by SRB

Edinburgh International Book Festival Despatch 7

August 30, 2010 | by SRB

Reviewer: Alan Taylor

Lydia Davis
Martin Rowson in Conversation with Steve Bell
William Dalrymple

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THE American writer Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories have recently been published here to hosannas from critics, took part in a programme strand concerned with The Future of Fiction.
Whether it has one is difficult to say since the subject was never overtly broached. Davis’s work, we learned, has been described as “minimalist”, “avant  garde” and “experimental”, none of which terms she was comfortable with.
Nor did her work, which she read in a dull New York drawl, suggest there was much substance in them. One story called Grammar Questions felt like an exercise, while others provoked by dreams were potentially interesting if, that  is, you’re interested in other people’s dreams.
Davis ended by reading a story based on the ways she’s been misnamed and misrepresented in official correspondence and other documents, including reviews. None, curiously, mentioned that her first husband was fellow writer Paul Auster.
The story, however, was reminiscent of an essay by E.B. White, first published decades ago, in which he laid out his life in numbers. Which rather suggests that fiction’s future  if it has one  may be found in its past.

What the short story is to literature the political cartoon is to newspapers: in dire need of champions. Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, who both  draw for the Guardian, are two of the finest contemporary cartoonists. Bell, as a Book Festival guest selector, played interviewer, which he did with gruff aplomb.
In a welcome spirit of rebelliousness Rowson started by showing a cartoon of  Rupert Murdoch  “the most evil man on the planet”  peering into a toilet bowl. “Not now,” the cartoonist has him saying, “I’m watching Fox News!” Gleefully, Rowson pointed out that the Times, which is owned by Murdoch’s News  Corporation, is the media sponsor of the Festival.
As an example of biting the hand that feeds you it could hardly have been more sublime. Rowson’s real spleen, however, was vented on politicians, and in  particular the coalition government, depicting David Cameron as Little Lord  Fauntleroy, George Osborne as “a fat man who is currently thin”, and Nick Clegg as Pinocchio who, being made of wood, can be endlessly adapted. “It’s a  government of children and puppets,” said Rowson.

With an hour to go before he was due to appear William Dalrymple, the travel writer and historian of the Far East, was sitting sipping tea in North Berwick. But, having journeyed in the footsteps of Marco Polo when he was 21, he  leapt unfazed on to the stage and launched into a series readings.
In the first he described a visit to a primitive cinema in Kashgar in China where Dr No was showing. Alas, the projector was not  in sync with the screen and the scene in which Ursula Andress emerges from the sea cut off vital parts of her anatomy and magnified others. Suffice it to say Dalrymple made the most of the gift.

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