Pathways to Discovering the Obscure?
The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell (New York Review Books)
When I first started reading The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell (published by New York Review Books), I had the sense that I had read this book before. Or not this book exactly, but a different novel, or novels, that employed a similar technique of letting an idiosyncratic character’s bizarre—yet compelling and logical in their quirks—ideas run free in a way in which an overarching plot is tossed aside in favor of a series of semi-philosophical sketches.
From “On the Realm of Stupidity”:
No wonder then that Lichter sees modern civilization as a vast extension of the Realm of Stupidity. Intelligence is obsessed with that which is fundamental, original, structural, essential. One recognizes intelligent individuals by their fascination with the elementary and the simple. Their efforts within the spiritual order are integrative: they seek the basic principle, or—to put it metaphorically—the ideal key to all the mysteries of the world. Aspiring towards totality and uniqueness is not stupidity’s ambitions. Its strength lies in its ability to placidly accept any theory, even an erroneous one, as long as it offers a viable starting point towards the practical results. A parasite plagiarizing the pure core of intelligence, sapping its vigor, stupidity forever fortifies and perfects itself, sprawling like a vast and dangerous stain on the consciousness of humanity. For stupidity is vain (the vanity of “efficiency”), sure of itself, economical, has wide-spreading technological tentacles and is shrewdly and ferociously aggressive. Stupidity wills itself to be “universally human.” Since the domain of stupidity is progress itself, Zacharias Lichter naturally concludes that true intelligence evolves within a vicious circle, forever fantasizing escape yet forever falling back into the realization that all efforts at escape are futile.
I still can’t quite put my finger on the other book(s) I’ve read like this. Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas comes to mind, but that’s not focused on a single individual. There’s something of Stefan Themerson here as well, maybe Tom Harris? Or part of Ergo by Jakov Lind? I feel like there’s a voice just outside of my active memory that is just like this book . . . The best I can come up with right now is Mahu, or, The Material by Robert Pinget. Here’s a bit from “Stilts”:
Supposing I wore stilts? It would change everything. When you went out for your coffee in the morning you’d put on your coat or something longer to hide your feet, and the pieces of wood would show underneath. The grocer’s wife would say, “There goes spindleshanks for his morning drink, it must be nine o’clock.” I’d cross the road without waiting for the green light, the cars would stop at the sight of a man on stilts and you might get your newspaper for nothing, at first anyway.
Anyway, The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is a great bathroom book. Most of the chapters are 3-4 pages long, and require a burst of concentration to immerse oneself in the particulars of this prose style and really tease out the humor and linguistic calisthenics. Don’t read this in one long sitting—it’s a book that’s best enjoyed as little bites, almost like a short story collection, but with a singular mindset, the madness of which takes over the whole book and infuses it with an off-kilter joy accessible to the patient . . . and the clued-in.
What I’m curious about is which books prepare you to like a book like this. If you are what you read, and the books you imprinted on are Twilight, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Lime Works, is that enough? Or will this book seem utterly incomprehensible, or, maybe not incomprehensible, but a waste of time? This book nagged at me because my shitty memory wouldn’t call forth all the books I’ve read in this general tradition. That’s a totally different experience than for someone who has never seen writing like this in their life and struggles to understand how exactly this fits within the category of “novel” that they’ve built up inside of their mind.
The opposite formulation of the “not for everyone” statement is to clearly define who would be into a particular book: “This novel is for fans of Pinget, Themerson, and Jouet.” Which circumscribes a readership of approximately fourteen people.
On the other hand, if you name-check the authors everyone has heard of—“this is for those readers interested in Cortázar, Kundera, and Rushdie”—you’re not only full of shit, but you’re about as useful as an Amazon algorithm.
That’s a lie. Amazon’s algorithmic recommendations can be damn interesting. Like with this book, which, I’ll look up right now on Amazon and . . . uh. That’s not what I expected. I should’ve done that search before starting this paragraph and finding out that, aside from other NYRB titles, the “Customers Also Bought” listings include Jenny Erpenbeck, Mathias Énard, and Lúcio Cardoso—all really good authors!, none of which really relate to this book. (Unless you’re looking for titles that fit into the category of “literary,” which is almost as bad as the category I’m going to discuss below.)
I used to think a lot about “discoverability” and recommendation algorithms. If you find the tag “future of reading” on this blog, you’ll hit upon a treasure trove of detailed breakdowns of “new” book recommendation sites, like BookLamp, Small Demons, Bookish 1.0 (or 2.0? Does it even matter?), GoodReads, etc. I still spend at least one class period every semester going over all of these mostly defunct sites, digging into the rationale for why everyone wanted to create online recommendation sites (it’s crucial to get the right book to people at the right time and we all live online, so that’s where you can make the connections) and the variety of theoretical ways by which these sites created their recommendation algorithms (by starting with the book and matching elements in the text to preferences; by starting with groups of readers and assuming similiar readers like similar books).
Nowadays, I’m not sure that I care all that much. I don’t feel like these sites are a viable strategy for publishers to connect their books with potential readers because a) they don’t exist anymore and b) no one cares. Aside from GoodReads users, I’m not sure there’s a significant subset of readers who use a particular algorithm-driven website to figure out what book to read next.
(A site I never use.)
Last week in my “World Literature & Translation” class, I had a couple grad students give presentations on Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by . . . Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes, a book that I unabashedly love. Adam usually gets an email from me every spring about how much god damn fun it is talking about his book in class. He’s in that relatively small group of authors who I would love to get wasted with and shoot the shit about books. To be honest, I think of The Delighted States and It’s Long Subtitle less as a book and more as a textual eavesdropping in on the smartest guy you know drinking Guinness at a dive bar and getting way too into literary ideas. “The whole of literature can be explained through a tricycle.” (An hour of stories about Proust falling down, the three-wheel theory of literature, triangles and linguistics in translation, and how cool is Hrabal?) “And then when the tricycle appears in [insert obscure work by Eastern European writers] you can see the whole of history of writing as play. You know?” “Fuck yes, Adam. Fuck. Yes.”
The joy I had reading this book for the first time—and reading various sections over and again—wasn’t exactly the same as what my students experienced. Here were their general reactions: 1) this book is all over the place and hard to follow, 2) “I’ve never read the authors Thirlwell mentions.” “Which ones, specifically?” “Flaubert, Proust, Borges, Hrabal, Gombrowicz, Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Ulysses . . .” “. . .” “So it was kind of ridiculous.” “. . . “, and 3) how does any of this relate to the books we’re reading for class?1
I’ve gone through a variety of emotions as I worked my way through these responses, but the main one I keep coming back to is the one that would get the most “thumbs up” on Facebook: why would anyone admit, in a literature class, to not knowing some of the most influential writers of the past hundred-plus years?
Stepping back from my existential dismay, I can cycle through some of the more legitimate reasons: there’s not much value in knowing about books that the masses don’t talk about, no one has read much at nineteen, the Canon is thankfully now canons, and it’s not like they’re aware of classic films, TV shows, albums, or other art works either. These are kids!
At the end of every semester I take myself to task for all of my fuck-ups. I read the student evaluations and get neurotic thinking about the ways in which Open Letter stress bled into my teaching. I replay too many class conversations in which I wish I was just smarter. I obsess over my shortcomings as a hopefully decent (question mark?) publisher and reader who generally functions outside of academia and teaches from particular world experiences—those of bookselling, publishing, and reading, not deep academic research. From September to May, I actively try and teach students how to write for readers who aren’t PhD holders or candidates, from May to September, I question myself and think I’m just stupid. Then I remember that there are very few people in the world—in academia and outside of it—who have read so broadly and voraciously in world literature. And I think that’s valuable? At least for making connections and recommendations?
As an outsider, I need to focus more on the positives that I can bring to these classes, on how every session is another chance to turn young readers on to particular authors and literary traditions (and the field of nonprofit publishing as a whole). Instead of assuming that they’ve read Flaubert and Sterne and Hrabal in other classes I should use the contemporary books that we read as ways to hook them on those writers from the past who bent and expanded ideas of the novel. Authors whose works I assumed would be passed down generation to generation, but might not.2
All these anxieties lead me to one central question: how do young readers find out about world literature? And not just the most established authors—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, etc.—but the second, or third level of interesting international authors. Those like Bernhard, Sarraute, Céline, even. Authors who PhD candidates might end up reading, but that the general public rarely comes in contact with.
If you study English, with rare exception, your literature classes tend to focus on writers who write in English. I can’t remember reading many translated texts in my undergrad studies. At least not in class. I read Madame Bovary and The Counterfeiters and Death on the Installment Plan over summer break.
There’s a similar situation if you’re studying a given language. The vast majority of classes in the Modern Languages & Cultures department at the U of R are about a particular aspect of a particular culture. “The Invention of Spanish America: From Colonial Subjects to Global Citizens” or “The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.” They look back to the established (or newly established) creators with a lot of academic clout and secondary materials. This is super valuable, and helps illuminate how to read, how to think, how to process. But, for someone interested in International Literature as a grand sweeping idea, each of these classes provides only a part of the picture.
I used to assume that the best opportunity for students to be introduced to world literature and all its various threads—like the Oulipo or Nouveau Roman—from all over the world—when else will you have the time to read a few books from Korea, India, Argentina, and the Czech Republic?—would be through the classroom. But I’m not sure that’s the case. For a reader to truly immerse themselves in the traditions and voices of the world, they need some other sources of recommendations. And not the online algorithms that feel both incomplete and tilted to a certain group of titles. Or literary listicles that might provide a path for looking into a particular topic or grouping of authors, but tend to be too thin to prove valuable.
This is where we tend to look toward booksellers. If a typical academic reads deeply on a focused group of authors or topics, booksellers read (or are at least aware of) a huge swath of what’s being written. They have to in order to be successful at their jobs, even if your average book buyer doesn’t care about personal recommendations and is content browsing in solitude and interacting with employees only when they need to be clerked.
There is a constraint on booksellers as well: for the most part they have to promote recently published books or ones about to come out. Going hard on a handsell of a book that came out fifteen years ago and sold modestly is a losing bet. (Books are both products of capitalist and aesthetic economies.) So, you go sideways. If someone likes Ben Lerner and Knausgaard, you stretch to Ali Smith and Dubravka Ugresic. All those authors have newly shelved titles. As a result, a curious young reader will get another view into the literary scene for world literature from good indie stories, but it’s still just another piece of the picture.
And on the flipside, how many bookstores in the U.S. stock Pinget’s titles? Ten? It’s hard to imagine the precursors to The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter being discoverable at all. That’s odd. We have two very different systems: “Commerce” that loves sales, critical accolades, and popular appeal, and “Academia” that loves critical acceptance, secondary material, and teachability. Given this, what do you think the results are for “Roberto Bolaño Syllabus”? A million?
Alas, it’s 8,900. Lots of bookseller love; not encough critical material.
There’s something to be said about publisher branding and the online literary communities that help to keep conversations about these authors and books going. Just this past week, I saw a string of tweets from someone at AWP who bounced from Dorothy Publications to Coffee House, who recommended they go check out Archipelago, which ended up leading them to Open Letter. A wonderful world of literature is out there, if you get put on the path to find it. But there’s a larger question that’s nagging at me: Without having discovered this larger literary context, what would you possibly make of a book like The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter? And what should we be doing to make sure that these gems from the past keep finding new audiences? Those books that may not sell enough to keep a Big Five publisher interested enough to keep them in print, but are valuable contributions to literary thought and culture?
I have no good answers, but hopefully that’s a direction that this series can pick up again in the future. For now: Go read this book. And Mahu. And other weird shit that isn’t readily available or necessarily discussed in the classroom. Find your own reading path to the more obscure. Just because something isn’t the most popular doesn’t mean that it won’t blow your mind.
1 I’m exaggerating for effect, but not really. A few students had heard of some of the authors mentioned, but they hadn’t read any of the titles. And these are really bright students! All great readers with very interesting viewpoints. But they’ve never come across these literary figures or their writings.
2 Granted, there’s no way Flaubert is going to fade from public—or academic—consciousness, but it’s weird/disconcerting when none of the students in a class have ever read Madame Bovary.