7 October 13 | Chad W. Post |

As mentioned last month, I decided to start this monthly round-up for two reasons—to highlight a few interesting books in translation that other venues likely won’t, and because I think there’s more to literature that the monthly Flavorwire listicles. (One more Flavorwire thing: It’s totally fine that we’re not on the 25 Best Indie Presses list, but did you have to title it “Fuck You, Open Letter”?)

I’m writing this in haste, putting to use the four hours of “found time” that US Airways granted me by canceling my flight. Not that I really mind—I think I’m one of the few people who, aside from the remarkably uncomfortable seating options, doesn’t mind airports. If I could concentrate as well at work as I can in airports, we’d be golden. (And by “golden,” I mean, probably on that Flavorwire list.) The only thing that ever really gets to me are all of the asinine “businessmen” talking nonsense into their Nextel phones. What are these people even on about? I swear, I’ve eavesdropped on so many conversations that the NSA should hire me, but the only conclusion I’ve come to is that our entire economy runs on Excel pivot tables for mysterious “services,” about which the client is always a) unsatisfied, and b) a total prick. I wouldn’t be surprised if half these “businessmen” were just playing dress up to try and convince everyone that the U.S. economy wasn’t totally fucked. “Look! My cell phone’s not even on! What, did you really think Nextel phones worked? All I know about Excel is Minesweeper.” Business is stupid.

OK, this month’s books.

Wigrum by Daniel Canty. Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioael. (Talonbooks, $14.95)

We ran a review of this book a week or so ago, and Patrick Smith captured all the things about this that first grabbed my attention when I saw it at BEA:

Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader” and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes part of how the book complicates itself.

That’s all great, but undersells the fun of yelling out “WIGRUM!” every once in a while. Such a great word that sounds both threatening and goofy all at once.

Milk and Other Stories by Simon Fruelund. Translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel. (Santa Fe Writers Project, $12.00)

Kyle and Simon were in Rochester just last week to talk about Milk, an early book of Simon’s, and Civil Twilight, a more recent, and stylistically very different, novella, and I think you should really read both of these books.

Also, we’ll have a recording of the event up on Three Percent in the near future along with the one we did with Jean-Marie Blas de Robles. Watch both of these—they turned out to be two of our best ever Reading the World Conversation Series events.

Kyle Semmel is, like me, a die-hard Cardinals fan. How we grew up in Rochester, NY and Bay City, MI and became St. Louis fans is a bit strange, but Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Whitey Herzog should explain most of that. My baseball imagination was totally captured by those mid-80s teams who stole more than 240 bases a year (over 300 in 1985!)—a number that’s insane by today’s standards. (Jacoby Ellsbury lead the majors with 52 stolen bases this year; Vince Coleman stole 110 in 1985.) I loved the idea that you could succeed not by being all jacked up and huge, but by bunting and stealing every base even when the world knew you were going to be running. That’s baseball to me.

And for that reason, I’ve been through the emotional wringer the past few years, with Game 6 against Texas being the high point, and hating the shit out of San Francisco last year. After falling into a deep depression about last night’s loss, I’m fairly certain that the Cardinals will go down 5-1 today before staging a miraculous ninth inning comeback that will end with my heart exploding. Baseball.

Final sports note: Fuck Boston. Not only are their fans the worst—a sickening combination of faux-put upon (“But we didn’t win for years! We’re long-suffering!”) and entitlement (“We spent the most money and didn’t win last year—we deserve it!”)—but their franchise decided to carve “BOSTON STRONG” into the outfield. That’s tasteless to me, although I did predict that Boston would (grossly) capitalize on the Marathon Bombings as another reason why they “deserve” to win this year. “We’ve got to heal the city, ya’ know?” Shut up and please get swept by the Tigers. And screw Bill Simmons.


Private Pleasures by Hamdy el-Gazzar.& Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies. ($18.95, American University at Cairo Press)

I’m currently reading another book that Humphrey Davies translated—Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be by Fāris al-Shidyāq. I mentioned this a while back as a sort of Arabic Laurence Sterne, and now that I’m more than halfway through the first (of four?) volume, I can affirm that this is a pretty apt comparison. I’ll write a full-length review later on, but I just want to say that this is nothing what I had expected a book written in Arabic in 1855 to be like. It’s filthy—I particularly like the bit where the people in the pub argue about what type of person is the happiest and decide that the whore must be, since she gets both money and pleasure and the devotion of her clients—and funny and obsessed with language. The language bits seem like the most difficult for Davies to translate, which is why there are hundreds of footnotes, but also make it clear that Fāris al-Shidyāq was a super-intelligent, strange man.

In a way, this reminds me of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) for all of its delays and sections addressed to future critics and readers and religious men and the like. Definitely worth reading.

Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst. Translated from the Flemish by David Colmer. ($23.99, St. Martin’s Press)

I haven’t read this Verhulst book yet—I really like Problemski Hotel when I read that years ago—but I do have a DVD of the movie version in my office:



Leapfrog and Other Stories by Guillermo Rosales. Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. ($14.95, New Directions)

New Directions brought out Rosales’s The Halfway House a few years back to great acclaim, so I’m sure this collection will also do pretty well.

It’s hard to write about Rosales without mentioning his personal history, which is really bleak and awful. He was born in Cuba in the 1940s, but was forced to leave for Miami because of his “morose, pornographic, and irreverent” works. The rest of his life was spent going in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and he finally took his own life at the age of 47 after destroying most of his unpublished manuscripts.

The Elixir of Immortality by Gabi Gleichmann. Translated from the Norwegian by Michael Meigs. ($18.95, Other Press)

Other Press sure doesn’t shy away from publishing gigantic books. Where Tigers Are at Home, which I HIGHLY recommend, and I guarantee you’ll want to rush out and buy after watching the RTWCS interview with Blas de Robles, came out in March and clocks in at 832 pages. A True Novel by Minae Mizamura, which comes out next month, is 880 pages and comes in two volumes with a slipcase. This novel, The Elixir of Immortality is 768 pages long.

God bless Other Press for publishing such huge tomes at a time when the conventional wisdom is that readers have an attention span of approximately 140 characters. I love big-ass huge books, which brings me to—

Blinding: The Left Wing by Mircea Cartarescu. Translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter. ($22.00, Archipelago Books)

Along with Leg over Leg and the new Pynchon (which I’m really enjoying so far), this is the third book that I brought with me for this trip to Frankfurt. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and, to tell a whingey publishing story, Open Letter tried to get the rights to this book but we were rejected. (Cartarescu wasn’t impressed with us. But to be fair, this was back in 2006 before we had any books.)

Let me just quote you a part of Archipelago’s press release:

Blinding takes us on a mystical trip into the protagonist’s childhood, his memories of hospitalization as a teenager, the prehistory of his family, a traveling circus, secret police, zombie armies, American fighter pilots, the jazz underworld of New Orleans, and the installation of the Communist regime.

I won’t be surprised if this wins the 2014 BTBA for Fiction.

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray. ($13.00, Yale University Press)

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is an author I know I should read—some of his works were translated into English by Paul Bowles—but haven’t gotten to yet. I love the idea that The African Shore is a work of “dystopic travel fiction,” and I especially love what Roberto Bolaño said about Rey Rosa:

Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Monterroso, and now Rodrigo Rey Rosa, three giant writers from a small, unhappy country.

Also, that owl is eating a frog. I am both disgusted and intrigued. Intriguingly disgusted.

The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. Translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary. ($14.95, Open Letter)

Moment of Open Letter self-promotion: Chejfec is one of the best Argentine writers working today. If you like Javier Marias, if you like W.G. Sebald, you will like all of Chejfec’s books. And of the three we’ve published—My Two Worlds, The Planets—I think this is my favorite. It has the concise style of My Two Worlds with the plotted aspects of The Planets. Both of his other books have been finalists for the BTBA, and with another stunning translation by Heather Cleary, I suspect this one will also make the shortlist.

Speaking of Heather Cleary, you need to check out the Buenos Aires Review. This is a fantastic new online journal that Heather is involved with, and which is spectacularly designed. It’s loaded with great writers and translators—from Russell Valentino to Tyrno Maldonado to Pola Oloixarac and more—and has recently been recommended to me by multiple people who just wanted to make sure I was aware of this “amazing new website.” Check it out!

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. ($22.00, McSweeney’s Books)

As part of Middlebury’s Clifford Symposium, I had the opportunity to meet Yumiko Yanagisawa, a Swedish-Japanese and English-Japanese translator who, over the course of her career, has worked on almost 80 different titles. Not only is she one of the most prolific translators of our time, but throughout Japan there are reading groups dedicated to her translations. This is something that an American translator can only dream of.

That said, I know that I’ll pay serious consideration to anything Bill Johnston, Margaret Jull Costa, Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Susan Bernofsky, or Katherine Silver translates. And more. (Then again, I am weird, and not a typical reader.)

I know nothing about The End of Love, but I would totally join a Katherine Silver book club and read this.

26 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by P. T. Smith on Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, from Talonbooks.

Patrick, who is one of our regular reviewers, not only has a heightened interest in) and geographical proximity to) Montreal and its literature scene, but also shares the amusement and probable giggles at the sound of the book’s title. (I used the arrival of the galley as reason to continually creep around the office muttering “Wigrummm, WIIIGRUUUMMMM!”).

I can’t wait to finish Wigrum myself, and enjoy not only the encyclopedic aspect of it, but also the “who’s really who” games Canty plays. Several times throughout the entries, Canty lists initials (like S. W. and J. S.) that correspond to multiple possible names, giving the perfect balance of ambiguity and certainty—not too unlike books like Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels. And as you’ll see in Patrick’s review, the entries can be comical, sad, and at times pointless. And sometimes a little dirty, such as the “Arachnid Thimble,” in which one Baron Rudolf Drangstelzer has a pet Amazonian forest spider, Mother Salome, whose legs are tipped in rubber thimbles to protect humans from its venom—“an aphrodisiac with deadly properties, inducing in its victim a copulatory madness that eventually depletes them of all their bodily fluids . . .” And though things don’t end so well for Drangstelzer, he does go out with a happy ending.

Anyway! On to Patrick’s review:

From the start, Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, published by Canadian press Talonbooks, is obviously a novel of form. Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader” and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes part of how the book complicates itself. Novels where form dominates, and ones where the graphic design element is strong, can be exciting, but they are also easily met with a challenge—do you have more to offer me or are you just a pretty object, a chair that looks nice in the corner, but not recommended as a reading chair?

Besides risking form over substance, Wigrum is also immediately quirky—a culturally-loaded term that for some is ever-appealing, for others, an easy and lazy dismissal (the fear that it is simply a gimmick), with the middle ground needing the full context of the book or film. We aren’t in Wes Anderson territory here, but Canty does want to charm the reader with fantasy, with claims of authenticity that no one is falling for or being confused by.

For the rest of the review—and for more reasons to read this book—go here.

26 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

From the start, Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, published by Canadian press Talonbooks, is obviously a novel of form. Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader” and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes part of how the book complicates itself. Novels where form dominates, and ones where the graphic design element is strong, can be exciting, but they are also easily met with a challenge—do you have more to offer me or are you just a pretty object, a chair that looks nice in the corner, but not recommended as a reading chair?

Besides risking form over substance, Wigrum is also immediately quirky—a culturally-loaded term that for some is ever-appealing, for others, an easy and lazy dismissal (the fear that it is simply a gimmick), with the middle ground needing the full context of the book or film. We aren’t in Wes Anderson territory here, but Canty does want to charm the reader with fantasy, with claims of authenticity that no one is falling for or being confused by. The references to books, stories, and films abound, from the most indirect, to obvious, to direct statements (“Faulkner’s Hankie” is one of the objects). All of this, the dominance of form, the quirk, the seeming dependence on referents, are aspects of a book that make me cross my arms, dig my heels in, and look for ways to dislike a work. I caught myself doing this, promised to reset myself—and just as I am working on this, Canty presents a backbone. He lets us see what happens when Wigrum seeks and finds an object in the wreckage of a World War II London bombing:

Those imaginative enough will leave with their pockets stuffed with stones, metal bits, shards of crockery. They will tell their friends what it is and the things will transform before their eyes. In a hidden recess of themselves, even those who say they don’t believe will believe. Wigrum knows that out of a beloved story he is left, at times, with only a few phrases, an image, an impression. Can a whole world, a man’s life be reconstructed out of what remains? The allusion is inevitable. Saves us from having to shoulder all the weight of our presence. To pick up the thread of a story, retain only what’s left of it, and invent the rest.

Immediately after this, Wigrum finds his object, but importantly, there are others looking in the rubble, weepers, the wretched, and children. Canty and Wigrum are asking this from us. This admission of the lie, or at least of the fractured truth, is followed by a brief, detailed history of a spoon Wigrum finds and we are expected to believe. We should forget doubts, see what pieces we can find, and then see what we can do with those pieces ourselves, after someone else has found the story. Objects, people, stories, and allusions are all threads that can be picked up and then invented off of. With a backbone set, Wigrum again opens up, early resentments eased.

Though ideas, recurring characters, themes, references (Pynchon, Melville, and Vonnegut make varied appearances), and ghostly links asking for a revisit connect some of the “inventories” to each other, for the most part they stand alone. Though purposively incomplete, they don’t lack for insight, keen phrases, or emotional insight. Their brevity—they generally run from a half-page to three pages—and the way this small scope is meant to evoke something more in the reader calls to mind Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories or Walser’s Microscripts, though not as fine-tuned or accomplished. On the sentence level, Canty, through Oana Avasilichioaei’s translation, has the occasional clunker, with at least some seeming to come from hewing close to the original, though a couple are awkward phrasings that could likely be smoother without straying from the French. The vision differs too, while Canty’s inventories are gestures toward larger stories, missing stories, Kawabata and Walser focus on the microscopic. Their works are satisfying as individual short, short pieces; Canty’s need their context, their framework, and play off of each other rather than separate.

His own sense of detail is based most strongly on ideas, the ideas that drift through Wigrum. The flights of fancy are some of the successful quirky moments, ones that make you smile, but aren’t suggestive of importance that isn’t there, as when describing books that the object “Blank Page” came from: “The books, elegantly typeset in octavo signature according to the golden ratio, were printed on India paper, hand-sewn and bound in colourful cloth.” There’s no meaning behind the use of the golden ratio, we aren’t supposed to make anything of it, but if dreamy, lost books are being invented, why not invoke such a beautiful concept? Canty is also skillful at letting the stories come close to the world we know, then, just when we feel normalized, launching the story and the ambition outwards with. In “Blooming Handbook, 1968” he begins by drawing us in with a historical figure like Buckminster Fuller, moves on to an invented work, returns to our reality by citing Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but ends with another sudden change, “Moreover, some of his philosophy’s followers claim that his dome, once fitted with solar panels, could be transformed into an interstellar spaceship, a flying garden that would leave the earth to begin the world afresh.”

The inventories vary in tone, which helps keep one after another compelling, and quality, which means the brevity of each is fortunate. Some are forgettable, easy to pass over on the way to a more interesting object, but those probably vary from reader to reader. Some objects are more than forgettable and you look forward to the start of the next. There is no particular tone that suits Canty best—some have dark, violent twists (“Arab String, 1949”), others are hysterical. “Holden’s Hat” comes out with the pleasantly absurd premise that Holden Caulfield did exist, does wear the famous hunting hat, and when he becomes a college professor, develops the habit of “When annoyed by a student’s vanity, he would pull down the earflaps of his hunting hat to stop hearing anything.” A few are heartbreaking, as with “Chinese Fortunes,” the story of a man who finds a bottle of twenty fortunes that instead of “deal[ing] in vaguely exotic generalities that can easily apply to anyone’s life, other than the most unlikely,” tell the fate of truly unique and specific deaths.

Throughout this variety, Wigrum maintains a consistency of ideas, or beliefs. Though the aspiration is not a grand one, no fresh achievement in a book, there is a special, and rare accomplishment: form, content, and style align to make a complete work, with the loose ends being purposeful, or in the case of weaker inventories, unnecessary. An early hint of this alignment is in “Bartlebrick” where the story of an object, a brick, and its association with a Wall Street bookkeeper, Stipes, who responds to all requests with “I’d rather not.” At the end of this obvious allusion to Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivner,” we are told that this predates Melville, that he likely got wind of this through connections from his time at the working near the Dead Letter Office. Canty’s story, instead of being influenced by Melville, is presented as the origin of, cause and effect are switched, and a continual loop is ignited. It is a fragment of a tale that Melville comes across, which leads to his own tale (with the expression changed, and the time at the Dead Letter Office coming after Wall Street instead of before), which leads to Canty’s . . . but Canty’s came first . . . This looping is reflected in phrases showing up in different inventories, apparently detached, but in the frame of the book, caught in endless repetitions that lead to fracturing of new stories (though at times I wished the repetition had a little more variation—I was sorely tempted to count how many times he used a variation of “sibylline” and wished that Avasilichioaei had found another way to translate it).

Canty is obviously aware of and confident in these loops, daring in his Afterword (attributed to him in the table of contents), when questioning the relationship between the collector Wigrum and his curator Stepniac, to tempt us with “Assumed names or looping loop of correspondences?” The effect of a book that lives so entirely within its scope, where the style reflects the concepts and conception, lets the reader move within that world, almost like taking on the mindset of a hero in a fantasy novel or an explorer in an alien culture in a sci-fi novel. I found myself enveloped by the references, seeking them out almost in a paranoid state. Something sounds familiar and I begin to wrack my brain, trying to get at the reference. This is where the finalized index comes in handy for readers. The index was something I forgot entirely about, so easy to dismiss in the beginning (does this author really expect me to read an index? to care about his pet references enough to try to pin them down?), until a footnote telling of a rubber baron and his boat Klauski, found on top of a mountain, sent me to the index, and sure enough I found Fitzcarraldo. Eventually, I became jealous of anyone with a final edition, with the set index. Instead, when glancing at it and finding a reference to Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, likely the book I’ve read the most times in my life, I revisit the entire book, trying to find out where this reference I missed was (“Atlantean Flag, 1978” has a reference to both 42 and a game of scrabble that ends in a fight; it must be it). We can buy in so much that when he cheekily, backhandedly admits the base reality of what an object is, we dismiss it with him. The description of “Ectoplasmic Sponge” opens with “This solid and spongy body, easily confused with an aquatic sponge, is the residue of an ectoplasm vomited by Ashley Atalanta, the Irish medium born Virginia Sexton.” Why not admit what something is at the same time you deny it, and offer a more interesting reality instead? It becomes enough that you don’t know whether to be embarrassed for Canty, or feel like you are missing something, when he puts forth a historical anachronism like P. T. Barnum meeting Ben Franklin.

This excited collection of objects, of invention, is not necessarily an exercise in positive thinking, though we are called on to join in, as when we see whole other stories bursting out of one that is shared with us, and as that early invocation would make us think. Objects and people begin to show little difference from each other. Both are repeatedly lost, burnt, disappear, die, and leave barely a trace, only enough for another story to begin, which itself will then inevitably be lost again. In the very beginning, we’re told how similar people and objects are: people are “nothing more than ourselves” and the objects in the collection have “nothing in particular other than the aura their story bestows upon them.” The encouragement of story, faith in the fantastic, is not a risk-free endeavor, more than one character loses his place in the world or his life simply be believing in his story or encouraging another’s: “If a moral was at work in the automaton’s ruse, it is that fiction seems to be a game and, if a game, it can definitely be won or lost.”

In the final sections, Canty begins what he started by returning to the underlying structure of Wigrum, a collector of objects, the woman tied to him and rebirthing in name in various women throughout, the curator of his works, Stepniac, and the story of how Canty himself came to these texts. The connections between all of them are only hinted at, and like in so many of the stories, we have no original, core text, only remainders, so as Canty writes that Wigrum “commenced ceasing to exist,” the ending, and the disconnections, are opportunities to take our own risks, creating the rest of the stories, linking what we are able, and letting be lost what must be lost.

....
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