A talk given in Berlin on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize. First I would like to acknowledge the absurdity of my position. Accepting a literary prize is perhaps always a little absurd, but in times like these not only the recipient but also the giver feels …
One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave.
a film directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
On a wintry afternoon, alone with the kids, I visited the Central Park Zoo. It’s not a very big place, just zoo-sized, and after seeing the animals, we found ourselves lining up to enter the little movie theater to watch something called The Polar Express 4-D Experience.
The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty. In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island.
I met J.G. Ballard once—it was a car crash. We were sailing down the Thames in the middle of the night, I don’t remember why. A British Council thing, maybe? The boat was full of young British writers, many of them drunk, and a few had begun hurling a stack …
There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.
The prose of Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is currently in jail for “infringing public decency,” explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian, utterly self-serious regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart. It’s very bad historical luck—of the kind I’ve never suffered. It’s monstrous. It’s ludicrous. But the fact that the punishment does not fit the crime—that prison is, at this moment in Cairo, the absurd response to the word “pussy”—is exactly what shouldn’t be elided.
What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell.