Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Literature

Manchester Literary Festival, until 23 October

Over the coming week Michael Chabon will be reading from his new novel Telegraph Avenue at the beautiful Whitworth Gallery, poet laureate and patron of the MLF Carol Ann Duffy will perform a selection of poems culled from her extensive back catalogue at the grand City Hall, and Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford will discuss his first novel since 2006, Canada. Next week’s line-up also includes Amiri Baraka, David Constantine, Patrick Gale, Penelope Lively, Iain M Banks and evenings curated by Faber and local presses Comma and Carcanet. Full details of venues, prices, dates and times are available in the festival brochure.

Art

RA Now, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly W1J 0BD, 11 October – 11 November

An open studio of grand proportions, RA Now offers a snapshot of the work being produced by living Royal Academicians, who will exhibit side by side for the first time. A total of eighty artists working across multiple disciples from sculpture to architecture will feature, including Antony Gormley, David Hocknet, Allen Jones, Tracey Emin, Richard Long, Jenny Saville, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Grayson Perry. If you have a bob or two, all the work will be auctioned by Sotherby’s on Tuesday (9), two days before the exhibition opens to the public. Funds are being raised to support the Academy’s Burlington development project. Christopher Le Brun, President of the RA, said: “This is a unique opportunity to view and buy significant works donated by renowned artists. The Burlington Project’s aim is to make the Academy the leading international centre for visual culture for the twenty-first century, offering an independent voice for art and artists.”

Festival

Ether Festival, Southbank Centre, Oct 5 – 19

Tonight the Southbank’s annual festival of innovation, art, technology and cross-arts experimentation opens with the Brant Brauer Frick Ensemble, who blend the electronically-roduced minimalism of techno with the virtuosity and complex theory of classic music. With a twist of soul groove thrown in. Here’s a video of them in rehearsal in Berlin. The festival will include a John Cage centenary celebration, plus new and established producers, artists and conductors including Ghost Poet, Jonathan Harvey and former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton performing with the London Sinfonietta. A number of the concerts and events are free. Also at the Southbank this week the Booker Prize shortlist will come to life as authors read and discuss their work with Radio 4 presenter James Naughtie.

Music

Radiohead, 02 Arena, 8, 9 Oct

Radiohead and their impressive stage and light technicians will fill the 02 arena with a wall of music and visual effects next week as the band play songs from their most recent album “King of Limbs” alongside choice selections from every album since 1993’s “Pablo Honey”. Quite a leap from the Jericho Tavern in Oxford where the band played their first gig in 1986. The 02 dates will be the band’s first in the UK since 2008, Rolling Stone had this to say about their return to the stage in Miami earlier this year: “Radiohead began the opening night of their first US tour in four years with a perfect description of their new state of rhythmic and creative elation; a silvery rushing momentum and exultation that set the pace of virtually everything that followed. Radiohead are one of the greatest touring bands of the modern rock era. They have also been one of the most reluctant. But, in Miami, everything in the drive, shine and delight said they were glad to be back.”

Film

The 56th BFI London Film Festival, cinemas across London, 10 – 19 October

This year’s London Film Festival opens on Thursday, clogging up a good number of the capital’s cinemas with back-to-back premieres, talks, restored classics and red carpet divas. Beyond the disappointing bookends of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, both of which look mediocre (I could be wrong...), there lies a wealth of cinema waiting to be discovered. Check out Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sapphires, Amour and The Stoning of St Stephen for art house excellence from the US, Australia and France. The BFI website and Time Out are two of the best place to search for leftover tickets.

Christopher Le Brun, Grason Perry and Allen Jones. Photo: Getty Images.
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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge