Dissenting voices run through some of literature’s finest works – ‘Without literature there would be no dissent and without dissent there would be no literature,’ said Faber’s Lee Brackstone to usher in this week’s Faber Social. Orhan Pamuk’s event last week in London didn’t go off without incident. Reporting back from both is regular contributor Max Liu.
During a week in which Barack Obama and Mitt Romney supposedly offered a stark choice to America and the world, two excellent events in London demonstrated the intersection of prose and politics.
On Thursday (November 1st), Orhan Pamuk was a generous reader – three times he stepped to the lectern – and an expansive interviewee when he discussed Silent House at the Southbank Centre. He praised Robert Finn’s ‘excellent translation’ but the ambiguity of some of the Turkish Nobel Laureate’s English pronunciations enriched the discourse, as did his digressions. He had much to say, there was no sense of settled ideas or a writer going through motions in the name of publicity. On his distinction between the naïve and sentimental novelist, and his place within the category of visual writer that Tolstoy and Proust belong to, he remarked: ‘When Anna Karenina looks out of her carriage window and sees snow falling, she is not seeing snowflakes, she’s seeing: “Vronsky, Vronsky, Vronsky”.’
Last year, when I visited Istanbul, a peaceful, left-wing protest was followed by a counter-demo by nationalist youths – Hasan from Silent House might well have run amongst them – who charged up Istikal Caddesi waving Turkish flags, threatening buskers. Until then, Istanbullus had been open and kind but on this strange night they became distant, furtive. A taxi driver attempted to rip me off before dropping me in a backstreet where I encountered a pack of dogs. I remembered that tension when a woman asked Pamuk to comment on the Kurdish prisoners who are on hunger strike in Turkey. ‘I don’t see an easy solution,’ he said, ‘but I don’t want to get in to this now.’ Then, when Pamuk attempted to read, somebody called out in support of the Kurds. The audience groaned, a man shouted in Turkish. I felt out of my depth, the way a western reader is prone to when confronted with actual, bloody irresolvability. ‘Please respect her anguish,’ Pamuk said.
On Monday, I read Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books essay about British popular culture’s relationship with pedophilia, on the way to the Faber Social. Emerging in to the chilly November evening at Oxford Circus, I thought of the nearby dressing rooms and apartments where abuses were committed and the corridors of power where they were ignored. ‘Without literature there would be no dissent and without dissent there would be no literature,’ said Lee Brackstone at the evening’s outset. Ali Smith was brilliant, Stewart Home stood on his head and read a story, but I came to see James Kelman.
Writing about the first Social last June, I compared David Peace to Kelman because both can alter the temperature in a room with the intensity of their reading. The artistic process is never complete for Kelman, as though every work records a particular moment of his commitment. Mo Said She Was Quirky is an essential novel so I was mildly disappointed when he announced that he’d read non-fiction. That didn’t last, as he began with an account of the Highland clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before moving through the Peterloo Massacre, Bloody Sunday, up to recent revelations about pedophilia, back to the clearances. ‘The victim’s story is the only story.’ It is not, as I’d temporarily thought, only writers and readers from the middle-East for whom conflict is real and unresolved.