March 27, 2010

Durrell's Tower

This tower is on the roof of the Ambron Villa in Alexandria. Aldo and Amelia Ambron were wealthy patrons of the arts. When they heard that Lawrence Durrell was looking for an apartment, they invited him to stay at the villa. He claimed this tower as his writing chamber. At that time, there were no apartment buildings surrounding the tower, and he could see Pompey's Pillar and Lake Mareotis from his perch. Here he wrote the sublime Prospero's Cell, and made the first notes toward Justine, which he called his "Book of the Dead." Eve Cohen, the young Alexandrian Jew who was the model for Justine and who became his first wife, was the only visitor allowed in the tower. There's a picture of her as a schoolgirl on Michael Haag's website. David Gentleman's watercolor of the tower was used on one Faber & Faber paperback of The Alexandria Quartet (left).

Unfortunately the Ambron Villa is under threat. I wrote an article about it here.

March 22, 2010



The Door

The Birth of the Light

I first met Abushariaa in Khartoum in 1993. He was working from a tiny room, most of which was filled with a desk. Abushariaa worked on one side; his friend worked on the other. On the floor beside him was a waist-high stack of papers, and he was adding to the stack at the rate of four or five paintings a day.

Khartoum under the authoritarian Bashir regime was not the most receptive environment for artists, and Abushariaa, with a number of other young artists, fled to Nairobi in 1995. He has since become rather well known, and has exhibited throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. I love the whimsy in his work, and the blend of happenstance and precision. You can see more of his work here and here.

March 20, 2010


Egyptian singer Oum Koulsoum was, in the Arab world, bigger than Elvis, the Beatles, and the Stones rolled together. This was her favorite song, from a poem by Ibrahim Nagi. "Al-Atlal" might translate as "The Ruins." It refers to a trope from the pre-Islamic qasida form, in which a desert traveler comes across the campsite of a former lover and uses the objects as steppingstones for his memory. Lines from the song are sprinkled throughout The Book on Fire.

March 16, 2010

Some Comments on Narnia

Lucy first enters the wardrobe because "she likes nothing more than the touch of fur." Later, when she and Susan are walking beside Aslan as he goes to his death, he allows them to do what they'd always wanted: place their hands in his mane.

Prince Caspian is the worst of the seven books. One theme running through it is that of belief: the Narnians have forgotten about their heritage; Trumpkin doesn't believe in Aslan (or the Pevensies); only Lucy sees Aslan at first when he appears. It's as if Lewis is trying to regain the belief in his imagination that sustained The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was the book he needed to write to get to the sublime Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we are informed three times how dangerous it is to close a wardrobe door behind us (this struck me very strongly as a child). Lucy and Peter leave it open, but Edmund closes it. Lewis seems to be indicating that Edmund's trials within the wardrobe are somehow linked to closing the door. But this doesn't pan out.

In the forums at Into the Wardrobe, someone has posited a theory that the Pevensies are descended from the royal house of Charn. It goes something like this: Uncle Andrew's great-aunt Lefay had in her possession a box of dust from the Wood Between the Worlds. It is mentioned that one of the other people in England with fairy blood was a duchess. At the end of The Magician's Nephew, Digory's father inherits a large house in the country (from the duchess?). Thus, the Pevensies possibly have fairy blood from two sources, which the theorist suggests is really a link to Charn!

Nuggets of Narnian wisdom: Never shut yourself into a wardrobe. It is a serious business to invite a centaur over for a meal. Always remember to wipe your sword. Even the stars in our world are not what they appear to be made of. Most people are dead. If you fall overboard, kick off your shoes. No one is told what would have happened.

The Silver Chair is almost like a mirrored Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Many elements are the same, though reversed, or "upside-down": A boy (and the "bad" boy, Eustace) has been to Narnia first, and brings the girl in. Rather than entering the middle of Narnia, they enter beyond the end of the world, in Aslan's country. Their dour helper, Puddleglum, is the opposite of the cheery beavers and flute-playing Tumnus. Many scenes take place at night. The end of the book takes place underground. The piece of furniture in the title is a prison, rather than a means of liberation. The witch is not "white" but "green." When they emerge from the witch's underground domain, it is into a scene much like the one Lucy first saw in Narnia: faun, snow. At the end of the book, they watch Caspian become younger.

Extraordinary fruit: The berries the birds bring on Ramandu's Island, and that Lucy's cordial is made from, are fire-berries from the sun. Golg wants them to taste "living diamonds and rubies" in Bism. The fruit in Aslan's country would make "the most melting pear taste woody." The children live on apples when they first return to Narnia in Prince Caspian. Jadis eats of the apple in The Magician's Nephew, and it gives her eternal life. A "child" of one of these apples saves Digory's mother. And a seed from this "child" grows into the tree from whose wood the wardrobe will be made.

In Prince Caspian, Doctor Cornelius describes dwarfs "shaving off their beards and wearing high heels" in order to evade the Telmarines. Sounds like they might have had issues other than their height.

There are a number of differences between the older U.S. and British editions. These were made by Lewis when the first U.S. edition came out. For example, Maugrim becomes Fenris Ulf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Jadis's world, Charn, has an older, colder sun than ours. Thus it makes sense that, when she ruled Narnia as the White Witch, she would be very pale-skinned and create a world where it was always winter.

Neil Gaiman has written a story, "The Problem of Susan," about a woman remembering her siblings who were killed in a train crash. It also examines the issue of centaur sex.

The sardines on toast Tumnus serves: who tins these? Is there a sardine-tinning factory run by dwarfs? Or are they imported from Calormen?

One can pass some amusing minutes imagining encounters of various Narnian inhabitants: Father Christmas meets Tash, Bacchus meets the Sea Serpent . . .

On the subject of Father Christmas: it is clear that Christmas, at least in Narnia, has nothing to do with the date. Does this mean that the Witch, in doing away with seasonal changes, also somehow froze time?

Wikipedia informs us that a "Narnian" is a moniker for a gay person who is deep in the closet.

The Narnia books draw on a vast number of sources, including Greek mythology, Plato, George Macdonald (an acknowledged influence), and others. A couple other interesting sources are E.M. Forster's short stories and John Masefield's wonderful, wonderful The Box of Delights. In Forster's "The Story of a Panic," a horrible, lazy boy named Eustace blows a whistle in an Italian landscape, and unwittingly summons Pan (a faun). By the end of the story, Eustace is transformed. The Box of Delights, which was also a major influence on T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, contains characters named Peter and Susan. At one point, a rhyme advises the protagonist, Kay, not to blow a hunting-horn. ("He that dares blow must blow me thrice/Or feed th'outrageous cockatrice.") Over Susan's protestations, he blows the horn, and "the beautiful people in the portraits stepped down into the room." The King of the Fairies says, "The long enchantment has been brought to an end." Very similar to the scene with the bell in Charn.

March 14, 2010

David Ho

I've recently become obsessed with the art of David Ho. The image above is from a series called "Candice the Ghost." Check out his immaculate website.

March 10, 2010

The Library on the Wrong Side of Nairobi

I just won a little contest called "Why I Write," hosted by Editor Unleashed and Smashwords. Here's my contribution:

I am a writer because somebody left a library at the end of a dirt track on the wrong side of Nairobi.

The right side of Nairobi was Parklands, where there were supermarkets and ice-cream parlors. That was where the other kids at my American school lived. But I lived on Jogoo Road, on the eastern outskirts of the city, the only white boy for miles.

Behind our house was a market, where women sold pineapples and dried fish from burlap sacks spread over the mud. To the left was a police station, from which, at night, I could hear the screams of prostitutes being whipped. To the right was the mosque that woke me every day at dawn. But if I walked along the dirt track, past the police station and around the corner, I came to a square cement-block building. It had once been painted white, but the outer walls were daubed orange with the prints of soccer balls. This was the city council library for our district, a relic of the colonial administration.

Inside, the only light came from the open door: the high windows were opaque with grime and the gray neon bulb hung vertically by a tendril. Happily, the children’s bookcase stood beside the door, so I was able to read the titles if the day was sunny. If I wanted to peruse the interior text, however, I had to lean with my back against the doorjamb, holding the pages to the light.

There were always two other people in the library: the librarian and her infant son. The librarian spent her time weaving kiondos and chewing sugar cane. Hanks of white pith in various stages of desiccation littered the floor around her desk and mingled a ripe, tangy odor with the mildew of the books. She would greet me with a grin, displaying nubbins of brown tooth, and say: “Bwana Keith! How many today?” Her son crawled around on the floor, variously chewing on the discarded sugar cane or on the books within his reach. This meant that many volumes on the lower shelves were missing pages, or had covers gnawed down to the spine.

The books were all written prior to 1963, which was when Kenya gained its independence, and were all by British authors. So for a few years, from when I started reading for myself at age six till we moved to Parklands when I was eleven, I subsisted entirely on a diet of E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Mary Norton, and other writers from what I still consider to be the golden age of literature. Though an antique sign above the librarian’s head warned that I could not check out more than two books per fortnight, this was waived in my case, perhaps because I was the solitary patron. I usually checked out four books at a time, which was about a week’s worth of reading.

Check-out, an elaborate procedure, involved writing my name both on the library card and in the librarian’s enormous ledger. She would then page through the book with her sticky fingers and, having carefully changed the date on her stamp, would rock it in the purple ink of the pad and apply it in two places. Her sugar-cane fingerprints acted like glue wherever she touched, so at intervals, as I read, I would have to pry two pages apart. As the paper was softened by the climate, this left a wispy nap. At home, reading in my special armchair, I would sometimes touch my tongue to these sweetened corners.

Many years later, after my first novel had been published, I returned to the library, on a private pilgrimage to this shrine that had made me a writer. I was surprised at how tiny it was: the children’s shelves were only a couple paces long. The librarian had been replaced by a young man, but the books were still there. I opened one. The last name on the card, written carefully in pencil, was my own.

March 7, 2010

Art from The Book of Flying

I recently discovered some ink drawings I'd made while I was writing The Book of Flying. I thought readers might be interested in my mental images of Pico and Balquo.

March 3, 2010

The Book on Fire

My second novel, The Book on Fire, has been published by Immanion Press. You can read the first chapter here. The book is illustrated with black-and-white linocut prints, some of which you can see here.

The Book on Fire is available in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's, and as an ebook (in a variety of formats, including Kindle-compatible .mobi) from Smashwords.

The Illuminations

My translation of Arthur Rimbaud's The Illuminations has been published by Quinx Books.

Three of the poems, as well as some musings, have been published here.

The Illuminations is available from Amazon.