Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved.
David Shields, novelist, non-fiction writer, editor, verbal collagist, has published a book called Reality Hunger, which he calls (while impugning the notion of genre) “a manifesto.” Shields the novelist has lost his mode d’emploi, and his loss could become our loss because Shields the collagist would remove from use the very wherewithal of the novel’s existence, if he can. But his loss also becomes our gain.
More than most contemporary poets, Kay Ryan listens to words as seasoned concertgoers listen to Mozart. Who before her noticed the best in bestiary? Maybe Ogden Nash. Or maybe one of her poetic forebears, Marianne Moore.
“I go, we go,” Helene Cixous wrote when asked to describe her work. “On the way we keep a log-book, the book of the abyss and the shores. Everyone does. My books are thus like life and history, heterogenous chapters in a single vast book whose ending I will never know. The differences in the genres of the books I write reproduces the eventful aspects of a life in our century. A woman’s life into the bargain. To briefly indicate my directions: in my fictional texts I work in a poetic form and in philosophical contents on the mysteries of subjectivity.”
“Lizard à la Heart” is the opening story in Roberto Ransom’s short story collection Desaparecidos, animales y artistas (Conaculta, 1999), which I’ve translated as “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists.” Ransom is an award-winning Mexican writer whose published work includes novels, short-story collections, poetry, essays as well as children’s literature. The stories in “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists” possess great humanity—in their exploration of character, emotional depth, and universal themes—and deliver an impact akin to Cortázar and Poe. Told in a clean, elegant prose style, they make use of irony and premises that are whimsical, and at times fantastical; their protagonists are elusive animals and artists or other individuals. In the story that follows, for example, the narrator speaks to her pet, a lonely crocodile she keeps locked in her bathroom, imagining it swimming in the tub. Thus begins Ransom’s mysterious and existential tale.
How does any contemporary poet—even one who chooses to take issue with Bloom’s linear history of decline, one who refuses the overwrought, even silly, drama of struggle Bloom revels in—manage to acknowledge and engage with the long shadow of the past without being overwhelmed by it? How write poetry after, well, all that poetry?
Every now and then a work of general interest on literature, written for a non-specialized audience but filled with citations, comes along that, due to its brashness, perspective, or style re-opens arguments considered settled, inviting us to look anew at this or that subject. In extreme cases it can even encourage us to toss out what we’ve been taught. Steven Moore’s The Novel: an alternative history is such a book.
Coetzee’s interests are entirely different than those of metafictionists like Thomas Pynchon or John Barth. When he upends literary conventions, the point is never merely to satirize or to reveal the limitations of the genres. Nor is he a stylistic iconoclast purely for iconoclasm’s sake. Coetzee employs the toolkit of a contemporary metafictional ironist in order to lucidly and mercilessly point out the moral and intellectual shortcomings of his characters and of the societies in which they live.
Jane Ormerod’s work demands to be listened to out loud. One of the blurbs for the book is from Paul Baker, a radio programmer, who describes the work via his auditory experience: “To listen to Jane read is to see a dance of images, some pleasing, some disturbing.” Another blurb bypasses the book at hand and relates, instead, to the performance of reading aloud: “I first saw Jane Ormerod perform in Vancouver, B.C. when we began our Perpetual Motion Roadshow tour, and what a trip it was! The second Jane started doing her thing, I got it . . . “
The stories collected in The King of Trees are all concerned with the zhiqing who have been sent down to a remote corner of Yunnan province. Ah Cheng himself spent much of the Cultural Revolution doing farm work in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, and this border area is clearly the inspiration and basis for the setting of these three tales. All of the stories were written in the mid-1980s, when memories of the Cultural Revolution were still very fresh. Reading these stories a quarter-century later, I was struck by their subtlety and attention to detail—Ah Cheng captures the rudimentary living conditions experienced by the students and their peasant hosts, while also pointing to the cultural gap between urban youth and their rural countrymen. Without being didactic, Ah Cheng highlights the naivety and cultural insensitivity of his urban protagonists.
When a reader of Jameson is informed that Pietro Grossi, Italian author of the manly-entitled Fists, is “a great admirer of Hemingway and J. D. Salinger,” his ears instantly prick up. That this information makes it into the author’s blurb suggests (besides being a ploy by the publishers to target a suitable literary public) that the influence of these writers on Grossi will be significant. The question is: what can Hemingway and Salinger offer a young writer today? Judging from the quality of Fists, a superb collection of three short stories, quite a lot. But they also bring problems.
Enacting a stubborn refusal to decide into adulthood, Juvenilia revels in its own otherness. Non-aggressive contention is its keynote. If the adult is someone who goes deep into memory and archives to find his youth and its puerile output, Chen’s response is to reject the adult’s authoritative binary system (then/now). He prefers a voice that is simply present.
Long-translated into French, Ogawa is quite well known in the French-speaking world and owes much to the work of Marguerite Duras, not only in terms of theme (young girl fascinated by the force of a sexual relationship with an older man) but also in terms of style (which Snyder aptly captures). Hotel Iris, like much of Duras’ writing, contains violence and oppression, and power resides at its center, as does a female protagonist who finds freedom through sexuality.
The man on the cover of A Life on Paper is Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, not his double Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Châteaureynaud—who has written nine novels and scores of stories in French, won major literary prizes, and been translated into a dozen other languages—now comes to English-language readers for the first time thanks to translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press. A Life on Paper selects twenty-two of his stories, ranging from the early ’70s to recent years, and I hope it represents just a first installment.
Much like Running Away, a previous Toussaint title from Dalkey Archive, Self-Portrait Abroad is narrated by a writer reflecting on his travels through Europe and Asia. Although the book is billed as “a novel” and weighs in at a slim 84 pages, fans of Toussaint’s work will find much of the visceral description, humor, and philosophical undertone that has built the author’s reputation as a contemporary literary force.
Poetry is not alone in the arts in its struggle to build from and move beyond the quotidian, but it is perhaps the genre in which a failure to do so can be most immediately glaring—by way of its concision and its reputation. Carr rises to the challenge and creates poems that are at once intimate but not so much so that they are closed off to the reader, leaving no space for the reader’s imagination to inhabit.
A well-known figure on the French literary scene, Linda Lê has had very little exposure to readers in the United States. A new translation of her 1997 novel The Three Fates may begin to change that situation. The novel is the first of three that Lê wrote following the death of her Vietnamese father, and like many of her works, it portrays individuals grappling with emotion and trauma in the aftermath of immigration from Vietnam.
In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.
Even though allegory continues to have contemporary application, a definition of allegory is elusive. This is recognized by Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck who have put together a companion to this slippery concept.
I write whenever I can—during vacations or Saturday mornings, hours I rob in between teaching or being with my family, for stretches early in the morning or late at night, concentrated dives that last three weeks of twelve to fourteen writing hours a day—but I do dare say that had I chosen to continue writing in English, I think I’d be living from my writing by now.
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