Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:
Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.
This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.
In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.
This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.
Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)
Bruce Wolmer: I’m tempted to begin by asking the question interviewers on French TV like to pose: “Gregor von Rezzori, _qui êtes-vous?_”—Who are you? Which is immediately funny considering that the enigmas and paradoxes—and humor—of identity is a central concern of your work. But one wouldn’t know that reading the reviews, where you’re almost inevitably conflated with the first-person narrator.
Gregor von Rezzori: Absolutely. This is such an old discussion: To what extent are books autobiographic? It’s ridiculous. As Flaubert famously said, Mme. Bovary c’est moi. You can’t eliminate yourself totally unless you’re Shakespeare.
BW: That goes against the grain of much contemporary opinion and practice, which claims to be getting down to the truth of the author rather than the truth of the fiction.
GvR: The Death of My Brother Abel is narrated by a writer. The narrator, the “I”—and funnily enough he is less my own person than any other first person in any of my other books—the narrator in The Death of My Brother Abel is a totally fictitious character. But, of course, nowadays people have little curiosity about examining such complexities. There is this desire of authenticity and transparency which connects with the curious contemporary belief that everybody is, or should be, an artist.
I must tell you that when I was young I never had the faintest idea that I should ever become a writer. I studied mining engineering, of all things. I came to writing by accident at a rather ripe age. I never thought of really having the urge to express myself, but obviously I had it in some way or other. But without ever having heard the phrase, I had to find my identity. That’s one of those dreadful verbal expressions. A phrase like that becomes fashionable and then becomes a slogan and becomes really a program for people’s lives. Every young man or girl nowadays ponders about his or her identity without even realizing what it is. My identity is “I”. It takes a long time to learn that that much celebrated “I” is never lost, but never really found either.
Anyway, in my case I was having a period in my life in which I didn’t have anything else to do—this was before the war—so one day I sat down and wrote a story. Somebody got hold of it and sent it to a publisher. They instantly wanted me to write another one, which I did. Because I thought, my God, this is a very agreeable way of earning money. How wrong I was I found out later. But by then it was too late.
BW: A disagreeable way of not earning much money.
GvR: Yes, yes. Somebody with a little bit more intelligence doing the same amount of work, you’ll become an Onassis. Well, who needs that? But it’s in real disproportion. Then when I realized what crap I had been writing, you see, I sat down, and just then the war came. I was fortunate—I didn’t actually have to be a soldier exactly. I was born in Bukovina, Rumania. Before Rumania went into the war it was given to the Russians so I was already more or less a Russian although I still had a Rumanian passport and was living in Vienna at that time. When Bohemia was taken by the Russians I went to our ambassador in Berlin, who was a friend of the family, and I said, “What shall I do, what am I supposed to do?” He said, “Well, you are supposed to go home and find a new identity because you don’t exist. And then you’ll die from Mr. Hitler because within a short time you shall have to join in those struggles. I can’t prolong your passport. How long is it still valid?” I said. “For a year.” He said, “Keep quiet.” Which I did. It lasted for three more years during the war. I had my share of bombing and all that, but in the meantime I had the opportunity to really fill the unbelievable gaps in my knowledge by reading. I must tell you that I read very slowly and I need months to finish a real masterpiece, for example one of Broch’s novels. [. . .]
BW: What has been Nabokov’s influence on you?
GvR: Well, there were many other influences first. I didn’t read Nabokov until late. But when I had started to write Abel in its first version, I got Nabokov’s Pale Fire in my hand and instantly put my pen down because I found that there was the book I wanted to write already in the best possible form. Then I collaborated on the translation of Lolita into German, and I became aware that I shall never achieve the almost medieval craft of Nabokov’s to link fiction with literary allusion and write a book on many layers—of which one is a direct and fictitiously concrete reality, and behind there is the other reality, the literary reality of all the allusions, all the relations of literature with other literature. At the same time that it’s discouraging, it’s very challenging.
BW: Other influences?
GvR: Everything influences you as a writer, whatever you read. I believe there isn’t any such thing as a bad book, because you take out of any book something by which you learn, even if you throw it away. Then there are writers who encourage me immensely and writers whom I admire so much that I put down my pen and say, “I can’t write.” For instance, I can’t read ten lines of Robert Musil and keep on writing, I stop for a week at least. Even Joyce. He discourages me totally. But then there are others who encourage me. Thomas Mann with his sort of schoolboyish sense of humor challenges me to get a little subtler. Ironic. And so on.
GvR: Well, yes. Not consciously, but the violence. In literature, particularly at that period, a certain barbarism is necessary. Also for the sake of honesty. You can’t be suave and God knows what in a time like ours. Also there is in him an urge for iconoclastic action which was also very much an aspect of German Expressionism after the First World War.
You can read the entire interview here.
Every year BOMB puts together a special “Americas Issue” focusing on art and literature from a different part of the Americas. This tends to mean South America, but you never know, maybe Canada will be—or was?—the focus at some point in time. Regardless, this is always one of my favorite issues of the year from this esteemed magazine that’s been around since 1981, and this year’s focus on Colombia and Venezuela keeps that tradition going.
Some of the highlights:
The “First Proof” literary supplement also has pieces by Luis Enrique Belmonte, Carolina Lozada, Victor Manuel Gaviria, Yolanda Pantin, Federico Vegas, Hector Abad Faciolince, Igor Barreto, and Luis Molina-Pantin. (You have to buy the actual magazine to get access to these pieces . . .)
I don’t know as much about contemporary Venezuelan literature, but Colombia is pretty hot these days with both Vasquez’s The Informers and Rosero’s The Armies getting a lot of good attention. Not to mention Santiago Gamboa . . .
Just so happens I’m going to be in New York for this, and will definitely be attending:
Thursday, January 29
Reading & Launch Party Reception
Co-sponsored by NYU’s MFA Program in Creative Writing in Spanish
Contributors to BOMB 106 read in both Spanish and English. Featuring the work of two of Chile’s leading poets: Raúl Zurita (in a rare U.S. appearance), his translator Anna Deeny, and Nicanor Parra, as read by his translator Liz Werner.
They are joined by the acclaimed Argentine novelist Sergio Chejfec and his translator, Margaret Carson, reading excerpts from Chejfec’s first work to appear in English, My Two Worlds, and the fresh, new voice of Chilean novelist Lina Meruane.
There are lots of reasons to attend, not the least of which is the fact that Sergio Chejfec and his translator, Margaret Carson, will be there. Scott Esposito brough Chejfec to my attention, after Enrique Vila-Matas named Chejfec’s Los incompletos his book of the year, and compared Chejfec to Walser and Sebald. . . . Coincidentally (in an awesome way), an excerpt of Chejfec’s work is in the BOMB’s latest “First Proof” supplement.
Not sure how long this has been available, but the recent issue of BOMB is dedicated to Brazilian art and culture.
Looks like a fantastic issue, with articles about Cao Guimarães and Marilá Dardot, Bernardo Carvalho (an excerpt from his most recent novel Nine Nights is also available), Lygia Fagundes Telles and Manuel Alegre, and the architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, among others.
There are also a slew of excerpts, including a story by Rubem Fonseca (not from our forthcoming collection), an excerpt from The House of the Fortunate Buddhas by Joāo Ubaldo Ribeiro, a piece by Patricia Melo, and Four Poems by Adélia Prado.
Some stuff is available online, but for most of this you’ll have to actually buy the issue . . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .