After 28 matches we’ve finally made it to the World Cup of Literature semifinals, and are only a few days away from crowning the first ever WCL Champion. (If only we had a giant papier-mâché trophy for the winner . . .)
Before that though, we have two semifinal matches that are as intriguing as anything to date, starting with a face-off between two of the most beloved authors of recent times: Robert Bolaño and W.G. Sebald.
Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) made it to this point by beating the Netherlands and Koch’s The Dinner by a score of 3-0, taking out Brazil’s Buarque and Budapest by a score of 3-1, and then upending Italy’s great hope, Elena Ferrante and The Days of Abandonment 4-2.
W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (Germany) got here by wrecking Ghana and Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country 5-1, sliding past Algeria and Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by a score of 1-0, and knocking out Bosnia and Saša Stanišic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone 4-3.
This is a match that no one really wanted to judge—both books are brilliant and deserve all the accolades they’ve ever received.
That said, this is a competition and only one can move on to the Championship . . .
Shaun Randol: Germany
Both By Night in Chile and Austerlitz have the protagonist confronting demons from a real political past. Amoral authoritarian rulers, institutions, and systems are indicted with barely contained bitterness and rage. And both authors—Bolano and Sebald—mix fact and fiction to get the point across. The teams go into overtime, not even the prose distinguishes one team over the other. In the end, the deployment of photography in the fictional musing gives Austerlitz the artistic edge.
George Carroll: Chile
James Crossley: Germany
Sebald’s roll through the tournament—he earned the highest percentage victories from the fans in the first and second rounds—finally slows down. He’s up against a fantastic book, and this matchup feels more like a final than I think the final will. But in the end, I don’t think Chile earns the win. Things might have played out differently with 2666 or The Savage Detectives in the mix, but By Night in Chile just isn’t Bolano’s best novel. Austerlitz is probably Sebald’s, though, and it gets the nod from me.
Hannah Chute: Chile
Trevor Berrett: Germany
If you forced me to name my two personal “most important” literary discoveries of the last decade, I’m pretty sure they’d be Bolaño and Sebald. I’m not alone in my esteem; both were awarded posthumous National Book Critics Circle Awards. Putting these two books together like this shows some fascinating overlapping themes, and everyone should read each. Now to decide which of their “life histories” should progress: Sebald’s. Bolaño’s architecture is destroyed by corruption and pigeon droppings; Sebald’s is erased by time, which I find more terrifying.
Stephen Sparks: Chile
How the fuck is someone supposed to choose either Bolano or Sebald? Since either one of these books could easily defeat the winner of the other bracket, I’m casting my vote in the same way I decide who to root for in the actual world cup: root for the poorer country.
Nick During: Chile
I’m often a terrible fan. Sometimes I’ll start a game rooting for one team, but then change my mind several times during the course of the 90 minutes. My soccer-watching friends get very frustrated and angry at me, but I feel this fickleness and indecision is part of human nature. Urrutia Laccroix would be like that too if he was a real person.
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Germany
As I reread Austerlitz and By Night in Chile, a phrase by Alexander Pope kept echoing through my thoughts: “Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.” It was an apt way to describe the divide between Sebald and Bolaño: while the latter submerges me into words and worlds, the former opens up words to their strange resonances, and opens up the world in which we live to its full brilliance. As I closed By Night in Chile, it settled into my mind as a mere story, albeit better-told than most. But walking out of my apartment after Austerlitz was a shock; every building and tree and passerby burst at the seams with unexpectedly visible significance.
Rhea Lyons: Chile
I like trippy, dark and reflective more than bleak, atmospheric and reflective.
Florian Duijsens: Chile
Two stunning books, both about characters trying to make sense of their past, both obsessed with arcane factoids and architecture, both consumed by a survivor’s guilt, yet Bolaño’s story of self-deception is the more visceral of the two. While Austerlitz haunts Sebald’s book in beautiful spectral form, it’s Father Urrutia Lacroix who has haunted me in the years since I first read By Night in Chile, and it’s the dying priest’s voice that ultimately gives Chile’s representative the edge over Germany’s otherwise more than worthy opponent.
Chris Schaefer: Germany
This is one of those match-ups that really should have occurred in the final and not in the semi-final: Sebald vs. Bolaño, Germany vs. Chile, an architectural historian’s sifting of past trauma vs. a dying priest’s feverish thoughts about literature in a dictatorship. Both books have digressive styles, a blending of fact and fiction, and an overly casual disdain for paragraph breaks. It’s a fight to a draw, but Sebald’s Austerlitz wins on penalties.
Jeff Waxman: Chile
It never occurred to me that this late in the game, in the games, that I would have to cast a vote for a book I actually liked. And against a book I liked. But I’m calling this one for Bolaño for two reasons: the sheer aggressive drive of this particular narrative and because I drank four margaritas last night while explaining to a friend why Bolaño is good.
Chile, guys. Fucking Chile.
Hal Hlavinka: Chile
And with that, Bolaño moves on. Convincingly. We’ll find out tomorrow who he’ll be up against in the final.
And with Germany’s defeat of BiH the semifinals for the World Cup of Literature are all set.
You can download a PDF version here.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown on these two match ups:
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Originally published in 2000—making it just barely eligible for our competition—By Night in Chile is best described by Richard Eder of the New York Times as “a 130-page rant—part confession, part justification, part delirium—by a dying man, representative of an intellectual class that the author depicts as alternately tugging its leash and licking it.”
Bolaño is one of the authors that literary hipsters love most, although many seem to prefer 2666 or The Savage Detectives. By Night in Chile is more condensed and precise though (and more about Chile the country Bolaño chose to represent in this competition), and that might help him out against Sebald’s longer, more erudite Austerlitz.
Also worth pointing out that Columbia University Press is brining out Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews later this month.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Austerlitz came out in German in 2001, literally a month before Sebald’s tragic passing. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2001 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002. And for her translation, Anthea Bell received the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. That’s a lot of prize winning.
Sebald is renowned for his particular style, which combines fact with fiction, images with text, and often revolves around ideas of memory, history, and decay. Here’s a bit from a review of Austerlitz in the Observer:
Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable, the way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. I can’t really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. But I would strongly recommend anyone who has not experienced his writing to do so, because it succeeds in communicating issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience.
Of the remaining four books, Austerlitz is probably the betting man’s favorite.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
The only living author still in the competition, Luiselli also comes to the competition with the most recently published book—Faces in the Crowd came out in 2011, and was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press (along with Luiselli’s essay collection _Sidewalks__ earlier this year.
It’s received some great literary praise, mostly for its unique structure and interweaving of various viewpoints, all of which keep readers on their proverbial toes, having to figure out who’s writing and what is (or isn’t) “true.” From the L.A. Times:
Faces in the Crowd is itself a highly original work of many parts—but one that does, in its own unique way, add up to a satisfying “whole.” At the heart of this engaging and often hauntingly strange novel is a wildly original character: Luiselli’s protagonist lies to her boss, commits literary fraud and assorted acts of adultery, all while raising a baby and a toddler son.
Or maybe she doesn’t do all those things — we can’t be certain, since it’s clear Luiselli’s protagonist isn’t just an unreliable employee and spouse, she’s also an unreliable narrator.
DFW is a formidable opponent, but the fact that Faces is a truly finished book, and that this is a first novel (instead of a posthumous one), might help her through to the finals.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
By now, I suspect everyone knows the story behind The Pale King: In 2008, after DFW committed suicide, editor Michael Pietsch pieced together the unfinished novel and writings that DFW left behind and produced The Pale King. A novel about boredom and the IRS—the only government agency designed to make money, therefore one that should be efficient in modern corporate ways—The Pale King was widely praised, including by World Cup of Literature judge Tom Roberge, in this review for Deadspin. Over at New York, Garth Risk Hallberg also nailed it:
Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. _Infinite Jest_ discovered in its unlikely milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—boredom itself—not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.
David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century (or the twentieth century as a whole? or of all time?), but the phrase “unfinished novel” will likely discount this in the minds of some judges, so maybe the mighty American isn’t as unbeatable as he seems at first glance.
That’s it. Stay tuned to find out who’s going through to Monday’s Championship.
In the last of the four quarterfinal match ups, BiH, represented by Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, goes up against one of the World Cup of Literature favorites, Germany and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Stanišic made it here first by bribing a judge and beating Iran’s represntative, The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi 1-0 and then by upsetting Honduras and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness by a score of 5-3.
This one is going to be close . . .
Hal Hlavinka: Germany
Saša’s payment pending, the ghost of Sebald runs ragged.
Stephen Sparks: Germany
Although the exuberance of How the Soldier fared well against Senselessness, the methodical, evenly paced tenor of Austerlitz won the day for me here in the quarterfinals.
James Crossley: Germany
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has a lot to recommend it where the World Cup of Literature is concerned: quirky chapter titles, some actual soccer content, and a flukish celebrity appearance on the hardcover dust jacket. (The designer used a stock photo—man playing accordion on the beach—without realizing that the subject was author/musician Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket.) Sorry about the tough draw, Stanišić, but that’s not enough. Literary landmark Austerlitz for the win.
Hannah Chute: Bosnia
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is what Catch-22 would be if Yossarian were an eleven-year-old Bosnian kid. It’s funny, touching, and all-around brilliant.
Nick During: Bosnia
Books, like soccer matches, often hinge on the unexpected. The depth and knowledge and verve of a truly great team can be defeated by the rare moment of creative brilliance at just the right time. Don’t get me wrong, Austerlitz is a truly great book, a Sebald classic that makes the reader search for hidden memories and mysteries in the buildings that surround us, but in the flexible paragraphs and sentences of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone lies the imagination that has gives the reader another look at the past, and in a different way that can free them from the weight of official history.
Florian Duijsens: Bosnia
Every Cup needs at least one slightly partial ref and, having taken both books out into a park today (the closest I could think of coming to the championship field), I will gladly to give my vote to Bosnia, and not just because Saša and I follow each other on Instagram. Where Austerlitz smartly and digressively peers into the past and its oblivion, How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone brings a version of the not all that distant past to vivid life through the child narrator’s unobstructed observations, which manage to surprise as often as they stun with sudden bursts of painful truth.
Chris Schaefer: Germany
Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz are both haunting novels about savage twentieth-century European conflicts. Stanišić’s novel elicited more laughter from me than anything else I’ve read recently, but its creative tragicomedy could not compete with Sebald’s innovative and weighty erudition. The known quantity Sebald defends his reputation against the upstart Stanišić, but we can expect great things from the young Bosnian in the future.
And there you have it—the semifinals are set. On one side we have Chile (Bolaño’s By Night in Chile) going up against Germany (Sebald’s Austerlitz), and on the other we have Mexico (Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd) taking on the USA (DFW’s The Pale King).
See you tomorrow for the first of these matches!
To pitch anyone against W. G. Sebald is a cruel exercise, even within the high-stakes tournament that is the World Cup of Literature. More so even than Bolaño, whose fame in the English-speaking world has also grown exponentially after his death, Sebald’s posthumous stature is gargantuan, and his presence in this tournament is that of a towering flâneur facing teams of tiny tots in soccer shoes and diapers.
Still, the game has begun and a winner can and must officially be declared only after this second-round match has been played. To introduce our players then: On our left, playing for the former French colony of Algeria, there’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane, translated by Alison Anderson, on our right, sauntering about the field and peering at the crypto-fascist stadium architecture is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, translated from the German by Anthea Bell.
A cursory glance at these books’ stats suggests several points in common: occasional footnotes, a playful approach to fact and fiction, an authorial narrator who was told the story by a restless third party, that third party being the bearer of two names and two identities. Yet this reader found one book almost infinitely stronger when the last pages had been turned and the final whistle blown.
Set in Paris, Marouane’s novel, her fifth, has at its center Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, a man of Algerian descent who, at the age of 40, though very successful at his only sketchily described job in finance, still lives with his mother and still is a virgin. He describes how, early on in his career, he legally had his name changed to Basile Toquard, lightening his skin and straightening his hair, all in order to ‘pass’ among the French more easily. His impulse purchase of an expensive flat at the beginning of the novel, however, forces him to renegotiate this split identity, especially once (in a very Hollywood move) he promises his devastated mother he will marry before he and his still devout brother leave on their haj to Mecca in a few months time. Though he tries to pop his cherry and find a suitable mate, his clock soon is running out as the women he courts turn out to be quite unlike the vixens his lustful gaze had suggested. The joke is on Mohamed as the plot derails amidst authorial interventions and that move most deserving of a literary red card, the ‘dream sequence’. In a silly take on Kafka’s The Judgment, these bits see the previously overprotective mother suddenly turned into a freethinking feminist artist, rendering poor Mohamed’s hard-won independence from her meaningless; who is he without his mother?
If this indeed sounds like a trippy Muslim take on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you should know that Marouane adds a metafictional frisson by inserting both herself into the narrative (under the pseudonym of feminist Algerian author Loubna Minbar), as well as the female protagonists of her previous novels. This does not, however, get us any closer to any of the characters (or, really, the vagaries of post-colonial identity), instead often drawing us further away while the actors turn into warring stereotypes performing an increasingly bizarre allegorical romcom of letters.
Austerlitz, on the other hand, uses its central and titular character’s quest to learn more about his unknown heritage to simultaneously illuminate the way the 20th century has scarred us all. When young Dafydd Elias learns his real name is Jacques Austerlitz and later finds out that he came to Wales alone as a child on a Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Europe, this sets him on a course that will lead him, both consciously and subconsciously, to learn more about his family and the horror that tore it apart.
As played out in hotel lobbies and train station waiting rooms, the story of both Jacques Austerlitz and Austerlitz the novel is one born from the Sebaldian belief that:
we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time
Though endlessly and fascinatingly digressive, all the digressions Austerlitz leads the narrator on have a bearing on both his past and on the way history is still unspooling all around and underneath us. From casual mentions of the “murderous town of Bacharach” and Schumann’s descent into madness, to longer essayistic reportage on Fort Breendonk outside of Antwerp or the concentration camp at Terezín, Sebald’s book bears witness to a past that is barely buried. As James Wood points out in his foreword to the 10th anniversary edition, it is impossible for a contemporary reader to make her way through the book without time and time again misreading the protagonist’s name as Auschwitz, a cursed name pointedly not mentioned anywhere in the book. The interspersed and unattributed photography, meanwhile, at once reminds us that this fiction is rooted in fact, these pictured places at some point having existed somewhere real, and nags at us as we realize that surely the boy in costume on the cover cannot be the fictional character Austerlitz; relics of the past they may be, but photographs in no way can offer us conclusive proof (or comfort).
All this to say that on the metaphorical soccer field this tournament calls home, Marouane may have conjured up a shape shifting team of conflicted French Algerians dressed in outfits that range from the traditionally Muslim to high-priced finance casual, a glance at Sebald’s side of the field reveals it to be deserted, the grass rolled up to uncover the foundations of the fortified encampment that once stood in the stadium’s stead. Outside, in the dilapidated and dark little bakery where you can only hear muted honks of the echoing vuvuzelas, is a man telling another man the story of our lives, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on”.
In the end, then, the result is the expected one: the Algerian team defeated, the stands and goals empty, the ref’s whistles always already forgotten.
Germany’s victory: 1-0.
Florian Duijsens is a freelance writer/editor/translator, senior editor of Asymptote Journal, and fiction editor at Sand. He lives in Berlin.
It’s an alliterative pair of nations facing off in the final match of the first round, as Ghana takes on Germany. On grass this is a bit of a mismatch, with the European squad ranked second in the world heading into the tournament, 35 spots higher than its African counterpart. But things may play out differently on paper.
Ghana’s entry, Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing, takes the field in impressive fashion, wearing a resplendent gold and green kit with red trim. (Seriously, this is a beautiful book, with nary an acacia tree to be seen on the cover. That in itself has to be seen as a small victory for Africa.) Germany, represented by W.G. Sebald’s austere, monochromatic Austerlitz looks positively meek in comparison.
There’s the kick-off, and right away we see Ghana starting strong with an unexpected style of attack. Search Sweet Country is a metropolitan novel, set not in some stereotypical rural village but in the capital city of Accra. It’s the 1970s, and most of the high hopes ushered in with independence have faded as a new era of corruption and dictatorship has begun. Multiple characters, including the intriguingly named 1/2-Allotey, rattle around this novel like pachinko balls, scheming and hustling to achieve their various goals and pontificating all the while.
Laing, who writes in English, made his bones as a poet, and he’s besotted by words in his prose as well. Why use one when several will do? A semi-randomly chosen bit of dialogue:
Now look, we are talking about the reality of Ghana politics . . . whoever told you that morality and subtlety are the moving passions? Surely a professor does not need to be told the difference between what is and what ought to be. I am for life, and you are for the ivory tower, which makes you a member of the tall elephant brigade, Hahaha! And I am the grasscutter down low in the earth, with the burrowers and worms! I am the norm and you are the normative!
Search Sweet Country is showy, vibrant, and full, a novel to sink into for a good long while, and it looks set to dominate the action throughout the match. Germany, led by coach and erstwhile fifth Beatle Joachim Low, will have to play quite a game to have any hope of countering.
At first blush, Austerlitz seems far too subdued to compete, almost passionless, in fact. It quietly tells of an eponymous character, a Czechoslovakian evacuated to England on the Kindertransport and raised by foster parents, who spends his adult years researching his family’s experiences during World War II in dusty archives scattered across Europe. Where Search Sweet Country is brash, Austerlitz is sober; where Laing swaggers, Sebald is scholarly and dry. The only thing the two authors share is a taste for packing as many words as possible between their periods:
No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and siegecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, réduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan: a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.
Phew. Under this lexical onslaught, abetted by translator Anthea Bell, Ghana begins to tire slightly. And it isn’t just relentlessness they’re facing, it’s deception. Austerlitz is only superficially the story of a sedate academic—between the lines it’s an excoriating indictment against Nazism and the institutional mentality that systematized horror and produced it more efficiently than anyone ever had before. Sebald very calmly paints an unforgettable picture of Europe as half factory, half charnel house, and Germany takes control of the game by exposing the rot in its own cultural roots. Nicely played. As the clock winds down to the 90th minute, the crowd is silent, dwelling on its own mortality and awestruck by Sebald’s dominance. By masterfully marshaling facts and mixing them with fiction, he’s godfathered a hybrid form that’s going to freshen literature for decades. Just ask David Shields.
Time expires in the match (as it will for all of us someday) and chiaroscuro has overcome color completely. It’s a devastating win for Germany, and Austerlitz has established itself as the prohibitive favorite to take home the Cup of Lit. Might as well start hanging the black crepe and playing a dirge now.
Germany 5 – 1 Ghana
James Crossley is a bookseller at a venerable institution just outside of Seattle, Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s blog, “Message in a Bottle,” and is also a contributing writer for Book Riot and Northwest Book Lovers. In 1976 he saw Pelé play for the New York Cosmos in a friendly against George Best and the Los Angeles Aztecs at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. They tied nil-nil.
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