Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was already in his fiftieth year and his third decade of residence in East Anglia, when he began to write of the walk he had taken two years before in the Suffolk country to dispel, he tells us, the strange emptiness which had come to fill him suddenly. Ironically enough, however, the walk soon became distressing as he took in, with ever-growing uneasiness, the traces of destruction reaching far back into the past that locked his gaze wherever he turned. Such was his horror upon return, he would have us believe, that, in due course, he had to be rushed to a hospital in a state of near paralysis. But once there, what the body had lost, the mind gained, and before long it was soaring higher and higher with each tilt of the wings to view from above that Suffolk expanse, which, like the Borgesian Aleph, had now shrunk to a single spot, rightly so, devoid of all sensation.
For those of us following Vladislavić’s work, 2011 was a good year. It saw the release of three new works. The first is a collection of lost, abandoned, incomplete and incomplete-able stories, together with reflections on their failure to come into print, sandwiched around a central story that gives the collection its title—The Loss Library. The second is a fable, or a riddle, written from the phenomenological perspective of a character who is a word (but which word?) in a dictionary, published alongside 19 spectacular color illustrations in Sylph Editions’ Cahier series under the title, A Labour of Moles. And, of course, the third is Double Negative, a novel. Since the last novel with a continuous story by Vladislavić was his second—the 2001 masterpiece, The Restless Supermarket, the story of a retired proofreader setting about to “correct” the bewildering and rapidly changing world of post-Apartheid Johannesburg, written in a form that contains its own telling “errors”—readers were especially excited about Double Negative. It was worth the wait.
Cited by The Independent as “the most important writer after Borges,” he has also been described by his contemporary Ricardo Piglia as “one of the best writers today in any language.” In his native Argentina he is counted among the pantheon of “writer’s writers” who have left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape. English-language readers were introduced to Saer’s fiction by Margaret Jull Costa, who translated The Witness (originally El entenado) in 1990. The years that followed would see three more of Saer’s novels brought into English by Helen Lane: Nobody Nothing Never (1993), The Event (1995, originally La ocasión), and The Investigation (1999), all published by Serpent’s Tail. More recently, Open Letter Books released two more of Saer’s novels in Steve Dolph’s translation: The Sixty-Five Years of Washington (2010) and Scars (2011); a third title in the series is on the way. This recent crop is a tremendous addition, not only because it represents some of Saer’s most acclaimed work, but also because it broadens our perspective on his oeuvre, which is less a series of individual novels than an extended engagement with the different possibilities of a single, continuous narrative.
The Autonomous Republic of Catalonia now holds up Mercè Rodoreda as a national treasure. Barcelona offers commemorative sculptures, libraries, gardens in her name; government-supported institutes sponsor conferences and translations; a yearlong festival marked her 2008 centennial. Her international champions include Gabriel García Márquez. Apart from two recent, welcome titles from Open Letter, her English catalog has drifted in and out of print. There is no question that Rodoreda is a uniquely difficult writer—not in her sentences, which are as clean as any in the century, but in the starkness of her emotional climate. Her subject, both in the earlier domestic books and the later irrealist ones, is the destructiveness of desire, the brutishness of power, the primacy of hunger and death. Her particular power and challenge lies in the style that she created to address them: a fearsomely pure deployment of words, empty of rhetoric, in which the beauty of the world shines so clearly as to seem a kind of cruelty.
Authors of what’s called the New Spanish Short Story have had a great burst of creativity that began in the early 1980s and flowered during the 1990s and 2000s (the few stories that have been translated have been relegated to obscure editions unavailable in the United States). From the stories of the fantastic by Cristina Fernádez Cubas to the structural inventions of Hipólito G. Navarro and the surrealism of Ángel Zapata, Spanish short story writers have created an exciting and diverse body of work marked by its openness and dedication to pushing the boundaries of the form.
The idea of Clarice Lispector as fleeting, oddly unreliable, complicated, someone who could vanish is essential to her work and her reputation. In October, 1977, shortly before her death, she published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, “was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs.” But she made clear that this was “not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”
Barbara Epler: The whole Lispector re-launching began innocently enough: our plan had been to bring out a new edition of The Hour of the Star in the old Pontiero translation with an ardent Colm Tóibín preface. (With a backlist of our size—about 1,100 titles from 75 years of publishing—we are always trying to repackage classic backlist to reach more readers.) That was all we had planned, but then I met Ben. I’d very much admired his biography, so I have a drink with Ben when he’s in town, and he is amazingly persuasive, and I get on board the big project of four new translations with Penguin UK, for which he would serve as series editor. And suddenly, in a phone conversation a few months later about those four books, I mentioned I was going to press with our new edition of the old translation of The Hour of the Star with the Tóibín preface, and Ben came out of the bag at me.
I often joke that the literary establishment felt bad for writing Roth off after Operation Shylock (which was seen as a huge failure), and so is making up for it with this stretch of uncritical acclaim. But more seriously, I do think there’s a sort of “Lifetime Achievement Award” effect here. Critics generally see Roth as one of the last remaining survivors of what’s left of the American literary century, and so his books get a pat on the back as a sort of tribute to his role as exemplar of a dying world. The books deserve better, if sometimes harsher, treatment.
For me, science fiction projects our contemporary anxieties into the future. I am not that interested in what it has to say about the future, but what it can tell me about the present. Novels on biotechnology or cloning and genetics, obviously, have to do with the possibilities that these subjects are exploring today, and with our anxiety regarding what could happen later on. Thus, science fiction novels for me are like doors to the present. In El delirio de Turing, for example, I was interested in the subject of the hacker, who is a character that at that time was marginalized in culture. What I did was not exactly science fiction. It was simply that I made the hacker a more central character in a convergence of science fiction with realism. I was interested in also seeing how I could combine certain social protests, street protests that are very common in Bolivia, for example, with the subject of the protests against globalization through Anonymous [the Internet anarchic group] or viruses. All those things that stem from a more recent, contemporary past.
The new, much-discussed attraction at Disneyland, begun three months ago, has become now the highlight, the main fascination of daily, unending crowds. The attraction in question is a gargantuan maze, which claims to lose all who dare enter its meter-wide lanes, its gray three-meter-high walls, offering mirror after mirror of varying size, depth, deceptive illusion. There is no short supply of the brave: on the average there are eleven-hundred-twenty three entrants per day.
Berlin Stories brings to mind a later collection of writing about the city by another foreigner who also moved there in his mid-twenties. Like Walser, Joseph Roth also wrote for the feuilleton sections of German-language newspapers. Roth claimed that the only way he understood the world was when he had to write about it. It’s worth mentioning him alongside Walser here, not just because of their shared experience, only a decade apart, as young foreign writers in the same city, but also for the parallels in how they processed their responses to the place.
Now we have Zona, Dyer’s book-length explication of the film that he has been mulling over in print for more than a decade. Like the film’s journeying hero, who devises his route by randomly tossing bolt nuts and trudging after them, he’s taken his time getting to the point. But the end result is revealing; despite its critical trappings, Zona reads like a personal history, even more so than Dyer’s many actual personal histories.
Two new looks at The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am by Norwegian novelist Kjersti Skomsvold. The first, by David Winters considers the book as a text that is completely unified with nothing of what Barthes would call the “crossing from notation to novel” surviving in its structure. The book seals up a single concern, making it an airtight container for one perfectly encircled emotion: loneliness.
And in the second, Paul Morrow considers the book in relation to Glass by Sam Savage, with both novels featuring old, isolated women as protagonists, and both being substantially about the melancholy, or bad humor, these women contend with as they live out the evanescent ends of their lives.
The first English-language publication of Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction would not follow until 2006, three quarters of a century after its conception. His extensive repertory consists principally of short stories, of which there are more than one hundred, as well as five novels. The first of these novels selected for English translation (by Joanne Turnbull) and publication this year through NYRB Classics is The Letter Killers Club. Of course, all new light cast upon such unloved fictions is kind, soft, and humane. Consequently, certain reviews of Krzhizhanovsky’s work read like the gentle, penitent congratulations of friends for the one just come out a coma after a great many years.
For all its familiar pleasures, Four for a Quarter—Martone’s longest book and his first in six years—reveals a new seriousness. Its format proves rigorous, and its emotionality, at times, rich. Throughout, often, Martone provokes the chill inherent in the discovery of alternative lives, lives that themselves exfoliate into others. What’s foursquare evaporates, again and again, into mirage.
A lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Iyer is the author of Spurious—which won The Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize” last year—and, now, Dogma, a sequel to the previous work. Both books are novels in name only—bookstores require these convenient taxonomies. In reality Iyer has written scabrous philosophical comedies about two men—W., a moderately successful writer and intellectual, and his layabout failure of a friend, Lars Iyer. The plots follow their delirious, often drunken, conversations about life, religion, and the end of the world (which they believe is soon approaching). They’re like two very well read David Mamet characters, skydiving without parachutes and laughing all the way down.
As a literary critic, Birkerts is deservedly lauded and praised. Anyone with a serious interest in modern literature will know An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (1987) or The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), Birkerts’ thoughtful book about the decline of reading in the digital age, not to mention his now decade-long stint as editor of the literary journal AGNI. This is of course the Birkerts Seamus Heaney calls a “literary conscience” and whom Susan Sontag identifies as “one of America’s most distinguished, eloquent servants of the poetry and fiction that matter”; the same Birkerts who recognized the importance of Infinite Jest and Hopscotch. But what about Birkerts the denizen of “the contemplative life”? The Other Walk invites readers to follow as Birkerts walks about, reflecting on his past, often stirred by the sudden uncovering of a scrap of tin or a discarded mug.
Since embracing economic reforms in the early 1990s, India has undergone swift and wrenching changes that are remaking the country from the ground up. As village and farmland give way to tech companies, call centers, factories, and malls, these new landscapes are increasingly peopled by new archetypal characters, much as the similarly radical transformation of the American West brought the world the cowboy. In this sobering series of profiles laced with memoir and reportage, Siddhartha Deb examines several such figures, including the self-made man, the ubiquitous engineer, the rural farmer, the migrant laborer, and the urban working woman. Deb, a novelist and native of India who teaches at New York City’s New School, reveals a composite portrait of a country in transition that is fascinating, troubling, and—to Western readers—unpleasantly familiar.
The project undertaken by Abdourahman Waberi’s Passage of Tears is an interesting and significant one. In a post-9/11, globalized landscape, former colonies—particularly those with oil—find themselves confronting a history that is becoming ever more complex and problematic. By invoking Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno in a tale of an African caught between modern North and modernizing South, Waberi leads us toward provocative conclusions about the incomplete project of modernity.
Wave Books’s recent publication of Ecuadorean poet Jorge Carrera Andrade’s 1940 Micrograms, poems one could call miniatures—most are about three or four lines long—swathes the poems in between layers of critical apparatus that are very useful, to the extent that one begins to suspect a self-consciousness about the poems’ brevity that calls to mind Sontag’s thesis. For not only are the poems tiny, but there are only thirty-one of them, altogether about 120 lines of poetry—hardly enough, one might think, to constitute a book. And yet the manner in which this critical apparatus takes on a status equal to the poems themselves productively questions the autonomy of the poem as object, and makes the tacit argument that poems are only one element of a complex organism of thinking, research, reading, and being in the world.
Böll lived long and witnessed much: the austere ’30s, the War and its bleak fallout, plus Germany’s traumatic regeneration and eventual economic prosperity in the ensuing decades. Two new books from Melville House’s Essential Heinrich Böll series show Böll capturing it all, both in factual and fictional form. What’s to Become of the Boy? is his slender but insightful memoir of his formative years. The Collected Stories is a publishing coup, as it is the first time Böll’s100 stories and three novellas have been collected in one volume.
Michael Kimball’s novella Us originally appeared in the U.K. under the title How Much of Us There Was. Tyrant Books has now brought it out in the United States, where Kimball was born and lives, and his website lists the widespread praise that the book has received. Here are but two of the many accolades: “disarmingly simple, gorgeously structured, and as achingly sad a book as I have ever read. I had to stop a couple of times. I really did” (Matthew Simmons, HTMLGIANT); “Michael Kimball’s Us is heartbreakingly lovely . . . the writing’s a pleasure, and sometimes you just need to read something with weight” (The Paris Review). But a closer examination of Us makes one wonder if the book deserves such rapturous praise.
Bachmann famously described the entry of Hitler’s troops into Klagenfurt as the end of her childhood. From these pages, though, it isn’t clear what immediately followed. Here she seems to exist in a liminal zone between self-determination and powerlessness: she has worked out tactics of flight, but not full resistance or solidarity with others. This is an understandable response to an unclear, variable threat. Her good luck has spared her any immediate physical danger; the authorities she encounters are despicable but petty. But the bombings are quite real, as is the threat from the invading Russian army. She concludes these wartime passages with an uncanny image of sharing her bed with her childhood doll, who can no longer say “Mama,” “nor can I.”
Before being cast out from Heaven, a disgusted Lucifer, his world turned upside down by the creation of Man, gives God’s latest plaything a parting gift: a vision of himself. It is to this unsettling vision, and the subversion of it, that Icelandic writer Sjón’s seventh novel is devoted. The setting is seventeenth-century Iceland, a place marred by natural disasters and colonial neglect, where violent ghosts walk the earth, men are driven mad by the sight of a solar eclipse, and society is gripped with fear of the oft-overlapping terrors of Catholicism and witchcraft. From the Mouth of the Whale chronicles the exile of Jónas “the Learned” Pálmason, a self-taught scholar and healer and a convicted sorcerer, to a spit of an island within tantalizing sight of the Icelandic coast. Yet the scene of the novel is not so much Gullbjörn’s Island as the mind of Jónas himself.
For a long time, Jonathan Spence’s Gate of Heavenly Peace has been my book of choice for an introduction to modern China. Spence’s meaty and highly readable 1981 book focused largely on the first half of the 20th century, with a later chapter on the Cultural Revolution and a coda discussing the early post-Mao years. It’s still a great introduction, but as China has continued to develop in important ways, I’ve wished for a book that covered China’s more recent decades with similar depth and flair. Such a book has finally arrived: Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words, splendidly translated by Alan Barr.
With his second novel, The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus has diverged from the path he trod while becoming one of America’s best-known experimental fiction writers. He’s written a plague fantasy told in first-person by a middle-aged, Jewish husband and father living in the suburbs. It is cold and coherent in its execution, with one narrator and a clear plot, and reading it is a crushing sort of experience. It’s a deliberate shift for Marcus into both traditional storytelling and humorless despondency, one he seems to have chosen with care. It is such a dramatic turn for Marcus and such a remorseless tragedy that if it had been published with a self-referential blurb, it could only have been an earnest warning from the author: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Eric Ormsby titles his poem “Origins” and sets it like an epigraph, italicized, at the front of The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems, suggesting a disclaimer for what follows: “My poems are written to give pleasure,” he might be saying. “No trespassing for the tin-eared and ahedonic.
Autoportrait by Edouard Levé is notable for attempting to say all the things about a person that are not usually said. The book is simply a series of declarative sentences that lasts for 117 pages. The sentences are all ostensibly about Levé himself; they lack any discernable order and they are contained within one book-length paragraph. They seem to include every genre of thing that could be said about a person.
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