Indeed, those of us who have read deeply into Purdy’s fiction quickly enough realize that what could be called its idiosyncrasies are in fact its greatest strengths and that Purdy didn’t merely write one or two individually adventurous, original stories or novels but instead created a comprehensively original body of work, each separate work providing a variation on Purdy’s themes and methods but also exemplifying his larger achievement. Purdy wrote few, if any, really weak books.
With any luck, 2013 should mark a watershed moment for Korean literature in English translation, thanks to the ten volumes being released by Dalkey Archive. They arrive with the support of the indefatigable LTI Korea, an institution whose existence—and budget—is frequently the cause of teeth-gnashing envy on the part of translators from less well-supported languages. All told, these ten—to be followed by ten more, currently scheduled for release in spring 2014—do an admirable job of showcasing the great range of talent to be found among modern Korean literature, which, in its contemporary iteration, seems to me to be one of the world’s most exciting, dynamic, and consistently impressive.
Since we appeared together last spring on the Left Forum panel on the future of experimental literary publishing, I have been trying to state clearly my intuition that our discussions about “the future of the book” have been missing something crucial. After reading George Dyson’s extraordinary history of the making of the first high-speed, random-access storage matrix computer, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, I think I am closer to being able to state what that crucial something is.
Shahid’s poems are never simple but elaborate artifices of loss and grief, papered over with passion, rendered in a signature style that is often, unexpectedly, funny, proving what 18th-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson described in his work Logic, Metaphysics and the Natural Sociability of Mankind: “Some of the things that happen to us appear delightful, fitting, glorious, and honorable to us, while others seem vile and contemptible, and we may discern yet another reflexive sense: a sense of things that are ridiculous or apt to cause laughter, that is, when a thing arouses contrary sensations at one and the same time . . . we are moved to laughter by those which exhibit some splendid spectacle at the same time as a contradictory image of something cheap, lowly, and contemptible. This sense is very beneficial, whether in increasing the pleasure of conversation or in correcting men’s morals.”
Kafka has written a parable in which he describes a long and arduous journey. At one point he stops because he sees a high wall in front of him. Realizing that the wall is his own forehead, he has moved to the limits of his own thought. My own artistic and intellectual ambition is to blast my way through this wall, the front of my skull. I feel humiliated by the limitations imposed by my own cranium.
I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans—a “writer’s prose” as Gordon Lish once described it. Mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. This year in reviews of Prosperous Friends, I was bumped up from being a writer’s writer to being a writer’s writer’s writer; either way, it cautions challenging prose ahead. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.
Some 12 years ago I was teaching this book on September 11, and was preparing to go to class when I learned of what had happened in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania. Should I cancel class? Should I devote the class to talking with my students about the tragedy? Should I just teach it as though nothing had happened? And then it struck me: this is the perfect text for this day, a text about how people can turn to stories to help them cope with horror. Of course, I did talk with my class about 9/11, but we then moved on to Boccaccio with a renewed sense of just how important literature can be at such moments.
My name is Domingo. Actually, Domingo is my password here in the laboratory. Just by uttering this name—which I chose—I can enter bedrooms and bathrooms, I can make phone calls, obtain food and drink, access the temperature, hygiene, and communication systems, send and receive email, carry out Internet transactions to purchase any supplies we need. Without it, I’d be trapped in my room. If I were to suffer a psycholinguistic disruption, or if the effect of some microorganism rendered me voiceless, I’d just die of starvation.
Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa opens his 1998 novel The African Shore with a Moroccan shepherd boy obliviously meandering by reminders of Tangier’s history. First, he passes by a ruined Spanish boating club and then the large abandoned Perdicaris house—the one-time home of the unofficial head of the international community in Tangier, and the site of his kidnapping in 1904 by a local tribal sheik that almost provoked war. Set against this backdrop, The African Shore presents the story of another encounter between a foreigner and a local in Tangier.
It’s a polite commonplace among scholars to assert, as G. H. McWilliam does in the introduction to his 1972 translation of The Decameron for Penguin Classics, that the work’s 14th-century author, Giovanni Boccaccio, would be immortal even if he’d never written it. Since McWilliam’s translation—solid as a block of Carrara marble—had an enormous distribution in schools throughout the Western hemisphere, it’s likely true that countless students came away from their one exposure to The Decameron thinking it’s somehow comparable to such of the author’s other works as Il Filostrato, or On the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods. Such a notion is ridiculous, of course.
Janice Lee’s latest novel, Damnation, may initially present itself as a work of “critical theory” in disguise. A rumination upon cinema—specifically, the collaborations of director Bela Tarr and novelist László Krasznahorkai—the book is more broadly concerned with the experience, in all its torpor and extravagance, of watching films. Though perhaps it is more accurate to say that Lee has performed here a sort of clinical study, demonstrating with a delicate obsessiveness the procedures of a self-medication whose prescription is obsessive film-watching. In actuality, however, this is a book that turns several faces to the reader.
It wasn’t until midway through the second chapter—fifteen pages that nimbly narrate Roth’s childhood and life before publication—that I realized I was reading a biography. You’ll forgive me for thinking otherwise before then. The marketing materials, again, are no help. “This is not a biography,” the blurb intones, “but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” Pierpont studiously avoids calling the work a biography, noting only that “biography is important to some periods [of Roth’s career] more than to others and is used primarily as illumination.” But a biography it is, albeit one written with a striking lack of research.
From 1930 to 1939, a young man named Daniel Fagunwa worked as a teacher at the St. Andrew’s school in the town of Oyo in western Nigeria. When the education ministry of the British colony announced a literary contest, he entered a short novel called Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale, literally “The Brave Hunter in the Forest of Four Hundred Spirits.” The first novel to be written in the Yoruba language, the book was published by The Church Missionary Society Press in 1938, when Fagunwa was around thirty-five. One of its early readers was a schoolboy who encountered it in class before his six years of formal education came to end in 1939. His name was Amos Tutuola.
Cărtărescu’s first volume, built around childhood memories and family stories of his protagonist, Mircea, provides vivid descriptions of Bucharest, a beloved city that emerges from a surreal landscape, whose future is uncertain. Yet it also weaves in dreams and memories, obscuring the lines between hallucinations and reality throughout. His prose reflects his work as a poet—his eye for color and texture, his predilection for striking imagery. At length, The Left Wing becomes a wildly imaginative, detailed cosmology, a search for metaphysical truth, an attempt at a religious doctrine that privileges creation and connection among beings and planes of existence.
Simon Leys is likely a name that is unknown to an American audience. He was for me. Not having heard of him forced me to approach The Hall of Uselessness as though it were a debut, even though Leys has been publishing essays and fiction for over forty years. He is based in Australia, where he settled thirty-five years after being born in Brussels as Pierre Ryckmans. Almost half of the essays in The Hall were originally published in either The New York Review of Books or The Monthly (the latter being a magazine in Australia that publishes work on a wide range of topics). And though many of the essays in The Hall are literary-centric, the book manages to cover very diverse terrain.
Whereas Vásquez’s previous books probed the lesser-known dramas of in Colombia’s past, The Sound of Things Falling takes interest in a notorious and relatively recent period in the country’s history: the mayhem of the cartel years of the 1980s and 1990s, a period most Bogotanos would be happy to forget. In those decades, the country was in the grip of Pablo Escobar, whose power was matched by his flamboyant extravagance: the novel opens with the assassination, in 2009, of a hippopotamus, “a male the color of black pearls” that had escaped from the drug kingpin’s defunct private zoo, itself an otherworldly attraction frequented by teenagers playing hooky from school.
With Cannonball, McElroy returns to familiar themes of family relations and criminal/political intrigue, this time in the setting of the Iraq War. As in most McElroy novels, the story begins in the middle, a space between, the still moment at the top of a dive’s arc, “a slowness so divided it might never finish in your mind.” The narrator, Zach, a “slow on the uptake” Army photographer, is dispatched to a basement pool beneath one of Saddam’s liberated palaces in Baghdad.
Ancient History’s most unusual and distinctive feature may be its fusion of scientific discourse and the textures of American life. Concepts from geometry, vector-field theory, and anthropology animate a narrative exploration of friendship between the narrator and his childhood friends Al and Bob, spread over diverse locales and several decades. Dozens of neologisms solidify the register of these conversations, making for a powerfully strange reading experience. Anthroponoia, Americanolysis, ex-spatial-vectoral power, anthrotoponymy, Vectoral Dystrophy . . . if it weren’t for McElroy’s bravura, this book would be a failure.
Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli has become known for her lucid, supremely accessible work which lends itself well to translation. The themes which unify her work seem to center around the process of reimagining the domestic. In her writing, housework, childcare, traditionally feminine crafts (such as weaving), and relationships with men are topics that she inverts completely from cliché through playfulness and humor. My Poems Won’t Change The World was translated by a wide group of American poets: Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, Geoffrey Brock, J. D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, and editor Gini Alhadeff—who spent the last five years working closely with the author on this volume—all contribute versions to this gathering of her work. It is a tribute to Cavalli that her voice transmits with such clarity, undampened by those of the notable poets who have rendered her work into English.
The latest volume, culled by the editors from newspapers, magazines and journals, spans Thomas’ sixty-year writing career. The earliest poem collected dates from 1939; the latest, from his final years and after. Almost absent from these fugitive pieces are Thomas’ signature arguments with God. With Geoffrey Hill, he may be the great embattled poet of faith from late in the twentieth century, but a reader new to Thomas would hardly know that from the Uncollected Poems. What to make of this is a puzzle.
There are several reasons why particular poems by a major American figure would linger in uncollected limbo for decades. In Poems Retrieved, a reissued Frank O’Hara collection edited by Don Allen, a wider audience is seeing the light of these works some 47 years post mortem.
What does it mean to be an Indian writer? Does it mean you’re writing in Hindi? Or Tamil? Or Bengali? Or any of the many dozens of languages that have produced high literary achievement? Does it mean you’ve grown up in India (like Rushdie, or Kipling), or live in India (like Arundhati Roy, or Ruth Prawar Jhabvala), or are of Indian descent (like Naipaul or Jhumpala Lahiri)? The question gets complicated very quickly, and fraught with competing interests. More to the point here, how does one identify oneself as an Indian writer, and then negotiate those choppy waters? Identity figures large in Life and Times of Mr. S, Narayanan’s second collection of poetry, after Universal Beach in 2006—but here the issue is less of a single identity than of shifting identities and of what is encountered in the sometimes numinous, sometimes agonizing spaces between selves.
While I understand the reasons for his fidelity, I find it a shame that Franzen didn’t intervene more through his translation. One of the most puzzling aspects of the project as a whole is why Franzen, who has repeatedly expressed disapproval of “difficult” writing, should want people to read Karl Kraus, whose style he variously describes as “deliberately hard,” “dense and intricately coded,” “an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out.” My hope was that Franzen would use his translation to break down that barrier, providing us with an elucidating text that helps us to understand what Kraus was getting at. While the footnotes are helpful for understanding the historical context, particularly the scholar Paul Reitter’s excellent contributions, they rarely help us to get closer to Kraus’s meaning. The translation itself does nothing of the sort.
Especially exquisite is this new translation of Rimbaud the Son, whose conception of the famed young poet Arthur Rimbaud is decidedly Copernican: just as his Masters and Servants views five great artists from the perspectives of those in their orbits, so Rimbaud the Son describes not so much the poet as the gravitational effects he has on the lesser figures who revolve around him.
• Issue 32: Summer 2013
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