Often compared to Kafka, and just as often declared unclassifiable, Clarice Lispector was one of the 20th century’s major authors. Leora Skolkin-Smith reads her career through one of her greatest novels.
Wonderful World, Javier Calvo (trans. Mara Faye Lethem). Harper. 480pp, $27.99. Early on in Wonderful World, Javier Calvo’s sprawling comic novel set in the seamier and sillier reaches of Barcelona’s criminal underworld, we meet the minor character Pavel, a low-level Russian thug who experiences great difficulty putting his avowed Rastafarian beliefs into practice. “He knows [...]
Unlike any other form of nonfiction writing, the literary biography is routinely asked to justify its own existence. The genre’s subjects are of interest for what they wrote, obviously, so skeptics ask why we need still more words to illuminate the person’s relevance. Travelogues, memoirs, narrative histories, even biographies of other types of artists are accepted as pure endeavors, without the need for an occasional ruminative essay by John Updike or William Gass to defend the form. Like the beleaguered desert travelers hauling the titular metaphor in Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, literary biographers remain tethered to the lumbering burden of necessity, almost always tied down by the threat of possible accusations—of intellectual shortcutting, of gossip mongering, or worse still, of reading a given writer’s work as too explicitly autobiographical.
Originally published in 2000, available now in a seamless translation by Bill Johnston, Jerzy Pilch’s novel The Mighty Angel is as entertaining and engaging as it is possible to be while candidly revealing the lurid charm at the heart of alcohol addiction.
The narrators of Toussaint’s early novels The Bathroom and Camera seek a state of inertia as a place where the noise of modern life falls away, letting them most clearly experience their own thoughts. By contrast, in Toussaint’s latest novel, Running Away, the main character does not long for isolation and inertia. Rather, he flows in the current of experience without asking questions or demanding answers.
Were it not for the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro’s six novels all share a fundamental concern with the way that people actively create the self they present to the world—expressed in each novel through tight first-person narration—it would be easy to think of him as two different writers struggling within one body. The first of those writers is a careful, understated realist, observing society and the attempts of flawed, frequently repressed individuals to find a place for themselves within it; think of a slightly less buttoned-down Henry James. The second is far stranger, influenced by Kafka and maybe even Proust, and he writes of individuals whose own self-deceptions, self-denials, and blind spots warp their understanding of the world to the point where we, the readers, can’t even be sure that what they’re describing bears any resemblance to reality.
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, just thirty-one years old, has won an extraordinary reputation—along with the Orange Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship—on the strength of her first two novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. The Thing Around Your Neck, her first collection of short stories, demonstrates that Chimamanda takes short fiction as seriously as she does the novel.
The narrators in Aleksandar Hemon’s fourth book, Love and Obstacles, a collection of short stories, slide along a continuum between poetry and prose. These Siamese-sibling narrators begin as adolescents; they are sturm und drang–drenched poets lost to, from, and in a hazy reality–backdrop that Hemon switches out from act to act, moving from Kinshasa, Zaire, to Sarajevo, Murska Sobota, Slovenia, Chicago, and to a snowy Wisconsin college town. Like bad poets everywhere, these would-be bards experience proto-egocentric sufferings, obscuring both language and reality.
With his seventh novel, Thomas Pynchon proves he hasn’t lost his knack for rendering California as it existed during the 1960s. Pynchon first took on California in The Crying of Lot 49, set in the Golden State in 1964; his 1990 novel, Vineland, though set mostly in California in the year Reagan was re-elected president, features flashbacks to the earlier era. Now, Inherent Vice, set in 1970, bookends the decade.
In the first chapter of Imperial we find William T. Vollmann on the filthy, shit- and trash-filled New River (a “reeking brown cloaca”), sweating in a 110+ degree temperature, rowed in a cheap rubber raft by a Mexican who has never been in a boat in his life. Water splashes on them and now Vollmann has a sore that won’t heal. It’s here that he begins his investigation into the “imaginary entity called Imperial”—an area encompassing Imperial County, CA, plus an equal area south of the Mexican border. It’s a wide-ranging exploration that includes illegal aliens, pollution, water quality, the infighting and bureaucracy in America over water rights and irrigation, the idea of boundaries, poverty, the systematic oppression of the poor, agriculture, the desert, the relationship between America and Mexico, farm laborers’ attempts at unionizing, and the allegedly brutal conditions in the maquiladoras, among dozens of other things.
If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.
In the early 1990s, Filip Florian was working as a correspondent for Radio Free Europe in Bucharest when human bones were unearthed at a construction site in the city. Universally presumed to be relics from Communist crimes, the bones turned out to be centuries-old casualties of the bubonic plague. The public disappointment in the face of this revelation raised complex issues of how history can be repurposed—even, uncomfortably, by those who have suffered.
The Silence Room is the debut short story collection by English poet and critic Sean O’Brien. The book is a mixed bag of shallow entertainments, unsuccessful experiments, and a few, perhaps eight, strong stories—and a couple of these were truly magnificent. O’Brien is an incredibly talented writer, but, confusingly, his stories often lack a certain power.
In Italy, crime stories are known as gialli, after the trademark yellow covers of the Mondadori series, which first appeared in 1929. Although Mussolini’s government encouraged its early growth—mostly translations of English and American writers of the time with a quota of Italians—the Fascists did an about face and banned crime fiction in 1941. They cited the harm to morals and the misrepresentations of society as reasons for the censorship. The first to be pulped were Mondadori’s I Libri Gialli and I Gialli Economici, followed by all crime novels in circulation in the country.
The Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki is a relative newcomer to U.S. comics, having been published here only in the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #5. But her debut full-length comic, The Bun Field, is an oddly powerful, lingering work, and it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve seen in a long time, debut or otherwise.
Set in the 1990s and first published in 2000, Novak’s first book translated into English is an apocalyptic fable with mythical elements and an “Earth first”–message. It’s meant to be an eccentric satire of Slovenia’s greed after communism ended, and as social commentary it produces a handful of interesting arguments and observations. Yet in this short novel, which feels overstuffed with peculiarities, Novak introduces more elements than she resolves, and tries repeatedly to force the moral of this peculiar morality tale.
Recently trapped at the beach, thinking about the concept of “summer reading”—a sort of intentional intellectual ghetto—flipping through some magazine (People, I think), I ran across a line slagging story collections. The article began with a general nod to the universal unpleasantness of reading them: too much stopping and starting, it said. Every time you become wrapped up in a fictional world—like putting on a Snuggie—that world vanishes and is replaced by a new one. It’s a common complaint, the multiplicity of stories scattering under the large cohesive shadow of the novel.
Let us begin with the cover, a proverbially dubious strategy for assaying the worth of a book. An aging, cannonball-domed man of ruddy complexion glares at the reader, his head filling most of the frame. His white beard is a day or two out of trim. The lips are thin and tightly pursed. His brows and the planes of his face converge like a hawk’s. He might be King Lear.
In her third collection of poetry, Reading Novalis in Montana, Melissa Kwasny retreats into the natural expanses of Montana. She has not headed into complete seclusion, however; she has surrounded herself with other writers, from Novalis to Eliot to Artaud, whose words keep her company on her trip into the vastness. The poems that erupt from this journey are an attempt to better understand the self as the verses wind through a dialectic between the natural world and the culture we use to understand that world.
Despite their ever-present flora, it’s somewhat false to call the poems in Micrographia “nature poems.” While their topic may be the natural world—sumac and juniper, sparrows, lilacs, jots of fir—the book revolves on a much more ontological axis. An appreciation of nature is present throughout the book, but not the same kind of stillness found in Mary Oliver or Gary Snyder’s quieter verse. Here, nature stands to people as they relate to it (“The butterfly is pinned through its thorax . . . The name affixes to earth.”), not as something set aside elsewhere to be appreciated.
Joshua Harmon’s first book of poetry, Scape, comes two years after the publication of his debut novel, Quinnehtukqut (Starcherone, 2007), a difficult and often brilliant text that draws on the work of William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett in equal measure (not to mention John Ashbery and Susan Howe) to form a complex weave of narratives about a town in the wilderness of late 19th- and early 20th-century New Hampshire. In the novel, Harmon writes of “how a man’s head cannot begin to take in the places he has been, or the people, each word spoken a line somewhere in the land.” Following this notion, Quinnehtukqut not only takes up a meditation on local history and geography (or, as we are told, “a story of lost dreams and places now vanished”) but is also an investigation of narrative and language itself, and of how those two things—location and locution—relate.
There appears to be a revival of interest taking place in the work of C. P. Cavafy. Two years ago, Oxford University Press issued C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems under its Oxford World’s Classics imprint. Now, Knopf comes forth with its own edition—including not only Cavafy’s collected poems but his unfinished poems as well.
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