Episode 215 – Charif Majdalani

Virtual Memories Show 215: Charif Majdalani

“Proust tried to explain how we live in subjective time. Both our work is about the transformation of society, but he seems nostalgic about the time before. I’m not nostalgic for that period. I’m more interested in how societies reach their peak and then fall down.”

Charif Majdalani has been called the Lebanese Proust, thanks to his series of novels chronicling the modern history of his home country. He joins the show this week to celebrate the first American publication of his wonderful novel, Moving the Palace (New Vessel Press). We talk about the the dynamic of French and Arabic languages, Lebanon’s fixation on the eternal present and its sense of living under the volcano, his process of escaping his literary influences, why he needed to get away to France to gain perspective on home, and what he wants to do on his first trip to America. Give it a listen! And go buy Moving the Palace!

“Lebanon is living through repetitive history. Problems never find resolution, so we go from crisis to crisis.”

“The problem with New York is that everyone who comes here has an image or idea of New York that comes from the movies. We try to find it, but we have to adjust to the real New York.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Charif Majdalani, born in Lebanon in 1960, is often likened to a Lebanese Proust. Majdalani lived in France from 1980 to 1993 and now teaches French literature at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. The original French version of his novel Moving the Palace won the 2008 François Mauriac Prize from the Académie Française as well as the Prix Tropiques.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at the home of New Vessel Press co-founder Michael Z. Wise on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Majdalani by me. It’s on my instagram. Photo of me & Charif by Michael Z. Wise.

He hath a way

Berkshire Hathaway just held its annual meeting, in which Warren Buffett fields questions from shareholders. For six hours. He’s 77. I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, the Wall Street Journal had some highlights from the Q&A (I think it’s $-to-read, but that’s probably why Rupert Murdoch bid $5 billion for it, and not the Times or the WaPost). I never really knew anything about Buffett till the dot-com boom, when he was getting lambasted in the press for not buying into internet companies. At the time, he basically responded that none of those companies had a viable business model, and he didn’t understand how any of them could make money. Since he wasn’t one to trade on volatility, he stepped aside, was regarded as a dinosaur, and is now back to being regarded as the sage of investors. Perspective’s a funny thing.

I think his aversion to derivatives mirrors his dot-com experience:

In fielding a question about derivatives, which he once referred to as “financial weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Buffett told shareholders that he expects derivatives and borrowing, or leverage, would inevitably end in huge losses for many financial participants.

“The introduction of derivatives has totally made any regulation of margin requirements a joke,” said Mr. Buffett, referring to the U.S. government’s rules limiting the amount of borrowed money an investor can apply to each trade. “I believe we may not know where exactly the danger begins and at what point it becomes a super danger. We don’t know when it will end precisely, but . . . at some point some very unpleasant things will happen in markets.”

And, in fact, he brings the derivatives issue back to the mentality that ruled the dot-com era: volatility.

Exacerbating the problem of derivatives and leverage is the short-term trading mentality and high turnover in the stock and bond markets, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger added. “There is an electronic herd of people around the world managing an amazing amount of money” who make decisions based on minute-by-minute stimuli, said Mr. Buffett, adding, “I think it’s a fool’s game.”

It seems that the Q&A is also a venue for people to grill Buffett about his personal life:

A shareholder from St. James, N.Y., who said he brought one of his five daughters to the meeting, asked Mr. Buffett to explain why he supports organizations such as Planned Parenthood. “It just doesn’t seem to jibe with the hero that I studied,” the shareholder told Mr. Buffett amid boos from the audience.

“Men set the rules for a lot of years, and I think it’s wonderful that women can make reproductive choices,” Mr. Buffett replied, as shareholders applauded and cheered.

Almost makes you wanna raise $109,500 to buy a single share of Berkshire Hathaway.

(Speaking of which, here’s a link to a PDF of the tangled web of investing in PetroChina.)

(Update: more coverage from a variety of sources.)

Change of Approach

According to Jackson Diehl in the WaPost, it looks like we might see some progress in stopping the war in the Darfur region of Sudan:

[L]ast Monday President Bush’s anger rocked the Oval Office when aides presented him with a plan for sanctions against the Sudanese government. Raising his voice, he demanded that his special envoy for Darfur, Andrew Natsios, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley come up with something stronger. [. . .]

Bush is expected to approve more unilateral U.S. sanctions against Sudan, probably sometime after Easter. Among other steps, these will target assets of three Sudanese leaders and prohibit business in dollars with several dozen Sudanese companies, including an oil services firm. The United States could also help to rebuild former rebel forces in southern Sudan, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2005.

I hope this really does signal a new phase in the efforts to stop the killing in the region, but last week I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s actually going to end up like this: In keeping with family traditions, Hillary gets elected president in 2008 and Bush sends in buttloads of troops with an ill-defined mission right around Christmas.

Quitters Never Win

Last week, I received the dissolution papers for my old publishing company. I waited quite a while before filing to dissolve it. While some of you might suspect it was because I harbored a romantic desire to get back into publishing, it was actually because I was scared that I would file something wrong. Essentially, it was like that dream where you’re taking the SATs but you haven’t prepared, and you’re naked, and you’re talking to a snake who’s wearing a vest, and —

But I’ve said too much.

Anyway, the company is officially dissolved, which leaves me very relieved. There were a variety of reasons I failed (or, “was not capable of succeeding”) in the literary publishing business, some of which I beat myself up over, and others of which were utterly beyond my control.

Which brings me to Dave Eggers. Last I week, I found a neat article in Forbes about Eggers’ work as a publisher. Now I didn’t get far when I tried reading Eggers’ blockbuster book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and I made some pretty savage remarks about the book to various friends and acquaintances, but maybe I’ve just got an aesthetic blind spot.

Or maybe not. It’s not germane to this rant. Regardless of the book’s merits, it sold a bazillion copies and made a bunch of money for the author. Admirably, he put some of it into worthwhile causes, including learning centers for kids. He’s also continued his quirky literary mag, McSweeney’s, and built up an independent publishing company.

Since it’s in Forbes, the article discusses some of the business practices of Eggers as a publisher. In particular, it explores how his early failure with Might led to a different business model with McSweeney’s:

When he began, Eggers was no stranger to traditional publishing. He’d co-founded the influential but short-lived Gen-X magazine Might in the mid-1990s, which taught him that dependence on advertising is a road to frustration. With Might, he says, it “seemed crazy that an advertiser–or a 22-year-old media planner–could determine whether or not your magazine had merit, how many pages you could print or whether (in the end) you existed at all.”

Might folded in 1997, and Eggers embarked on a different path a year later. With McSweeney’s, Eggers chose to start a much smaller publication, with a modest distribution and a very high cover price (between $22 and $24 per issue). He managed to win a readership without having to play the advertising game.

“We were determined to rely only on the support of readers. We grew only in relation to what readers would support,” Eggers says.

We learn that McSweeney’s grew among independent bookstores before reaching major distribution:

McSweeney’s Quarterly–which now prints 20,000 copies an issue and remains the flagship money-maker for the company–is now distributed by San Francisco-based Publishers Group West, which puts McSweeney’s products on the shelves of online and chain retailers as well as independents.

And this is where I pulled up short. I scrolled back to the top of the article and checked the dateline: Dec. 1, 2006. Unfortunately, this article about the growth of McSweeney’s Publishing came out four weeks before its distributor, Publishers Group West, went bankrupt.

According to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney’s was left $600,000 in the hole by this turn of events, most of that cash intended for a Sudanese refugee charity (Eggers pledged the proceeds of his new book to that cause: like I said, he seems like a good guy).

There are bailout plans from at least two other distributors, promising between 70% and 85% of the money owed to the publishers who choose to participate. But the very fact that this occurred, and was so unforeseen, makes a major point about independent publishing.

See, the article was structured such that Eggers learns from the pitfalls of his first publishing venture, and decides to follow a different path. He gets away from the advertiser-supported world in favor of reader-supported projects. Eventually, this model is so successful that the company seeks larger distribution to reach more readers. Then there are years of success, followed by the cataclysm of PGW’s collapse.

The worst part about this is, McSweeney’s Publishing did nothing wrong. It was a success story, financially and artistically/aesthetically (so I’m told), but the very framework of the business meant that it had to trust a distributor to help promote books to buyers, physically get them to stores, collect payments, handle returns, and a million other things. There’s no way that a publisher can do all that on the scale that Eggers’ company had grown.

Now, please don’t read this as sour grapes on my part. I’m not happy about PGW’s collapse, nor about the hit that McSweeney’s took. I’m hoping that the company bounces back, finds a new, stable distributor, and continues fighting the good fight.

What you should read this as is a lament for how difficult it is to successfully publish books, especially for an independent company. On the tiny scale I operated on, it was silly to keep going (and thanks for never bothering to pay me, Small Press Distributors, you lousy sonsabitches), but it’s a shame when the publishers with a real presence can get struck down by circumstances so utterly out of their control.

Unrequired Reading: Oct 27, 2006

A friend of mine recently brought up how “the West has lied,” failing to keep its “never again” promise after Rwanda. I mentioned that, just as anti-genocide forces learned from Rwanda, we should remember that groups that plan to commit genocide also learned lessons from what happened in Rwanda (and other massacres).

A former assistant secretary of state thinks the world’s approach to the genocide in Darfur isn’t helping any:

When pressure is applied to the Sudanese government, there is always the perceived sense, much as there was in Vietnam, that just a little more and Khartoum will cave. Perhaps. But Bashir, admittedly no Ho Chi Minh, is sitting on growing oil revenue, and he can see that the international community is divided and that the demands for more aggressive action are going nowhere.

Moreover, many measures the advocates demand for bringing pressure on Bashir, such as targeted sanctions, an investigation of Sudan’s business holdings or a threat of action by the International Criminal Court, hardly meet the standard of urgency, however much these things may be worth doing.

* * *

It turns out that the solution to U.S. oil independence may come from Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa.

* * *

Theodore Dalrymple reviews Ian Buruma’s new book on the murder of Theo Van Gogh (and all that it may or may not signify):

[Van Gogh] thought he was a licensed jester. His ability to shock depended, of course, upon the persistence in Dutch society of the Calvinist mentality of purse-lipped moralism, now as frequently employed against those who dare suggest that the rank, and deeply ideological, hedonism of Amsterdam is not only unattractive but morally reprehensible as against those, such as fornicators, traditionally regarded as sinners. Scratch a Dutch liberal, and you will find a Calvinist moralist not far beneath the surface.

This Calvinism, however, was tolerant to the extent that it did not prescribe slaughter in the streets for those deemed to have insulted it. Its worst sanction was disapproval — precisely what Van Gogh sought. Van Gogh hid under so many layers of rather crude irony that it became impossible to know what he really believed, if anything; and it was beyond his comprehension that anyone would take anything so seriously, or perhaps literally is a better word, as to kill for it.

* * *

China plans to become the world’s R&D hub. I don’t believe it’s going to happen, for reasons that are so full of racist stereotypes that I am both embarrassed to recount them and fully convinced that they will apply in spades. (Which is to say, their best-known invention is more Chinese people, and their best-known export is SARS.)

* * *

I was wrong about the Cardinals getting destroyed by the Tigers in the World Series. But that doesn’t change the fact that I love Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland, not least because of his inability to quit smoking. Which is fantastic. Not the inability. Smoking.

He was being interviewed by then-ESPNer Chris Myers, who was asking him about his well-publicized tendency to smoke cigarettes in the dugout. Leyland paused for a moment, put his head down and delivered the obligatory platitudes about how bad smoking is for you, how children should avoid smoking, how he knows it’s unhealthy. Then he looked directly into the camera, his eyes very wide, and said, “Still. Smokers out there, you know what I’m talking about. That moment, after you’ve had a huge meal, say at Thanksgiving, when you step outside in the cold, light up a cigarette and take a deep inhale … that’s about the best moment in the world, you know? All the smokers out there, you know that feeling. Sometimes, smoking is fantastic.” Myers quickly cut to commercial, and Leyland has never been on the show since.

* * *

A few weeks ago, while channel-surfing, Amy & I came across a documentary show on the Travel Channel. It featured John Ratzenberger exploring the history of stuff that’s Made In America. My first thought was, “John Ratzenberger gets work?”

Amy’s first thought was, “Seriously? Shouldn’t he be wearing a USPS uniform?”

Anyway, that episode chronicled the Maker’s Mark whiskey factory in Kentucky. Out of deference to my southern wife, we stayed with that segment. Here’s a BW piece on the issues Maker’s Mark faces in keeping up its quality as its market share grows. It’s an interesting story because, while the brand is owned by a larger group, it looks like there are very site-specific issues involved in making the stuff. (I don’t think this includes sourcing that red wax they use to seal the bottles, but you never know.)

Have a slide show, while you’re here.

* * *

I’m not only interested in the scaleup of whiskey manufacturing. I’m also interested in the massive infrastructure needed to run something like Google. So is George Gilder, who wrote this lengthy article about the subject. So next time you’re googling about whiskey, remember this blog.

* * *

Does the earth sing to itself? I have Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’ on right now, so I can’t tell.

* * *

Speaking of music, Roy Blount, Jr. doesn’t like Bob Dylan’s music.

* * *

Like everyone else, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose has had a rough time in the year-plus since Katrina:

I was receiving thousands of e-mails in reaction to my stories in the paper, and most of them were more accounts of death, destruction and despondency by people from around south Louisiana. I am pretty sure I possess the largest archive of personal Katrina stories, little histories that would break your heart.

I guess they broke mine.

I am an audience for other people’s pain. But I never considered seeking treatment. I was afraid that medication would alter my emotions to a point of insensitivity, lower my antenna to where I would no longer feel the acute grip that Katrina and the flood have on the city’s psyche.

I thought, I must bleed into the pages for my art. Talk about “embedded” journalism; this was the real deal.

He realized that wasn’t smart, and has a LONG column on how he now deals with his depression. You may want to take notes, since you will likely be mighty depressed by the end of this column.

Unrequired Reading: Oct. 20, 2006

Sorry for the lack of posts this week, dear readers. I’ve been kinda busy in the evenings, and a little outta sorts in the mornings. Fortunately, I’m still up for some Unrequired Reading if you are!

* * *

When the official VM wife became the official VM fiancee, we had to go out ring-shopping. (Since I proposed a little sooner than I had planned, I didn’t actually have a ring for her.) She researched a bunch, and decided that the diamond trade was just too venal for us to get involved with it as a symbol of our love. So we went for a gorgeous aquamarine instead.

Here’s a piece (plus slide show) about shopping for the guilt-free diamond.

(Note that I’ve resisted making any comments about using the term ‘conflict-free’ as it relates to engagement rings.)

* * *

Congrats to the state of Oregon, for upholding a law restricting asset forfeitures. I never really understood how cops were able to seize and sell a person’s assets even if the person isn’t convicted of a crime.

* * *

I admit to letting the Darfur slaughter fall off the VM radar since I first wrote about it in May 2004. This is mainly because I believe the western world has failed to stop the Sudanese government and militia from killing the civilians and rebels in Darfur. By failed, I mean it’s gone past the point of no return. To make up for my lack of coverage, here’s an interview with Paul Salopek, the journalist who was imprisoned in Khartoum for a month on trumped-up charges:

FOREIGN POLICY: What is the biggest misconception about the crisis in Darfur as reported in the Western media?

Paul Salopek: Well, I think it’s been oversimplified as this Manichean struggle between ethnic Arab herders who are armed by Khartoum, and these helpless African farmers who are struggling for their rights in this very desolate, Western region of the Sudan. I think that has a fundamental truth to it, and that has been historically a problem that goes back for generations, if not centuries. But I think that perception has to be overlaid with much more complicated tribal rivalries that are then manipulated at the national level in Sudan. Even internationally, there’s a layer of interests that are tugging and pulling at that area of Sudan.

* * *

Holy crap! Discs of Tron was on the Atari 2600?

* * *

Playing it safe with the design for the NYTimes’ new HQ.

* * *

If you have a Wall Street Journal account, you really oughtta read this article about how Holt & Co. blew more than a million bucks trying to engineer the next Da Vinci Code.

Historical thrillers in particular are hot. One theory says readers are seeking a certainty in these books that since the end of the Cold War they’re having trouble finding elsewhere.

“We’re seeing a return to the past because everything was in its place, and people were recognizably polarized in a way that gives us comfort,” says literary agent Richard Curtis. “In the post 9/11 world, we aren’t clear about our enemies. Is the military officer in an Iraqi uniform a friend, or is he a terrorist posing as one? We need to know who to root for and historical fiction provides us with that.”

So Holt went after a novel starring Freud & Jung. No, seriously. (In what may be a first, it looks like Amazon is actually charging more than a bricks & mortar store, since I saw this book with a 50% off sticker in Borders on Wednesday.)

* * *

The new issue of Men’s Vogue (sue me) has an excerpt from the autobiography of art critic Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know. It centers on Hughes’ awful car wreck in 1999 and the legal problems he had after. He was raked by the “meejah” for being an elitist expat.

For of course I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and ufll to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails or someone trying a Bimini hitch that won’t slip. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be iwth as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unles the latter is a friend or relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm arond apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has.

Here’s a review of the book in the Telegraph.

* * *

Why is NYC losing financial jobs? Relocation, relocation, relocation.

The city and state bear some responsibility for the space shortage. A nearly ten-year effort to rezone Manhattan’s Far West Side for commercial development wound up getting bogged down in Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to build a stadium there and lure the Olympics to New York. Potential construction of office towers in the area is thus still years away. The city has now missed two real-estate expansions, going back to the late 1990s, in trying to rezone the Far West Side.

Meanwhile, state and city officials haggled for years over the plan to redevelop Ground Zero, with some observers, including Mayor Bloomberg, pessimistically calling for a reduction in the office space planned for the site, assuming that it would be unneeded. As a result of the delays, only one building, 7 World Trade, is nearing completion — developer Larry Silverstein could rebuild it quickly because it wasn’t part of the site that the government controlled. Other Ground Zero towers won’t be ready for years.

* * *

VM bleg: Anybody know a gin snob who can tell me if Cadenhead’s Old Raj Gin is worth the $44 for a 750ml bottle they want at Wine Library?

* * *

The official VM wife sends word that Cameron Diaz looks like crap.

* * *

Whatcha really get’s a box of Newports and Puma sweats (damn!)

(I just felt like making a 3rd Bass ref; sue me)

* * *

We should go to the Chihuly exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens next Thursday night! Who’s with me?

* * *

Congratulations to the Cardinals for pulling the upset on the Mets, earning the right to walk into a buzzsaw.

* * *

This week’s non-web reading: Chronicles Vol. 1, by Bob Dylan. The first chapter, covering the period he first arrived in New York, is fantastic. The chapter discussing losing his mojo in the late ’80s, and rediscovering it while playing with the Grateful Dead? Not so much.

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