Issue 26 -- Winter 2012


The Moving Tide of Abundance: Petersburg by Andrei Bely

It is Petersburg for which Andrei Bely is best remembered. It appeared in English in 1959 and has stayed in print ever since. This Penguin reissue features David McDuff’s masterful 1995 translation and a new introduction by Adam Thirlwell. Both offer loving praise for their subject, praise which has been slow in coming in Bely’s native land. Considered decadent by the Soviets, the novel first appeared with major cuts and was later banned for being incommensurate to the idealised standards of Socialist Realism. Bely suffered at the hands of the critics, too; the Russian Formalists, though grudgingly commending his inventiveness, essentially deemed the Symbolists en masse irrelevant to the study and advancement of literature. Bely was only properly rehabilitated in the ‘80s and is now rightly lauded as one of the last century’s great literary talents.

Mapping Michel Houellebecq: A Retrospective

Controversial authors are more interesting when the source of their controversy does not simply rest on the outer surfaces of their art but lies within its very structure. The French author Michel Houellebecq is not controversial because of what he writes or says—dozens of writers have said many of the same things about women, people of other cultures and religions, and contemporary society. Houellebecq creates debate because it is difficult to settle upon an ultimate interpretation of his work. Looking over his five novels in succession reveals a real movement toward resolving this metafictional ambiguity and goes far to explain the near unequivocal critical praise he is now receiving for The Map and the Territory.

In Translation

From Fiona and Ferdinand by Josef Haslinger

On the day of Bachmaier’s funeral there were two messages from my mother waiting for me on the answering machine. In the first one she asked me to call her back, in the second she said that the village was in an uproar: I was to come at once. Calls from my mother were rare.


The Iliad translated by Stephen Mitchell

Poet and translator Stephen Mitchell, whose reconstructed Gilgamesh and elegantly translated Tao de Ching routinely out-sell all competing versions, and whose Duino Elegies did about as much to bring Rilke into the general awareness of the non-German populace as it’s possible to do, has now given readers a 21st century English-language translation of Homer’s Iliad, in a solid and aesthetically pleasing new hardcover from Free Press.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff

A martyr is not necessarily a saint, in any case, and those who knew him didn’t turn to him for saintliness. He was spellbinding, an electrical jolt for the psyche. An encounter with him, as a colleague or as a mentor, could be life-changing and endlessly rewarding. Warts and all, the real man carries far more interest than the photoshopped one Loseff gives us. The portrait that emerges on these pages has lost its sizzle. One does not taste a single spoonful of borscht, or feel the nip of a single Russian snowfall.

Varamo by César Aira

The sixth of César Aira’s eighty-odd brief books to appear in English translation, Varamo takes the form of a parable, or an extended joke, on the nature of writing. The setup is a riddle: one night in 1923 the title character, a Panamanian civil servant, conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde, though he has never before shown any literary inclination or talent. The narrative purports to give a historical account of the hours leading up to the poem’s creation. No particular attempt is made to maintain the historical disguise, which by the middle of the book has warped into the deadpan assertion that every detail of the narrative, “down to the subatomic level and beyond,” has been rigorously deduced from the text of the poem alone. The result is a novel that, despite its own claims to avant-gardism, goes after familiar game: the relations between art and artist, production and reception, the made or found artifact and the attendant circumstances of life.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli

In Red is Tulli’s most conventional novel—which is not to say it could finally be described as a conventional work of fiction. Still, to the extent it does offer individuated characters, some degree of plot “movement,” and a strongly delineated setting, readers hesitant to commit to one of the novels that seems formidably experimental might find In Red a more comfortable introduction to Tulli’s fiction. But while the novel does provide somewhat more of the familiar elements of conventional fiction, it nevertheless doesn’t allow the reader to retreat altogether to conventional reading pleasures.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

For the duration of Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s protagonist, Adam Gordon, is in Spain on a fellowship. If anyone asks, he is writing poetry about the Spanish Civil War. A non-experience of art is the first of Adam’s disconnections in the book. Disconnect is the wrong word, even though Adam and I use it, because we never see Adam disconnect from anyone or anything. Unconnected is more like it. As in the passage with the crying man, throughout Leaving the Atocha Station Adam feels like a perceptive viewer annotating a screenplay.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The publication of 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s biggest, most ambitious novel to date, seems to have brought his career full-circle. This is not simply because the book has widely been posited as Murakami’s Brothers Karamazov—that is, an attempt to write a meganovel summing up his life’s writing—but even more because of the trajectory Murakami has taken as a writer. Now that we may read Murakami’s serious follow-up to Wind-Up Bird, the question is whether or not it is a worthy successor.

Assumption and Erasure By Percival Everett

The author of 18 previous works of fiction, Percival Everett is perhaps best known as a writer of highly ironic novels which address such topical landmines as American race and class relations (Erasure), celebrity culture (I Am Not Sidney Poitier), and even the role of critical theory in American arts and letters (Glyph). However, in his newest work, Assumption, he writes about something completely different. Though the book is listed as a novel, Assumption actually consists of three linked novellas, each a separate mystery (and mysterious) in its own right; so yes, trite as it sounds, nothing here is as it seems. In fact, Assumption is not so much a satirical takedown of a large, American bugbear as much as it is a literal exploration, a meditation on the nature of truth, violence, and the human propensity for denial and deception, self-inflicted and otherwise.

The Truth About Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

What we have in this attractive novella, then, is a picture of two essentially uninteresting people; but fortunately Toussaint has given the narrator the gift of thinking in delicious prose, describing, in detail: what first responders do; what the narrator believes happened the night of Jean-Christophe’s incident; what a scared horse running around an airport does as men struggle to capture him; and the sight and effects of a forest fire. Toussaint keeps well away from the parsimonious dictates of realist fiction, despite the detailed how-ness of certain activities, and appeals to us, through his exquisite breath control, on the level of the long, sinuous sentences that at times transform into grand passages. What’s attractive here is the solo performance of the narrator’s thoughts, and the easy control Toussaint exhibits.

Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique by Gonçalo M. Tavares

Someone once noted that it’s easy to have virtue when facing adversity but the real test of character comes when one is given power. To test this aphorism, one need look no further than Gonçalo M. Tavares’ novel Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique for evidence of how power corrupts and attracts the corrupt. Tavares is a prolific writer from Portugal who at age 41 has won many prestigious European writing and book awards and has been published in several languages, including French, Hebrew, German, and Spanish.

Vertical Motion by Can Xue

The writer and translator Lydia Davis, in a preface to her story sequence, Swimming in Egypt: Dreams While Awake and Asleep, explains how she reprised a project undertaken by the Surrealist Michel Leiris in his Night as Day, Days as Night. Davis too decided to record her dreams and her dreamlike waking experiences, but unlike Leiris, did not identify which were which. Vertical Motion reads like a similar project, with the stories subject to an esoteric categorization withheld from the reader. Some read like accounts of dreams, others replicate the chaos and bizarreness of the dream state, while others, which feature characters having actual dreams, stray so far from logic and narrative coherence in their waking action that they require the accession of the dream to root the reader in the story’s surreal reality.

Selected Poems by Jaan Kaplinski

Though sometimes referred to as a Modernist, Kaplinski’s poetry often has the feel of a classical, and older, poetics. The poems have a gravitas; they do not mock, toy, or play with the reader. They invite the reader to eavesdrop on the thoughts, remembrances, and philosophy of a person as they flicker and flow. This contemplative, philosophic strain is present in much of the work, but not all. History and politics appear and punctuate the air. This is not surprising since Kaplinski was a member of the post-Revolution Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) from 1992-1995, and has written extensively on politics and society. What is mildly surprising, perhaps, is how infrequently the poems turn outward and invite the world onto the page. When they do, the effect is often illuminating and vaguely threatening.

The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George by Denise Gigante

Most of the poems for which John Keats is remembered were composed in a single volcanic year—we know it familiarly as “The Great Year”—starting in late 1818, a little more than two years before his death. Nearly all of his incomparable letters, surely the finest in the language, were written within a four-year span amounting to not quite one-sixth of his truncated life, which ended less than four months after his twenty-fifth birthday. We can usefully gloss Keats’s life and death with numbers because they are so mournfully modest and impressive. Keats makes Rimbaud, another famed early starter, look like an underachieving slacker. The Frenchman, at least, didn’t die until thirty-seven. Early death has conferred on Keats a sentimental martyrdom to art and sensitivity.

Self-Portrait of an Other by Cees Nooteboom and Max Neumann

As hard as you look at it, Max Neumann’s paintings don’t reveal much about his method, but two recent English-language publications imply that he must enjoy collaborating with luminaries of world literature. AnimalInside, reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation’s issue 25 by Christiane Craig, brought Neumann together with László Krasznahorkai, the prestigious Hungarian novelist only now building up a substantial reputation in the Anglosphere. In that book, Neumann’s images, a series built around the silhouette of a jumping dog, entered into a sort of conversation with short pieces by Krasznahorkai. They tag-teamed it, with the artist’s work inspiring the novelist’s work, which would in turn shape the next stage of the artist’s, and so on.

Ordinary Sun by Matthew Henriksen

Ordinary Sun at times feels like listening to confession in a parallel universe, a world with all the guts displayed on the outside, and the underworld on top. Make no mistake though: there is no otherworld. Henriksen’s world is this world. Who doesn’t recognize her own kind in lines like these, from “Corolla in the Midden”: “I do not dream. I just watch / fields burn, or ride // in cars that won’t get anywhere.”

Is That a Fish In Your Ear? by David Bellos

As director of Princeton’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication and a brilliant translator from the French, David Bellos has shaped and inspired a generation of literary translators. With his new book on translation, he now opens class to the nonspecialists. Grounded in a lifetime of teaching, thinking about, and creating translations, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything is that marvelous rarity, a book by a specialist that can be enjoyed by general readers.

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori

Gregor von Rezzori’s fictitious city Czernopol exists at the edge of civilization, on the border of memory and invention, lying “somewhere in the godforsaken southeastern part of Europe.” In reality it is Czernowitz, in the region known as the Bukovina, ceded by the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1775, then after World War I part of Romania, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and now within the borders of Ukraine. Von Rezzori spent his childhood there, as readers of his other autobiographical volumes, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear, will know. An Ermine in Czernopol is the only volume of the trilogy that’s an old-fashioned novel, rather than a set of connected novellas or portraits. It transfigures Czernowitz into Czernopol, seen from a child’s perspective with elements of fairy tale exaggeration.

Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski

Early in Show Up, Look Good, Mark Wisniewski’s second novel, newly single Michelle meets up with an old friend, Barb, from the Midwest. Michelle has already been portrayed as a woman who attracts all variations of awkwardness and bad luck: she’s awakened to find her ex, Thom, “having his way, well, with a marital aid,” agreed to bathe an old woman as part of her rental contract, and experienced a blown transmission on her way to sell her Plymouth Reliant. Barb’s statement feels both prescient and prophetic: “Everyone in Kankakee . . . knows you won’t last in this city. In fact, quite a few of us are making bets about when you’ll be back.”

The Dandelion Clock by Daniel Tiffany

Daniel Tiffany’s The Dandelion Clock is a poetic-punk fusion of Middle English, contemporary spoken English, and lyric meditation in the form of six short lines set near the center of each page. The poems blend fragments of Middle English into Tiffany’s own lyric mode, using the fragments to serve, as Tiffany explains in a prefatory note, “as a kind of grace note for the poem it summons, calling forth and harmonizing with other idioms and dialects.”

Cormac McCarthy Full Coverage

Cormac McCarthy Full Coverage

The Lydia Davis Symposium

The Lydia Davis Symposium

Who Was David Foster Wallace?

Read Who Was David Foster Wallace?

Full Coverage: Roberto Bolano

Full Coverage: Roberto Bolano

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