If you were to ask me what comes next, the best answer is that I do not know. But if I try to reason through the question, I tend to divide the problem into parts. On the one hand, one of these parts, the personal facet, is what’s to come after my present literature. Or, rather, what will I be writing, what will the next books be like, or even more importantly, how will I relate to them. The other facet is related to literature in general, what comes after the present, or what comes after the “great crisis” of literature, presumably imminent; a great crisis with several ways of making its symptoms felt—that’s what brings us here today—but that, perhaps, is not actually a great crisis.
Colonies and Twelve Stations showcase aspects of Różycki that were not as evident in the previous volume, particularly his technical prowess, his wicked humor, and his ability to deliver on an epic scale. The Forgotten Keys does an admirable job of introduction, but a sampling of poems from numerous collections, regardless of how well-constructed, is not the same as experiencing a work as it was meant to cohere. Colonies and Twelve Stations are complete manuscripts, not a patchwork from diverse sources. The difference is astounding.
When Elfriede Jelinek practiced the piano as a student, the apartment windows stood wide open. It was noisy outside. Every few minutes in the 8th District a streetcar rumbled down the slope of Laudongasse. The building across the street housed a dubious cafe, where men came and went for the purpose of making the acquaintance of ladies via table telephones. An exhaust fan blew smoke and kitchen fumes out into the street, and the odors drifted up to the piano student on the second floor. In the evening, clusters of people moved past her building, laughing and making noise as they headed for the revue theatre at the next intersection. But the windows were not closed—the neighbors in the apartment building and the people on the street were supposed to hear the child making music. Elfriede’s mother wanted it that way, referring to it as “giving a concert.” And so the girl sat inside at the grand piano, hour after hour, playing against the sounds from outside.
“I can’t stand still,” Topol claimed in a book of interviews of the same title, and his restlessness lends speed and urgency to the surface of his writing. His texts are a series of flashes before a vague storm; his characters spend their lives reeling from their thrownness in the world. Born in 1962, Topol belongs to a generation that grew up with little experience of stability, and the frustration, absurdity, and darkly comic sadness that come with such a childhood infuse nearly all of his work.
U.R. Ananthamurthy is arguably the Kannada language’s most important twentieth-century author and certainly one of the preeminent literary figures in India in his time. His nomination for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize brought him to the attention of a Western audience. (Even English translations of his fiction have historically been confined to Indian printing presses.) Born into the highest rung of the caste system, Ananthamurthy has produced a body of work that has established his reputation as a scathing critic of his own community, its biases and superstitions. Yet he has elected to document them in his own vernacular, the South Indian language Kannada—forgoing the ideological power and prestige of English in India.
I have personally been against what we call “merchants of despair.” Despair is a merchandise here in Morocco. There is a golden rule that has long nourished my thought, my reflection and my action, that of the Italian Antonio Gramsci. He spoke of the pessimism of reason and the optimism of the will. Despair serves no purpose for me. Even if I sometimes become disheartened, I cannot lower my arms because my word carries a certain weight in Morocco. Consequently, I want to keep a little window open for hope. What exactly is that open window for hope? It is the optimism of the will that allows movement and change even when conditions are difficult.
To write a good poem is very difficult. I write it as I can and not as I like. It’s like the man coming down a staircase with everybody at the bottom waiting for him, and halfway down he slips and falls. He gets to the bottom and everyone’s laughing. He gets up in a dignified way, brushes off his clothes, and says, “each of us comes down as best we can. We each do what we can.”
Marcom’s new novel, A Brief History of Yes, is less overtly transgressive than its predecessor—less centered on sex than on solitude; on the loneliness left after love is over. Previously, Marcom scaled the peak of what two people can do together, whereas now she digs into what drives them apart. So if Mirror expressed ecstasy, Yes explores ecstasy’s ebbing. In this sense the texts are twinned, like the rise and fall of a single cycle. Both books concentrate closely on a couple; a woman and a man. In both, the narration is weighted towards, or focalized through, the woman’s emotions and sensations. And each of these couples acquires an almost archetypal quality.
The Detour is much more than a safe rehash of a proven formula. Instead it takes The Twin’s most successful qualities and applies them to new territory. While The Twin depicts a man rooted in a family that has oppressed him his whole life, the protagonist of The Detour is a Dutch woman who has just severed all ties with her former life and moved to an isolated cottage on the coast of Wales. She does not give anyone her real name, but calls herself Emilie. We learn a few details: she has been involved in an affair, a husband is left behind at home.
At the beginning of Leonid Tsypkin’s novella “The Bridge Over the Neroch,” the narrator, riding in a Moscow subway car, experiences a moment of remembrance that is almost an exact inversion of the one precipitated by Proust’s madeleine; down in the metro, smelling the warm July air of 1972, the speaker finds himself unable to recall the specifics of his childhood—instead of the expected flood of images and associations, he sees only a blur of indistinct forms. “What is it?” he asks, “my forgetfulness or the forgetfulness of history? And will my neighbors in the subway train of 1972 and I disappear in exactly the same way from the memory of the schoolboy in a nylon jacket sitting across from me now?” What follows—a long and discursive family biography tracing the discontinuous course of a Russian Jewish family in the midst of the twentieth century—is an attempt to describe how those disappearances occur and reoccur over time, and how they may occasionally become dispersed throughout many minds.
Leonard Tsypkin’s short and frenetic Summer in Baden-Baden is a meditation on the morphic and self-defining nature of memory. Tsypkin portrays the sometimes charming but mostly distressing European travels of Fyodor (Fedya) Dostoyevsky and his second wife, Anna Grigor’yevna, and their descent into a woeful situation brought about by the famous author’s gambling habit. Dostoyevsky’s deep-seated insecurities and epileptic seizures are the specters that haunt him throughout the book. In a parallel portion of the story Tsypkin also recounts his own travels to Leningrad to visit the former locations, real and fictional, inhabited by the literary giant.
Mario Santiago Papasquiaro was no stranger to this kind of manifesto, and his announced the coming of the Infrarealists. “The way in to matter,” they proclaim, “is ultimately the way in to adventure: the poem is a journey and the poet is a hero revealing heroes.” And so, in Papasquiaro’s long poem, “Advice From 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic,” we see a manifesto fully realized, a hero doing the work, revealing to us all the heroes, and in the process, redefining what a hero can be, redefining what a poetry can be, redefining, even, what it means to be . . .
Salter has been described as a master of sentences, but what might be more accurate is his mastery of word choice and metaphor. His sentences aren’t the sinuous architectural behemoths of James or William H. Gass. Many are terse, quick jabs: “The kiss was light and ardent,” or, describing a writer’s opulent house, “It was like a small family hotel, a hotel in the west.” Early on, Salter describes Beatrice, Philip’s mother, and her thoughts on the husband who left when their son was two: “She had less curiosity about the two wives that followed, they represented only something pitiable.” And when Bowman upbraids his wife about not cleaning their apartment, Salter writes, “She disdained to answer.”
Faulkner’s literary spirit haunts the dusty, cobweb-covered rooms in Pamuk’s eponymous silent house. When the wind blows through the chinks in the masonry, we can even hear the skeletons of the Bundrens’, Compsons’, Snopes’, and Sartoris’ Turkish cousins rattling in the Darvinoğlu’s closets in their decrepit ancestral villa. Cennethisar, once a sleepy fishing village under the Ottomans, a remote outpost from Istanbul, by 1980, had been transformed into a luxurious beach resort for the nation’s Westernized capitalist elite. To tell the tale, Pamuk employs Faulkner’s technique of alternating stream-of-consciousness narratives of the novel’s main protagonists, here, five members of the official and unofficial lines of the Darvinolğu family tree: Recep, Fatma, Faruk, Metin, and Hasan. Their conflicting narrative views provide windows into the violent political tensions that had once again erupted among the different social and economic strata of Turkish society on the eve of the 1980 coup.
For the casual reader of Latin American poetry, what a pleasure and privilege it is to be introduced to a major poet so properly. That many of us need introduction to Mario Benedetti is itself worthy of comment, considering the long shadow he casts outside the English-speaking world. The august Uruguayan writer published more than 80 books, was translated into upwards of 20 languages, and is considered among the foremost Spanish-language authors of the 20th century. And yet, perhaps partly due to his leftist politics, combined with many publishers’ self-reinforcing assumption that U.S. audiences have imaginative room only for a few writers from a region or language, Benedetti’s work has been little published or recognized here. This is the grave oversight that translator Louise B. Popkin seeks to correct with Witness.
The Iraqi Christ is topical only in the sense of the earliest known newsflashes: the cracked screeds, battlefield reports, and shipwreck stories by the likes of Archilochus, for instance, which remain with us in the form of fragments. These were news before they were ever classical references—indigestible gobbets of event, borne on and on by the flow of telling. Blasim dramatizes this process on a tighter scale: information floats and recurs, tales snap off without us knowing who the teller ever was, like the “auto-destruct” stories of Roberto Bolaño. The violence is shocking, but the most disturbing implications of this collection concern literature itself. The Iraqi Christ interrogates the “literary response” to those events which begin as happenstance and end as history. This interrogation leaves the “literary response” battered, fractured, and, in some cases, entirely invisible.
Yezzi’s poems often hint at oblique narratives. Like a detective, he asks a lot of questions. He’s like a mathematician working an inverse problem, deducing inner dramas from externals. His spirit, however, is sympathetic, not forensic. A friend used to say when someone started complaining about another’s failing, “Be gentle. He’s just a human.” Yezzi’s poems, even those devoted to life’s schmucks, never forget that.
“Tulsa is heaven, Tulsa is Italy,” says Chandler on Friends to a boss who has just assigned him to their office there. “Please don’t make me go there.” Lytal, an Oklahoman talking to New Yorkers like a person in Prague persuading tourists to pay top dollar for cheap pilsner, does little to elaborate upon this vision of his native city. Jim recalls “[t]he day I bought Adrienne her gun—I’m still so proud of how crazy that was”—of course, because Texans and Oklahomans have to be packing heat if the mild-mannered Manhattanite is to derive any satisfaction from the thing.
There is something of water and watercolors about Christine Schutt’s Prosperous Friends. Schutt’s latest is a collection of impressionistic, almost abstract sketches in a palette of dark, bruise colors. Her subjects are alienation, loneliness, and failure.
Say you watch Korean movies. Often, outside the peninsula itself, this means you’ve gotten into the murderous grotesquerie of Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” or Joon-ho Bong’s simultaneously goofy and solemn political allegory of a monster mash The Host, or any amount of Ki-duk Kim’s vast, high-profile (and as some fans admit, uneven) output. But mention the name of Sangsoo Hong to cinephiles themselves from Korea, and they’ll react like you’ve uttered the secret codeword of Korean film enthusiasm. “How have you seen Sangsoo Hong’s movies?” they might ask, expressing more than faint disbelief. “You really like them?” I’ve made friends instantly by dropping Hong’s name, and won free semesters of Korean language classes by writing about him for essay contests. Even the Koreans ambivalent to Hong’s work I’ve met still seem at least casually conversant in it, only one of several reasons critics so often describe the director as South Korea’s Woody Allen.
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