THE BOOKS I HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN, OR IN LIEU OF A PLOT by Madeleine LaRue
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I have an embarrassing inability to remember plots. It took me three readings of The Brothers Karamazov just to be able to remember beyond a few weeks who had actually killed Fyodor Pavlovich — and The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I have no idea why this happens; but no matter how exciting they are, plots in my brain have a very short half-life. On the other hand, the emotional or ethical texture of a book — especially a book I liked — will remain with me for years, completely unattenuated. Now that the announcement of the longlist is approaching, it’s been interesting to go back to my notes, to see which titles I’ve forgotten and which are somehow still with me.
The following books don’t have much in common, other than this tenacity (which is, of course, highly subjective) and the fact that they haven’t been talked about much on this blog. None of them, I feel, would be out of place on the longlist.
There’s a type of mysticism in Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin (translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich) that recalls Clarice Lispector, but Qiu’s philosophy feels solid in a way that Lispector’s often does not. Qui’s narrator, a young, queer Taiwanese woman living in Paris, feels a pain and an ecstasy embedded in everyday objects and experiences: letters, phone calls, film screenings. Hugely important to the blossoming Taiwanese literary culture of the 1990s, Last Words from Montmartre also bears the tragic urgency of books whose authors later committed suicide. Qiu took her own life at the age of 26, but the work she left behind is astonishingly mature. Its literary merit alone would be enough to recommend Last Words from Montmartre to the longlist, but as a work of queer literature — a tradition that up to now has been disappointingly underrepresented among BTBA contenders — it deserves even more serious consideration.
Tove Jansson, the Swedish-speaking Finnish author best known for her children’s books about the Moomin family, was also one of the most brilliant short story writers of her time. Her stories have been slowly making their way into English for a few years now, but NYRB’s The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella) is the first collection likely to attract significant attention from American audiences. I am unabashedly biased when it comes to Tove Jansson; I love her, and even though technically she’s already posthumously won the BTBA once (in 2011, for her novel The True Deceiver), her short stories could give almost anyone a run for their money.
The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach (translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the author) is a very mysterious novel about an entomologist in a remote, desert-encircled South African town. Summer lies heavily over every sentence, sleepy, slow, and sensual, and yet throughout the novel there is a taut, nearly unbearable line of tension. As elusive as its title promises, Winterbach’s novel may not exactly be the sort to inspire rabid enthusiasm, but it is very subtly and intelligently done.
And one more word on my most recent read: Like Last Words from Montmartre, Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (translated from the Portuguese by John Keene) is passionate and epistolary, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Letters from a Seducer is an irreverent catalogue of outrageous, theatrical sexualities. Hilst delights in breaking taboos and detailing fetishistic obsessions, making constant fun of phallocentrism and bourgeois sensibilities. But she does it with a good sense of humor and often great literary panache. (Translator John Keene deserves praise for the number of euphemisms he’s managed to generate for various body parts alone.) Behind the absurdity are also flashes of deep feeling, comical desperation in the face of writing, and these meditations lend Hilst’s short novel staying power as literature, and not only as (in the author’s own words) “brilliant pornography.”