While there is no ‘great Houston Novel,’ a lot of good stories have come out of the city, many of which are told in David Theis’s Literary Houston, an anthology of writing on and about ‘the Bayou city’. Stories, because Houston is a place where people come to DO things, ‘To fly to the moon, create empires, build fortresses against cancer, and temples to surrealism’ as Theis puts it.
I met him at a cafe just off Houston’s busy Westheimer street. Seems like everywhere we moved something or someone very noisy decided to followed us. Still, we had an interesting conversation. Hope you enjoy it.
In which I talk, in rather rushed fashion, to great Canadian author and “bad” feminist Margaret Atwood about literary tourism: ‘place’ and her novel MaddAddam, Harvard and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Kingston Penitentiary and Alias Grace, also the real and the imaginary, the unreliability of eye witnesses, following the research, Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, food and underclothing, bodies, space and smell, plus the importance of plumbing.
Matthew Tree is a British writer who has lived in Barcelona since 1984. In addition to publishing fiction and non-fiction in both English and Catalan, he contributes to various newspapers and magazines including Catalonia Today, The Times Literary Supplement, Barcelona INK, Altaïr, El Punt Avui and L’Esguard. He appears on Catalan language radio and TV, and in 2005 and 2006 scripted and presented two series of the infotainment programme Passatgers for TV3 (Catalan Public Television).
His novelSnug is about a small village in the Isle of Wight which finds itself under siege by Africans who have gone there for that very purpose.
I caught up with Matthew on a blustery afternoon to talk about cool literary things to do while in Barcelona. Books mentioned during our conversation include:
“First published in 1962 as ‘La Placa del Diamant’, this is considered the most important Catalan novel of all time.
Barcelona, early 1930s: Natalia, a pretty shop-girl from the working-class quarter of Gracia, is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand.
They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. When Joe decides to breed pigeons, the birds delight his son and daughter – and infuriate his wife. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence. Natalia remains in Barcelona, struggling to feed her family, while Joe goes to fight the fascists, and one by one his beloved birds fly away.”
‘An extremely moving love story…which reveals much about the Spanish civil war as ordinary, non-political people had to live it’ says Diana Athill.
There was another reason I wanted to go to the square.
Hibernia Books, the only secondhand English bookstore in Barcelona, is close by. It’s a fine establishment. I found a first edition of Power Politics, an early work of poetry by Margaret Atwood, signed! The shop is owned and operated by a pleasant Irish couple
I am presently moved by sundrenched Parthenopea, my thanks are for you, Ischia, to whom a fair wind has brought me rejoicing with dear friends from soiled productive cities.
How well you correct our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see things and men in perspective underneath your uniform light
From ‘Ischia’ by W. H. Auden, June 1948
While in Washington last month at BookExpo America doing what I love best – interviewing smart book people for my podcast – I received an email from a friend who lives in Ischia, Italy, inviting me there to report on Pesce azzuro & Baccal, a first annual tourist festival celebrating the island’s ancient food and fishing tradition. I tell him that books are my singular obsession these days, and that they, if anything, will be the subject of whatever writing may come from my visit. He approves, and so I’m here, swept over by fair winds, living the maxim that ‘like attracts like’; experiencing gusts of bibliophilic synchronicity as never before.
Christopher Hitchens died last December at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
I re-read his Letters to a Young Contrarian on the flight down here. The next day I took the light rail train from our hotel in to town. It passed by the Center. Just seeing the place for those fleeting seconds was a very moving, emotional experience.
The relationships we establish with writers can be pretty intense. Visiting places described in their works where births, childhoods, marriages and deaths – real or imagined – take place, helps us to ‘connect’ with our literary heroes. It’s hardly rational, but I know from experience that it can be very powerful.
Christopher Hitchens’s writing and debating touched and influenced many. It stimulated a lot of important public discussion. Though his ties with Houston may be limited – all he did here was die – he will always be associated with the place.