20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Will Evans. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The result came to me as a shock, more of a shock to me even than to you: the US pulled out a 3-2 stunner of a victory over Portugal in the 2014 World Cup of Literature: David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumous novel The Pale King defeated the concise, nearly-perfect Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares.

Victory came for the Americans in stoppage time of a tightly contested literary deathmatch—there could be no tie, there could be but one champion in this contest—and the scrappy upstart Americans delivered a deathblow in the final seconds over beautiful, sweet Portugal, nation of literary greats like Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Lobo Antunes, Pessoa, Ronaldo . . . oh wait, I’m getting literature and soccer mixed up, and letting my obsession show. But that’s what this is all about. Soccer is fun and beautiful and capable of transcendent, much like literature, and sometimes a team like America, a nation that is both overrated and underrated at the same time as much in literature as in soccer, can beat a small but extremely talented punch-above-its-weight literary and soccer powerhouse like Portugal. On any given day, anything can happen, and it did.

The match started off basically at 1-0. I thought of myself as a referee (or, rather, more like what a referee should be), I tried to distance myself from the action in the books, to give an impartial rendering to my judgment. But I can’t lie, I came in pulling for Portugal. After all, I am a translation publisher; I prefer translated literature to American literature. And I had already read Tavares’ brilliant, perfect Jerusalem (arguably his masterpiece) and had never read the massively-hyped, no-way-he-could-ever-live-up-to-the-weight-of-expectation David Foster Wallace, except an essay on lobsters or something (the ridiculous hype this man conjures among people was almost reason enough to start the American squad down a man since I can’t give negative points)—who in so many ways represents what I don’t like about American literature—that, combined with the fact that I honestly thought that since The Pale King is most certainly not his masterpiece that it would be a close game that Portugal would eventually pull away and win in a resounding victory . . . I was wrong.

Without writing actual reviews of these books, because there are plenty of reviews out there, including a tremendous review of The Pale King by Garth Risk Hallberg in New York Magazine and a wonderful profile of Tavares in The New Yorker, neither of these writers are lacking in critical attention, so I will spare you any attempt to write a review and instead get into why DFW/USA beat Tavares/Portugal . . .

These two books are both phenomenal, and packed punches that landed squarely in my gut and my brain at the same time, different in their execution but similar in their ambition, and I recommend everybody to read both (and actually, try to read them both at the same time, like I did, re-reading Jerusalem as I made my way through The Pale King—you start to notice similarities and connections that make each book that much more impactful, which then got me wondering if I should always read two books at once because then all sorts of links are going to open up between the two texts). They both deal with the big questions of existence and of making connections in a modern world that is set up in so may ways to destroy us, break us down, make us inhuman or, worse, tragically normal. The tedium, the crushing boredom, the weight of expectations, the essence of tragedy, the root of human cruelty, it’s all on display in both books. Chalk up another point to each team for getting at the meaning of it all. I appreciate that about literature. It’s tied 1-1 at the half . . .

It has to be said that this is the match of the 2014 World Cup of Literature, and it came in the first round. It felt like a championship. This is like how the Spain-Netherlands championship rematch in the first round should have been played. And in the end, Tavares vs. DFW felt like the Argentina-Bosnia game in the first round: both teams should have won, and when Bosnia finally lost, it was a beautiful loss. They had arrived, they had played, and they could hold their heads high in defeat, knowing they had the skills and talent to take down the mightiest of teams—it’s like that for Jerusalem. If the World Cup of Literature were like the soccer version and there were three matches in the first round, there are only one or two other countries in this literary battle who could take on Tavares and hope to win.

My horror-graph could then lead us to discover something even more basic to the problem of human atrocity: the underlying formula. I mean a numerical, objective, specifically human formula—removed from our animal natures, aside from sentiment and instinct, changes of heart, fluctuations of mood—a purely mathematical, purely quantitative, I would even say detached formula, implied by my results. But: not merely a formula serving as a concise summary of the effects of past horrors; no, my intention is to arrive at another, greater equation; a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come, that allows us to act and not just ponder or lament. I intend to develop a formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason—not even out of fear—the evil that seems almost inhuman, precisely because it’s inexplicable. I believe that this is not only possible, but practical. (Jerusalem)

In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. (The Pale King)

Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Not just the tragedy of war but of everyday atrocities.

And if you put Tavares’ entire oeuvre up against DFW’s oeuvre, who knows how it might tilt, considering that Jerusalem is but one book in a four-part series called The Kingdom (all four books have now been published by Dalkey Archive), and the brilliance of those four books could go up against Infinite Jest in as fair a fight as either side could ever hope to experience . . .

I will now admit freely that I was wrong about Foster Wallace in nearly every way, though at times I could get annoyed with the overwriting and the meticulously unnecessary details (that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead right after halftime), but when one steps outside of the novel, the minutiae of the inner workings of the IRS in a period of upheaval within the department as told through a vantage point in 1980s Peoria, Illinois (not far from where Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Tavares’s Jerusalem, is based). The Pale King is a spectacular novel that combines experimental technique with moments of breathtaking clarity and ridiculous sublime beauty in diagnosing the ills of our 21st-century American condition and trying to ways to persevere through the muck of existence.

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering . . .

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (The Pale King)

The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing . . . because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self—a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call “spiritual.” (Jerusalem)

This quote in The Pale King sums up some of the main points of the whole book, and it alone is worth a point, because it’s a very lengthy digression that leads to the same point DFW made very succinctly in his much-lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (published as the oh-so adorable little book This is Water). I like that DFW meanders his way around the point of boredom and finding meaning in things, it leads to The Pale King becoming exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect I have to look overseas to find, so grand in ambition, so sloppy in its telling. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Works of art should be rough around the edges, their perfection comes not from fitting in to any definition of perfection that ever existed before they were born, but rather from the combination of their transcendent and earthly qualities. DFW ties the score at 2 . . . the clock is ticking down.

Much was made before the competition began of the fact that The Pale King is an incomplete novel. Some people told me that the novel was like the 2014 version of the US Men’s National Team: big, fast, and incomplete. Another friend (a judge in this competition!) stressed to me that it is not an incomplete novel, that what DFW left behind was a fully-formulated novel of sketches set out on his desk in a particular way so that when his editor got a hold of the papers after DFW took his own life (right after completing The Pale King) the book would be sitting there, waiting. What has been published is certainly not the 3,000 pages of novellas, sketches, vignettes, ideas, and chaos, but rather a tidy 550+ page avant-garde novel that mixes high and low literature with tedious but necessary IRS lingo, jargon, and facts. And after finishing the novel, I tend to lean with the fact that this is indeed a finished novel. As finished as any novel ever is. Because I come from the school of readers who considers the author’s text to be sacred, it comes from years of schooling in Russian literature and Russian literary theory (or, more simply, from reading Master & Margarita ten times: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The text is sacred). I consider DFW to be an auteur, a master, an artist (even having never read him before, but definitely now, having finally read him, now with the burning desire to read his every word as if I were a 90s slacker at some Yankee private liberal arts college), and so I believe The Pale King should have been published in its full 3,000 page mess. But DFW’s editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch (he now of Hachette-running, Amazon-fighting fame), does not come from the same school of literary theory as me, and so he molded these messy 3,000 pages into a tidy 550+ page piece of strange, hypnotic brilliance.

Jerusalem by Tavares is as close to perfect as novels of ideas get. The characters are there, fully-realized, terrifying and sympathetic and alive, the ideas are in their words and their actions and the spaces surrounding their bodies, and the author’s form is architectural in its tightly-controlled structure, a form that allows the complexity of madness and tragedy in its characters to be realized. This is the point where the match could have gone either way—tied 2-all, a minute or two of stoppage time, desperation heaves on both ends, Tavares throwing his creative weight behind a complex structure that weaves his story in and out of time—and The Pale King too possesses all of those things except in its form, because the form is not the author’s but the editor’s. In American letters, the editor controls the form far more than readers ever realize. The same readers who give translators such a hard time for taking ideas and translating them for English-language readers take into account the interpretive role that editors play at our publishing houses, ruling over translators and authors alike. As I read The Pale King, I felt like I was reading Michael Pietsch as much as DFW, in a way that contrasts how I felt about reading Jerusalem, which I read as the fully-realized novel of one Gonçalo M. Tavares, overlooking the brilliant work of the translator Anna Kushner even as I knew I was reading her version of Tavares’s words, forms, ideas, etceteras. And I love Michael Pietsch for piecing this together (while simultaneously wanting a Nabokovian full-on release of all the notes in all their messy glory).

Is the editor a sort of monolingual translator? The editor translates the words, ideas, and form of an author into the cultural expectations of the reader of that culture, while translators work to translate the words and ideas and form of the foreign language into the cultural expectations of the receiving reader. I’m getting into translation theory. You’re falling asleep. One could go on for days. But should I leave you with any one idea I’m trying to impart here: read The Pale King and consider at once both the role of the editor in the text you’re reading and the ways that you choose to transcend above the everyday boredom that crushes our souls.

It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.

. . . light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. (The Pale King)

I love both of these books because they concern themselves with “the whole ball game.” Read Jerusalem at the same time and marvel in Tavares’s world, a world so much like ours, but slightly off . . . just like the world will be slightly off on June 22 when the US and Portugal face off in soccer. It’s not impossible for the US to win, in fact they have more than a fighter’s chance but the world may need to rotate slightly off its normal axis to fight off the sheer perfection that is Ronaldo . . . oh damn, there I go again, off on my Ronaldo tangent, when in reality I should know that the US will win because Clint Dempsey, because . . . Texas.

And in the last seconds, the crowd at fever pitch, this judge in a sweat, knowing legions of fans will be let down one way or the other, as my mind swirled, DFW pulled off a stunning goal to win the match 3-2. It could have gone either way, but today, today the ball game went to the USA.

——

Will Evans is the publisher of Deep Vellum, a new pressed based in Dallas, Texas dedicated to literature in translation.

——

Did The Pale King Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 10 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today’s post—which is going up a bit late, sorry—features Spanish author Pablo Gutierrez whose new story, “Gigantomancy,” was translated for this issue by Anna Kushner.

Something about Gutierrez really appeals to me . . . I think it’s this line from his bio: “Currently a teacher of literature at a secondary school in Cadiz, he lives in peace and tranquility, very close to the sea.” Oh, and by “appeals to me,” I really mean, “makes me insanely jealous.” I want some tranquility and seashore!

But seriously, Gutierrez is one of the youngest authors selected for this list, and already has a promising start to his career having won the Tormenta en us vaso Prize for best new author in Spanish for his first novel, Rosas, restos de alas.

Since Gutierrez’s full story is available on Granta‘s website, I thought today I would just post a significant excerpt, so that you can get a taste of his work:

As cadets, we rubbed Coca-Cola on our soles so we wouldn’t crack open our heads while playing outside. The dew soaked the concrete and we glided on the court like an aeroplane when it rains, our hands hidden in our fists, the pavement greasy beneath Saturday’s frost, and just at the mouth of the airport, eleven pale giants fastened to the seats like packages, the pilot narrows his eyes so that the nose meets the blue lines, the wind, the rain, all of the gods’ lightning illuminating our enormous jaws. On those winter courts, how we broadsided those boys from the Salesian school, there go the boys having taken communion – we used to say – there go the boys parading their embroidered crests, no one breathes until the aeroplane rushes on the runway and the pilot releases the brakes. A pitch-dark night: the sky falls in pieces over Treviso, it always rains in Treviso, what does it matter if from here to the hotel and from the hotel to the field we’re watched by the guard dog, oh, how we bit as cadets, how we rushed at anyone, and one Saturday they came to see me from La Caja and they shook my hand like a gentleman, they said, aren’t your parents home? Damn, you can really hit it, how would you like to try spending some time with us? La Caja! With Izquierdo and Lafuente and that tower of curls who was shooting at just fifteen years old, a trunk with elephant ankles who moved slooooowly like a mimic, but when he got it down court, oh, La Caja. My folks said fine, but only if you go on with school, and there was Mom, crying as if I were going off to Antarctica, don’t cry, Mommy, I’ll come home every weekend, all those hours on the bus that brings back the San Fernando recruits, heads shaved and bone-thin as lepers, sad and gloomy-faced with their backpacks hanging at their shoulders, their noses covered in pimples. Two breakfasts, meat at lunchtime, fish for supper, piles of vegetables on tin trays: we also made up an army, an army of gigantean kids with sharpened hands, prominent Adam’s apples and the shadow of a moustache. We followed orders, we had leaders, punishments and uniforms, La Caja’s uniform is so pretty, with gold borders, a name and number on the back, it was the first time I saw my name printed on a shirt, like an idiot I stared at it like someone who stares at the picture of his girlfriend, I would have slept in it if my room-mate hadn’t laughed, serious as a monk and stretched-out and dry, he spent his time reading and he could throw well but didn’t run much, and there you had to run like a deer, run and bust a gut during training so during games you could fly like Son Goku when he took his weights off, we hit any one of them with a hell of a lot of blows, it would be great if you could still play that way now, if it were that easy to glide right past your rivals like an aeroplane on the runway, jump that way, hit that way, laugh and always win that way, but everything now is fight and surround and bite down on your protector so they don’t break your teeth, like here in Treviso when they ripped one of my molars out during the first charge, minute one and boom, down to the floor like a sparring, of course I wasn’t even twenty years old then and I would be shaking as I came on to that court that had the appearance of a gym and the fans shake you from the minute you step on the sporting ring and Perotti the winger ripped my tooth out with a full contact blow of his elbow, I went running to the clinic so they could sew up the hole because I wouldn’t stop haemorrhaging and there was a monsoon-like rain falling, imagine, a guy as big as a castle all covered in blood asking for a doctor, the nurse nearly fell right over at the sight of me, how the Italians shake you in Treviso or Bologna, each point is an Olympic battle, they grab on to your neck like Medusas, I don’t have the heart or the patience any more but there’s nothing else I know how to do, after what happened at the Forum, who would trust me, I thought I would end up training kids for a modest salary, I don’t want a Nordic house on the peak of some mountain or yachts or cars that I can’t park but after what happened at the Forum who would dare put me in a locker room with kids if all I’m good for is being moody and putting on weight, although I’ve also been quite refined and elegant and have kept some of that, like when we were up against Baskonia, down by two, and Otis had gotten the whistle in the fifth and in the last play, they set a trap for the skinny guy and I threw that rock that I thought would end up outside the pavilion but goddamn, it went in like Larry Bird hit them, the stands went wild, in Giants, they did a retrospective on me, I appeared in all the television news programmes, well, if this isn’t going to be my day – I thought – but then what happened at the Forum came, and because of that I understand quite clearly that before the year is up, they’re going to kick me out, if it would at least stop raining, if only I could take off this tracksuit and button up a real coat and escape from this hotel without telling anyone, just looking left and right in case the guard dog is making his rounds as if we were juniors, if only I could rip off this ridiculous smock that’s hurled down on you from a fifth floor when you’re over thirty years old, I’m fed up with being a walking adman for AGR Insurance and Univision Optics, if only I could slip away from this remote hotel dropped down on a traffic circle with decorated roundabouts and carpet-covered hallways and brass banisters, a forlorn, tiny receptionist who looks at me with round eyes from deep inside her cardboard uniform as if I were a sulphuric giant banging the counter asking for the Yellow Pages, the classifieds from the newspaper, for a taxi to take me to the city: to walk wildly, feeling splendid and lazy, sit down at a cafe and invite a blonde girl to join me, ask for a cream puff, wolf it down in one bite, make a call like in the last century from a telephone booth, talk to Luisa about the weather in Treviso, ask her if the little one is asleep already, no, not yet, she’s cheating me in Parcheesi, tell her to get on the line, you’re-so-far-away-I-have-a-burn-mark-on-my finger-I’ve-already-got-two-up-on-her, if I could, I would care very little about what happened at the Forum, but it’s raining like in the Great Flood and I’ve become a prisoner of this room watched over by the guard dog, inside this walking adman costume, sharing a room with this little acrobat boy who thinks he is Vince Carter and who has been playing video games for two hours already, imprisoned as if I were at camp training a pony and riding zip-lines while Mom and Dad go off to Paris for a week to see if they can kiss each other there like they don’t here, and even though I could escape and strip and get into that taxi, I would still be moving this mountain-like body crowned with the face of a chased aboriginal. On that peak, my forehead like a movie screen would stand out like the lamp of a lighthouse: the little blonde would squeeze her knees together like a girl who is peeing herself, there wouldn’t be any cream puffs left at the pastry shop, in this century, there’s no finding a telephone booth with anything more than an amputated cable hanging like a terrible extremity.

Humans against giants. All of those midgets spitting at me from the stands, hanging strips of toilet paper from my ears, urinating on my towel, calling me hair-raising things, the word repeated from their rounded mouths that sounds the same in every language, even syllables and fricatives and different I-don’t know-whats always sound like the same thing.

Click here to pick up reading where this excerpt leaves off.

And don’t forget: by subscribing to Granta while the “22 Days of Awesome” is going on, you’ll receive this special issue featuring the next wave of Spanish-language novelists for free. (The issue retails for $16.99 FYI.)

29 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know, I know, it’s been a while, but the latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erik Sean Estep on Noberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner and published late last year by W. W. Norton. (FYI, the paperback edition will be available in December.)

Erik Estep is someone I know from the long, flat days of Central Illinois. At the time he was working in Milner Library at Illinois State University. Around the time that we all left Dalkey for Open Letter/Three Percent, Erik escaped as well, and is now a Reference Librarian at East Carolina University. Erik is also the most deluded Cubs fan I ever met, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now, although we probably should’ve reviewed this back a few months ago, the announcement regarding Castro’s memoirs actually makes this a bit timely. (Planned. Totally planned.)

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Erik’s review:

Most of the icons of the Long Twentieth Century (defined by most as stretching from the Great War to the suicide of the Soviet Union) have left the scene. If you were on team communism, chances are you in formaldehyde or you have turned over your kingdom to an heir. If you were on the capitalist side of the field, you’ve likely been given a nice state funeral by the victors, long after, sadly, your brain had turned to jelly. However, there is one leader who is still in game, a survivor who has managed recently even to return to the big screen, via an undisclosed location, to inspire the masses. That man, of course, is Fidel Castro. A stroke may hobble The Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, thus speeding up the transition to the Great Grandson of The Leader, but El Comandante continues to lead.

Castro has not yet published his memoirs, but is said to be working on them since formally relinquishing power several years ago. Norberto Fuentes in his delightful, brutally honest, and satirical book The Autobiography of Fidel Castro has beaten him to the punch. Fuentes was a companero of Castro and his regime until the late ‘90s until he became persona non grata and had to flee to Miami. Jean Jacques Rousseau invented the superstar memoir genre with his Autobiography, and, it is important to note, that the veracity of that book was challenged from the outset. Rousseau, ever the bad boy of the Enlightenment, was said to have shaded things in his direction. Even though we know that Fuentes book is a work of fiction, his many years at Castro’s side have made his work indistinguishable from “true” memoirs.

Click here to read the full review.

29 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Most of the icons of the Long Twentieth Century (defined by most as stretching from the Great War to the suicide of the Soviet Union) have left the scene. If you were on team communism, chances are you in formaldehyde or you have turned over your kingdom to an heir. If you were on the capitalist side of the field, you’ve likely been given a nice state funeral by the victors, long after, sadly, your brain had turned to jelly. However, there is one leader who is still in game, a survivor who has managed recently even to return to the big screen, via an undisclosed location, to inspire the masses. That man, of course, is Fidel Castro. A stroke may hobble The Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, thus speeding up the transition to the Great Grandson of The Leader, but El Comandante continues to lead.

Castro has not yet published his memoirs, but is said to be working on them since formally relinquishing power several years ago. Norberto Fuentes in his delightful, brutally honest, and satirical book The Autobiography of Fidel Castro has beaten him to the punch. Fuentes was a companero of Castro and his regime until the late ‘90s until he became persona non grata and had to flee to Miami. Jean Jacques Rousseau invented the superstar memoir genre with his Autobiography, and, it is important to note, that the veracity of that book was challenged from the outset. Rousseau, ever the bad boy of the Enlightenment, was said to have shaded things in his direction. Even though we know that Fuentes book is a work of fiction, his many years at Castro’s side have made his work indistinguishable from “true” memoirs.

The English translation is roughly 550 pages, which is abridged from the Spanish version that is nearly three times as long. Accordingly, the pacing seems a bit off; there is much about Castro’s rise to power, very little about Cuba’s involvement in the wars in Africa, the rapprochement with the Carter Administration, Glasnost, the fall of the Soviet Union, the execution of several high ranking Cuban officers for corruption in the ‘80s, etc. One can guess that they were left on the cutting room floor and since Fuentes was there for most of the period, perhaps they were left out of the Spanish version as well, just to play it safe.

And it is just as well because this book has the voice of a very young man, making Castro seems very alive, not yet ready for the embalmers needle. As with most political leaders, but especially revolutionaries, any memoir is also about ideology and Fuentes has a lot of fun with the myth of infallibility of dictators. Every single decision has to be correct and it is interesting to see how Castro airbrushes the record. The voyage on the Granma from Mexico to the Sierra Mastre has long since passed into Cuban mythology. What is less well known, is that leaving the Granma intact was a military blunder; Batista’s planes were able to hone in on the ship and trace the movement of the guerillas from that point and pound the insurgents from the air. More chillingly, Castro claims responsibility for Che’s death in Bolivia; it was all according to plan to use Che as a martyr for the Revolution. None of this sounds funny, but the ex post facto reasoning leads to some very tall tales that wouldn’t be out of place in the works of Mark Twain.

A curious omission is the figure of that Great Communicator: Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Castro is jealous and since he is still fighting the good fight; one shouldn’t give credit where credit is not due. What is remarkable, though, is the symmetry between this book and Edmund Morris’s Dutch. Morris, an old public relations hand, was taken to task for inventing a fictional character to carry the narrative along. Alzheimer’s had long robbed Reagan of his memory to remember his own lines so Morris was accused of taking advantage of a senile old man. But Dutch was a blast to read and laid out in a properly elegant fashion, with photographs of the handsome actor breaking up the gushing text. And so, Fuentes has given service to the Revolution he has long since abandoned; by writing Castro’s autobiography for him he has given notice that El Comandante is not ready for the formaldehyde of history just yet.

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