Marina Warner

In the constellation of Dame Marina Warner one encounters the wondrous, the mythic and the strange – fairy tales and Arabian Nights, the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc, spirits and phantasmagoria – subjects on which she writes with inimitable style and grace. She recently chaired the judges of the Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years for a writer’s achievement in fiction, which this year went to Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Anna Della Subin caught up with Warner on Skype to ask her about this latest role.  

Anna Della Subin I remember you mentioned that when you first revealed you’d been asked to chair the judges of the Man Booker International Prize, someone asked whether you were really into “canon formation”. 
Marina Warner [laughs] Yes, it was at the LRB Christmas party. I had been shilly-shallying about taking on this role, because I was trying to get back to my novel that has been idling like a poor neglected creature. I suddenly have an image in my mind of a Tamagotchi not being given its food – its life running out. One of the editors said, “Oh no, don’t do it. You’re not interested in canon formation, are you?” Anyway, I discovered that I have a taste for it. 

ADS How so?
MW I found it very exhilarating to try to look at a different map of fiction. We announced the 10 shortlisted writers in South Africa, which obviously has a lot of very good writers and a very long tradition of such, but nevertheless, it is sort of off the map in terms of the publishing metropoles of New York and London. I realised this decision rather matched what I had tried to set out to do, which was not to accept the existing map, but to try and shift it a little. It’s only a very little, because the rubric of the prize is that the writers must have at least two or three books in translation into English. This already means that they are significantly successful, and strongly recognised in their own cultures. It’s still a very arduous process for most writers to get out into the larger English-speaking world. That’s a great pity, and it affects some cultures and some languages more than others – Arabic, for example. I’ve also quite a strong sense that it’s even harder for women to make that passage into mainstream, English translation.

So the first step in trying to redraft this map was to find judges who didn’t belong to the old map. Those whose interests meant they had a sense of where the watercourses might be. Actually, this metaphor – I must drop it because it sounds rather imperialist, as if we’re trying to chart and conquer the territory. That would be quite wrong. It’s meant to be a journey of discovery not appropriation, a recognition that stories can be told in a different way. And also, that fiction can enter areas of experience that are very, very difficult to access in other ways.  

ADS Tell me about the issues of translation the judges faced. 
MW We decided at the beginning that if the translation did not read in English as a good English book, we wouldn’t be able to shortlist a writer whose translator had let him or her down. Which is a great shame, actually. Then there are the difficulties of whether you keep the strangeness of fiction, the strangeness of the original imaginative journey of the writer, if you capture a trace of that. Marilyn Booth’s translations of Hoda Barakat preserve some of the ways that she experiments with the fictional form, through a slight estrangement of the English.

ADS I feel that estrangement reading Ibrahim al-Koni, though more so in William Hutchins’ translations than Elliott Colla’s. In Anubis, for instance, I love what al-Koni explores: the birth of a religion, how a civilization begins. But it’s a difficult novel and somehow the language of Hutchins’s translation makes it feel even less accessible – a double distancing that happens.
MW I think that there are differences operating that form part of the value and the intensity – in al-Koni especially. His novels, almost anthologies of desert wisdom, are very different from any kind of fiction that circulates widely in Europe. Elliott’s translation of Gold Dust is astonishing – a marvellous piece of writing in English. One of the reasons I admire al-Koni is that he takes us beyond the image world of the Islamic – even the title, Anubis, shows us the connections that he’s making to the pre-Islamic, the Pharaonic and the Greek. The way histories and cultures are interwoven is, I think, part of the real imaginative excitement of his work.  

ADS How many books did you read? 
MW It’s not really possible to count. You see, the annual Booker Prize is for a single work published that year, and so the books are numbered and the judges read them in sequence. But since this prize is for a writer with a significant body of fiction, not just for a single work, we didn’t do that at all. We read by inclination, much more like teenagers, when you read all night, and forget about getting up in the morning. This is the first time I went back to that way I used to read. I had piles of books everywhere in the house – I’d flop down, read one here, go to bed, pick up another. I hadn’t had this luxury since I was a student, of reading voraciously whenever fancy took me. 

ADS That sounds amazing.
MW It was really very voluptuous and delicious.

ADS Did you feel that you were reading all these novels as a novelist yourself, with your neglected Tamagotchi lurking in the background? Or could you forget yourself and just be a reader?
MW I did sort of forget myself, actually. One thing that I had feared at the beginning was that judging the prize might destroy my love of fiction. But I have found it rather the opposite – it has tremendously fortified both my love of it and my belief in it, in what people are doing with the form, aesthetically but also conceptually: the content, the philosophies, the concepts of the human being, the way that the story is worked out through language, through energetic, inventive expression. László Krasznahorkai is an astonishing creator of webs of language, really intoxicating and marvellously translated in his case, both by George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet. Seiobo There Below is very, very good.

ADS I loved how Satantango is so relentlessly dark yet so epiphanic.
MW Yes, it’s very dense, very impressive. George Szirtes says something about translating Krasznahorkai, that it’s like swimming in a sea of lava. There is a sense of the lava flow in Seiobo There Below, but not quite as darkly melancholic as some of the others. His is a profound vision, both political and aesthetic, and it’s wonderfully rendered, incarnated in his language, even in translation. You know, it’s exciting to see that happening. It fortified my belief in fiction.  

ADS In recent years the idea of “world literature” has come under fire – I’m thinking of that n+1 piece that attacked it as a sort of empty prestige category, written for a global market, to a depoliticizing, flattening effect… 
MW We didn’t find any of that. One of the judges, Nadeem Aslam, who was born in Pakistan and came to England in his teens and writes in English, made the point very vigorously, when we were in South Africa, that the novels we’ve ended up with on our list are rather rooted in the local. One of the things that we seem to have responded to, strongly, as a group, was the discovery and the entry into very inaccessible places of experience. Sometimes they are extraordinarily harsh and we’re privileged not to have been there, for example, Marlene van Niekerk’s accounts of poor Afrikaner culture. The translations give a very interestingly textured account of her original Afrikaans novels; they are quite creole-ised, and the translators have kept a lot of Afrikaans words, idioms and rhythms in them. There were even two versions of her second novel, The Way of the Women, also called Agaat. The first was done for the English-reading market in South Africa. When the book came out in America, it was considered too difficult, and so the translation was redone to be clearer. But that texture is important; the discovery of certain interwoven forms of English – Englishes if you like – was important for all of us. Van Niekerk writes rather the opposite of globalised, homogenised, business-speak English, and I think that the characteristic of the best writers who are able to make the crossing into English – usually with commercial restraints lifted, with brave, usually small publishers bringing them out – is that they are often fashioning a third language. This locality, this kind of relationship to cultural specificity, is shared by all the writers on our list. 

César Aira is a good example. For instance, Shantytown is a brilliant and beautiful, tender fable, related strongly to conditions in Buenos Aires, but not limited to them. These shantytowns, these edgelands and marginalia – they offer a sort of allegory of the contemporary world. He has captured, as it were, global poverty, the global creation of these slums that are on the edges of so many rich cities. He’s caught that in a very poetic fantasy, which has this marvellous streak of kindness in it, and which makes it a place of hope. But it’s through a very particular picture of a city that he knows very well.

ADS I find reading César Aira colours the rest of how I imagine my mundane, daily existence. Whenever I have to go to a conference I picture it will be like The Literary Conference – we’ll all be sitting around in swimsuits, concocting a plot for world domination involving clones of Carlos Fuentes.
MW Yes! Absolutely. I also loved Ghosts; I think it’s a great modern parable. A group of migrant workers are building a block of luxury flats, and they’re living in the shell of the building as it goes up. Again, it’s an extremely contemporary situation that he’s noticed and, once more, he’s created a very tender and rather tragic fable.

Along with novelty, in reading for such a prize there is a tendency to privilege variety. Writers who change from one book to another, so that you feel they are constantly renewing themselves. That they’re irrepressible and inextinguishable. Like Krasznahorkai. And Amitav Ghosh has this sort of tremendous exuberance.

ADS Ghosh’s brilliant nonfiction, too, comes to mind.
MW The exuberant fertility of constant invention. On the global and the local, there’s another point to be made – that many of the writers we were reading are in the diaspora. Many, many of them have been displaced, either by necessity, political difficulties or sometimes by inclination. They aren’t homogenising a literature to beam it out from the centre into the big wide world. This is not “global literature”, though these authors are often refracting the global. Even [al-Koni’s] Gold Dust is to some extent a vision of the destruction of particular cultures by the conditions of the new global markets. And Alain Mabanckou, he’s an example of this widespread experience. He’s from the Republic of the Congo and he teaches in California. His work is very varied: Memoirs of a Porcupine is kind of a Kafkaesque fable; Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty is a sweet, poignant, ironical, youthful memoir, written through a child’s eyes. And Mia Couto, too: he lives and works in Mozambique as an environmentalist, but his themes are global – the ghastliness of civil war, the depths of ecological damage – which he sees through Mozambican history and traditional folklore. His work is a combination of fantasy and documentary observation. But I want to say, I resist this argument of n+1, an argument that Tim Parks has also made, for I think it actually gives much less respect to the writers. It so happens that what they know through their personal experiences – Krasznahorkai in the Soviet Bloc before 1989 and Mabanckou in Africa and al-Koni in Libya – what they’ve seen is what makes them speak universally. They are messengers, actually; they bring news from the front of these dystopian crises. 

ADS But at the same time, it doesn’t seem like any of the shortlisted authors chain themselves to what’s “real”.
MW I have this slight crush at the moment on Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s patron, who wrote Discours sur le bonheur. She said that one of the most important aspects of happiness is love. But also: “Woe to those who cannot experience illusion, because without illusion there can be no happiness”. That doesn’t square easily with the Enlightenment, actually. But she was a very insightful woman. I’m interested in illusion as a form of imaginative knowledge. César Aira is very much a creator of illusions; he uses them to document his own very sensitive observations. Like in Shantytown, a sort of alchemical process takes place as he turns reality into fantasy. This was one of the things all of the judges agreed we wanted to emphasize. Our tendency was not towards the fine-grained reproduction of reality greatly admired by many leading critics, such as James Wood, a great exponent of fiction as the enhanced chronicler of the daily experience: “The nearest thing to life”, as in the title of his recent collection of essays. 

ADS I’m happy you say that. An editor once killed a book review I wrote – about a novel filled with dreams and fantastical moments – on the grounds that no one is interested in illusion anymore, that Borges has already been there, done that… 
MW Fanny Howe is somebody – I mean, we are talking about illusion – somebody who bends lived experience into the fantastic without any reader noticing any seam or break. It just happens. There are these stretches of visionary story-making; they’re not uncanny, but they’re very arresting. She has absorbed and then refreshed and reinvigorated a tremendous tradition of American poetic prose. The fact that she’s a poet means that her prose texture left me breathless with admiration, pretty much on every page. The combination of startling metaphors, deep psychological perception and wit. Plus a gift for epigrams, actually, which are not glib or silly. I lovedNod. She’s often rather fresh in her candour about people being unkind to each other, which I liked. Her themes are ordinary life, banality if you like, but she manages to get extraordinary intensity into these situations. There’s also the subtext of her engagement with the civil-rights movement – Howe was born in 1940 and her books give you quite a picture of America’s crises and tensions and its sense of the ideal. 

ADS Is it strange, in a way, that an audience is looking to you to declare who’s the best? 
MW When one is talking about fiction in public and defending a prize or trying to advocate reading, there is a tendency to strike a high note of virtue, seize the high moral ground, present a sort of sweetness-and-light defence. You know that one is adding to the sum of understanding in the world. And I myself did this – when we announced the shortlist, I said that fiction enlarges the world; it enlarges understanding and deepens sympathy, which echoes the arguments for it that Susan Sontag made. Well, it’s not that I don’t believe that, but by the end of all the events we did in South Africa, I did feel that we were kind of overdoing the morality. And that, actually, fiction isn’t about morality – at all. It is about knowledge. And knowledge has moral ambivalence. It’s always good to seek knowledge, but the applications of knowledge are simply manifold. There are so many possible applications that you can’t possibly say reading fiction is in itself an ethical undertaking. It’s important not to fall into the teleological idea that it’s got to be good for you. But also, the quest for knowledge is also a quest for pleasure, in a sense – another matter Châtelet understood was crucially important. There’s a lot of laughter in these books. Alain Mabanckou is scandalously funny. In fact, he’s outrageous. And some are sexy. Hoda Barakat can be erotic. One doesn’t want to be too po-faced about fiction. Though the judges can’t quite get up on a platform and say, “Well, we just had a hilarious time”. §

  • Marina Warner