4 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, which Victoria Cribb translated from the Icelandic and is available from Telegram Books.

Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize (the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for The Blue Fox, which was also longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009. Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for the song lyrics he wrote for Björk in the film Dancer in the Dark and has been working on Björk’s latest project, Biophilia. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages.

Here is part of his review:

Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.

Click here to read the entire review.

4 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.

One of the most obvious motifs in the novel is myth. Variations on standard mythology abound in the text. The novel begins with a retelling of the story of the fall of Lucifer. Later, it introduces a variation on the Garden of Eden story and the origin of Eve. In a sense, the entire story of Jonas could be viewed as a re-imagining of the story of Jonah. After all, the two characters, Jonas and Jonah have nearly the same name, they both have sailors try to throw them off boats in order to appease a storm, and, toward the end of their stories, they both get eaten by whales. Mythology is also contrasted with knowledge in the book, though the two subjects are not presented as opposites. It is clear that Jonas, a poet and man of myth, and his wife Sigridur, an amateur astronomer and woman of science, both express a similar basic desire for knowledge; indeed, knowledge and myth often boil down to the same thing, as they both seek to explain the way the world works. Jonas’ major scientific achievement, the classification of the flora and fauna of Iceland, is a curious mix of magical properties and concrete descriptions. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that it provokes reflection on the difference between mythology and knowledge, for in the period in history this novel portrays there does not seem to be any difference at all.

In addition to the little myths that pepper the book, there are longer myths that deal explicitly with the problem of depravity. For Lucifer, man’s creation is a depravity. For Adam, his shadow is a depravity. For Jonas, the behavior of the ruling powers in Iceland is a depravity. Depravity exists in the world of this book, and it’s a central problem – so what does one do about it? By dealing so centrally with this question, Sjón’s work is in much the same genre as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and The Book of Jonah. Like those other two important works, From the Mouth of the Whale doesn’t provide a whole lot of answers; its main virtue lies in challenging existing ones. Disengagement, one of the strategies Jonas pursues, doesn’t work for him, and he ends up wasting his life and ruining that of his wife. Poetry, myth, and reportage make up Jonas’ other strategy, and it seems to be much more promising. By recording the wrongs that he has seen the rulers of Iceland perpetuate, Jonas manages to keep some of his dignity and self-respect. The second strategy may not provide a perfect answer to the question of how to respond to the world’s depravity, since it surely doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Still, it seems to be the best answer that From the Mouth of the Whale proposes.

Even though the book would have had a neater finish if the author had managed to figure out a definitive solution to the problem of evil, it’s not exactly a fair to fault him for it. By provoking thought about big questions, and doing it in such an elegant and engaging manner, Sjón has written a book that is quite brilliant.

3 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows, which is coming out this month from Seagull Books in Chris Turner’s translation from the French.

Brian Ligboer is a new reviewer for us. (Jeff Waxman made the introduction.) In his own words, he “is the author of a novel, Memories from Beyond the States, which is currently under consideration by a few agents. Previous reviews of mine have appeared in Pank, The Hypocrite Reader, and The Midway Review. I currently live in Chicago where I am working as a polling analyst for Obama’s reelection campaign.”

Quignard’s book sounds really interesting. Just check out the Seagull Books jacket copy:

The first book in Quignard’s Last Kingdom series, The Roving Shadows can be read as a long meditation on reading and writing that strives to situate these otherwise innocuous activities in a profound relationship to sex and death. Writing and reading can in fact be linked to our animal natures and artistic strivings, to primal forces and culturally persistent fascinations. With dexterity and inventiveness, Quignard weaves together historical anecdotes, folktales from the East and West, fragments of myth, and speculative historical reconstructions. The whole, written in a musical style not far removed from that of Couperin, whose piano composition Les Ombres errantes lends the book its title, coheres into a work of literature that reverberates in the psyche long after one has laid it down.

And here’s the opening of Brian’s review:

In 2002, Les Ombres Errantes won the Prix Goncourt—possibly the most prestigious award a French literary work can receive—despite the fact that it is not a novel. Before considering The Roving Shadows in its own right, it is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of that and its subsequent publication in English. Almost one half of the winners of the Prix Goncourt have yet to appear in English translation and in that sense, this translation by Chris Turner is truly an event.

The Roving Shadows is a remarkable work, primarily because it straddles the line between contemporary French literature, which is vastly under-read in the United States, and French critical theory, which is probably more popular outside of France than it is inside. Indeed, it is difficult to say which genre of writing it actually fits. On the one hand the book contains many examples of sensuous description and personal memoir—you know, the type of thing one expects to find in a literary work. On the other hand it also is full of thought-provoking aphorisms and historical anecdotes, favored modes of expression by the critical theorists. Quignard’s book straddles the divide between critical essay and narrative in a way that is highly idiosyncratic. Instead of segregating the work into discrete, genre-specific parts, as Nabokov did in Pale Fire or The Gift, Quignard treads freely over the border between styles, often alternating within a single paragraph.

Click here to read the entire piece.

3 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In 2002, Les Ombres Errantes won the Prix Goncourt—possibly the most prestigious award a French literary work can receive—despite the fact that it is not a novel. Before considering The Roving Shadows in its own right, it is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of that and its subsequent publication in English. Almost one half of the winners of the Prix Goncourt have yet to appear in English translation and in that sense, this translation by Chris Turner is truly an event.

The Roving Shadows is a remarkable work, primarily because it straddles the line between contemporary French literature, which is vastly under-read in the United States, and French critical theory, which is probably more popular outside of France than it is inside. Indeed, it is difficult to say which genre of writing it actually fits. On the one hand the book contains many examples of sensuous description and personal memoir—you know, the type of thing one expects to find in a literary work. On the other hand it also is full of thought-provoking aphorisms and historical anecdotes, favored modes of expression by the critical theorists. Quignard’s book straddles the divide between critical essay and narrative in a way that is highly idiosyncratic. Instead of segregating the work into discrete, genre-specific parts, as Nabokov did in Pale Fire or The Gift, Quignard treads freely over the border between styles, often alternating within a single paragraph.

I seek only thoughts that tremble. There is a flush that belongs to the interior of the soul. The sixth book of the Chin P’Ing Mei (The Plumin the Golden Vase) sees the sudden appearance of the scholar Win Pi’Ku. He isn’t yet forty.

The first sentence is personal narrative, the second is a kind of aphorism, and the third is the beginning of a historical anecdote that continues through most of the chapter. In fact, Quignard actually starts the book by roving across two different modes of writing, his poetic list-making style and his confessional one.

The crowing of the cockerel, the dawn, the barking of dogs, the gathering daylight, a man rising, nature, time, dreams, lucidity—everything is fierce.

I cannot touch the coloured covers of certain books without feeling a painful sensation rise within me.

The uniqueness of this work’s style presents a problem to the reader and the critic. Against which body of works should one judge The Roving Shadows, then, literature or critical theory? The overwhelming majority of the book’s passages are concerned with advancing the narrator’s theses about his own life and the world around him. In this sense, the book feels more like an example of post-modern philosophy than it does of literature. Unlike a work of critical theory, however, The Roving Shadows develops no useful interpretive apparatus. It also advances no support for its positions whatsoever. To fault The Roving Shadows for these two failures, however, is a bit like faulting an orange for not being an apple. There is no indication that The Roving Shadows was intended to be critical theory. The only reason for thinking that it should be critical theory is that it so forthrightly advances profound ideas, ones that challenge the way most people approach the world.

In my mind, the genre-bending literature of ideas that Quignard presents in The Roving Shadows was anticipated by the work of two enormously talented and very different writers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Françoise-René de Chateaubriand. The resemblance of Quignard’s work to Nietzsche’s is the more obvious of the two. The Dawn, for examples, present a very similar blend of unsubstantiated philosophical theses, ad-hoc personal reflection, aphorism, and poetry. Like Nietzsche’s works, The Roving Shadows succeeds in so far as it challenges the reader to question his or her own existence. And indeed, The Roving Shadows raises a host of questions about literature, about writing, about reading, and about criticism. It raises the kind of wonderment that one finds in reading critical theory, but it does so in a way that is far more accessible than your Cixous, Derrida, or Deleuze. The theses it presents can be viewed on their own terms without apparatus; its anecdotes are interesting and keep one entertained while reading, and it leaves the impression of being a “deep” book one could think about for a long time without ever making real progress at understanding.

In a more subtle way, The Roving Shadows is really a work that follows the writing prescriptions of Chateaubriand, the founder of French Romanticism. In The Genius of Christianity, Chateaubriand argued that the writers of his time were missing an enormous opportunity to tap into the imagery, the aporia, and the literary tropes suggested by Catholic theology. His works Atala and René developed a new kind of literature, one whose subject matter and stylistics were both totally unexpected and yet oddly familiar. The Roving Shadows is literature in a similar vein, it’s just that the philosophical framework from which it draws its inspiration is not Catholicism but post-Modern French philosophy. Indeed, the work is best classified as a distillation of critical theory into literary form. For this reason, it is an important work, an interesting work, and a landmark in French literary/philosophical thought.

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