Some of the greatest innovations in modern literature have arisen in the aftermath of tumultuous occasions, awakening in us spiritual dilemmas that stir striking questions concerning our position within the world. Feeling abandoned, and unable to comprehend ourselves within traditional philosophical and historical frameworks, we reach instead toward more inward aspects—the irrational and incomprehensible. Emil Cioran’s “organic man” is raised on these ruins. Faced with failing structures of knowledge and a human consciousness that has long been corrupted by order, ambition, and abstract constructs, Cioran returns us to a more primitive, fundamental mode of being; it stems from a “vital imbalance” rather than intelligence or reason.
There is probably no work more influential in Western literature than The Iliad, and Logue came to the poem late in the history of its influence. As he put it in an interview, Logue aimed to “write an English poem that is dependent on the Iliad.” He placed it in a tradition with writing by Chaucer, Tyndale, Jonson, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Edward Fitzgerald, and Pound, all of whom, he noted, wrote original works in English that depended on poems in other languages. We might add to this list other late Modernist examples of such “dependent” projects, like Nicholas Moore’s thirty-one versions of Baudelaire’s “Spleen (III)” in the different voices of 1960s England, or the free variations of Robert Lowell’s Imitations. But Logue’s poem is perhaps better read as a forerunner of a tendency that in the last fifty years or so has produced some of our most visionary poetry: a tendency to compose spare, tensely-focused new works of literature out of longer canonical works.
From Ryszard Kapuściński I learned that everything has to be seen in its wider context—that we’re not alone, meaning that what happens to us has already happened to other people, somewhere else in the world. He taught me to see that we are only a very small part of the world. From Hanna Krall I learned to write less rather than more. She taught me that all the words have already been used, everything has already been said, which means I must always remember to stop and wonder whether the world actually needs my words. From Małgorzata Szejnert I learned that reportage should be about whatever it’s about, plus something else as well. She taught me that the story is not everything. There has to be an idea behind it.
This book started out so complicated. I didn’t know what it was, or why it couldn’t be everything. It had a set of chapters interspersed throughout that told about a traveler going to the ceremony of some indigenous people in Siberia, and a terrible accident. Then it had another story about a disastrous archaeological dig. The relationship between Jonathan and Jenny was really fleshed out. And then it had bits and pieces of the chapters you see today, that have whatever flavor they have, a more folkloric feel, whereas the rest of it was sort of novelistic. It was a huge mess. It, and I, reached a point of collapse and implosion, and I started over completely.
Germán Sierra’s work is a rare exception. A respected neuroscientist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he is one of a small group of writers to have considered in earnest the challenges contemporary science presents to the narrative model that has come down to us from the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the sovereign role of individual psychology as an engine of plot. He brings to mind Philip K. Dick, but less speculative, more uncanny, and tinged with a hard-edged griminess reminiscent of Darby Crash–era Los Angeles.
That was around the time of the spectacular accident in the Chilean mine. Thirty-three workers trapped almost half a mile beneath the earth. In real time, heart in mouth, the world followed the tragic events that, for seventy days, TV news bulletins the length and breadth of the planet led with. As did the press, and the radio. It was practically the only talking point. First, a tunnel was opened up through which the rescue teams could introduce the medicines and provisions from the outside world that were deemed most urgent. Direct, fluid communication was then established with those trapped below, their fear probed, their hopes of making it out alive broadcast, their attempts to say farewell in the darkest hours, their messages of love, their ham-handed poetry, filled with a candor that was chilling in its simplicity—pure naïf horror. People wondered what it might feel like to be trapped beneath a hillside, with tons of earth above and all that uncertainty as to whether one might ever again see the sunlight and all that it normally bathes.
György Spiró’s novel Captivity, beautifully rendered into English by Tim Wilkinson, is a work of ambition—almost literally, not only metaphorically, titanic. Undeniably, it is titanic in the sense of the evocation of gargantuan sweep and breadth; and it is no less titanic in its hopes to re-awaken a Latin-Hellenic-Hebraic world at the base of what we now consider the “Global West.”
Named for the tie-breaking round of pallacorda, the Renaissance game that prefigured tennis, Sudden Death is not a farce, and nor is it simply a speculative work that asks “what if?” of great historical figures and moments. Indeed, Enrigue deliberately works against the speculative mode by weaving exegetical historiography and laconic fourth-wall-breaking reflections throughout the relatively “straight” narrative lines of the apocryphal tennis match, the Mexican conquest, and the ideological formation of the Counter-Reformation.
“YOU’VE NEVER READ A NOVEL LIKE THIS BEFORE” proclaims the back cover of the bound galley of Death, likening the effect of the book to a “gut punch.” Like much ad copy (for which the author should not be held responsible), I take issue with these statements, not least because I have indeed read a novel like this before. Many, in fact. On those occasions, however, I would have been reading books by, say, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino, so it’s in a rather august company that Enrigue has earned himself a place setting.
Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.
Underlying all of this biographical work is a desire to complicate received ideas about the author. In his introduction, Stach describes the enduring image of Kafka in characteristically clear-eyed terms: even though “decades of international, interdisciplinary research” have given scholars a more nuanced picture of Kafka and his times, he has persisted in the popular imagination as ” “the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things.” Stach’s aim is to “destabilize” these images by introducing “counter-images” in which he emphasizes the unexpected and the overlooked to help “quietly divorce us from clichés.” Implied here is the conviction that clichés about an author’s life obstruct appreciation of their work. Why else bother to challenge them?
There’s nothing terribly new about the confessional as a literary form. It can just as easily appear as swagger as it can an act of contrition, and this book has the flavor of both. And as a form, often in the guise of a personal essay, the confessional is having quite a moment. In the wake of the successful autoerotic exposures of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume Struggles and the critically gorgeous self-scrutiny of Maggie Nelson’s more slender Argonauts, there’s a contemporary appetite for the personal essay that has hardly been sated. And in the act of confession, there’s as much to be proud of in a debauched or dissolute life as there is to regret or repent. Lest the reader of this review fall into the trap most common for first-time encounterers of Frisch, this isn’t some kind of Swiss-intellectual misogynist rant, an I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for the pretentious. It is very honestly self-interested and self-critical. It’s messy in the way that psychotherapy is messy, or that our unvarnished motives would be if the world could see them. It’s loving, in its way, and sadly aware of how much time has passed and how badly.
The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women. The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and translator Marlaine Delargy’s prose styles remain the same from book to book. What differences there are prove to be relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society.
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