CONTEXT #23 [Back!]

After an absurdly extended hiatus, Dalkey Archive Press’s tri-ennial quarterly occasional tabloid magazine, CONTEXT is back! For anyone familiar with it, this is great news . . . CONTEXT is consistently interesting, and one of the best ways to discover and learn about “experimental,” “strange,” “innovative” writing. (Quotes b/c all terms of this sort are slippery and inaccurate.) Dalkey Archive is one of the best publishers in the world, consistently bringing out some of the interesting works from around the world. (Which is why a number of their books are always on the BTBA longlist.)

CONTEXT started in the late 90s as a way of promoting a particular sort of aesthetic through longish introductory articles (“Reading AUTHOR X”), excerpts from influential works, short book reviews, articles about international literary scenes, and rants by a one “Anne Burke,” among other features. It’s totally worth spending a day a week browsing through the back issues.

Anyway, you can click here to access all the contents of the new issue in a handy PDF format by selecting each individual article and using the print option and reading them online. Here’s an overview of some of the pieces that caught my eye:

Warren Motte is brilliant, and his essays and books are always fun to read. Montalbetti is published by Dalkey Archive (click here for info on Western) and sounds interesting:

Christine Montalbetti’s books are innovative, compelling, and slyly enticing constructions that provide some of the finest readerly experiences that French fiction currently has to offer. They put on stage a wide variety of characters, situations, and events, yet each book testifies in similar ways to a profound reflection on narrative art, and each pays close attention to the critical dimension of contemporary writing. That this should be the case is logical enough, once one realizes that Montalbetti leads a double life. On the one hand, she is beginning to make her mark as one of the most intriguing young novelists in France; on the other hand, she is a professor of literature at the University of Paris, and the author of a number of important critical and theoretical works that have confirmed her as a scholar of narrative. Insofar as her fiction is concerned, its most salient trait is undoubtedly the manner in which it takes the reader into account. These are generous texts wherein the author invites her reader to inhabit textual space, and to participate in a meditation focusing both upon the book of the future and the future of the book. For my own part, I am persuaded that it is precisely in such texts that the contemporary French novel realizes its potential and seeks to renew itself. From their very first sentences, Montalbetti’s books call upon their readers relentlessly, inveigling us, flattering us, cajoling us, attempting to persuade us that we have a role to play in the process of storytelling.

Pahor’s Necropolis is published by Dalkey Archive (click here for details), and based on the opening of this interview, sounds pretty dark and intriguing:

For a member of the Slovenian minority in Trieste, Central Europe’s history of violence began decades before the Nazi concentration camps, and did not end with the defeat of Fascism in WWII. This is the message of Slovenian writer Boris Pahor, and perhaps this explains his enduring importance and popularity to his countrymen and fellow Europeans both. In his most acclaimed book, Necropolis, Pahor recounts his experience as a “red triangle,” a political prisoner shuttled between four concentrations camps in the last years under Nazi rule. Yet the book is not solely a recollection of his imprisonment; it is an opportunity for a master to meditate on the dramatic events of an entire lifetime, and on their meaning for the present, both personally and historically.

  • “Mere Words, Mere Art — Slovenian Literature: Ten (Plus) Novels”: by Erica Johnson Debeljak

This may be the highlight of the issue. I’m a sucker for lists, especially ones that can serve as a guided introduction to something I’m interesting in, but currently ignorant about.

Literature means different things to different people. For past generations of Slovenians, many of the books in the list below provided flesh to their growing minds and bodies during a time of scarcity and censorship. These novels were as essential to them as food. To the current generation of savvy, traveling, computer-literate Slovenians, and of course to foreign readers as well, these same books are not lifeblood: now they must succeed as mere words, as mere art.

The following is a list of ten Slovenian novels of the twentieth century. The selection, as always in such lists, is subjective. One slight departure is that item ten on the list is not one book but many, a brief sub-survey of significant works that have been published in the post-1991 period and may or may not acquire the towering stature of the others. Time will tell. But the post-independence era of Slovenia, with its new set of fears and neuroses and preoccupations, must be given its due.

What’s especially cool about this list is that a number of the books have been translated and published in English, including Vitomil Zupan’s Minuet for Guitar, which is available from Dalkey Archive, and Drago Jančar’s The Galley Slave, also available from Dalkey Archive.

Shklovsky is flat-out awesome, and anyone interested in writing or criticism or film or art or Russian Formalism or whatever should definitely read him. Dalkey Archive Press publishes a number of his books, including The Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, which is brilliant.

  • “Reading Asaf Schurr’s Motti”: by Todd Hasak-Lowy

People read for the epic story, the one with all those wars fought over and against that possibly mystical two-thousand-year-old backdrop. Israeli writers can be critical, their stories can be ironic, tragic even, so long as they include The Story.

In this regard the book before you disappoints, or, more accurately, disobeys. Take Asaf Schurr’s Motti, change the names of the main characters, switch around another fifty words scattered here and there, and delete, by my count, a single three-sentence stretch (describing a dream of all things), and this novel could be set in any of a thousand cities around the world. Unless I’m way, way off here (or unless you’re one of those readers who thinks absolutely everything is an allegory), I’d say that this book, despite the language and country in which it was written, is not about Israel. It just isn’t. This in itself is noteworthy. The very absence of Israel in this Israeli novel does tell us something about contemporary Israeli culture, but contemplating the presence of this absence only takes us so far. To understand Motti, one must look elsewhere.

So what is Motti about? Plot summary won’t really explain it. There’s a man (Motti), a dog, a friend, an object of affection, an accident, and an extremely difficult (there’s that word again) decision. Even for a short novel, not that much really happens. As such, some readers will dismiss Motti for failing to tell a conventional story (if they didn’t already dismiss it for failing to tell The Story).

But this book most certainly should be understood as a novel, and a novel tapping into one of the genre’s central traditions. Motti is a novel riddled with self-consciousness. Asaf Schurr—or Asaf Schurr as implied author—is everywhere in this book, reflecting on the story being told, interrupting the story no longer being told, and drawing attention to the contrived nature of the project of novel writing as a whole.

Motti is available from Dalkey Archive Press.

  • “Reading Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City”: by Karen Grumberg

Dolly City came out some years ago, and thankfully, Dalkey Archive Press recently reissued it. I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but my friends who have tell me that it’s incredible.

One need not know Hebrew to get a sense of how revolutionary Dolly City is. The prose pummels the reader. Dolly, by turns apathetic and enraged, is articulate and perhaps overly perceptive. “Madness is a predator,” she observes. “Its food is the soul. It takes over the soul as rapidly as our forces occupied Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip in 1967. [. . .] And if a state like the State of Israel can’t control the Arabs in the territories, how can anybody expect me, a private individual, to control the occupied territories inside myself?” (95–96). She explicitly relates the chaos within her to the political mayhem that plagues her environment. Violence reigns in her city. And a strange city it is: dystopic, fantastic, phantasmagoric, nightmarish—Dolly City is unlike any other setting in Hebrew literature. At once Tel Aviv and every other city in the world, Dolly City recalls the alienating metropolis that is by now a familiar setting of modernist writing, at the same time adding terrifying new features to this landscape. It is a city whose inhabitants are not only lonely, anxious, and unfriendly, but also deeply depressed and murderously violent. Dolly’s own aggressive tendencies, which drive her to surreptitiously inject unwitting passersby with morphine, murder a host of German orphans, castrate her psychiatrist, and more, reflect the violence of her city and affect every aspect of her relationships with others, from strangers on the street to her own son. No recognizable ethical or moral code governs Dolly City, and nothing is too sacred to escape the blade of Castel-Bloom’s pen. This is a world where everything has lost its significance—Dachau in Dolly City is just a word on an old plank—so the reader must question everything.

  • “Reading Gerald Murnane”: by Nicholas Birns

I think Barley Patch is the first Australian book Dalkey Archive has published. And based on this description, it sounds 120% like a Dalkey book:

Barley Patch takes as its subject the reasons an author might abandon fiction—or so he thinks—forever. Using the form of an oblique self-interrogation, it begins with the Beckettian question “Must I write?” and proceeds to expand from this small, personal query to fill in the details of a landscape entirely unique in world letters, a chronicle of the images from life and fiction that have endured and mingled in the author’s mind, as well as the details (and details within details) that they contain. As interested, if not more so, in the characters from his books—finished or unfinished—as with the members of his family or his daily life, the narrator lays bare the act of writing and imagining, finally giving us a glimpse of the mythical place where the characters of fiction dwell before they come into existence in books. In the spirit of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, Barley Patch is like no other fiction being written today.

The piece by Nicholas Birns really reinforces this idea:

But in other ways Murnane is the least Australian of writers. Homebody though he may be in real life, in his fiction he has traveled to Hungary and to Paraguay, to Romania and to the grasslands of South Dakota. He is an erudite writer who is massively well read though owing true debts only to a select body of peers: Proust, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Nabokov, Borges, Calvino, Halldor Laxness, and Gyula Illyés. Moreover, like many of these peers, the places mentioned in his fiction do not really correspond to reality, even though they sometimes have names we recognize. Repetition plays a key role in Murnane’s fiction, which is often very abstract and lacking the detailed descriptions and settings we have come to expect in not only traditional but much innovative fiction.

Aglaja Veteranyi (1962–2002) was born in Bucharest to a family of circus artists who toured Europe relentlessly until finally settling in Switzerland. She worked as an actress, performer, and artist as well as a writer, and only published one novel—the searing Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta—during her lifetime, though other books have appeared posthumously. She committed suicide in 2002. The following text was written by her friend, the critic Werner Morlang and spoken at the Neumarkt Theater on February 16, 2002 on the occasion of a memorial tribute.

No, this isn’t meant as an obituary. We always know better in hindsight. Anyone wanting to seize hold of what’s incomprehensible will never be at a loss for explanations and blueprints for analysis. Aglaja’s end seems to point back to a troubled beginning, lack of security, disorder, and early sorrow in abundance, childhood traumas held in check by this “work horse,” as she liked to call herself, making such extreme demands on her vital energy that her unhealed wounds finally burst open, with fatal results. We recall Aglaja’s dark statements about how life itself was just too much and how hard she found it to simply accept, let alone love herself. We recall that indecipherable, abruptly startled look that would show in her eyes now and then, and we reproach ourselves for having paid too little heed to such signs. And then there’s the real sign—her novel and her short prose pieces are everywhere pervaded with jagged passages; we took note of them, no doubt, but not of the actual disasters that generated them. Even in the story of the child stewing in the polenta we merely observed how a circus girl managed to banish one vision of horror through another, thus underestimating or overlooking the twice-experienced fear and the violence she was inflicting on herself through the play of her thoughts.

Dalkey Archive Press recently published Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta in Vincent Kling’s translation.

The Dalkey Archive Press brought Isle of the Dead out recently.

Gerhard Meier was born in 1917 and spent most of his life in the small Swiss town of Niederbipp. He studied building construction for several semesters, but in 1938 went to work in a small lamp factory in Niederbipp, where he rose to the position of designer and manager. He had always wanted to be a writer, but for the next twenty years avoided literature entirely, out of fear it would absorb all his energy. But spending six months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis in 1956–57 made him decide to return to writing. He produced a steady stream of books of poetry and novels that attracted increasing attention and literary prizes, culminating in the Baur and Bindschädler tetralogy (1979–1990), of which Isle of the Dead is the first book. Meier died in 2008 at the age of 91.

This interview took place on July 29, 1993, and was originally published in German in Das dunkle Fest des Lebens: Amrainer Gespräche (Zytglogge, 2001).

WERNER MORLANG: In Isle of the Dead, it wasn’t the stroll through Olten, or the teaming up of Baur and Bindschädler that was the starting point—you were looking for a vehicle that could elevate the material you chose, weren’t you?

GERHARD MEIER: The important thing was this world of Amrain, which is populated, even by myself, and there of course I myself was a model to a considerable extent. Baur and Bindschädler are two invented figures who stroll through Olten, and in doing so bring Amrain to life. Through their conversation, through their talking, I could enter into the history of certain families from Amrain and also into the history of my own family, the history of my own life. And this human cosmos—for heaven’s sake, it sounds rather pretentious—which includes the natural world, the animal world, the plant world, and the world of things, all this I tried to capture through the conversation of the two old veterans.

  • And not to bring home the point too hard or anything, but following on the themes of death and suicide that lace this issue of CONTEXT, the final piece I want to point out is Roland Topor’s 100 Good Reasons to Kill Myself Right Now, (translated by TP favorite Edward Gauvin), which, to anyone who worked at or knows Dalkey Archive is such a perfect Dalkey Archive piece. Here’s a brief excerpt:

1) Best way to make sure I’m not dead already.

2) It’ll throw off the last census.

[. . .]

11) To get out of voting.

12) An infallible cure for baldness.

13) To make a fresh start!

14) Death ennobles: knighthood at last!

15) I’d feel less alone.

[. . .]

32) Euthanasia wasn’t made for dogs.

33) I’ll have the last word.

34) 67% of French people support the death penalty.

35) ’Cause it’s a good way to quit smoking.

[. . .]

90) Because weather forecasts let me down.

91) So others will follow my example.

92) To start a revolution.

[. . .]

100) Because I’ve got 1,000 good reasons to hate myself.

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