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Why Write? Hisham Matar Relishes Its ‘Magnificent Failure’

Talk to any friends of the writer Hisham Matar, and he has many, and soon they’ll bring up one of his more notorious pastimes: Have you ever seen how he looks at art?

Matar has a habit born from his early years living in London, a period of immense grief, of choosing a painting and spending hours with it each week. He would take lunch breaks at the National Gallery with Velázquez, Duccio, or the Lorenzetti brothers, sticking with the same piece of art for months until he felt it was time to move on. And even though most of his friends admit they can’t match Matar’s sustained attention in a gallery — one confessed his patience tops out at 15 minutes — they agree this capacity for looking is essential to his character, central to everything from the way he walks through a city to the books that he writes.

Looking at an artwork with him and comparing impressions later, as another said, it’s as if only Matar saw it in full color.

“He has a way of changing the air you’re in,” said Gini Alhadeff, a writer and translator, “as if time stops and you can see everything.”

Matar is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between,” a dual lament for his homeland, Libya, and his father, a critic of Muammar el-Qaddafi whose exact fate remains unknown. But he began as a fiction writer, with two austere, elegiac novels about boys in the shadow of absent fathers; his debut, “In the Country of Men,” was shortlisted for the Booker. His new novel, “My Friends,” his first in 13 years, is his return to the form.

Random House published “My Friends,” Matar’s third novel, on Tuesday.

The book, which Random House published on Tuesday, follows three Libyan exiles in London and their decades-long friendships. Khaled, a bookish man from Benghazi, anchors the story, along with Mustafa, whom he meets at university in Scotland, and Hosam, an enigmatic writer. The story follows them through the Arab Spring, through Qaddafi’s overthrow and toward the promise of a new political future in Libya.

The novel draws on themes Matar has examined for years — solitude, deracination, the totality of grief — but is also his most substantive exploration of friendship. The subject fascinates him and has profoundly shaped his world, as someone who has lived apart from his family since he was 15.

“Relationships bring us alive,” Matar, 53, said during an interview from his studio in London. But while familial bonds and romantic ties are freighted with expectations, he continued, friendship is all the more exciting for its promiscuity: “We usually have more than one. We usually have them at the same time. And if we are fortunate, they could be our longest relationships.”

“Families are ingenious at teaching us how to love,” Matar said. But friendship carries its own special charge. “If we are fortunate, they could be our longest relationships.”Credit…Ellie Smith for The New York Times

Matar was born in New York City in 1970 to Libyan parents. At the time, his father, Jaballa Matar, was working for Libya’s permanent mission to the United Nations. Three years later, the Matars moved back to Libya but left for Cairo in 1979, after it became clear that remaining under the Qaddafi autocracy, which came to power in a 1969 coup, was unsafe. More than three decades would pass before Matar returned.

In Cairo, the family lived a cautious but vibrant life, hosting elaborate dinner parties that often led to spirited political and literary discussions. Jaballa continued his resistance efforts from Egypt, helping to lead an opposition cell that was for a time based in Chad. He traveled under an assumed name, knowing he was watched by the regime. When Matar left to attend an English boarding school in his midteens, he enrolled under the name Robert.

In 1990 the Matars’ greatest nightmare became a reality. Jaballa was detained by the Egyptian police and taken to Libya, where he was jailed in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, the site of a 1996 massacre that claimed about 1,200 lives and countless other horrors. Matar and his family have never received a clear answer about what happened to Jaballa, or even to his remains, despite an international campaign and several exchanges with one of Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi.

“I envy the finality of funerals,” Matar writes in “The Return.” “I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”

In conversation, Matar is thoughtful and quick to laugh, with a wide array of allusions at hand: Ingmar Bergman, Marcel Proust, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.

“One can be with Hisham a lot,” the novelist Peter Carey noted, “and only occasionally think of the wound he carries — loss of country, loss of a parent, all of the agony he went through.”

London has been Matar’s home for over 30 years, though he generally teaches at Barnard College one semester per year. His wife, Diana Matar, is a photographer, and the pair often produce work simultaneously. Sharing “thelife of the mind and the life of the heart” with her, as he described it, has enriched his existence beyond measure.

“Families are ingenious at teaching us how to love,” Matar said. Friendship, on the other hand, is even more curious because “it implicates you into another’s life” in a way that’s not at all fatalistic. “It has nothing to do with blood.”

“Ultimately, the book that you’re writing is your fate,” Matar said.Credit…Ellie Smith for The New York Times

The book that became “My Friends” began over a decade ago as a short story about three men meeting at a London cafe. The characters stayed with him — he would notice something while riding the bus that he thought one of the men would like, or snippets of dialogue in their voices would come to him.

“My Friends” is told over the course of a walk one of the characters, Khaled, takes through London in 2016. As he crosses the city, the narrative unfolds in a loose, discursive fashion, with Khaled reflecting on his early years in Benghazi, where he first encountered Hosam’s writing; the life he built in the United Kingdom; and his warring instincts, particularly about home. The heady optimism throughout Libya in the wake of the revolution has dissipated, and the three friends, now in middle age, have chosen vastly different lives in the aftermath.

The story is grounded in several true events beyond the Arab Spring. A 1984 anti-Qaddafi demonstration in London is its pivotal moment: Khaled and Mustafa are injured at the protest, which turns deadly, and their involvement forecloses the immediate possibility of going home.

Working intermittently on “My Friends” over the years, Matar had “that feeling when you turn up to the party and you’ve misread the invitation — you’ve turned up too early,” he said.“Time needed to pass between me, or the moment I wrote the book, and some of the events that preoccupied the book. I needed to cultivate a certain distance or ambivalence or active doubt.”

His nonfiction detours, in the wake of the Arab Spring, helped to ready him for the novel. “The Return” draws on hours of testimony from former political prisoners, including several members of his family, that he collected in the aftermath of the revolution in Libya. The book that followed, “A Month in Siena,” captured his time in Italy studying many of the artists that lit him up during his early years in London.

“One of the things that I am interested in is how human consciousness is forever modulating, traversing, trying to measure the distance between documentable fact and the firmament of our interiority,” Matar said. “That distance, to me, is really where literature sits: the untranslatable, the unsayable.”

In “My Friends, Khaled enrolls at university in Edinburgh and encounters a professor who changes his life. During a lecture about Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H,” an elegy for his friend, the professor points to two “untranslatable experiences” in the work. “The first is the friendship, which, like all friendships, one cannot fully describe to anyone else. The second is grief, which again, like all forms of grief, is horrible exactly for how uncommunicable it is.”

The lecture could double as an overture to Matar’s own work. “If I had to point to the crowning reason, the intellectually interesting, crowning reason why I like to write or why language, for me, is my craft,” he said, “it’s exactly to do with the fact that it is always bound to fail.

“But it’s such a magnificent failure.”

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