It seems apt that the first sentence of Edouard Levé’s first book should be a seemingly straightforward description of that book. A compendium of unrealized works, expanding on the Borgesian idea that to write long books is foolish, better to pretend that the works already exist and offer a commentary. And yet the line is anything but straightforward: upon further inspection, the book described resembles the thing we hold in our hands, a catalog of 533 imagined art projects, implying that the very first project described in this book of unrealized works has in fact been realized. Making the very first sentence a contradiction in terms, if not a lie.
Saer turns out to be a born writer. He has his fictional universe and angle of attack figured out very early on. He doesn’t waver. Not in terms of place (all his books are set in the riverside towns and cities of Santa Fe province), or style (cerebral and meditative, with sentences matching the intricacies of his characters’ thoughts and memories). Saer also remains conspicuously loyal to his characters. For example, Tomatis, a cynical journalist and erstwhile bon vivant who appears in Scars, Saer’s 1969 breakout novel, reappears again and again in his fictions, including the posthumous novel published in 2005, the year of Saer’s death, La Grande.
As a child I lived for some years in Israel, and the landscape once existed in my mind as dominantly suburban: low stuccoed houses, glossy high-rises, and vegetation kept alive only by elaborate sprinkler systems. After reading Yoram Kaniuk, however, I have become aware of something older and far more menacing underneath this pristine modern veneer. To read Kaniuk is not only to see the land in a different time but to learn of its ruthlessness, the arrogance of its arid peaks and the tenacity of its dust. A profound connection exists between Kaniuk’s language and the geography of what throughout his penultimate novel, 1948, he calls Eretz Yisrael—the land of Israel, not the State of Israel. Eretz Yisrael is my starting point because it is Kaniuk’s.
In 1948, at the age of thirty-six, Elizabeth Taylor penned a letter to the writer Robert Liddell after she had read his novel The Last Enchantments. She was already the author of three novels, and had been championed by many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, among them. According to Liddell, who had left England for Egypt, and later settled in Greece, she didn’t say much in her letter, other than that “the book might have been written for her, and that she had laughed and cried in all the right places.” For Taylor, who lived in a village in Buckinghamshire, with her husband and two kids, and kept literary life in London largely at bay, the letter was the beginning of a twenty-two-year correspondence, one of her most intimate friendships. To the great disappointment of her readers and biographers, Liddell destroyed nearly all her letters, respecting Taylor’s wishes “most scrupulously” after her death. “And yet she was (I think) the best letter-writer of the century.”
However much the Formalists and New Critics insisted on maintaining an analytic gap between the work of literary interpretation and the life circumstances of authors, readers and reviewers generally expect a modicum of information about the author to come along with a book. Where such information is counterfactual, as in the case of pseudonymity or heteronymity, the situation is a little different, but fundamentally the same. The impulse toward biographical candor is not wholly dodged, as one might first think, but rather reinforced through a teasing gesture that only appears to oppose it. Pseudonymity calls attention to authorship and identity in ways that more conventional forms of attribution do not, and it generally has the effect of intensifying the curiosity and mystique which sometimes surrounds literary authorship.
Australian writer Gerald Murnane’s new work of fiction takes its title—and its epigraph—from the above quotation by Henry James, a presence who figures spectrally throughout Murnane’s own text. As James’s words suggest, the house of fiction wherein a writer creates is a voyeuristic space, but also one that is markedly insulated from contact with the outside world: in this house, the writer occupies the position Lucy Snowe famously advocates in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853): “Unobserved I could observe.” The house of fiction is also poised dangerously between the real and imaginary worlds; and—as James observes—singular “pair[s] of eyes” can take from any of the million or more views “impression[s] distinct from every other.” This means the writer must balance the visual, real world and the textual, imaginary one. As Murnane phrases it: “I am capable only of seeing and feeling, although I can see and feel, of course, in both the visible and the invisible worlds.”
Gottland is not a novel, but that proves difficult to remember. The book, playfully subtitled Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia, is technically a work of reportage, and its author, Mariusz Szczygieł, one of Poland’s best-known journalists. Most of Gottland’s tales, however, seem better suited to Soviet science fiction—or even Russian absurdism—than to actual European history. Szczygieł, aware of his essays’ incredibility, alludes to it not only in Gottland’s subtitle but also in a more blatant disclaimer to his readers: “From here on, most of what we know . . . should be labeled with the first sentence from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which goes: ‘All this happened, more or less.’”
In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quality of the language is in the precise nature of the “seeing” that occurs throughout, the observation and attention to detail that the narrator’s eye affords us with such startling precision and exactness, the shifting perspective that lunges us around from space to space, body to body. The pieces too are tragic, full of anxiety and survival and death and isolation and catastrophe. Alongside this tragedy, though, is the delight that figures in the tone: the language seems playful at times, the revelatory joy that comes from a child holding a magnifying class over an ant for the first time: Look, look! An ant! And the almost immediate realization of death, of intention: It’s dead.
The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fiction represents a process of exploration, an ongoing investigation into what such a term could possibly mean.
“It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but a flickering between them”—but even if this narrator is only a simulacrum, his observation most likely is true. At the time Ben Lerner’s story was published, The New Yorker had a circulation of just over one million, while Leaving the Atocha Station, if we are to believe the fairly honest narrator of 10:04, had only sold about ten thousand copies.
Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though they do not touch, they do respond to one another, much like the border edges of Smithson’s spiral. They give the book two “fronts” and two “ends,” and its reading will be inflected by which end the reader chooses to start from. Meanwhile, the daughter’s writing appears as notes to her parents’ texts. Throughout we encounter concerns of travel, memory, and generations; alienation; (in)attentivity; politics (apocalyptic and otherwise); and the “strangely productive effects” of disintegration. This last is a concern of “entropology,” a coinage of Claude Lévi-Strauss and an apparent obsession of Robert Smithson’s that combines “entropy” with “anthropology,” and denotes study of the erosion of both humans and human systems.
In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and Father and Son: A Lifetime, translated by Natasha Wimmer. In Paris, Giralt grapples with deceit, obsession, inexplicable love, and the limitations of memory, themes prevalent in his story collection. But the dimensions of a novel allows him to further develop these themes, so that in Paris we find a fuller, and patient, exploration of the nature of truth and human emotion.
In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in the original German. Sophie Schlondorff’s translation is not bad but nowhere manages to elevate Schneider’s writing to the elegance readers enjoyed in The Wall Jumper; the prose simply doesn’t stand up to comparison. Nevertheless, the author can certainly tell stories and is at his strongest on the subject of the old West Berlin. Where he relates the half-city’s history through its characters—a pair of Polish dentists who survived the concentration camps and built successful lives for themselves with the aid of the U.S. Army hospital, a man obsessed with rebuilding the royal palace—the book is enjoyable and informative. And the opening anecdotal chapters on Berlin’s architecture are particularly polished, although some readers will take issue with Schneider’s position on the East/West conflict over the demolition of the “Palace of the Republic.”
Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of “The Unseen,” experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to entertain a few guests at their family home after their father’s funeral the following day. Moments later, after allowing himself to be subsumed by the night, Bernhard is brought out of orbit and back to life when a stray cat brushes up against his leg: “the sudden anguish returned, as if to humiliate him.” He kicks the cat, hard, then paces uneasily across the lawn for several minutes, chanting his own name, realizing all over the boring hell of being embodied.
At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik’s unwilling participation in a siege. Up to this point, we might be reading an Ismael Kadare novel, with the wartime setting, brisk description, and touches of leavening humor. Lipnik’s aggregation of ignorance and peculiarly anachronistic memories suggest to the reader from the very beginning that, despite his guileless manner, the protagonist is more complex than he seems.
As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored over movie magazines while thousands of Jews and partisans were killed in the former rice mill San Sabba; she attended concerts with her Nazi lover, Oberscharführer Kurt Franz, while families were torn apart. And on April 13, 1945, the Holocaust was brought home to her when her infant son Antonio was stolen out of his stroller. Throughout Trieste, Haya waits for Antonio to be found, to return to her. As she waits, she echoes a refrain from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”
Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is spared. These novels eschew conventional narrative arc in favor of an intricate realism in which little ever quite begins or ends. Characters enter, disappear, and reemerge with the motivations and demands of their own lives, unbothered by how they may fit around the centerpiece of Elena and Lila’s relationship, and yet never seem out of place. Ferrante reveals herself in these novels as a masterful writer—her literary artifice is almost wholly transparent. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third volume of the series, following My Brilliant Friend and Story of a New Name. Subtitled “The Middle Years,” it begins in the protagonists’ twenties and covers approximately the next decade. While one could theoretically read and enjoy the novel on its own, the reader is assumed to have already gained an intimate knowledge of the characters and their histories and relationships, and appreciation of the work would certainly suffer in this intimacy’s absence.
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