Since the deaths of Heller, Vonnegut, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, and Salinger, to mention no others, Roth’s status as the grand old man of American fiction has become almost indisputable. He is America’s Greatest Living Writer: a national monument and the country’s outstanding candidate for the Nobel Prize. In other words, Philip Roth, now, is about as celebrated and successful as it is possible for a novelist to be. He also might be the last of his kind. It is a legitimate question whether, given the saturation of new books and literature’s drastic loss of cultural authority, an American novelist will ever again be as recognized or revered as Roth is today.
I first discovered Antunes over a decade ago, when I was asked to review The Natural Order of Things, the fourth of six novels of his published by Grove Press. Reading it was like discovering that once-in-a-lifetime band whose music just sounds right straight away. As if the patterns were constructed precisely for you to hear them. It was both familiar and new and exciting. A whole new way of constructing art—one that was smart and jarring, both on the surface and at the level of deeper emotions. Immediately hooked, I went back and read Act of the Damned and An Explanation of the Birds and begged to be able to review each new title of his as it was released . . .
Existential is a word whose presence is common enough in present day literary discourse. And yet there is a rather poor understanding of the idea en masse. Existentialism is like anarchy or socialism—a term once steeped in radical social relevance but since stripped of its once powerful connotations. What was once an active mode of being, one that involved a life built around the desire to find answers to universal questions, has been replaced by an affected ennui that lingers in its own solipsism rather than bringing the larger world into discussion. Much of what claims to be “existential” discourse in contemporary literature is nothing more than a one-sided conversation on nihilism or inertia. Moreover, it is fair to argue that America has never, truly, produced an existentialist writer worthy of the term. Our closest attempts can be seen in the works of the Lost Generation, the suburban masters of the 1950s, and in Carverite minimalism of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, but even at their best they lack a certain je ne c’est quoi that permeates Kafka or Kundera or Beckett. Today it may be argued that the foremost existentialist writer working in contemporary letters (restricting the field to one who has been widely translated into English and widely available to English speaking audiences) is none other than Per Petterson, the Norwegian author best known in America for his 2007 novel Out Stealing Horses.
First published in 1969 as the fourth of Johnson’s seven novels, The Unfortunates took Johnson’s formal innovations to their peak: published as an unbound book in a box—described by one reviewer as giving the reader the “almost . . . prying” sensation of opening “a box of old letters”—The Unfortunates is comprised of 27 sections, ranging from one to twelve pages in length. With the exception of those labeled first and last, it is meant to be read in random order. The novel’s plot details Johnson’s arrival in Nottingham to cover an unimpressive soccer match for the Observer and his sudden realization that he “know[s] this city,” and it brings back memories of a good friend who died young of cancer. The story takes place—like Johnson’s beloved Ulysses—over the course of a day and with the neural speed of Proust’s epiphanic taste of the petite madeleine. Johnson (whose novel is nonfiction in the form of a novel, as he eschewed what he called “telling lies”) chronicles the experience of a flurry of sense impressions mixing with memories, from the moment he steps off a bus till he begins his ride home. The aim of the novel is not to record or report with a reconstructed order but to be true to the disorderly and seemingly simultaneous experiences, to recreate in the readers the overwhelming admixture of present and past, and the increasingly blurred line between them as we assess our immediate experience of the world.
Belgium as Brigadoon, a fiction, a shimmering mist… was ever a land a better fit for fabulism? Yet in a typically Belgian spirit of contradiction, writer Yves Wellens, while professing Borges as his greatest influence, also declares himself a committed realist. He admires what he terms American social realists—Roth and Dos Passos, but also Pynchon and DeLillo—and maintains that no Belgian author writing in French has yet managed to marry fiction and history on a scale at once intimate and grand as the Fleming Hugo Claus did in his sweeping World War II portrait The Sorrow of Belgium.
There was a moment in September of 2009 that the Internet was sure David Cronenberg wanted to remake his remake of The Fly, and I have the Google Alerts to prove it. My reaction to the news was one of horror. I wanted to tell him that a re-remake runs the risk of turning another Fly into a footnote. This re-remake was projected to begin in what was once 2011 but rapidly became “sometime after the Freud movie.” Then he signed on for an adaptation of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, which has now wrapped and is in post-production, and The Fly seems to have gotten away, at least for now. Besides, the aforementioned Internet contains Cronenberg quotes saying that he would never remake one of his own films, and he shows no outward sign of regression.
Providence (2009) is Juan Francisco Ferré’s most ambitious novel, his longest and more complex fictional work to date. Written during one of his stays at Brown University, Providence, as much as Ferré’s previous books, is a deeply erotic, abrasively satirical, gargantuan fiction dealing with both contemporary American culture and Spanish literary tradition. But rather than focusing on cultural differences, Ferré investigates the common literary roots of the new global culture, producing a true “transatlantic” fiction—in some sense. Providence could be considered as much a Spanish novel about America as an American novel written in Spanish.
No one had seen the first accident coming. True, it might still seem fairly mild: a brief tremor brought the beginnings of panic to the countryside around Mouscron, doing damage to a few farms, uprooting fences and signs. Streets and people were, for the most part, spared. The authorities had quickly taken control of the situation and proved reassuring. The accidents that followed were more significant in other ways.
Not far into his new book, The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom provides what attentive readers could consider an explanation of sorts for his curious status in both the general literary culture and among academic critics. “More than a half a century as a teacher,” he writes, “has shown me that I am best as a provocation for my students, a realization that has carried over into my writing. That stance alienates some readers in the media and in the academy, but they are not my audience.” There is no doubt that Bloom has proven to be a “provocation” beyond the classroom, and in a way that often “alienates” rather than productively challenges, which is no doubt the effect Bloom hopes to have on his students. Most recently Bloom has provoked the “media” to purvey an image of him as an elitist, curmudgeonly defender of tradition . . .
If an animal lives basically through action, it knows it is a body precisely when it can feel itself to act (muscles exist only through their articulation, and mouths, through taste, sound, the sinking in of teeth), then to be stilled, to be caught, is the worst kind of agony, that of paralysis. This agony or “tautening,” which so incites aggressive hatred, seems, syntactically, to induce a kind of flexing, the indolent flexing of the confined muscle, to pass nigh explosion but to remain painfully and ever so in the tense, wagging brace before violence. Krasznahorkai’s sentences issue, it would seem, from exactly this condition; yet they, despite the surety of their punctuation—when read aloud especially—feel rather unlike sentences.
Pinsky’s Selected Poems offers a condensation of The Figured Wheel, adding as well a sampling from the two volumes (Jersey Rain (2001) and Gulf Music (2007)) Pinsky has published in the 21st century. The poems run in reverse chronology from the more recent volumes to Pinsky’s debut, Sadness and Happiness, in 1975. In reading backwards through the highlights of the career thus far, it is not easy to pick out any definite turning point, any particular poem or volume where the familiar, fully formed poet of formal and precise composition seques into a less mature Pinsky.
This novel, 132 pages long, divided into 24 short bursts we would call chapters, is ostensibly about an event in César’s childhood and its repercussions: Omar, a friend, is thought to have disappeared in the back of a truck heading for Patagonia. Omar’s mother, Delia Siffoni, seamstress, embarks on a cross-country journey in a local taxi, equipped with sewing kit and wedding dress, toward the End of the World. Once “all the protagonists in the adventure are on stage,” as Aira puts it, he attempts to make an orderly list of them, including Delia, the taxi driver Zaralegui’s corpse, the wedding dress carried by the wind, and a mysterious little blue car. The antagonist, the Wind, already encountered in various guises, is yet to make his bold and unadorned appearance, and we are yet to find out whether or not he has in fact fallen in love with Delia.
Ezra Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance that “The study of literature is hero-worship.” It is this sentiment that guides Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, a work as impossible to categorize as it is to not be in awe of. Magisterial and encyclopedic, this is a confounding tome. I say that not to disparage but to praise, for that which confounds can excite, upset, and, in this case, inspire a true and honest thinking. How so?
The Accident arrives as something of an appendix to the massive Journal of Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), a record of his life as a Romanian Jewish writer from 1935 to 1944. Though Sebastian is known in Romania for his plays and, to a lesser extent, his novels, to my knowledge nothing of his appeared in English until his Journal was published in 2000, chronicling the horrors and fears of life in Romania during World War II. The Accident is his first translated work of fiction.
Based on this first book of fiction pieces by A.D. Jameson, I can say that though I think he could write like a realist, he has greater ambitions than devising a plot (though now and then one pops up) or developing a character you could care about. In fact, it would go against everything in the mood and nature of Amazing Adult Fantasy if a reader invested himself in what happens to the swirls of black on white that make up Ota Benga, Melissa, Nok Yai, and other figures. The opening piece, “Fiction,” occupies only one page but promises much, while addressing certain illusions we might have about what fiction ought to offer.
Students today know him for his exquisite, tightly controlled booster-epic The Aeneid (in which a fleeing hero of Troy itself makes his way to Italy in order to found the only city, naturally, great enough to be Troy’s successor), but for centuries prior to our vociferously secular age, he was more readily known for one little poem: the fourth of his ten Eclogues (which together form his precocious debut work, the Bucolics). This poem—infinitely translated, infinitely annotated—hails the birth of a marvelous Boy who will bring peace and justice to all the world.
If they hadn’t come from different publishers, I’d swear these two Japanese novels appeared in English as companion pieces. Despite great prestige racked up in their homeland, neither the names Keizo Hino nor Choukitsu Kurumatani ring many bells in literary Anglosphere. Both Hino’s Isle of Dreams and Kurumatani’s The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, attempted double-suicide) star unattached fellows at a self-imposed distance from humanity. Both protagonists have their relaxed journeys toward nonexistence interrupted and their ever-narrowing worldviews distorted by complicated young women with dangerous lifestyles trailed by little boys who carry themselves as if they’ve seen too much. Both stories take place in the early 1980s, when the already fast-modernizing Japan shifted into an even higher, ostensibly world-surpassing gear. Both proceed inexorably toward a death.
The language of childhood is one of the book’s most impressive accomplishments. Many authors of memoir describe their childhood selves from a distance, in the voice of an adult, as if the child were someone else. Others simplify their language in an attempt to simulate a child’s voice—a method that risks oversimplifying and sentimentalizing the experience of childhood. Wainaina does something different. He creates a language that mimics the mental workings of a smart, creative child who has not yet learned to censor himself.
Ammiel Alcalay’s “neither wit nor gold” (from then) comes at us at once as a poetry deeply absorbed in another time and a reconfiguration of that history as it endures and is transformed for the present.
Sturgeon’s poetry is fueled by this tension between circumstantial accident and individual imagination. In the opening poem, “Confabulators,” the speaker asks, “What do you speak after penguins enter / the trembling bear-baiting ring?” In other words, how do we attempt to explain the accidental, the unexplainable, using language? The choice of penguins and a bear-baiting ring seems random, and “trembling” is a bizarre way to describe an inanimate object. But the answer is in the title: we confabulate.
Originally published in 1972, the book is a poetic meditation which links the fluidity and motion of a series of photographs to the ceaseless motion of the sea, the undying yearning of the eel to survive in the depths and darkness of the universe with their slippery angles and solid edges. Cortázar takes his inspiration from an article he read in Le Monde about eels in 1971, and the entire project is his attempt to establish some link between these black and white photographs (vaguely reminiscent at times of MC Escher) and the details on the life cycle of the eel. If scientists in the future read his pages, Cortázar tells us, “they should not see in them the slightest personal allusion: like the eels, Jai Singh, the stars and I myself, they are part of an image that points solely to the reader.”
Enough About Love, a newly translated novel by prolific French experimental writer Hervé Le Tellier (with a beautifully clear and concise rendering in English by Adriana Hunter), concerns the coming together and subsequent deliquescence of relationships between separate sets of couples and individuals in their late 30s and 40s among the intellectual class of present-day Paris. The novel explores the emotional shades of love and heartbreak of its characters, whose lives are depicted in muted tones, with Le Tellier playing down the grander themes of life in order to focus on quotidian (albeit romantic) ways in which people move on from one change, and one transition from happiness to sadness, to another.
Structured by the device of letting bits of action in 1968 set up the more lengthy retrospective sections, the novel’s transitions can seem at times a bit too pat; one almost has the sensation of those wavy fades that used to occur in old movies before a flashback. But the novel is entertaining as a coming-of-age story that becomes a coming-out story, and the device of a young boy learning about himself in the distorting mirror of awkward and epileptic Fanie, whom Simon professes to dislike to the point of infatuation.
For all his vaunted avant-gardisme, his rejection of poetic form and championing of “anti-poetry,” Różewicz is at heart a provincial, something of a small-town crank, contrary, self-educated, non-aligned, skeptical of most ideologies and fashions, and he has erected a long and much-honored literary career on this anti-literary scaffolding.
Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King and the Anarchist raises this question in the subtlest and sneakiest of ways, offering itself up as a piece of evidence for the truth of the former. Its claim is based on the idea that every history has an unrecorded element, the part of the moment that can never be precisely known. That element remains hidden in the minds of the witnesses and participants. Historical fiction, by daring to go inside the minds of its characters, can work to uncover this truth, to present certain possibilities, to offer a possible consciousness to what are otherwise facts and chronologies.
The book consists of five sections separated by excerpts from Arthur Schopenhauer, Jack London, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, E.T. Jaynes, and William Cowper. These quotations are set into the book without attribution until the endnotes. They thus become assimilated and integrated into the surface of the book, highlighting the issues the book raises: “The first words they had were over the sugar question. And it is a really serious thing when two men, wholly dependent upon each other for company, begin to quarrel”.
Gail Mazur’s distinguished body of work reads as an irresolvable argument with herself, but at its core it takes unabating delight in the enigmas of human relationships and its own contrariness. The tension between opposing forces is omnipresent: the grip of memory versus the ascent of vision, the suspicion of bathos versus the urgency of sentiment, modesty of means versus the glut of experience, self-laceration versus audacious confidence, story versus stasis, the responsibilities of insight versus the deficits of the mind, results versus resolutions. The antagonisms may become familiar to the reader, but not the ways they play out. This is because Mazur is patient: she waits for a strange third thing to survive the sparring of antitheses. Sometimes the wait is the whole deal. Each of her poems is a test of her mettle, an assessment of temperament and frequently of nerve.
• Issue 32: Summer 2013
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