Books are forged from other books. The verb here is crucial, for if we use it in its full literal and etymological sense then the image of the smithy, of heat and flame, of the constant hammering and refining of material is forever with us. Yet the material is nothing but elusive. It cannot be grasped but perhaps, in the ultimate analysis, only possessed. It may be phenomena, it may be language, or it may be language as a vessel—if only a leaky vessel—for phenomena.
“It’s good to be weird and old,” proclaims Tiu, the failed author and sex-crazed vagrant of Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer. An experimental writer of poetry, plays, novels and her own genre of avant-garde pornography, which she called “pornochic,” Hilst was sixty-one when she published her masterpiece Cartas de om Sedutor—brought out earlier this year as Letters from a Seducer, in a translation by John Keene. From age thirty-six until her death in 2004, Hilst lived in semi-seclusion on a rural farm sixty miles north of São Paulo, devoting herself to her writing and to the care of some hundred adopted dogs. It was there that she produced all of her fictional works and conducted her EVP experiments (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), making tape recordings of radio static in which she purported to hear the voices of the dead. She published her first collection of poetry at age twenty, but it would be twenty more years before her first novel, Fluxo-Floema, appeared in print. As a younger woman, she had been a glamorous, jet-setting socialite, as well as a celebrated poet and playwright. But now she is better remembered in her native Brazil as both an old, exceptionally weird recluse and one of the most important Portuguese-language novelists of the last century.
“It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark.” Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle, and Woody Harrelson as Martin “Marty” Hart, the show stands among The Wire and The Sopranos as one of HBO’s most powerful realist dramas. True Detective’s writer and producer Nick Pizzolatto is a Louisiana-born novelist, author of Galveston, many short stories, and has screenwriter credits that include episodes of the American adaptation of The Killing. What sets the show apart from its contemporaries is Pizzolatto’s use of deeply philosophical and literary references, often obscure, to drive and complicate the otherwise simple plot of two detectives pursuing a child abuse ring.
Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that “you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody.” There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innovation and impotence, between Representation and the Irreducible. In Gass’ first collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, we see the nigh-ripened fruits of what he “would later find was an iron law of composition . . . the exasperatingly slow search for the words I had already written for the words which were to come, and the necessity for continuous revision.” Sentences like “His moist mouth gaped” from “Icicles” or “I have met with some mischance, wings withering, as Plato says obscurely, and across the breadth of Ohio, like heaven on a table, I’ve fallen as far as the poet, to the sixth sort of body, this house in B, in Indiana, with its blue and gray bewitching windows, holy magical insides,” from the collection’s titular story, betray a hyper-sensitivity and delicacy, so much so that we could easily imagine the meticulous particularity with which he toiled over its language and rhythm, and the anguish over the mere thought of its subsequent effects on a reader’s consciousness.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pain. As I mentioned before somewhere, I felt that if I did not write The Colonel, I would probably end up in a mad house,” he noted in email correspondence last spring.
Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up with. I think during this time and during the next few years, you’ll probably see some quite exciting work.
With Memory Theatre Critchley seeks to deflate the fantasy of the heroic philosophical death, inaugurated by Socrates cheerfully downing his hemlock. Critchley’s philosopher doesn’t run toward his death; he watches it hobble away from him. His philosopher sits in a shed in Holland and eats processed cheese, has rotten teeth, and looks “like a Beckett character.” The serious obsessions of the philosopher are thus brought down to the level of the pathetic, laughable obsessions of the hobbyist, alone in his shed, tinkering with his gnomes. “It was the dream of the perfect death, the Socratic death, the philosophical death: absolute self-coincidence at the point of disappearance. Autarchy. Autonomy. Authenticity. Autism.”
For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence plays havoc with the lives of ordinary people. There is no conventional plot, no obvious hero or heroine. In fact, the closest we come to a protagonist dies as a baby in the very first sentence—”The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave”—only to have life breathed back into her later in the book. That child then grows up to live, in Galicia, in Vienna, in Moscow, in Berlin, through a catalogue of 20th-century horrors. We follow her sometimes, though sometimes we drift far away from her, wondering, while in the minds and experiences of other characters, whether she’s still there at all.
Look, let’s just get the customer service aspect of this review out of the way first thing: Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio is worth your time and book-buying dollars. It’s D’Ambrosio’s fourth book and second essay collection, and, like everything else he’s published, it’s sensitively perceived and astonishingly well written, and the biggest complaint one can make is that there’s not a new collection of his writing to buy on an annual basis.
Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that the detached language in these two linked novellas, published together in one edition and rendered into deft English by the immensely talented Ann Goldstein, would create a corresponding sense of detachment in the reader. Instead, the story elicits the startled awareness that we, as readers, are participating in a strangely intimate and distinctly literary experience.
Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses “[d]eep excavations” to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a young writer and of the poet she has translated, Gilberto Owen. Owen, a Mexican poet active from the 1920s through his death in 1952, served as a diplomat in New York and Philadelphia, settings which play an important role in the novel. Luiselli weaves together four different narratives: the young woman’s past attempts to attract interest in Owen’s work, her current life as a mother in Mexico City, Owen’s formative poetic years in New York City in the 1920s, and his struggle to maintain a relationship with his children, post-divorce, in 1950s Philadelphia.
“The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir.” In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, these are no tales of the exotic Orient; Prakash does not address himself to a readership for whom the word’s strongest connotation is a beturbaned man perched upon a bed of nails. The India of Prakash’s stories is a gritty, rapidly urbanizing place where the price of human life is cruelly low.
In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creative) act, mentoring and funding the next generation of translators, and, through numerous conferences and gatherings, keeping “the interconnectedness of cultures in motion” (to quote Esther Allen).
Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter how far in the future, such as those by the ever-changing Anaïs Nin or the performance-conscious John Cowper Powys. There will be art, craft, judicious editing and selectivity, avoidance, and a shaping of material that’s in turn conscious and unconscious. In deciding what book of Olsen’s to read first I went with what can be summed up in a word, a place that’s an actuality, a memory and an abstraction in his head, and mine—a location that allowed for what he called, in Architectures of Possibility, “determined noticing”—that we share by happenstance: Germany.
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