I first met Roberto Bolaño through Andersen Tepper in The Village Voice. It was back in 2006, I was in Tehran, and Bolaño, who was by then already dead and a ghost, was standing on the page with two other authors from Latin America, Martinez and Galeano. The meeting so excited me that I had a friend who was traveling to Tehran buy me their books and bring them to me, because as you might or might not know, in Iran there are no bookstores selling books of literature in foreign languages, and you can’t go online on Amazon because either you don’t have a credit card, or if you have one, sanctions and regulations might prevent you from using it in the country of the Axis of Evil, and there are still others: the books cannot be sent to an address in Iran, and even if they could, there would be no guarantee that they would survive the Iranian postal service inspections or irregularities and reach you.
Fifteen years after her death in a Westwood, Los Angeles apartment, Eileen Chang’s shadow continues to loom large in the Chinese world. Sheaves of semi-complete and incomplete manuscripts were amongst her belongings and this resulted in a flurry of posthumous publication. Even some cursory searching of the Internet finds literally hundreds of websites dedicated to Chang’s stories and essays, her life, and her legacy. Without a doubt, Chang’s name and reputation is firmly established in the Chinese-speaking world. Though she is read widely from Beijing to Singapore, Chang should be read in the West.
In the post-war years, many European authors, especially those from Communist states, engaged in surrealism, parable, and allegory as a way of containing the mid-century chaos that spilled over from the war, where the psychology and rationality of modernism no longer seemed capable of fighting the irrationality of Nazism and Communism. It is László Krasznahorkai who has, to my knowledge, engaged in the deepest investigation of how these metaphorical understandings are formed, how they succeed, and, most importantly, how they fail.
For a work of such high literary value, Grande sertão: veredas is, regrettably, widely unavailable in English translation; the editions from Knopf are both difficult to find and expensive. Contemporary artists whose work might bear comparison to the combination of ante modern or rural human violence, power, and philosophical discourse used by Rosa within the novel might include Glauber Rocha; Akira Kurosawa, especially in films such as Ran; Kagemusha; Throne of Blood; and Seven Samurai; as well as an author Kurosawa adapted to the screen, Ryūnosake Akutagawa; but the landscape of Rosa’s novel seems to share more with the Old Testament, Homer, Herodotus, the Gospels, Dante, Poe, Conrad, and Kipling, than it does with contemporary literature.
El dorado (2008), Juan-Cantavella’s breakthrough novel, turns its attention to the conflicts and issues of Spain today. Juan-Cantavella begins in Marina D’Or, one of the huge, bunker-like mass tourist traps built on the Spanish coast over the last decades. Halfway between A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (things are not helped by the protagonist’s deviant ways . . .), the book’s blistering opening sets the tone for what follows. Fearing for his life, our hero flees to Valencia, where the Pope is about to celebrate the World Families Meeting. There, with the help of Brona, his faithful sidekick, he intends to find the mythical Eldorado. Obviously, things are about to go awry . . .
Alberto Manguel’s new book, A Reader on Reading, is actually a collection of older works—lectures, newspaper pieces, the occasional New York Review of Books essay—gathered here under the twin assumptions that a) most readers won’t have seen all of this stuff in its original appearance, and b) more books by Manguel are better than fewer books by Manguel. Both these assumptions are a bit grudgingly true.
The problem with Nabokov’s novels is that they are all so carefully wrought as Pale Fire, with little (sometimes ridiculously tiny) hints and tip-offs pointing a reader toward a “solution,” that they seduce critics into trying to solve them rather than creatively read them. Obviously the cataloging of Nabokov’s clues and tip-offs has some place in the criticism of his writing—it is perhaps a necessary first step—but a good critic must go beyond simply following Nabokov’s trail of bread crumbs, instead forging her own path through these works, otherwise she runs the risk of merely acting as Nabokov’s factotum. This is a risk Michael Maar frequently succumbs to in his Speak, Nabokov, a little book with some charms but one that remains on the whole unsatisfying.
Ernst Weiss, born in 1882 in Brno (now the Czech Republic), was a contemporary (and close friend) of Kafka. A medical doctor by training, Weiss published his novel Georg Letham in 1931, exploring the space in the vast chasm between scientific reason and human emotion. Letham is a man of science, a detached, intelligent, and controlled man of his time. Or so he’d like us to think. We are told early on of his crimes and his attempt at understanding his rationale so that he might justify his actions. Yet he is cruel and cold. He is disconnected from human life in any emotional way.
Like other fiction by Couto, this one takes place in a dreamlike land that is and is not Mozambique. The tiny country in which the book is set consists of an island named Luar-do-Chão (Moonlight on the Ground) and a city on the mainland. Couto writes well, and his unnamed country is sometimes reminiscent of the Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—especially as described in Garcia Marquez’ short stories. The narrative has a kind of dream logic, in which everyday occurrences take on symbolic weight and maids and gravediggers make weighty pronouncements.
Last year when I read Light Boxes it had just been published by Publishing Genius Press, a small independent press in Baltimore, and I knew I was reading an extraordinary book. Only a few months later the book was optioned for film by Spike Jonze (whose film Where the Wild Things Are is similar to Light Boxes in many ways) and then got picked up by Penguin. That the book has caught the attention of so many people is hardly a surprise.
Hassan Blasim’s debut short story collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, directs the reader’s gaze toward the violence of recent Iraqi experience: neighbors turning in neighbors, street cleaners collecting body parts, refugees in flight. But it also points toward itself, and the more violent and troubling aspects of its storytelling. The book, which made The Independent’s longlist for best foreign fiction, has yet to appear in Arabic. The stories were solicited by Comma Press, written in Arabic, and translated straightaway by Jonathan Wright. It is thus perhaps not surprising that Blasim’s characters have fraught relationships with the stories they’re telling—and the audience for whom they’re telling them.
Running by Jean Echenoz is more a trial in fugue writing than a paean to athletics or the actual man this novel is based upon. This is an aberration as the novella has all the ingredients ready for bombast and loud story telling. It starts with the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet emancipation and subsequent annexation of the Czechs. At the end it has a dash of cold war espionage and duplicity.
Carson’s latest work begins with an invocation of sorts, a call to a muse. Her Beatrice (and Virgil) is Catullus, and the Roman’s poem 101 in particular. It is this poem of Catullus’s that Carson struggled to translate even before her brother’s death, and it is this poem that acts as the absent center (and provisional beginning, since it is the first text we see in the book albeit in Latin) for the entirety of Nox itself.
A comedy, Blonde Roots emphasizes the fact that its characters are living out a tragedy, and in this respect it performs quite well. The novel tells the story of Doris Scagglethorpe (rechristened “Omorenomwara” by her African slavemasters), an enslaved, white European, “house wigger” who attempts to escape from bondage only to become captured again. Yet rather than highlight the disturbing or tragic aspects of this scenario, Evaristo plays it mostly for laughs.
Twentieth-century modernists asked whether the fragmented modern self could ever achieve an enlightened perspective on external things. Ron Slate’s new collection, The Great Wave, demonstrates that, in the face of those worries, he can create psychologically complex and well-crafted poetry that also addresses the realm of objects now increasingly virtualized by technologies of communication. Indeed, one of Slate’s themes throughout The Great Wave is how to contend with systems we depend upon for personal stability that are nonetheless generally illusory and, actually, as unstable as we are.
The name Charles Bernstein is synonymous with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Bernstein having founded that magazine with Bruce Andrews in 1978. He published his first book, Asylum, in 1975, following which he went on to publish several more even as he launched a pedagogical career that has landed him in the Donald T. Regan Chair in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. This book is long overdue. For a poet of the stature of Bernstein to have to wait over thirty years for a selected volume to be released demonstrates the dismal straits into which poetry has fallen.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in the Moroccan city of Fez in 1944, but has lived since 1971 in France. One of the most accomplished writers of North Africa, his highly acclaimed novels include The Sacred Night, The Sand Child, and Leaving Tangier. He has also written short, lucid works of nonfiction such as Islam Explained and Racism Explained to My Daughter. The Rising of the Ashes is the first volume of his poetry to appear in English.
For readers uneasy with literary criticism, fearing they squander finite reading time when not attending to the objects of criticism (fiction, essays, poetry) but instead their parasitic offspring, allow me to ease the anxiety by suggesting they read the work of Christopher Ricks. His almost half-century of books dedicated to figures as various as T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan constitute literary criticism in both senses—that is, their subjects are literary and they are literary, attuned equitably to language, thought and posterity. Ricks belongs to that elite coterie of critics (Johnson, Coleridge, Eliot, Kenner) whose work is worthy, like all works of literature, of criticism.
Every time I get a new book I read a couple of lines or sentences at random just to get a sense of what I’ll be getting myself into when I find time to sit down and read the work in full. When I did this with Look Back, Look Ahead, Ugly Duckling Press’ recent collection of the work of Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel I was concerned not necessarily that I’d have to dole out a dismal review, but that I was in for a tedious read. Collections like Look Back, Look Ahead seem almost designed to shut the mouths of poets like me who tend to quit reading shortly after the first mention of a “rose” or “pines.”
As this is ostensibly the first book of critical writing on Eritrean poetry, one can see why writer, translator, and professor Charles Cantalupo cast his net wide. It is his hope, and mine, that now that the dam has been broken more translations of Eritrean poetry will be forthcoming and, therefore, more critical work on the subject as well.
What was Walser retreating from, and toward where? There are too many answers to this question, but here is one more: he retreated from the clamor of the modern world, and the sanitarium that he retreated to was not an end but a continuation, an essential aspect of the story. One sees in Walser’s writing an escape—not from the horrors of his present time but from the terrible uncertainty of the future.
CP: Write your obituary.
AM: Oh, Jesus . . . ha ha ha, okay . . . . “He tried real hard.” I don’t know, you know, I’d like to be thought of as a person who was a hacker in a most interesting way. My art, all art is experiment . . . I do like to hack at things . . . I’d like people to think of me as someone who pushes boundaries, expands the borders for nonfiction and fiction.
Lipsyte: Well these were the famous classes that he taught and others have written about it. He would kind of perform an amazing monologue for hours that would be a work of art in and of itself, in the way it was constructed in real time and kept pulling threads through and weaving all these elements together, but the content of it would be reflections on writing and art and what it is to be an artist and how one should approach the page. And then at the end of that—and that could go for four or five hours—at the end of that, he would call on students to read from whatever it was they were working on, but normally you wouldn’t get too far, because he would stop you probably within a sentence or two and point out all that was false in what you had perpetrated.
Grossman knows as well as I do that it’s almost impossible to get these sorts of publishers to change their ways. Yes, they do publish some amazing books, and yes, a few of the houses really do try and pay attention to the rest of the world. But the arguments that Grossman puts forth here—the impact translated literature and foreign ideas can have on writers, that literature is one of the best ways to understanding other cultures—are arguments that could be bunched under the idea that publishing international literature is a “moral obligation.” Yes, I’m painting with a broad stroke here, but having had conversations with executives at these very publishing houses Grossman lambasts, I know how they view these sorts of statements.
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