‘Sex and the Cities’ Friday 19th October, 7.30 pm, Anthony Burgess Foundation
I arrive at the venue early (possibly for the first time in my life), so wait for proceedings to start in the trendy cafe cum bar cum all-things-Anthony Burgess bookshop. To all the fans of A Clockwork Orange (of which I’m sure there are many) or any other of Burgess’ work for that matter, you’ve got to get yourself down here for a peek. This my friends, is the mothership; photos of Burgess cover the walls, his old furniture is distributed round the building, and letters to and from Stanley Kubrick, (giving insight into the ambivalent relationship Burgess had with the film version of the novel) are kept in glass boxes downstairs, perfect for prying literary eyes.
Tonight’s event ‘Sex and the Cities’, brings together three authors – Anjali Joseph, Grazyna Plabanek and Noemi Szecsi – to discuss the role of place and, as the title of tonights event would suggest, sex, in their work. Ooh la la indeed. Bombay born and Cambridge educated Joseph’s second novel Another Country (which came out in June this year), follows its protagonist Leela through her twenties against the backdrop of London, Paris and Bombay. Joseph has taught English at the Sorbonne, written for the Times of India in Bombay and was commissioning editor of ELLE India. Her first novel Saraswati Park, (2012) won the Betty Task Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was joint winner of India’s Vodaphone Crossword book award for fiction.
Plabanek, who was born in Warsaw, Poland and lives in Brussels, Belgium (the setting of her latest novel) is the highly acclaimed author of bestselling novels Box of Stilettos (2002), Girls from Portofino, (2005) and A Girl Called Przystupa (2007). Her latest novel Illegal Liaisons (2010),described by Maggie Gee as ‘powerfully erotic and intelligent’ has sold 27,000 copies in Poland and is her first novel to be translated into English. Plabanek was awarded the literary Prize Zlote Sowy for her contribution to promoting Poland abroad and is among a group of international artists whose portraits will be exhibited in Brussels Gare del’Ouest for the next 10 years.
Szecsi is a writer at the heart of a new generation of Hungarian authors. The success of her first novel The Finno-Ugrian Vampire (2002) meant it was re-printed a year after its initial publication. The novel (which has been selected for the 2012 European Literature Night) examines the (often hilarious) trials of being a reluctant vampire/ aspiring children’s author in modern day Hungary. A script based on the novel was shortlisted by the Sundance Scriptwriters’ Workshop in Prague. Her second novel, The Communist Monte Cristo (2006) won the European Union Prize for literature in 2009, and she has since published two more novels, The Last Centaur (2009) and The Restless. (2011). Szecsi was recently awarded the state decoration ‘Jozsef Attila dij’ for her literary achievements.
After an introduction by Sherry Ashworth, the three authors take to the mic to read excerpts from their novels. Each reading is very different in style and tone, but one thing all three authors share is an ability to render the sometimes inescapable isolation of personal experience with pinpoint precision. Except for a minor mishap involving Joseph’s cold and the need for a tissue – as she drily notes, ‘there’s only one thing worse than someone with a cold and that’s someone with a cold and a microphone’ – the readings are stimulating and enjoyable. Next up, question time. Questions put forth by Ashworth and members of the audience range from whether or not setting works as an organizing principle in the structure of the novel (all three agree that they don’t fabricate buildings, but rather stick to their experience of the cities); whether Plabanek and Szecsi feel at a disadvantage in terms of book sales due to not writing in English (to which Szecsi answered she didn’t really think about it as she had no other option but to write in her native tongue); and, which part of the writing process was most difficult (answer: Joseph was worried that her book would be boring due to the lack of dramatic twists and turns, Plabanek found locating the male voice of the protagonist from whose perspective the story is told took a lot of time and research and Szecsi found reading Vampire literature – a genre she detests, her novel is a kind of alternative to the genre – the hardest).
I was struck by Joseph’s response to Ashworth’s observation that despite spanning three cities and a long period of time, Leela doesn’t seem to ‘develop’ in the classic Bildungsroman sense. Joseph argues that experiencing life as a linear progression in which one improves and grows at every turn is actually more a Hollywood ideal than a reflection of life as she had experienced it. She argues that life has its discontinuities and isn’t always obviously satisfying and people always refer to ‘taking control’ of life, but really how can one actually do that when life is so unpredictable. The insight into the process of writing a novel and the points raised throughout has given me a lot to mull over so my mind is bubbling as I make my way out. And despite giving myself pre-game pep talk regarding the grave state of my finances, and already having a course reading list so long it brings tears my eyes every time I look at it, I still leave with my bag three books heavier.