Edinburgh International Book Festival round-up: Noam Chomsky | Lea Ypi | Jonathan Franzen | Rev Richard Coles | Gavin Francis and Lucy Easthope | Anne Enright | Candace Carty-Williams

The intricacies of language and thought abound online or in person at this year's hybrid Edinburgh International Book Festival, writes David Robinson.
Jonathan Franzen. PIC: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock.Jonathan Franzen. PIC: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock.
Jonathan Franzen. PIC: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock.

We’re almost at that time when we can start working out what were the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. For me, one of them came this weekend. On my way to the Jonathan Franzen event, I passed the Old Testament face of Noam Chomsky on the huge screen next to the signing tent – yet another American icon I’d never seen at the festival.

Yes, I know: strictly speaking I still haven’t, and neither Chomsky or Franzen have ever made it to that signing tent. Maybe too much of my Book Festival has indeed been virtual, and something is lost – screened out? – in the process. But the ideas still flow, talk still deepens books, and if that’s the only way I’m going to be able to see a great American radical or the last writer Time magazine burdened with the title Great American Novelist, I’ll take my pleasures where I can.

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And it was a pleasure, listening to Chomsky. I didn’t think it would be, as I caught a few of his sentences beamed in from Central Hall on my way to hear Franzen: he spoke so slowly I thought I’d lose patience listening later on playback. On top of that, I’d just watched Allan Little’s event with Albanian political philosopher Lea Ypi, born near the end of the Hoxha dictatorship, and whose memoir Free seems (on the evidence of its being translated into 22 different languages) to have caught the world’s imagination. It caught mine too, to the extent that it got me wondering what she would have had to say to Chomsky.

Chomsky, remember, has famously argued that the US is a one-party state and whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, it’s still basically the same Business Party. Listen Noam, I can imagine Ypi asking him, you want to know what a real one-party state is like? It’s when a child has to learn to a whole coded language if they don’t want to see their parents carted off to be tortured.

In that language, jail is “university”. If someone is imprisoned, you can safely say they are studying at uni. If you hear they are studying economics it means they have been jailed for hiding gold, that they’ve chosen international relations means they’ve been charged with treason. And if they’ve dropped out, it means they have taken their own life. Growing up, she explained, was mainly a matter of learning doublethink.

Chomsky was interrogated by Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik. How, she asked, can you fix the biased capitalist press? You can’t, he said. They always exclude awkward ideas. They don’t need official censorship because they set up fake debates where some options are never even mentioned – over Ukraine, for example, there’ll be a lot of discussion about tactics but none about how war could have been averted by taking Russia’s security concerns seriously.

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OK, said Malik, well what about that letter Chomsky signed defending free speech against “cancel culture” in Harper’s magazine? Wasn’t that just a case of a prestige publication lecturing gender and racial minorities, telling them how to behave? Couldn’t he understand the sensitivity of minorities when told they were being unreasonable? In fact, where did he stand on identity politics in the first place?

If identity politics uncovered real oppression, Chomsky replied, they are useful; if they are about feeling good they are not. Activists should think about the effects of their actions on their audience and not be self-indulgent. Take the Vietnam War. As soon as the peace movement started smashing up banks and breaking windows, support for the war went up. The Vietnamese themselves loathed the bombing campaign of radical group The Weathermen for the same reason.

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At this point, even a Tory might find himself nodding along with Noam, but he wasn’t finished. When Malik asked if violence wasn’t a legitimate response from Black Lives Matter activists, he implied that only provocateurs would suggest that: the real activists wanted to keep the mass movement intact and co-operated with the police. So how, asked Malik in frustration, do you ever hope to speak truth to power? You don’t, said Chomsky. “I’ve been saying this for 50 years. What you do is bring truth to the powerless and organise them so they can act.”

Beamed in from his Santa Cruz kitchen, Jonathan Franzen was altogether more tentative about this whole business of changing the world. He’d tried that with his first two novels, he said, but no-one noticed, and in any case “this presumes the novelist knows what’s right. Instead, the novelist’s job is to complicate the world, to render it in all its moral complexity.”

For him, that has meant doing something he has never done before: writing a family story set in the 1970s, and with two-thirds of the events happening within 12 hours. Because he is “phobically averse to writing about myself – it always ends up icky and boring”, he spent hours thinking up characters he could believe in.

That’s what took up 80 per cent of his time, he said, with the actual writing just 19 per cent and research a mere 1 per cent. The pastor who is the central character in his novel Crossroads, Franzen said, looked like the bass soloist in his church, but also owed something to a German professor who became a friend but had a feud with a more popular rival.

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If he’d been looking for a real-life pastor with enough charm to win over a whole live audience, Franzen should have caught the excellent event with Rev Richard Coles. Few festival conversations have been quite as ranging: bereavement therapies, clerical detectives in fiction (there are, apparently, 400 of them), got a look-in, as did an anecdote oddly linking Carrie Fisher, Salman Rushdie and sex toys.

Stick to the screens, though, and you’d miss so much. Take this last weekend: If you only watched online, you might get some of the stillness of Ocean Vuong’s poetry reading, but would you get its depth? Michael Pederson’s sheer likeability would come over, but would the way that, from the second row, you can almost see the words becoming embodied in performance?

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And if you’re not in the same room, you just don’t catch the flow of communal thought in the same way as being there in person. At Gavin Francis and Lucy Easthope’s event yesterday, you’d miss the susurrus of worry that ran round the room when Easthope, who is in charge of UK disaster planning (“we don’t use the D-word, we call them Major Incidents”) revealed that she had been planning body storage because “it’s going to be a difficult winter”, or the shock on Friday night when Anne Enright talked about the 800 babies’ bodies buried by nuns in a sewer in Co Galway.

At yesterday morning’s event with Candace Carty-Williams you’d have missed the completeness with which she held the room, talking so openly about uncomfortable subjects as absent fathers and police brutality, yet mixing it with such a clear-eyed, and often comic focus on black London life and the absurdities of influencer culture.

However, you can still watch all these events (apart from Franzen’s) on www.edbookfest.co.uk. Catch them while you can.