Jan/Feb 2015 Reviews & Interviews

Granta 129: Fate

Granta 129: Fate
Edited by Sigrid Rausing.
Granta. 2014. 280 pp.
ISBN 978 1 905 881 83 3.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Granta calls itself "The Magazine on New Writing," but that does not mean that all of its content is by new writers. Much of it is, but there is also a substantial contribution of new writing from established authors. Louise Erdrich, Will Self, Tim Winton, Cynthia Ozick and Kent Haruf are amongst the much-published authors in this Autumn 2014 edition of Granta, where the theme is Fate. There are a number of new writers, too, as well as a photographer and four poets.

Fate may be the theme, but it is broadly interpreted. Granta's editor, Sigrid Rausing, confesses that the question of fate is tricky. Are our lives genetically and socially predetermined or not? She does not answer this question but offers pieces about fate "in its most serious manifestations: love, sexuality, identity, death, illness, religion and war." And in addition to writing based on fact, there is also plenty of fiction.

Will Self tries to place himself in the psyche of J.G. Ballard to write a fictional "death reverie." Whether he succeeds in capturing Ballard's "voice," I will leave others who know Ballard's work better than I to judge, but it is an interesting enterprise and, since Self' inherited Ballard's old typewriter, maybe fate decreed that he should do it.

Fate, too, may have had a hand in Andrea Stuart's late transition from heterosexuality to lesbianism, but, as she makes clear, it was also a very conscious choice. Accused at one point of being a tourist in the Sapphic lifestyle, she charts her way through various options, clubs, parties and decisions with a writer's imaginative skill and an acute awareness of the way her identity may have been shaped by non-conformist attitudes developed through the circumstances of her earlier life.

Amongst the fiction, Cynthia Ozick's story, narrated by a young woman who is the illegitimate daughter of an itinerant Jewish merchant in Ancient Greece, is a tale of love, gods and sibyls; and, whilst Miranda July's very modern young woman also believes in "magic" ("ripping up a name makes a person appear"), her story offers a very different, and funny, picture of love and self-delusion.

Sam Coll's delightful folk-tale of the Mad Monk and the Hare has little to do with fate and more to do with traditional trickster tales. And Tim Winton's fascinating and moving account of the development of his fear of hospitals is a personal memoir which demonstrates that the powers of both nature and nurture have had more effect on his life than mythic predestination. His description of once living close to a major hospital, inevitably bumping into patients and staff, and constantly being noisily reminded of its links with life and death, joy and woe, might give anyone who is nervous of hospitals nightmares.

Inevitably, perhaps, the "nature versus nurture" question is raised again by Mark Gevisser's long and informed discussion of transgender identity. It deals with questions of gender choices made by very young children, of parental responsibility, of medical intervention and of shifting attitudes amongst teenagers and in society in general.

There is plenty of variety in this issue and, as usual with Granta, the standard of the writing and photography is excellent. I was fascinated by the votive plaques from churches in Mexico which depict worshipers' personal misfortunes. I recently saw a similar display in the Maritime Museum in Venice in which sailors' miraculous survival of maritime disasters were pictured, and it made me wonder whether there were artists associated with particular churches who were paid to create these primitive but evocative scenes. Often there are similarities in style or in the depiction, as in the Mexican plaques, of the presiding saint, but, sadly, the artist's name is never mentioned.

My only cavils with this issue are that I would have liked to have been told where each of the fascinating photographs of remnants of the WWII chain of fortifications known as The Atlantic Wall were taken. And the poems, mostly, did not move me: but then, what each person likes in poetry is highly subjective.


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