in each other. They have been together for six years. She has, he said, never been happier.

When I first began these columns, based around the idea of the Crossing Border festival, my natural instinct was to think in terms of transgression. The idea of a border, a boundary, seems to carry the implicit invitation, at least for me, to cross it. The idea of division, of separation, even of categorisation, strikes me as both oppressive and repressive; limiting and self-limiting.

But if we try to imagine a world without boundaries, be they emotional, as in the case of the relationship I described above, or physical, as in the idea that through science we can make each new generation more self-similar, we quickly realise that the issue is not as simple as just erasing boundaries, or crossing every border that presents itself to us.

Around me, in this cafe, borders and boundaries are being explored in ways that to me, as an adult without children, are unimaginably complicated. Each baby, in his or her own way, is testing the peripheries of their world. One has tipped over a chair. Another is banging their bowl with a spoon. It seems an obvious point to make that, as adults, we risk losing this sense of curious exploration, this sense that borders are something to be sought and explored rather than passively, obediently obeyed. But perhaps we also take for granted something else: that boundaries are reassuring, and that they are the only way in which we are able to give meaning to what is, essentially, a chaotic, pointless existence.

So perhaps the most important thing is that we continue the process of mapping, of redefining. In that, I think, we novelists have an important role to play. Novels map space: emotional and physical. They can press at borders that would feel uncomfortable if crossed in real life.

But a novel without borders would not be a novel. Like the borgesian map so accurate that it exactly covers the territory it is supposed to represent, a novel without edges would be a counter-productive endeavour. Narrative is, after all, an attempt, however inexact and unsatisfactory, to bring shape and definition to the sprawl of our existence. Writers must cross borders, yes, but they must do so, paradoxically, by creating them.

Alle verhalen van Sam Byers
30-11-13

I feel, and have always felt, a sense of ambivalence about conclusions. Sometimes, of course, they are unavoidable, but it’s surprising how often we try and force a sense of completion onto experiences and ideas that would actually retain far more of their force if left unfinished. There’s something glorious about loose ends and stray threads; puzzles with pieces missing and questions that can only be answered with more questions.

So in that sense, the best epilogues are always the ones that are simply new prologues; endings that look outward to other beginnings. It’s a quality I’ve always admired in novels and films: the sense that characters will resist that last, limiting border, and live on after the final page or reel.

More than any event I’ve done this year, Crossing Border made me think of the future. There is much discussion at the moment about the lifespan of literature. Is the novel nearing retirement age? Are books soon to go the way of the cassette tape, the CD, the phone that is just a phone and nothing else? I personally don’t think so. Crossing Border was a welcome reminder that fiction, like music, remains vibrant and vital. But it was also a reminder of what it is that keeps it vibrant, namely, translation.

Whatever the future of fiction is, it is dependent on the future of translation and, by definition, on the futures of translators themselves. Crossing Border is the only event I have been to where the art of translation (because, yes, it is an art) is given equal attention alongside the art of creation. In a previous column I talked about diversity and difference, and remarked on the horror of a homogeneous world. Fiction, like society, needs a plurality of voices in order to thrive. In maintaining that plurality, it is dependent on the work of translators.

Listening to the young translators talk over the course of the weekend, I was struck by the similarities between their motivation and that of the average young novelist. It’s not, after all, something anyone gets into for the money. Both writing and translation are, ultimately, labours of love. But at least for the novelist there is some vague promise of recognition. People who read your book will know, if nothing else, that you are the person who wrote it. But how many people can name a book’s translator? To what extent are people genuinely aware that, for example, the Dutch version of Idiopathy is effectively a collaborative text, written by two people: myself and Roos van de Wardt?

All of the translators at Crossing Border spoke of the difficulty of becoming a translator, and the difficulty of remaining one (i.e. of making enough money) once you have become one. I found myself becoming increasingly concerned. Given all these barriers, how on earth are we going to find all the dedicated young translators we so clearly need? After all, the task is clearly huge. Even to keep up with contemporary fiction would require a small army of translators, and that leaves aside the important work of bringing untranslated classics to a global audience. There are schemes and outlets aplenty for young writers – everyone is perpetually excited about the latest ‘new voice’. But if no-one translates those new voices each language will be served only by a literature it produced itself, and the result can only realistically be a dwindling gene pool of literary invention.

Events like Crossing Border are clearly, then, vital to the future of literature. Indeed, we need more of them. More opportunities for writers and translators to meet; more opportunity for reading audiences to hear translators talking about their work; and more opportunities for translators to show off their talents. As more than one translator mentioned, prizes are also important, both because of the much needed injection of cash, and because of the attention they bring to talented young translators trying to build a career.

But all of these things are, ultimately, things we expect other people to do. It’s all very well saying there should be more festivals, more money, more books. The real question is: what can we do right now? What can each of us do individually to help shape the vibrant and diverse global literary culture we all love? The answer, for me at least, is that we can read. Listening to my fellow authors read their work at the festival, watching their words appear in English on screens alongside them, I marvelled at the breadth of my own ignorance, and at what an extraordinary privilege it is to be able to experience the work of people whose language I do not share. It was a welcome reminder, if one were needed, that reading is as much a duty as writing, and that it is my responsibility as a writer to be the best reader I can possibly be. It’s all too easy to remain comfortably within the borders of ones own literary culture. We must, as readers, push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and it is translators who will act as our guides in doing this.

17-11-13

Today’s column reaches you from what must be the most child-friendly cafe in Antwerp. Every table is occupied by a baby. Three of the babies are crying, two have just finished crying, and one is taking a quick break from crying in order to consider his options with regard to further crying. Everyone, babies and parents alike, is looking at me as if I am slightly mad even to attempt to work in here, but actually the atmosphere seems strangely appropriate to what I wanted to write about.

If Friday was a day of music, Saturday was a day of literature, beginning in the afternoon with an extraordinary, and very moving, talk by Andrew Solomon.

Solomon’s latest book, Far From The Tree, deals with the challenges of parenting children who are, for whatever reason, ‘different,’ be this through disability, mental illness, criminality or even prodigious talent. His focus, primarily, was on parental love: its power; its limits. How can we love a person who has made our lives so difficult? A person who is not the person we had hoped them to be?

For me, Solomon’s most memorable remarks focused on the notion of difference. He talked about the idea of ‘curing’ disability, or autism, or deafness, and made the point that not all people with autism, for example, regard it as something that needs to be cured in the first place. He pointed out that even though we live in an ever more tolerant society, we also blindly accept the developments in science and medicine that seek to erase any trait we regard as unwelcome. As a result, we are moving towards the ability to create societies where difference and diversity are eradicated.

In the evening, before our first performance, I met my Dutch publisher for the first time. He told me of a friend of his: a person who, for most of her life, had felt the continual urge to analyse and discuss her every feeling. Some years ago she began a new relationship with a man who told her he just wasn’t as capable of discussing what he felt. He suggested, rather counterintuitively, that they talk less, and have a little more faith in each other. They have been together for six years. She has, he said, never been happier.

When I first began these columns, based around the idea of the Crossing Border festival, my natural instinct was to think in terms of transgression. The idea of a border, a boundary, seems to carry the implicit invitation, at least for me, to cross it. The idea of division, of separation, even of categorisation, strikes me as both oppressive and repressive; limiting and self-limiting.

But if we try to imagine a world without boundaries, be they emotional, as in the case of the relationship I described above, or physical, as in the idea that through science we can make each new generation more self-similar, we quickly realise that the issue is not as simple as just erasing boundaries, or crossing every border that presents itself to us.

Around me, in this cafe, borders and boundaries are being explored in ways that to me, as an adult without children, are unimaginably complicated. Each baby, in his or her own way, is testing the peripheries of their world. One has tipped over a chair. Another is banging their bowl with a spoon. It seems an obvious point to make that, as adults, we risk losing this sense of curious exploration, this sense that borders are something to be sought and explored rather than passively, obediently obeyed. But perhaps we also take for granted something else: that boundaries are reassuring, and that they are the only way in which we are able to give meaning to what is, essentially, a chaotic, pointless existence.

So perhaps the most important thing is that we continue the process of mapping, of redefining. In that, I think, we novelists have an important role to play. Novels map space: emotional and physical. They can press at borders that would feel uncomfortable if crossed in real life.

But a novel without borders would not be a novel. Like the borgesian map so accurate that it exactly covers the territory it is supposed to represent, a novel without edges would be a counter-productive endeavour. Narrative is, after all, an attempt, however inexact and unsatisfactory, to bring shape and definition to the sprawl of our existence. Writers must cross borders, yes, but they must do so, paradoxically, by creating them.

16-11-13

Having re-inserted myself back into the appropriate time and space by managing to successfully arrive in  The Hague, I spent yesterday enjoying the exact opposite feeling of the day before. Where Thursday’s defining characteristic was a feeling of separation, Friday’s was one of immersion. There were new people to meet, names to try and remember, festival venues to locate. Most of all, though, there was music.

Music has always been, for me, a critical component not only of the writing process but of the reading process. Rare indeed is the day a word gets written without a note being heard. Confronted with a book I don’t quite know how to describe, mine or someone else’s, the question that occurs to me most naturally is: what would this sound like? Hardly surprising, then, that as I wandered from venue to venue, doing my best to as see as much as possible, the question that arose most frequently was: what would this read like?

Music’s relationship to literature is often overt: it’s there in the lyrics, in the narrative shape, in the sense of drama. The highlight of my day was an extraordinary set by Villagers, backed by a string and wind quartet. It was a concert that covered a remarkable amount of ground without ever feeling anything other than completely cohesive. From hushed, haunting ballads backed only by his acoustic guitar, all the way through to wall-of-sound expansion, Villagers’ songs were held together by the interplay between their smart, playful language and their daring, intricate arrangements. This balance of style and structure, set against such sly, surprising pacing, struck me as overtly novelistic. But his confidence in shifting between emotional registers, in following abrasive noise, for example, with the sweetest of melodies, reminded me that the novel as a form still has a lot to learn from a concert set. Too often in fiction, evenness and consistency are prized over energy, daring and invention. How many novels embrace tonal shifts in the way, say, a well-sequenced album does? Too few, in my opinion.

Although Villagers were my highlight, it was Ghostpoet, performing earlier in the day, who drew attention to an absence of a different kind. When I wrote my novel, Idiopathy, I listened almost exclusively to dance music. I wanted the novel to carry, at a sentence level if possible, at least some of dance music’s propulsion. It would not, I knew, be a ‘verse-chorus’ kind of novel, but something more fluid, something constructed around a slightly different expectation of build-and-release intensity. Quite how successful I was I don’t know. Indeed, the fact that I still think about it suggests I was not successful at all, since the issue still feels unresolved. Watching Ghostpoet, it struck me that there was a key element of dance music I hadn’t considered. Fiction has its equivalents of loop-based, tightly rhythmic music.  You only need read Don Delillo in full flow to know that fascinating, hypnotic effects can be derived from judicious repetition. But where is fiction’ low end? Where is its throbbing, hair-raising bass tone? Watching (and feeling) Ghostpoet’s music, I was at a loss for an answer.

It’s a question, perhaps, for another book.

15-11-13

Hello and welcome to my second posting, which reaches you not from the exciting new surroundings promised by The Hague, but from the rather more familiar surroundings of my own sofa, which this morning I rather spectacularly failed to leave. Instead of dining with my fellow writers and translators and perhaps enjoying the special thrill of an unknown city at night, I am eating a pizza in my pyjamas and writing this report about all the things I haven’t done in a place I haven’t yet arrived at.

The sensation is strange, but not unpleasant. Today has felt like a day that never existed. Not only am I in the wrong place, but almost everyone I know thinks I am elsewhere, meaning that, at least for 24 hours, I don’t really exist either.

In our present, hyper-modern moment, non-existence is a difficult trick to pull off. Our existence is constantly reconfirmed to us; our presence continually announced and self-verified. The most noticeable thing about today, having slipped briefly out of time and place, was how reluctant I was to let anyone know. When I walked into town to buy food I hadn’t planned on needing, I felt as if I were doing so in secret. For one day only, my life had become illicit and unrecognised. I was nowhere, and no-one, and the idea made me surprisingly happy.

We are instructed, almost constantly, to define ourselves; to shape recognisable forms from the messy scribble of life as it is handed to us. The goal, we are told, is always to self-actualise, to ‘know who you are,’ and know what you want. Such certainty is reassuring, but it is also self-limiting. If I am always where I planned to be, I will always, effectively, be who I planned to be.

If attending Crossing Border is an opportunity to explore and interrogate the aesthetic and linguistic borders that demarcate our artistic practice (where, for example, does music end and writing begin; where do translation and expression meet?) then not attending it, even for a day, is an opportunity to recognise the invisible borders that separate who we are from who we are not, and where we are from where we are not; a reminder that, for all our planning and control and good sense and supposedly unshakeable grasp on reality, each of us, at every moment, has to negotiate the semi-permeable membrane that separates what we want to be from what is.

 

By the time this column is published, if all goes to plan, I will have caught the plane I was supposed to catch today and slotted myself back into the order of things as they were supposed to have been. Today, I imagine, will feel like it never happened. In many ways, it didn’t. But if this ever happens again (as it is bound to, one day), I hope that even as the irritation and stress that inevitably results from shattered plans takes hold, I’m able to remember what it was like to find myself erased from a moment that was waiting for me, and how bizarrely liberating it felt to take possession, instead, of a place and time that never should have contained me at all.

 

 

02-11-13

My relationship to travel is eccentric: I try very hard to leave at least half of me at home. You see, I spend quite protracted periods of time with my writer-self, and although we get along pretty well, I tend to see going abroad as an excellent opportunity to get some space from him for a few days. This is in some ways ironic, since writer-self tends to view my being at home as the perfect opportunity to explore foreign climes.

Much as he makes for a comparatively amiable flatmate and colleague, writer-self is not the most agreeable of travel companions. He’s too ruthless; too cold-eyed. To writer-self, a thing is beautiful only to the exact extent that it can be beautifully incorporated into what he’s writing. And that’s if he’s even made it out of the house in the first place. He’s quite the stay-at-home type. Give him a laptop and a ready supply of caffeine and he’s largely content.

Like any long-term relationship, my marriage to writer-self depends on each of us giving the other the right amount of space. Travel provides the perfect opportunity. I get to wander the world writer-self sometimes threatens to keep me from entirely, while writer-self gets to take a break from writing. Reconciled after a trip away, me and writer-self often seem to communicate with renewed fondness, as if after spending time apart we are once again, albeit briefly, able to share the same experiences, even think the same thoughts. There often follows a productive period, with both of us attacking whatever project we need to finish with a new collaborative vigour. At some stage, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, we will begin to drive each other slightly insane again and so a tactical separation will be required. Writer-self is, after all, rather bossy, and I’m rather lazy, so a degree of tension is essentially unavoidable.

At the Crossing Border festival, both selves will be travelling together, but they will be doing different things. I’m looking forward to seeing Antwerp and The Hague for the first time, and to catching as much music as my schedule allows. Writer-self, meanwhile, will be called upon to meet other writers and translators, and to write a daily column about his impressions. One way or another, a personal border is going to have to be, if not completely crossed, then at least carefully negotiated. Perhaps separate hotel rooms will be in order. Perhaps one of us will take the opportunity to rise slightly earlier for breakfast and thus snatch some precious time away from the other. Given that it remains unclear which of us will be in charge, one assumes a degree of bickering will ensue.

Or will it? Even the most rigid of borders can prove surprisingly porous in the right circumstances, and perhaps Crossing Border is already providing precisely the encouragement both Sams require in order to spend time in each other’s company. After all, writer-self, excitedly distracted by packing as he is, has already allowed me to write this, and I, for my part, have managed to complete it without his constant harrying.

We will have to be careful. If this carries on it will become difficult to tell us apart. People will start to think we’re the same person.

And neither of us want that.