Last night novelist Hisham Matar opened the Sydney Writers’ Festival with a talk on ‘The Distance’. He was mesmerising. When Matar left the stage SWF director Chip Rolley attempted to thank him for his extraordinary words but he (Rolley) was so moved he could barely speak. I think we were all speechless. And undone.
Matar was asked to speak on ‘The Private Moment’. His talk was so hushed, so intimate, it almost seems wrong to write about it, to make it public. But I will attempt to capture some fragments of what he said.
Chip Rolley introduced the festival’s theme: the line between public and private. But what is personal, he asked, in an age when everything’s personal and everything is on facebook?
He told a story about Jaballa Matar, a political dissident and Libyan exile in Egypt who was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990. He has been missing ever since.
‘His son speaks tonight. Hisham Matar is not a political scientist, not a journalist. He’s a novelist. Matar will demonstrate it’s the writer of fiction who can best give the private moment expression.’
Matar said, ‘Libyan writers have been pushed during the last year to engage with language and reality in ways more literal than literary.’
And then he did an extraordinary thing. He spoke as a novelist, a creator of stories. He conjured a small fictional space, a man and a woman lying entwined on the grass. The man is contemplating desire, the conflict between what desire wants (to possess the beloved) and what desire needs (the unattainability of the beloved).
‘She doesn’t know, she can’t know, what his fingers are doing with her hair.’
And from this small fictional space he spoke of worlds.
Between 1928 and 1932 in one way or another the Italian army killed half the population of Libya. The human race seems condemned to recounting the past, condemned to remember. But he remembers his uncle, who spoke of forgetting. ‘Without it we’d go mad.’ He thinks of the first time he became conscious of memory, seated at a piano, and its keys became indistinguishable, infinite.
He thinks of Marcus Aurelius and memory, which records our lives like wax. Or Shostakovich, who kissed his wife and children goodnight then went to sleep on a rug on the floor, by the front door, waiting for Stalin’s men to arrive, waiting to be taken by them without resistance. Shostakovich lying there, ‘like a dog’. His piano nearby.
She said, ‘I have such a beautiful perspective.’ How appropriate that she should say that in Rome. He thinks of the Marcus Aurelius arch in Tripoli, built in 163 AD. How far is Tripoli from Rome?
And of Caravaggio’s David with the head of Goliath in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. David’s face hints at remorse. ‘Perhaps the magnitude of his action had suddenly become clear to him.’ The blade of his sword is close to his groin. The blade and the penis. Maybe nothing ever justifies murder.
What all art does and what only art can do is make us see something in a particular way.
It is questionable to him if he would ever write if he were to lose her. All art is an act of love … no matter how great the darkness writing is always an act of hope. The whole history of art can be read as a gesture of desire – and of hope.
We read to know ourselves, but we also read to remember ourselves. Art makes the world tolerable and tolerant of variety. Perhaps we also need nations, their culture, language, politics, art, to organise our world.
What is the distance between Mussolini and Gaddafi? Between Gaddafi and the present?
The man is Turgenev. The husband of the woman lying beside him is in the house nearby, probably reading the paper.
In 1953 a young Arab novelist Tayeb Salih arrives in London. He’s Sudanese, 24 years old. His time away from home stretched until Feburary 2009, when he died. His body was taken back to Sudan and he was buried in Karmakol near the house he was born in.
Camus in his fiction tells us that the curse of the world is the idealist. Both Mussolini and Gaddafi were idealists. Both were obsessed with the private moment, with invading it.
In Ovid’s letters of exile we see his ‘dark sympathy’ for Augustus, his secret understanding of the man who banished him.
The leader wished to know your thoughts, those you thought before you slept and those you thought while you slept too. Is that desire? What is the distance between love and oppression?
The story of the dream. A man dreamt he assassinated Gaddafi and woke up startled. He told his wife immediately. In other versions of the story he only remembered his dream much later, leisurely, and the dream amused him. He told his wife and two children over dinner. It’s not clear if it was his wife or one of his children who carried the dream out of the house.
The revolutionary men came immediately, it happened so fast, to interrogate the dreamer about his dream. They asked him the names of the other plotters he dreamt of. The dreamer and his three friends were arrested and thrown into prison without trial. Four years later, they were released.
Gaddafi’s war on dreams and writing was effective.
But literature is not a plant you can uproot. It is a vapour, rebellious, wild, searching, never satisfied. It finds opportunity everywhere.
The imagination is a private place like the marital bed, where a writer renews his vows to literature.
Perhaps every book is a letter home. Shostakovich, Turgenev, Christa Wolf, Samuel Beckett, Ovid – all sent their books (or music) home.
To be rooted is perhaps the most essential need of the human soul, in the words of French philosopher Simone Weil.
‘Go, book, greet the dear places with my words: / I’ll walk among them on what ‘feet’ I can. / If, in the crowd, there’s one who’s not forgot me, / if there’s one, perhaps, who asks how I am, / say I’m alive, but deny that I am well: / that I’m even alive is a gift from a god. / Otherwise, be silent – let him who wants more read – / beware of saying by chance what isn’t needed! / The reader, prompted, will soon recall my guilt, / the crowd’s voice make me a common criminal. / Beware of defending me, despite the biting words: a poor case will prove too much for advocacy. / Find someone who sighs about my exile, / and reads your verses with wet eyes, / and silently wishes, unheard by enemies, my punishment lightened by a gentler Caesar. / For myself, I wish whomever it is no ill, / who asks the gods to be kind to suffering: / what he wishes, let that be: the Leader’s anger done, / grant me the right to die in my native country.’