When we left off in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, we saw Sontag struggling to turn herself into the writer she wanted to become. This volume, spanning 1964-1980, witnesses Sontag as a critic in her prime, becoming involved in politics, theater, and film as well as continuing to write fiction and essays. When the journals open, Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor, has just been published, and all of New York has taken notice. With 1964 comes the publication of “Notes on Camp” in the Partisan Review, which quickly went viral—at least, viral for 1964—though she has yet to publish the book of essays that will cement her reputation, Against Interpretation (1966). But perhaps surprisingly, Sontag doesn’t write about any of this in her journals: she has more important things on her mind. These years show her becoming involved with woman after woman, charting the impact of heartbreak after heartbreak on her psyche.
Douglas Glover believes that there is a major failure in literary culture, and his new volume of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders, attempts to re-teach the skills of reading and writing. Attack of the Copula Spiders, however, definitely is not an exercise in remedial education. Glover is a literary technocrat with a cranky, professorial temperament. He studies the percentages of load-bearing words within sentences and paragraphs, offering dictums in terms that would be familiar to central bankers. But are his remedies right for our literary problems?
One photograph of the writer Jane Bowles, walking arm in arm with her Moroccan lover Cherifa through the sun-bleached marketplace at Tangier, remains burned into my memory. And this, for its several incongruities: Jane’s white tea dress, her thin, tan limbs, her eyes peering in the light and heat; Cherifa, in her niqab and dark glasses, slightly bent, and her arms caught, oddly, behind her back, as if she were being led in handcuffs; and finally, the bystanders, enjoying the camera as if witnesses to an arrest.
In recent decades, women of the post-Négritude African poetic tradition have redefined the image of the woman in francophone poetry. Specifically, they have had to grapple with a tradition that casts them as the passive and voiceless objects of literature rather than the makers of it. Though this was already being done in the novels of Mariama Bâ, Aminata Sow Fall, and Calixthe Beyala, as well as in the films of Ousmane Sembène and Med Hondo, poetry until recently has continued to be characterized by the myth of “Mother Africa,” in which the woman is a symbol associated with a homeland or place of respite.
Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, actually de-censors and writes not just an Iranian love story but also a contemporary Iranian existence, one that is censored, although for different reasons, both within the borders of the country and outside of it. In this society writing is to be censored, life is to be censored. But the writer, with the help of his fictional alter-ego, turns censoring into writing, turns writing into life. To achieve this, Mandanipour practices in his structure what he is talking about in his content: a multi-layered existence, vague boundaries, a constant struggle between censoring and de-censoring, and the merging of fiction and reality.
A highly educated man proposes that the government create a publicly funded system of healthcare. His opponents question the scientific basis of his ideas while clinging to religion. Some wonder where the money will come from; others worry about who will decide who receives care. As ordinary citizens see more and more of their friends and family fall victim to a corrupt system, they unite in a protest that is intended to be non-violent but turns bloody when challenged by government militia. But, rather than the people’s triumph, the seizure of power only marks the moment when hypocrisy, under the banner of “compromise,” becomes pervasive. That’s what happens in Machado de Assis’ 1882 novella The Alienist , the opening chapters of which are excerpted in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation. The Alienist takes place not in the United States of 2012 but in the Brazilian colonial outpost of Itaguaí, sometime around the year 1800.
When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, the sight of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a bespoke suit grappling with a similarly well-dressed man in a hallway gave me a sense of déjà vu. As soon as the gravity in the hallway shifted and the grapplers fell to the ceiling, I knew that the movie it reminded me of was The Matrix, and I settled into a defensive posture. My love for The Matrix burned bright and hot in my freshman year of college, but that love began to cool as soon as I discovered David Cronenberg’s Existenz hidden in its shadow. Released three weeks after The Matrix, Existenz explores similar thematic terrain with less CGI gloss and more guns that shoot teeth as bullets. Because many people prefer their virtual realities to follow a clearly explained internal logic, weird films like Existenz always lose out to films The Matrix. Weird takes too much effort. I like weird. Considering that half of Inception takes place in the dreams of one or another of its characters, it is surprising that it is not weirder than it is.
Something awful is going to happen to the girl. This is the Soviet Union in 1984. This is not a nice time, and these are not nice people. The veneer of civilization, this professor of atheism, this friendly colonel, these dancing teens: they are all part of a paper-thin mask. Director Aleksey Balabanov will pull it off soon enough. This is Balabanov and he is dark.
You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too. Our consumer culture aims at putting your mind to sleep, and you’re not even aware of it. It costs a lot of money to keep this singular procedure going, and there’s an insane global operation in place for that very purpose.
This spring saw the publication of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, edited by Lee Konstantinou and Samuel Cohen. The book, which is an anthology of scholarly criticism as well as more personal essays and remembrances, is one of the first particles in an accumulating wave of posthumous evaluation of Wallace. This year will be, in short, the first crash of DFW studies.
The chronicles of Itaguaí tell that long ago there lived in town a certain Doctor Simeon Blunderbuss, a man of noble birth and the greatest doctor in Brazil, Portugal, and both Old and New Spains. He had studied at Coimbra and at Padua before returning to Brazil at the age of thirty-four. The King could not manage to convince him to stay on in Coimbra as regent of the university, nor in Lisbon directing royal affairs.
I thought it strange the baby not crying. I wanted to get up and check that it was all right, but I was worried I’d hurt myself, plus I was in a bit of a daze—it was as though my eyelids weighed more than usual. I asked myself: what dreams would I have had while I was under? I couldn’t remember a thing. Strange, because I always dream, and I always remember my dreams. I’d had a recurring nightmare over the previous nine months, over and over: in agony, I’d be giving birth to a baby that made a sound like a cat.
In Prehistoric Times Chevillard suggests that because we view art as separate from the processes of life and death, we are led to believe in an immortality of the artist. What if, Chevillard asks, we take this idea to its logical conclusion—what would an artist guided by aspirations toward the longest possible posthumous renown look like?
Satantango may well be a milestone in fiction as such—though we can debate exactly which mile it marks in world letters, given its circuitous path around the globe. Its reception has occurred in stages: translated into German in 1990, then into French in 2000, it has just been released in English by New Directions, the publisher of Krasznahorkai’s three existing works in English translation. Satantango is a brilliant, original and unsettling work; it is also a product of its time and place (late Communism, high postmodernism). Reading it twenty-seven years on, though, makes clear the transcendent power of Krasznahorkai’s art and the universal dimension of its dizzying, half-stabilized visions.
Bang looks at the typical ways Dante has been rendered into English in the last century and asks, “How might the lines sound if I were to put them into colloquial English? What if I were to go further and add elements of my own poetic style? Would it sound like a cover song, the words of the original unmistakably there, but made unfamiliar by the fact that someone else’s voice has its own characteristics? Could it be, like covers sometimes are, a tribute that pays homage to the original, while at the same time radically departing from it?” These are excellent, thought-provoking questions about the reception of literature across temporal and cultural boundaries, but they leave out two important considerations: first, songs are performances, inherently adaptable, and second, at least 87 percent of all covers are really, really bad. Translators of centuries-old texts must perforce import their own poetic style (as Dryden pointed out four hundred years ago, there’s almost no other way to do it), but there are nevertheless some fairly clear demarcations. If you manage to work a mention of Darfur into “Proud Mary,” you are no longer covering Creedence. Past a certain point, you can’t have it both ways.
The best-regarded book of Daniel Sada’s later years was Casi nunca (2008), now appearing in English as Almost Never. A far more accessible work than its predecessors, it shows considerable relaxing of ambition. The style is still highly worked, but the plot is broad comedy edging onto farce. The Second World War has just ended, and Demetrio Sordo, a young agronomist of inconsistent ambitions and robust appetites, is visiting brothels for the sheer novelty of sex on demand. He develops a passion for the prostitute Mireya, who believes that Demetrio will rescue her from her situation; but a family obligation takes him north to Sacramento, where he conceives an attraction—described in plain carnal terms—for the virginal, green-eyed Renata Melgarejo.
Charles Wright walks the line between the dictates of the Romantics and the modernists throughout a long career that now, with a collection subtitled “Selected Late Poems,” is poised for its end. In this culling of six previous books of poems, we’re well aware that Wright long ago mastered his particular idiom, that “the Charles Wright poem” is a unique meditative event all its own. We may, if we like, weary of his reflective mastery, of his ability to manifest always the same poetic persona, but, if we do, then we probably also tire of reading books of haiku, sonnets, or surrealist prose poems.
It could be said that Marek Bieńczyk is a writer without category. He’s best known as the author of postmodernist fictions like Terminal and Tworki, but he’s not only a novelist. He is an essayist, a translator (of Cioran and Kundera, among others) an academic literary historian, and even a noted wine critic. True to its author’s eclecticism, Transparency trespasses between genres: it’s neither a novel nor a scholarly study nor a personal reflection. Instead, it puts these forms to work on each other. Fictional passages are framed like the asides of an absentminded academic, and facts are narrated with a novelistic sensibility. Yet Transparency doesn’t make too much noise about its stylistic modulations; it never overtly announces itself as a new species of writing. Instead it stays in suspension, slipping by almost silently.
Chandler’s poetic gift is modest, pleasing, and a little old-fashioned. She employs rhyme and traditional metrics, reliably delivering what all poetry was once expected to deliver: memorable language, music, and a shared sense of the human experience, both its losses and pleasures. Her style is eloquently plain but never prosy or flat. You can set your metronome by her iambic pentameter. Chandler’s poems often skirt light verse, but her comic touch is usually tempered by a seasoned acceptance of life’s disappointments. In her foreword to Lines of Flights, Rhina P. Espaillat rightly notes that as a poet Chandler specializes in “the duplicitousness of experience itself, the inevitable damages that reality works on our lives, and our hopeless and hopeful attachment to the world in which that damage takes place.”
The source of Berger’s fascination with Spinoza is not immediately apparent, as the “startling philosophical propositions” he refers to bear only a tenuous connection with his works, and in the end it seems to be biographical in nature. Berger has always been drawn to outsiders and underdogs, to radicals and to those who reject dominant paradigms, and Spinoza was all of these things. For his unacceptable readings of Scripture and his unorthodox philosophical views, he was thrown out of the Jewish community he grew up in; and though baptized, as a Jew by blood he was never fully accepted by the Christian community. In other words, Spinoza was effectively isolated from the academic life of his time. But he never retracted any of his views, instead opting to support himself with a trade and publishing his works on his own. That this story would hold much appeal for Berger is not surprising. Berger has lived and worked on a farm in rural France for decades, and his labors there have grounded his work as a writer and an artist. It is very clear that he sees the intellectual and artistic life as best pursued in complete freedom, as an adjunct to manual labor. In this light, Spinoza’s choices add up to a picture of radical intellectual freedom underpinned by everyday useful labor – in Berger’s moral universe, a perfect role model for a writer and artist.
Other than Adolf Hitler and Mikhail Gorbachev, the only recurring character in December is a monk named Andrej Bitov. Alone in his mountain cloister, he has devised a system of reckoning the centuries such that “three hundred and forty-one years have the substance of five hundred.” The years between 1789 and 1792, in his system, constitute a century, as do those between 1918 and 1989. “The RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION OF TIME,” Bitov reasons, “MUST BE ACKNOWLEDGED LIKE THAT OF THE PEOPLES.” As if in accordance with Bitov’s system, the days of December have a weight beyond their numerical value. Composed of thirty-nine short stories by Alexander Kluge and thirty-nine images by Gerhard Richter, December is a calendar that reveals the inadequacy of calendars, a book of hours that undermines time.
By the time I finished Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s wildly interesting book of essays, the book had set me a list of tasks. Listen to country blues, Bob Marley, and Jamaican speech. Watch Axl Rose dance “Patience” and Michael Jackson debut the moonwalk. Rent that cave-art documentary. I wanted to do these things to recapture the sentiment of old-fashioned wonder that Sullivan made me feel. I made a mental note, too, to go back to David Foster Wallace, because only a cultural essayist of his calibre can deliver the kind of pleasure Sullivan does. I wasn’t won over immediately.
Stig Dagerman, the wunderkind of Swedish literature in the ten years before he committed suicide in 1954, was on assignment from the Swedish newspaper Expressen when he traveled around Germany in the autumn of 1946. These objective dispatches, now published in the U.S. for the first time, are laden with the misery he encounters on his trip through Germany occupied by the Western Allies (not surprisingly, he didn’t visit the Soviet zone). Having spent the war in ostensibly neutral Sweden, Dagerman rejects any notion of the survivors suffering deservingly, writing instead with equal empathy and perceptiveness of hard-headed Nazi officials and ordinary women and children. In his foreword, Mark Kurlansky ascribes Dagerman’s candor to his ability to “show compassion,” which, “required a considerable amount of courage” in Germany in 1946.
Second Simplicity, the first compilation of Yves Bonnefoy’s work since 1995, samples from seven previous collections, representing verse and prose emblematic of the major themes of the past two decades and showcasing Bonnefoy’s range, including his experimental prose poems and a sui generis genre called “tales within dreams.” The collection is well curated, cohesive and various, and gifts English readers with indisputable pearls: many of these translations have not appeared in book form; some are printed for the first time.
The French-language poets Philippe Jaccottet and Pierre-Albert Jourdan are not well-known names on this side of the Atlantic. Though a former French instructor, I was myself barely familiar with their names. But to our great good fortune, the publisher Chelsea Editions now offers us two beautifully designed, bilingual books editions of two major twentieth-century Francophone poets, translated magnificently by John Taylor. And Nonetheless by Jaccottet and The Straw Sandals by Jourdan were published in 2011 and include selected prose and poetry, with introductions by the translator.
It’s Ibn Fadlan’s account of his remarkable journey that takes up the larger part of Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone’s newly translated anthology Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. In 922 Ibn Fadlan set off from Baghdad as the envoy of caliph Muqtadir, bound for the upper Volga River and the Turkic-speaking court of Almish ibn Yiltawar at Bulghar. His mission was simple: to instruct the newly converted Almish and his people in the Islamic faith, to oversee the building of a congregational mosque, and to assist in the construction of a defensive fortress. Because of their richness, Ibn Fadlan’s detailed observations retain an authentic power to shock. He maintains a coolly dispassionate sense of importance and breadth, documenting a dizzying range of anthropological gems, from Turkish marriage customs to hospitality, from hygiene and the Ghuzz taboo on washing to horse sacrifices.
Eugenio Montale poured himself into Italy’s great poetic tradition from Dante to Leopardi, and in 1925 he produced Ossi di seppia, “Cuttlefish Bones,” a stunning debut and the first part of the large and newly updated bilingual volume of Montale’s poetry now appearing from veteran translator and long-time Montale devotee Jonathan Galassi, Eugenio Montale: The Collected Poems 1920-1954. Galassi’s volume labors under the long shadow of the great American classicist and translator William Arrowsmith, whose translation volume The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977 is published this year by W. W. Norton and makes an excellent, almost indispensable companion to Galassi’s book. Arrowsmith’s renderings of Montale have won wide acclaim, and Galassi freely acknowledges the debt he and all other English-language Montale devotees owe to him, but Galassi’s version proves there’s plenty of room for both in any serious reader’s poetry library.
Ben Ehrenreich’s Ether is a contemporary passion play in the shape of a novel. An unnamed protagonist—a stand-in for Ehrenreich himself— re-animates the Christian God in order to give him the business, doling blows alongside Nazi skinheads, angry barflies, and natural disasters. Neither Ehrenreich’s stand-in nor the God character are named (although we are clearly intended to note resemblances to both the Yahweh of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New), and the fourth wall is nonexistent, with the author repeatedly asserting that he is sole creator of his world, tacitly reminding us that he too is a fiction.
The Big Dream is set in a magazine company, Dream Inc., which has a line of publications like Dream Car, Dream Condo, and the faintly redundant Dream Romance. Its Ontario office is located in the city of Mississauga, just outside Toronto (nearer the airport than the “central location” employees in the opening story, “Dream Big,” would prefer), at a time of economic downturn. The non-chronological arrangement of the stories allows for time to flow forward and backward, providing mild suspense or multiple sidelong perspectives on events not shown directly, while the characters in this arbeitsroman (a fiction title about work, and the workplace) weaken and shiver in the increasingly dire atmosphere of a company whose niche, paper-dependent products stand slender chances of thriving in a dot-com age.
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