The opening lines of incantatory prose in The Big Music evoke the austere beauty of the northern reaches of the Scottish Highlands, its vast landscape of hills and moorland and the seemingly endless, silent space stretching out beneath an ever-changing sky. We are made to feel a sense of human non-belonging in this stark environment, an understanding of oneself as fundamentally alien no matter how familiar the land might be or become, even after a lifetime. Then comes another level of distancing, as the author wonders aloud how best to begin: with “a few words and the scrap of a tune put down for the back of the book in some attempt to catch the opening of the thing, how it might start.” Before long, scholarly-sounding footnotes appear that elucidate the meaning of various Gaelic terms and refer the reader to a set of appendices at the back of the book that contain maps, musical scores, transcripts from radio interviews, bibliographies, and various other documents pertaining to the history and structure of a type of music that explicate its complexity and gradually reveal its austere beauty. The reader soon understands that this is no ordinary novel: the aesthetic project at the heart of Kirsty Gunn’s recent work aims to recreate one form of art out of another, to develop a prose that mirrors the compositional form of the piobaireachd (pronounced pee-brohh), the Gaelic name for the classical bagpipe music of the Scottish Highlands.
Let me say from the get-go—by way of both foundation and disclaimer—that reading a David Foster Wallace sentence is, for me, invariably an act of exhilarated, astonished enjoyment, one that more often than not leaves me giggling and wiping my brow, as if I’d just done some previously unimagined yoga pose that left me inverted and endorphinated and staring at my own anus. Proclamations that Wallace was “the voice of his generation,” are commonplace, moreso since his death in 2008; the precise quality of that voice is harder to articulate, though A.O. Scott’s description—reproduced on the back cover of Both Flesh and Not (BFN), the newly published and possibly final volume of Wallace’s prose—comes as close as any: “Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware . . . the voice in your own head.”
In 1960, a visiting appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, led to four decades on the West Coast. It would be pat to say he gave us the past, and we gave him the future. It implies that the scales were equal, when there are 314 million of us and only one of him. Nevertheless, it’s partly true. In his American exile, he could publish freely, in a number of translations as well as in Polish, and he could become a Nobel poet with an international profile.
Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser is perhaps the most unsung of these influential “writer’s writers,” and two recent collaborative texts underscore his ability to speak across artistic mediums. A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser, to be published in April by New Directions, includes short microscript pieces by Walser himself, as well as essays, creative writing, and art objects ranging from installation pieces to etchings, all of which speak to Walser’s own microscripts. This collection stems from a series of exhibitions curated by the late Donald Young in Chicago from December 2011 to October 2012, who, in his introduction, explains how he “became more and more interested in the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists.” Another text, Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s dramatic monologue Her Not All Her, with intercalated images by Thomas Newbolt, is collaborative in that Jelinek asserts in her subtitle that she is writing the piece “On/With Robert Walser.”
A steady stream of anthologies has introduced American readers to fresh voices from Africa. But something has been missing. These anthologies have focused almost exclusively on fiction, ignoring a wealth of extraordinary true-life narratives.
Chabon’s last two major novels embraced his abiding love for genre fiction, trading in the set pieces and personae of explicitly imaginary worlds: the vivid comic book narratives threaded throughout The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, followed by the alternate history and homage to the hardboiled detective novel that is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. With Telegraph Avenue, his latest novel, Chabon returns to the present and to recognizable geographies—but happily, its world is constructed and populated with the same fantastically concrete sensibility of the world-builder.
It is worth bearing in mind that when the project was launched, back while Beckett was still alive, nobody, least of all Beckett himself (who had no notion of how many letters he had written over his life), suspected the scale of it. I myself could not have imagined the number of letters that we would find, or just how hard they would be to transcribe; or all the contractual and legal problems we would encounter that have slowed us down. Had I done so, I might well have hesitated.
In an interview he gave recently on NPR, Krasznahorkai referred to Hungarian as a “far-away” language. I love that description, because it encompasses all of the vast distances inherent within Hungarian itself: all of the loan words from so many variegated sources, the long journey it made to Europe from the Ural mountains (certain scholars argue that the starting point of this journey was to the west of these mountains—based on scientific analyses of bee pollen—while others cling to a more “eastern” origin). In Seiobo, this “fragile, far-away” language becomes the world’s echo-chamber, even if in the end it is simultaneously buried and expressed through its own fragments of words.
I think what’s happening in the work of some people, and I hope in my own, but certainly when you go back to people like Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard, is that there is an awareness of the problem of being interested in suffering. There is a self-awareness of the tendency, that this is the only thing we’re interested in. Remember Beckett’s Endgame where Hamm says, “Can there be misery . . . loftier than mine?” And Clov says to himself: “Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you.” So, it’s very funny when Beckett already ironizes the whole process. What I’m doing in The Server is actually, provocatively, to launch an attack on the focus on suffering, even though I myself am not free from that in any way.
What happens when no-one mans the border—when the sanctity of literature becomes a matter of indifference? There can no longer be an “outlaw” avant-gardism, because there is no law to transgress. But nor is there a literature self-certain enough, secure enough, to arrest, domesticate or tame its “outside.” The authority of literature has vanished. The house of literature is deserted. Granted, that house is haunted.
In a Google-ready era, a book like David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview does not necessarily need to exist. It collects the actual last interview Wallace conducted, which was with the Wall Street Journal in May of 2008 before he committed suicide on September 12 of the same year, along with five other interviews. All of these are readily available online with just a modicum of digging, and it seems that anyone who might be interested enough in Wallace to buy a book of interviews with him would have already read most of these by now. So why does this book exist, and should you buy it?
The thirteen stories in The Fun Parts impart sharp lessons. Lipsyte’s latest book, after novels Home Land and The Ask, marks a return to the short form in which he began, recalling the already classic Venus Drive. And like that collection, The Fun Parts showcases stories whose sheer telling—their force; their rhythmic momentum—tends to matter more than what they tell of. So if there is no “niceness” to be found in The Fun Parts (a book every bit as abrasive as The Ask) this could be because, stylistically, storytelling calls more clearly for cruelty. In this sense, Lipsyte’s luckless characters are casualties of his craft—and are all the funnier for it.
Poetry’s fundamental a-loudness and the accompanying interpretation that the process of reading aloud necessitates—reading-as-rendering—sets the stage and cranks up the volume for the pieces in Percussion Grenade. McSweeney continually returns to the interface between the sonic and the visual, the textual and the performative, as the site that questions as it constructs: “Is it ok to live inside this percussion grenade” the book’s title poem begins, and continues . . .
So where do the biographical details of Coetzee become important, and when do the stories become so strong that they start to tell themselves through Coetzee? Often it is both at the same time. Kannemeyer’s achievement is to chart the way that Coetzee’s creativity swings back and forth between his own storehouse of personal history and the entire discourse of literature, history, politics, and culture that he has mastered through his own passionate reading and subsequent academic career.
The central theme, the nearly obsessive thread connecting the poems collected in Ko Un’s First Person Sorrowful, is the question of what it means to be a man caught in a linear temporal universe where it is impossible to ever really leave the past behind.
The British-Russian writer William Gerhardie, a glittering literary presence in pre-war England, is not exactly forgotten. But he has the biography and checkered publishing history of someone who gets “rediscovered” once a decade or so. This may be Gerhardie’s latest turn, as Melville House is bringing back into print the novels Futility and The Polyglots. Whatever the narrative you might adopt, Gerhardie deserves attention and is a worthy addition to Melville’s Neversink Library of out-of-print classics.
How describe the vision of the Swedish fantasist Karin Tidbeck, as distilled in her American debut Jagannath, which culls 13 of her fictions? Each presents a nightmare, yet each feels strangely justified, in a perfect, painful balance. Yet the critic’s knocked sideways, flailing for any handhold he can find. One might be H.P. Lovecraft.
In Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra’s new novel, Ways of Going Home, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia for the 1980s, the years in which the double narrators (as well as the author) were children growing up in bland suburbs. I am just a few years younger than the author and grew up in a similarly bland suburb; among my peers I have noticed a similar nostalgia for the music, styles, toys of the period. The difference is, in Chile those same years of childhood were also a period of atrocity. They coincided with the middle of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, which began with an overthrow of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. During this time, thousands were disappeared, murdered, and tortured.
Readers who go into Laird Hunt’s Kind One looking for kindly characters are presented with an array of unlikely candidates. It simply cannot be Linus Lancaster, a farmer with delusions of grandeur (his farm is named Paradise) who beats his wife Ginny, rapes his young female slaves Cleome and Zinnia, and whips Alcofibras, the slave who tends his garden, to death. Yet, Lancaster has his own problems: on page 84 he is dead of a pig-sticker in the back of the neck, which, after all of his high-handed carrying on, feels like a kindness.
Unless he is John Keats, a poet’s letters seldom stand alone as literature. They might hold our attention as gossip (Lord Byron), psychiatric case study (Robert Lowell) or the after-hours thoughts of a combative poet-critic (Yvor Winters), but few could be pleasurably read without the additional scaffolding provided by the poetry. Even Marianne Moore, one of the last century’s great poets, was on most occasions a rather business-like writer of letters. In contrast, a reader unfamiliar with Keats’ verse can find his letters immensely readable with only occasional reference to the poems. This prompts a question: What makes a good letter?
Pierre Michon, in spite of having won an array of French literary prizes, has remained little known in English. His Small Lives (1984) is one of the few undisputed masterpieces of modern French literature. A series of sketches of the inhabitants of a village, distantly reminiscent of the rural sketches of Ivan Turgenev or William Faulkner, yet hemmed by a style both precise and elaborate, the pieces in Small Lives address the forging of an artistic consciousness in a rural milieu. This tension returns in the more concise prose of The Eleven, awarded the Prize of the French Academy on its publication in 2009, and now published in English by Archipelago.
When Farah Field announced the opening of Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop (Field and Jared White’s pop-up shop the only all-poetry bookshop in New York City) two Februarys ago on her blog Adultish, she wrote this: It is kind of an anti-capitalistic act because no one could ever pay what poetry is worth. This sentiment is exactly true ofher new book, Wolf and Pilot, too. There’s no way to pay what Field’s poems are potentially worth. If you could, it would be in the currency of jewels fallen from their settings, taped and re-taped paper doll outfits, brass buttons from your favorite coat, and coins from unidentifiable countries. This book is at once a fairy tale you may recognize from long ago, an alternate universe eerily similar to our own, and a history of four sisters written in their chaotic, collective voices.
There is something immediately seductive about Sjón’s The Whispering Muse. The narrator, a peculiar old Icelander named Valdimar Haraldsson, receives a letter from an old acquaintance, inviting him on a sea voyage aboard the newly launched merchant ship, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen. Haraldsson, who has long been cooped up in his shabby Copenhagen apartment, reacts emotionally to the unexpected gesture: “my heart was filled with unfeigned joy, joy at being invited on such an adventure . . . joy that the buds looked promising on the boughs of the apple trees in the tiny patch of garden that belonged to my foolish neighbor Widow Lauritzen.” Something about this abrupt transition from a generous, lively description of apple boughs to a petty observation about a vexing neighbor is at once funny and provocative. This is not only characteristic of the novel’s voice; it is a subtle premonition of the narrative dynamic structuring The Whispering Muse.
What happens to all the old, new things after two or three new, new things replace them? And what of the ideas and memories of which they are ultimately extensions and souvenirs? This is one of the larger questions, really, that Ander Monson poses in his most recent collection of poems, The Available World, though he does so in varying shades of subtly and explicitness. His discontent with the ever expanding, ever forward-moving present manifests as an ambivalent nostalgia, part hostility, part intrigue. “Everything here is swaddled in static,” he writes. This metaphor could serve as the descriptive core of the collection.
Oloomi’s novel is not about consuming action or plot. At least, not entirely. Much like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the book bottles a paranoiac atmosphere. In Pynchon’s novel, paranoia seeps into the protagonist’s consciousness through an investigation of the narrative reality occurring around her. It forces a reader to wonder about the correspondence between two worlds—one of perception and one of reality. In the formalist jargon, The Crying of Lot 49 inquires about the relationship between fabula (narrative event) and syuzhet (a narrator’s perception). But Oloomi’s novel lodges us in the head of a paranoid lunatic and thus uncorks for us a different set of concerns.
Plath’s ghost haunts the pages of Scanlon’s book, a non-linear narrative that hinges around Lizzie, a bright liberal arts student from Barnard and aspiring actress who has much in common with Plath’s protagonist. We’ve fast-forwarded forty years to New York in the early 90’s’; like Esther before her, Lizzie has come from the provinces to make a name for herself in the Big Apple and she, too, grieves for a lost parent, her mother who died when she was a young girl. These personal losses, coupled with the mounting disillusionments over career and relationship failures, drive both women to the mental ward. There, the similarities end.
You can tell that Viola di Grado has a unique voice from the first line of her novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool: “One day it was still December.” If this line seems a little puzzling, the next one puts things in (ironic) perspective: “Especially in Leeds, where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.” After having read this book, I hope I’ll never go to Leeds. Its constant grayness, cold rainy days, bland working class neighborhoods with dirty streets peppered with used condoms and vomit, which are depicted over and over throughout the novel, have made a lasting impression.
This is a strange, engaging book that does not offer up its material to the reader without a struggle. Much of its strength comes from its juxtapositions, not only of idea with idea, word with word, phrase with phrase, but also text with image, image or text with white space, and in a larger sense, the abstract with the concrete. Doppelt is interested in how language intersects with itself and how that interaction can be manipulated. Her work is easily described as surreal, but more usefully characterized as a process of peeling away the layers of an object or phenomenon to get at the objects and phenomena underneath. She is not satisfied to see a mushroom, a moon, a worm.
What distinguishes Middle C from his other fiction, then, is not the that Gass’ protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, spends nearly a lifetime deflecting the dangers and horrors of life itself, but the ways in which the novel’s narrative voice buffers him from the responsibilities of being a protagonist at all. In this, the tale of his life, stretching from the Blitz of London while he’s a baby to his present professional crisis at a small college in rural Ohio, Skizzen rarely acts decisively. Indeed, those few moments he does so are mired in as much duplicity as self-doubt that Skizzen himself rarely knows his motivation, and pursues their consequences with fear and dread.
Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ambition in bringing Leskov and all his stylistic peculiarities into English is impressive, and all the more so for how it contrasts with their previous role as translators of Russian. The pair are justly famous for their renditions of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists; their editions of Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment have become the standard versions, and have won consistent and well-earned praise. The importance of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, however, has never been questioned, nor really has the belief that a new translation could illuminate aspects of the writer’s style that earlier efforts had somehow obscured.
A completely arbitrary way to structure a book review, yes, but then we’re dealing here with a collage novel, one that I won’t insult by calling its structure “random” but which is nevertheless propelled more by the narrator’s fleeting sensations and thematic juxtapositions than by any real plot. And so in that spirit, these ten sentences: they provoked, caused me to pause, made me reread. And often enough, made me feel so embedded in Renata Adler’s state of mind that I became convinced she had access to mine.
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