8 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Catherine Bailey on A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin, and available from Small Beer Press.

Catherine Bailey is an English grad student here at the University of Rochester. (Or maybe was . . . I think she just graduated. And if so, congrats!) She reviewed Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park for us last fall.

Chateaureynaud’s A Life on Paper: Stories is absolutely brilliant. It was also a finalist for this year’s Best Translated Book Award and is translated by one of the coolest & smartest translators out there. Edward has quite a fanbase . . . If you listen carefully to the video of the BTBA Award Ceremony you will hear a screams of support from the audience when his name is read.

Here’s the opening of Catherine’s review:

In reading this marvelous selection of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s short fiction, I could not help but reminisce about childhood nights spent huddled near a campfire, seated at the feet of an elder and listening, enraptured, to ghost stories. Like those master storytellers whose haunting tales were exaggerated by the play of their hands over the flame, Châteaureynaud makes expert thematic use of both light and shadow to reveal his fantastical realms of wonder and fear. His unassuming prose startles as it entrances, holding readers on the edge of elegantly rendered, fantastical dream-worlds while all at once alluding to their more nightmarish qualities. In the style of Kafka and Poe, Châteaureynaud makes the supernatural seem not only present, but ubiquitous, inclined to encroach at any moment on the humdrum lives of unsuspecting mortals. More sinister than fairy tales, yet not quite definable as horror stories, Châteaureynaud’s whimsical writings leave one unsettled and alert, appreciating anew the possibilities of the chilly night air while simultaneously feeling the urge to draw nearer to the fire—just in case.

There are no consequential clashes in Châteaureynaud’s stories, nor heroic exploits. These are Everyman stories, brushes of ordinary individuals with forces beyond their control and explanation. Protagonists may be shaken, inspired, perplexed, and disturbed by these encounters, but they are rarely surprised. This is one of the distinguishing and most enjoyable marks of Châteaureynaud’s prose—in a recurring device akin to magical realism, the author abruptly introduces a maverick element into an otherwise banal scenario, but the arrival of this supernatural intervention is accommodated by characters without much shock or disbelief. In “La Tête,” a doctor is visited by a patient who carries a still-cognizant talking head around in a sack. More

Click here to read the entire piece.

8 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In reading this marvelous selection of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s short fiction, I could not help but reminisce about childhood nights spent huddled near a campfire, seated at the feet of an elder and listening, enraptured, to ghost stories. Like those master storytellers whose haunting tales were exaggerated by the play of their hands over the flame, Châteaureynaud makes expert thematic use of both light and shadow to reveal his fantastical realms of wonder and fear. His unassuming prose startles as it entrances, holding readers on the edge of elegantly rendered, fantastical dream-worlds while all at once alluding to their more nightmarish qualities. In the style of Kafka and Poe, Châteaureynaud makes the supernatural seem not only present, but ubiquitous, inclined to encroach at any moment on the humdrum lives of unsuspecting mortals. More sinister than fairy tales, yet not quite definable as horror stories, Châteaureynaud’s whimsical writings leave one unsettled and alert, appreciating anew the possibilities of the chilly night air while simultaneously feeling the urge to draw nearer to the fire—just in case.

There are no consequential clashes in Châteaureynaud’s stories, nor heroic exploits. These are Everyman stories, brushes of ordinary individuals with forces beyond their control and explanation. Protagonists may be shaken, inspired, perplexed, and disturbed by these encounters, but they are rarely surprised. This is one of the distinguishing and most enjoyable marks of Châteaureynaud’s prose—in a recurring device akin to magical realism, the author abruptly introduces a maverick element into an otherwise banal scenario, but the arrival of this supernatural intervention is accommodated by characters without much shock or disbelief. In “La Tête,” a doctor is visited by a patient who carries a still-cognizant talking head around in a sack. The physician’s reaction exemplifies Châteaureynaud’s approach to such bizarre events:

The free play of its functions . . . was considerably impaired. But the simple fact that these manifested themselves at all flew in the face of what the entire medical establishment took for granted. That said, I am a progressive and an optimist; if it’s proven tomorrow that babies will henceforth be born from their mothers’ ears, that’s where I’ll await them. The decapitated head spoke? So be it!

Châteaureynaud’s characters remain similarly unflappable under a whole host of remarkable and surreal circumstances. In “Icarus Saved from the Skies,” a man develops miniature feathered wings, but refuses any attempts at flight, much to the chagrin of his proud wife. In “The Only Mortal,” a tryst with a forest-dwelling seductress causes an indelible (and distressing) message to appear on a young soldier’s skin. In “The Guardicci Masterpiece,” a woman must compete with a crooning, reanimated adolescent mummy for her lover’s attention. The extraordinary crops up spontaneously in people’s lives, occasionally wreaking permanent alteration, but more often than not simply fading away just as unceremoniously as it came.

In other stories, magic is confined to the peripheries, seeming to exist solely in a single character’s perception of a tragic or painful situation. In these, Châteaureynaud compellingly plays with the fine line between imagination and delusion, with the power and isolation inherent to subjectivity, and with the endlessly creative narratives we weave for ourselves in order to better cope with loss. In a few cases, these boundaries completely break down; Châteaureynaud denies characters the chance to raise rosy justifications around their peculiar behaviors, and instead exposes them for what they are: absurd, unsettling, even mad. In the titular story, a man bereft at the death of his wife resolves to oppose “time’s acid tides” by photographing his daughter at systematic intervals. By the time she hits 20, he has catalogued over 93,200 images of her life, and not without doing considerable damage to the girl’s psychology. The border between fantasy and obsession in these stories is never fixed, and some of the humans in Châteaureynaud’s fiction rival his ghosts, goblins, and spooks in their ability to make a reader shiver.

Perhaps it is for that reason that some of the most successful stories in this collection—a sampling chosen from other 30 years of Châteaureynaud’s work—focus not on the mysteries of the supernatural, which the author never seeks to rationalize, but on the intricacies of his human subjects. Whether taken metaphorically or literally, the vignettes in which mystical interludes catalyze or coincide with poignant emotional development in lead protagonists are some of Châteaureynaud’s richest and most memorable.

Another interesting aspect of Châteaureynaud’s work is its flexibility with time and setting. In the 22 stories included in A Life on Paper: Stories, backdrops range from the medieval to the contemporary, with segments located in urban as well as remote country landscapes. Châteaureynaud moves easily between specific historical moments and more transcendent locales, demonstrating his ability to craft stories that are both timely and timeless. The context of World War II is of direct importance to “The Gulf of the Years,” for instance, while “Sweet Street” and “The Peacocks” could happen any time.

Châteaureynaud’s prose is even and smooth, so tranquil at times it is almost hypnotic. Edward Gauvin’s translation pays careful attention to switches in tone and dialect, maintaining the discrepancy between the author’s own voice and those of his more casual characters. In addition to the stories available here, Châteaureynaud has penned nearly one hundred more, as well as eleven novels, two for young adults. An established figure in France, and an active member of several organizations that recognize literary excellence, Châteaureynaud has already seen his work translated into fourteen other languages. A Life on Paper: Stories will certainly be a welcome addition to many English-speakers’ libraries.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Catherine Bailey on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, which was published by Europa Editions in Tim Mohr’s translation.

Catherine Bailey is a new reviewer for us—she’s a writer, artist, and activist from Seattle, WA who is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rochester. (Hence the connection.) And based on this, I’m hoping she can find some time to write a few more reviews for us . . .

Bronsky is an interesting figure. She was at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and her latest book was on the longlist for this year’s German Book Prize. (And I believe is forthcoming from Europa Editions.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

Click here to read the full review.

6 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother.”

So begins Broken Glass Park, the achingly beautiful debut novel by Russian-born Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym). This casual treatment of deeply harbored aggressive fantasies is characteristic of Bronsky’s central protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sascha Naimann, whose thinly veneered emotional turbulence reflects the collective restlessness of the inner city housing “projects” in which the story unfolds, and in which Bronsky herself lived for a time. Like Sascha, Bronsky emigrated from Russia to Germany during early adolescence and experienced the life ascribed to those residing in a small, peripheral community suffering from economic disadvantage, cultural displacement, and linguistic marginalization. But while Bronsky’s family found its way out of the projects, the Naimanns remain, resulting in tragic consequences that span generations.

The source of Sascha’s venomous hatred for Vadim is swiftly revealed: an abusive figure from the start, he murdered her mother one night in a fit of rage before the very eyes of Sascha and her two younger half-siblings. The novel opens approximately two years after the slaughter, and though Vadim is behind bars for his insidious crime, the horror of this loss is no less fresh—nor forgivable—in the mind of the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator. As Sascha’s inner monologue winds its way, somewhat disjointedly, through reminiscences of the days before her mother’s death, the profound intellectual rigor and thoughtful, psychological gravity to which the young woman was predisposed become apparent; yet, simultaneously, so does the fact that she has since devoted these energies toward the singular objective of her stepfather’s demise, for which she waits with an infinite and calculating patience. Sascha’s roiling detestation of Vadim and consequently, of all men, is kept in check only by the layer of pointed apathy with which she meets the rest of life. At one point Sascha muses, “A Russian children’s poem comes to mind: ‘My nerves are made of steel, no, actually, I don’t have any at all.’ It’s like it was written about me. I don’t have any.” She is as a walking corpse, disdainful of the petty tribulations saddling the people in her life, kept alive only by her ardent desire to bring death to her stepfather and a symbolic resurrection to her mother through the immortal act of writing.

And yet, as the text carries on, we see that this is not so. Unbeknownst to Sascha, she is, in fact, a caring sister, a dedicated (if outwardly exasperated) friend, and a wellspring of sensual emotion. Through a fortuitously placed newspaper article, Sascha encounters Volker Trebur, the mysteriously alluring city section editor, and his son Felix. A complicated web of relationships develops between the three, revealing nuances of Sascha’s tenderness even as it demonstrates the extent of the damage done to her ability to give and receive love by the trauma she has sustained. Ultimately a character study, Broken Glass Park offers a poignant and telling portrait of the human condition through Sascha: she is furious, she is helpless; at times she is downright ugly, yet her compassion delivers others from pain. She is broken, and in struggling to repair herself, she often does nothing but widen the cracks in the pane of her fragile existence. Bronsky’s gift for subtle characterization makes Sascha a sympathetic, frustrating, and compellingly imperfect heroine.

Interestingly, Broken Glass Park is not composed of individual chapters; rather, it flows continuously. This stylistic choice greatly enhances the content of the novel, given that Sascha’s thoughts and perceptions are expressed in the present tense. The uninterrupted flow of the text allows for a seamless blending of the protagonist’s immediate moods and sensations with her tangential, introspective narration of actual past and imagined future. Reading Broken Glass Park is, at times, much like listening to someone think aloud—the free association so structurally important to the character’s voice leads to revelations far more significant than any dialogue would provide (though on the occasions in which it arises, Bronsky’s dialogue is solid). Moreover, the unceasing progression of the plot as told through Sascha’s eyes lends thrust to the ubiquitous sense of agitated ennui that permeates her fractured urban community. Its inhabitants are desperate for their various reasons, but escape seems distant if plausible at all. The droning of the narrator’s voice invites readers to participate, if only vicariously, in the relentless aimlessness of a journey devoid of destination—a phenomenon felt on a societal level by the impoverished immigrants of the projects, and on a personal level by Sascha’s cavernous depression. The text does not blink, so to speak, and the device is potent. There is no relieving respite from the imposition of the next heavy thought, the next unpleasant memory. There is nothing to do, in light of Sascha’s tragedy, and in light of the many unsung episodes of the troubled population around her, but to continue.

Among the novel’s most engaging themes is Sascha’s relationship with the polarities of her own emotional development. Though she condemns her mother’s gentle nature as the source of her downfall and swears to despise all men, Sascha finds herself drawn into various avenues of romantic and sexual experimentation. In her approach to these predominantly bumbling attempts at connection, she is at once mature beyond her years and alarmingly naïve. Likewise, her efforts to harden her heart for the task of exacting revenge on Vadim are counteracted by her role as a nurturing maternal figure to her young siblings and even her legal guardian, who is in many ways a child. By sending Sascha swinging, pendulum-like, between the forces of self-desecration and self-preservation, Bronsky implies that there are no absolute paths to personal fulfillment. In illustrating this tension throughout the entirety of her work, the author has given us a noteworthy body of ideas to contemplate long after the final page is turned.

Broken Glass Park, released by Europa Editions and translated by Tim Mohr, is a captivating and unsettling read. It was recently nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, a distinguished award in Europe, and with its delicate treatment of the existential complexities surrounding the perpetuation of violence and the salvation of acceptance, it is likely to garner much more critical acclaim.

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