31 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section, is a piece by summer intern Adam Witzel on Olivier Adam’s Cliffs, which came out from Pushkin Press a couple years back.

Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.

The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.

The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge.

Click here to read the full review.

30 July 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.

The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.

The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge:

I’m thirty-one and my life is just beginning. I don’t have a childhood, and from now on, any childhood will do. My mother is dead and everyone I cared about is gone. Life has wiped me clean like the empty table at which Claire and I are sitting and at which Chloé has pulled up a chair, a sweet smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

It is his daughter Chloé for whom Olivier decides to restart his life, and he may relive his childhood vicariously through her while trying to avoid conferring the same travails he experienced onto her.

The novel could be read as Olivier’s final thoughts on his life to date as he falls through the darkness towards the uncompromising rocks, paralleling his mother’s passing. Or it could simply be his rationalization to move on. Nonetheless, his narrative traces memories of his night-walking, earth-consuming mother, his years of escapist sex, drug and alcohol abuse, the mutual disgust he and his brother Antione feel for their oppressive and absent father, his independent years in Paris, and the death of two close friends. Throughout, the ghost of Olivier’s mother continuously appears, demonstrating the extreme degree to which her death preoccupies him. Depressing? Yes, but it is frosted with a rectifying layer of uncertain hope.

Adam’s mastery of the language (and Sue Rose’s deft and thoughtful translation) is what makes Cliffs so engaging. It reads like the music of Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, and/or Leonard Cohen sounds. (In the novel, Olivier recalls listening to all three). Olivier’s narrative voice takes the form of a mix between the unvarnished Cohen and Drake, while the complexity and subtle emotional intensity of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” mark the tale of his mother’s suicide. To gather a sense of the novel as a whole, one considers Drake’s “Pink Moon:” short, sweet, melodic, melancholic and, after the first spin, leaves the listener bursting with the sense of unperceived meaning, and wishing to go again.

At the end of the book a summarizing “I’m thirty-one…” reprise reveals much of the tone:

I’m thirty-one and it doesn’t matter. I know how heavy the dead are. And I know about bad luck. I know about loss and devastation, the taste of blood, the wasted years and those that trickle through your fingers. I know how deep the sand is, I’ve experienced its resistance, its soft, ambiguous material. I know that nothing is dependable, that everything unravels, cracks and shatters, that everything withers and everything dies. Life damages the living and no one ever puts the pieces back together or picks them up.

Ultimately, the sea is not just a place for death, it also takes hold of some of its more common connotations: cleansing and reflection. Cliffs is spectacular from top to bottom.

17 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen |

Every so often, a tiny corner of the world, little seen and little heard in recent times by the rest of the globe, produces an artist whose voice speaks out to all of us, whose work displays such competence and quality as demands immediate attention. Lyonel Trouillot of Haiti is a novelist of such caliber. He is also a poet and essayist, and in 2004 his book Street of Lost Footsteps was a finalist for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize (trans. Linda Coverdale).

Coverdale now brings us Trouillot’s 2002 novel, Children of Heroes, a small but powerful showcase of Trouillot’s diverse talent. The author’s uses of style, voice, and plot structure cohere to form a little book that is much more than the space between its covers. A captivating work of art, the book reads as a miniature epic, a tragic journey, and poignant love story.

The novel takes place in Haiti, where an abusive husband and father is murdered by his two children. It follows their subsequent journey through their overcrowded city evading capture, and their final surrender after three days. While it is narrated in the first person by the younger of the children, Colin, the main figure of the story is truly Mariéla, his older sister, for she is the object of all of his affection; he loves and idolizes her. It is in this respect a tragic romance story as well.

The construction of the narrative is inventive and carefully assembled. The events documented spiral out from the murder itself, tracing what happens after it chronologically while simultaneously doubling back further and further into the past before the murder, and occasionally leaping ahead into the future beyond the three days that could be considered the novel’s real time-span. There are several techniques Trouillot uses to make you feel disoriented as you read, and this is foremost among them. This disorientation reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not to say that the book is confusing: in reading it, I never felt lost or confused, except in the first few pages, where a bombardment of narrative and character information is a bit overwhelming at first:

It must have been noon when we began to run. We could have put up with the smell for a lot longer, but when Mariéla saw the mailman coming, a guy who never failed to have a drink with Corazón and reminisce about the legendary greats of boxing, she dumped our savings out of their jar and, warning me not to lose them, slipped the coins into my pocket, then told me to run without stopping until I was out of the slum.

The relevant information identifying these characters comes gradually, settling the picture and further elaborating it as the novel grows and fleshes out.

The second technique of disorientation is use of chapters unbroken by paragraphs: that is, the text itself is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, but there are no paragraph breaks within them. All dialogue is embedded without demarcation, which is less confusing than one would expect, and at times—particularly in the question game scene—incredibly powerful and effective:

Are they going to lock us up? I mean in a prison or a reformatory? I don’t know. Yes, probably. And will we be locked up together? I don’t know. But we’ll always be together. And Joséphine, what will she think? Maybe she won’t see things the way others will, since she’s all alone now? Joséphine, she won’t think anything, she’ll just stick with suffering and let God think for her.

This lack of identifiers allows you to ascribe these questions and answers to any combination of Colin or Mariéla; the narrative present (having never actually occurred, they could be Colin’s addition in recounting the events long afterward) or the narrative past (having actually occurred at the time of the events and recounted verbatim); and actual conversation or introspection.

In refraining from the use of paragraphs, Trouillot strikes a fine balance between rambling and concision. This is the most immediately tangible device of many he uses, the result of which is a small but densely packed narrative, a miniature epic which does not belabor any point, never drags, and is finely orchestrated to travel in two directions at once while these directions remain parallel: one backward, and one forward, in time from the sparking event of the murder.

Finally, Trouillot tells you a great deal simply by the careful development of a very specific narrative voice. The voice is far more mature than the narrator’s character, suggesting either a great passage of time between the events and the narration (the past tense is used throughout); a blending between the character narrator and an outside narrative voice; or both. In a more minute instance, the chapter in which the aftermath of the murder is related to Colin and Mariéla by Colin’s friend Marcel is delivered with greater maturity, omniscience, and immediacy of reflection than expected from the young Marcel:

The mailman had arrived early, because he enjoyed having a little glass with Corazón even though it was against regulations. . . . Such a good-looking man, A little violent, true, but you can’t choose your temperament, and he didn’t deserve to end up like this. It was in the mailman’s interest to appear shaken by his discovery: people expecting letters were pissed off at him for pitching the mailbag into the pond.

Again this suggests a blending with, or perhaps filtering through, an outside (or significantly later, i.e. more mature) narrator.

Children of Heroes is a small epic, a moving journey, a little treasure-trove of captivating and inventive storytelling. Author Lyonel Trouillot has used every tool at his disposal to demonstrate an enormous talent. This is a book to be widely read and enjoyed, and this is an author who deserves greater attention and praise.

3 June 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [3]

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The life of the Perec family (the family name was originally Peretz) was one of removals. The Perecs moved from one city to another in Poland before leaving Poland for France. Georges was born in France in 1936 and against the background of troubled times the exact details of his early life are lost. His father was one of the few French soldiers to die in the course of the German invasion. His mother was taken up by the authorities and sent to Auschwitz where she was one of the multitude that was to die in the death camps. The remainder of the family successfully eluded the round up of the Jews and Georges’s Aunt Esther and her husband Paul took Georges into their protection. The death of his parents and the necessity of concealing his Jewish background created psychological problems that were reflected in his work as a writer.

He completed his formal education without his achieving the academic cushion that traditionally supported French writers. As early as his eighteenth year he had chosen writing as his vocation, but his will was not equal to his determination and he drifted for a long period during which his pursuits were trivial and his sufferings from bouts of depression were frequent. During this trying time he was called up to serve in the military. He was a parachutist and this, curiously, had a liberating effect. He began at twenty-three to write his third “first” novel. Like its predecessors it had, despite its merits, insuperable faults and was never published. Perec reused pieces of it in his later works.

In 1960 the German government paid reparation money to victims of the Nazis. He and his lover Paulette Petras used the money to buy an apartment. Although they had no financial resources after this purchase, they were able to live in relative security and comfort. He was the center of a wide circle of friends and his reputation as a writer – even though an unpublished one – was secure.

He worked for a time as a consumer researcher, a quasi-discipline imported from the United States. The research involved the definition of men and women through their actual or desired possessions and employed impersonal interviewing techniques. Both the concept and the method contributed to many elements in Life: A User’s Manual.

A further workplace influence was his job as information retrieval specialist with medical research institution. He held this position from 1960 to 1979. The ability to find unexpectedly pertinent relations became an important element in his writing. The computer displaced him from this job and he had to his credit ingenious systems that the computer also rendered useless.

Although Jewish he had no interest in a Jewish heritage. Aunt Esther and Uncle Paul were assimilationists. He had never digested his grief over the senseless deaths of his parents, especially the death of his mother. In a way he worked through these problems in a series of articles that he wrote for Partisans in 1962. In this year he began the creation of his first published work. This was Things: A Story of the Sixties. It was a short book but he labored over it for three years. His publisher printed a small number of Things as a favor to Perec, but the book succeeded by word-of-mouth and won the Renaudot Prize, a prize that traditionally recognized outstanding new writers. Perec was twenty-nine. He had only fifteen years left to live.

His next book, A Man Asleep, was less well received. Despite public apathy this was a gritty study of abulia and the death of the spirit. The protagonist of A Man Asleep will reappear as the student Grégoire Simpson in Life.

Perec received an invitationin 1967 to join OuLiPo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle, or, Workshop for Potential Literature), an organization of men interested in literature and mathematics. This group had developed the theory that all literature should be subject to some restraint. The group shunned publicity and invited few to join it. It would include eventually the new members Jacques Roubaud, Harry Matthews, and Italo Calvino. The most prestigious of the founding members was Raymond Queneau. It would be to the memory of Queneau, who died in 1976, that Life would be dedicated.

Contact with OuLiPo and its aims acted as a powerful influence and Perec’s first oulipian book was the book known in English as A Void. The constraint that he used was to avoid the letter ‘e.’ A Void is modeled on the murder mysteries of which he was a fan and the cause of the deaths one by one of Anton Vowl and his friends is the result of some lack in the universe, that lack being the want of the letter ‘e.’ Thus the restraint is not simply mechanical but an intrinsic part of the narrative.

W, or The Memories of Childhood was an attempt to reconstruct an emotional equivalent of Perec’s own early experience and to restore to life the fantasies with which as a child he consoled himself. It’s a powerful book. In it Perec revives Gaspard Winckler, a name that occurs in his early unpublished work as well as in his first published book, Things. The Gaspard Winckler of Life will be already dead before the story begins, but his influence – that of a figure not unlike Perec capable of trickery, a master puzzle maker – pervades the book.

Perec, always ready to succumb to a hostile world, had great difficulty writing W, especially since in 1970 his long time companion Paulette left him. He felt suicidal and submitted to analysis. By 1972 he was ready to begin the book that proved to be his masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual and one of the acknowledged great books of the twentieth century. This work used several constraints instead of just one. Ready to begin, but typically deflected from the book by other commitments, he did not begin Life until 1976.

Besides the books already mentioned, Perec around 1980 wrote ‘The Winter Journey,’ a perfect story, a mysterious and tantalizing puzzle. It is difficult to find and its publishing history is almost as much an enigma as the story itself. There was also a posthumously published novel, 53 Days, edited by his OuLiPo friends Harry Matthews and Jacques Roubaud.

Perec died in 1982 of cancer. He was forty-six years old.

There is a famous photo of Perec by Anne de Brunhoff. In it, a man with bushy hair leans forward to engage directly with the spectator. He has a satyr’s wispy beard, but the eyes are haunting. They are the eyes of Hermes the Thief, Baron Samedi, Raven, Coyote, the eyes of an ingenious trickster.

2

A cartoon by Saul Steinberg was one of Perec’s inspirations for Life. The cartoon showed at the left the façade of an apartment. The rest of the cartoon showed the forward wall stripped away and this permits us to observe the men and women as they move about the clutter of their possessions.

Perec elaborated on this. Instead of the half dozen or so apartments shown by Steinberg, he composed a square grid of 100 squares. The result ranged from a top floor of servant rooms or former servant rooms to the boiler and storage rooms in the basement. From left to right were apartments, the elevator shaft and the steps with more apartments to the right of the steps. Perec concerned himself with the past as well as with the present occupants. Many of the new occupants have enlarged their living space so that when Perec visits a square – and he only visits each square once – he will relate the events of the current or the past occupant or he will describe the furnishings of the room. Some of the paintings involve short narratives to explain their content.

The apartment dwellers are not necessarily involved with each other and this prevents a unification of many of the stories that sit by themselves with their own intrinsic fascinations. Life is thus a collection of tales – and especially of tales within tales. Despite the persistently urban setting, Life is in the oldest of literary traditions, that of the storyteller.

But an involved triangular relationship unites some of the characters: Percival Bartlebooth, Serge Valène, and Gaspard Winckler.

Percival Bartlebooth provides the widest number of connections. A wealthy eccentric, he has created an occupation for his otherwise idle life. He became a resident of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier to be near Serge Valène, a painter. Bartlebooth, without any special talent as an artist, has set himself the goal of learning to paint in watercolors. He studies with Valène for ten years and emerges form this instruction as a competent painter. He and Smautf, his servant, travel over the world from port to port. He will paint 500 paintings. As each painting is completed he returns it to Gaspard Winkler, another occupant of the apartment building. Winckler turns each painting into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces. After Bartlebooth assembles the puzzle, the pieces are so meticulously rejoined that it is indistinguishable from the original painting. Bartlebooth (or his agent when he becomes to old to travel) returns with it to the scene where it was painted. He then washes the paper clean so that nothing is left except a blank sheet of watercolor paper.

Bartlebooth is the complete oulipian. He only differs in that he has followed the path of his creative constraints to their logical conclusion.

A character named Gaspard Winckler appeared in early books by Perec. Although he was never the same person, he had always something about him that made everyone uneasy. He was a person of either simple mystery or downright villainy. In Life he is more complex but at last he has his revenge. (He has died, by the way, before the story opens.) Bartlebooth dies while he is completing a puzzle. He dies with the last puzzle piece in his hand. It is shaped like the letter ‘w,’ but the space to be filled has the shape of the letter ‘x.’

Although the activities of Bartlebooth bring major coherence to Life, Serge Valène is its presiding spirit. (Whenever Perec uses “he” without explanation, Valène is meant.) He plans a great painting that will depict the major – and many minor – events, past and present, of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. There is a list of the selected scenes, 179 of them. (Perec describes all of them with the same number of letters so some of the events are described very cryptically.) But we learn at the last that the most that Valène has done on this grandiose project is a few charcoal marks on his canvas. He dies one week after Bartlebooth.

In general the other occupants are scarcely less eccentric than Bartlebooth. Some of them are frauds, such as the faddish painter Hutting or the conniving wheeler-dealer Rorschach. Some of them are monsters of miserliness and others are criminals. They all make ridiculous or dramatic entrances. They all prove to be good copy, and the apparently haphazard presentations of them by Perec do not in the least detract from the fascinations that they have to offer. Perec lavishes special care on the parts of the apartment that are more impersonal such as the stairs or the boiler room.

The shape of the book may a little puzzle, but so far all that I have described is transparent, accessible without special effort. The constraint in A Void was obvious, but in Life Perec used several constraints and they function discreetly with the minimum of surface disturbance. The movement from square to square uses the knight’s move from chess. This move is one square forward and one square to the diagonal. With it Perec was able to move through the entire grid of 100 squares without repetition. When he arrives at a different room of Rorschach’s apartment, for example, he can select which type of narrative he will use. He can revisit the same apartment as many as six times.

Perec also uses the constraint of quotations. It is safe to assert that he had a formula for this and that quotations from the same kind of authors are distributed by pattern. But the degree to which the book consists of quotations has not been determined and some have held without any real proof that Life consists greatly of quotations. Perec’s quotations from Joyce and Borges are obvious enough, but he also quotes Agatha Christie whose essentially bland style make quotations from her difficult to spot. David Bellos, translator of Life and author of the major book on Perec, has written an article on the mechanism of Perec’s system of quotation. It is fearsome to contemplate.

Life allows readers to detect puzzles – Perec for years created difficult crossword puzzles for a Paris paper – and to spend time and effort on the examination of all the machinery that makes the book run. This is a gratifying activity, but the book is as it appears on the surface, a masterful assembly of lunatic scholars and assorted eccentrics as they pursue slightly or very demented goals. There is humor and humanity in all this and every detail is richly rewarding, the kind of book rewarding enough to forever leave the reader breathless and gratified.

Life A User’s Manual
By Georges Perec
Translated by David Bellos
Reviewed by Bob Williams

8 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is by Kelly Amabile—of the fantastic Book Culture book store in NYC. She takes a look at Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal.

8 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

One need not be a world traveler or international spy to enjoy Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal, but the allure and intrigue of both take center stage in this cleverly crafted antinovel-cum-travelogue. French novelist and journalist Olivier Rolin chooses another “Olivier Rolin” to play the starring role in this collection of global capers that are disjointedly linked through a series of detailed hotel room descriptions.

Most of the 43 chapters include a thorough recounting of the interior of Rolin’s current lodging. He takes the reader on a remarkably unusual tour of rather ordinary hotel rooms around the world, describing mundane details of accommodations ranging from a Double Tree in Tallahassee, Florida to a Novotel in Cotonou, West Africa. He approximates the dimensions of each room and describes furniture, lighting fixtures, fabric patterns and wallpaper motifs. Recounting shapes of pillows (like “gigantic ravioli”) and wall colors (“denture pink” or “oxblood red”), he continues his seemingly absurd yet captivating narrative right down to the exact positioning and design of the luggage rack.

Although the repetition may tempt readers to skim some details, each of Rolin’s settings is curious enough to hold interest. And his creative use of mirrors and windows proves particularly revealing, providing insight about the state of his own character and offering up views of landscapes that lie beyond the tiresome litany of measurements and upholstery patterns. He often segues from reciting banal room details to carrying on with his latest scheme-in-progress, as in Lausanne, where he describes the phone in Room 1212 at the Hotel d’Angleterre, as it “happens to be ringing to let me know that my clients are waiting for me in the lobby.”

So just what exactly is this international man of mystery up to? Brawls, murder, sex, street riots, ransoms, smuggled caviar and the “explosive-fake-nougat trade” all play a role. There are embassy meetings, secret missions, ridiculous shenanigans and, to be fair, noble efforts like “preserving world peace (temporarily).” Rolin wheels and deals with frequency among a worldwide network of cohorts and exotic women. And, of course, one woman and one hotel room stand apart from the rest. Rolin cannot describe (and remembers very little) about Room 211 at the Hotel Crystal in Nancy, France— except for a box of macaroons—possibly a present from his one true love, Mélanie Melbourne?

This is only one of many unanswered questions. We learn at the outset of the novel that Rolin is actually missing. His stories, discovered in a briefcase that turns up in Paris, made their way into the hands of an “editor” who has pieced together Rolin’s peculiar travel journal. Notes about his hotel rooms and ensuing misadventures are scribbled on travel ephemera of every kind — hotel stationary, transit maps, airline menus, an assortment of postcards, pages torn from literary works and from a Lonely Planet guidebook (with a long footnote hypothesizing why this might be.)

We also learn that Georges Perec has inspired Rolin. While describing Room 102 of Augerge Saint-Pierre in Mont-Saint Michel, Rolin sits (in a bamboo chair) and says he will not leave until he finishes reading a book by Perec:

“So, it is my intention to write the book that Perec refers to in Species of Spaces: ‘…to make an inventory, as exhaustive and as accurate as possible, of “All the Places Where I Have Slept.”’ Yet, as far as I know, Perec never finished the work as planned. So, I’m going to do it for him: not out of arrogance, but rather out of a kind of respect bordering (perhaps) on devotion. When it comes to the authors I love, I can’t bear the idea that they left a project incomplete.”

Yet that is exactly what Rolin does in Hotel Crystal. His experimental fiction is engaging and humorous, but too fragmented and unresolved to be fulfilling. Flipping back and forth between chapters, I found myself trying to piece together his puzzling movements, wanting to plot his multi-continent hotel jaunts on a map, and surprisingly, wishing I could participate in his international escapades. I imagined Rolin’s book as an adult version of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series—complete with fantasies, bad guys, rooms of mirrors and games of chance—in which I could play a part, and see at least one story through to the end.

Rolin’s assemblage of far-flung travel tales is imaginative and refreshing in its approach, but I remain unsatisfied. And throughout the book, he dares to tease about additional tales he has to share! “But that’s another story.” Somehow enticing in its lack of resolution, Hotel Crystal is, however, a book I will read again, foolishly (perhaps) still hoping to solve something in the end.

Hotel Crystal
By Olivier Rolin
Translated by Jane Kuntz
Dalkey Archive Press
190 pgs, $12.95

29 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is by Liam Powell, who reviews a collection of poems, Nettles, by the Lebanese poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata.

29 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Nettles is the most recent collection of poetry by Lebanese poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata, who brandishes a long list of accolades that include the Prix Mallarmè and the Grand Prix de la Sociètè, for separate works of poetry. Nettles is a powerful exploration in five parts. The book’s first two sections, The Cherry Tree’s Journey and Nettles, inhabit the loss of the poet’s husband, mother and brother while also investigating their historical and political context. Khoury-Ghata is well aware of her own as an immigrant, and it’s perhaps the friction between her lived-in past as a Lebanese woman and the distance afforded by a littérateur’s life in France that makes her poetry most fruitful.

Her most recent work, particularly in translation, moves with fierce speed, which lends her blending of disparate images and emotions an all the more urgent beauty. While the collection is divided into sections, the images and themes – political, historical, and personal – spill freely from part to part, in constant dialogue. Her manuscript as a whole is perhaps best represented – in both content and style – by “Interments”, a central sequence in which each untitled fragment burrows deeper than its predecessor, weaving images almost as a code, dazzling with spectral collisions on a brightly colored, often gendered landscape. She writes from a very particular grief, very particular history of violence in her home country and abroad, but in her art these things descend into universal images: “She took them for cats when they were warriors/ they weren’t warriors either but curved lines walking in their sleep/… she says birds so as not to say war/ she says war so as not to say madness of the son and the pomegranate tree.”

When Khoury-Ghata struggles with a particular death, she struggles with all suffering. The warriors in her poetry are men, young and old, unable to nurture sweetness and lightness, choosing instead the destructive. As “Interments” descends to its center, Khoury-Ghata gives us an unguarded woman, urging man to forget transgression and to be redeemed in the present, the domestic, and the creative: “The woman open on the gardens/ urges the traveler to leave the rain behind him/ he has nothing to fear from the walls/ nothing to fear from the stroller/ which flew off as soon as the child went to sleep.”

At times, she seems to write explicitly from her own experience. At others, it is evident that she constructs a persona. Her speaker is often highly self-conscious, openly referring to the act of writing: “Blackening pages till words exhaust themselves and this character emerges, whom I’m seeing for the first time.” This can make approaching the book’s first two sections somewhat precarious. While understanding the narrative threads may be difficult, her lines have the feel of individual aphorisms that as a whole constitute disparate beauty of great range, but also of singular emotion: grief or ecstasy, gravity or grace. Nettles is both a fine example of Khoury-Ghata’s voice and a daring exploration of style.

Nettles
By Venus Khoury-Ghata
Translated by Marilyn Hacker
Graywolf Press
120 pgs, $14.00

25 September 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

As Danny points out, it’s a bit strange that this is written in English. It’s an older article, from 2005, but it’s a familiar sounding complaint, despite the fact that it’s a French translator talking about Scandinavian books.

After over a quarter of a century in the trade, I have been asked to write about the situation of the translation of Swedish literature in France at the present moment. It is a matter dear to my heart – perhaps all too dear and I have some difficulty looking at it with an objective mind. But försöka duger, as they say up there: It is worth trying.

The situation as seen over the past half-century is rather simple, in fact. In the fifties, there was only one company which published any Nordic literature in French at all: Stock. I know it very well, since I was delighted, when I began studying Scandinavian languages in my late teens, at the existence of its Bibliothèque scandinave (part of the “Cabinet cosmopolite”). I swallowed every volume I could find (all too few, for my taste). I know very well too, to whom I owe what would later become my life-time passion: his name is Lucien Maury, a former French lecturer in Scandinavia who was virtually the only one in the country to know what was going on over there in the field of literature. The series ultimately included over fifty volumes, all of the best quality (Andersen, Kielland, Kinck, Kirkegaard, Kivi, Lagerlöf, Lagerkvist, Pontoppidan, Strindberg, Undset…). Unfortunately, it was very much one man’s work and did not survive his death in 1953. The series was discontinued for years – in fact it has not yet been reborn. Nordic literature was at that time poorly represented in such foreign series as Gallimard’s Du monde entier or Robert Laffont’s Pavillons and at Presses de la Renaissance. Nowadays, the tables are turned: there is one publishing house which does not publish any Swedish or Nordic work at all and it is, believe it or not, Stock! Whereas nearly all the others, big and small, have at least one or two Scandinavian authors or titles in their catalogues. Rejoicing? Yes and no, depending whether you think in terms of quantity or quality.

30 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

At least in terms of output, Georges Simenon is a Herculean writer. He makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker, having written over 400 novels and short story collections in his lifetime. And if that weren’t enough, he added to his mythic stature through fun games like this:

In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter . . .

Which sounds intense . . . The story gets even better though when you find out that it never took place.

The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done.

(Both quotes are from Luc Sante’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Bookforum.)

With so many books, it’s very difficult to figure out where to start—even if you just consider the eight titles put out by New York Review Books. To be honest, I picked up The Engagement solely because it was a Reading the World book this year, and I’m going to lead a discussion on it for Words Without Borders this September. That said, I ended up absolutely mesmerized by this subversive little book.

The Engagement starts with an immediate reversal of a typical crime reader’s expectations—instead of starting with a crime, or the set-up for a crime, the book opens in the aftermath of a murder with a very tense interaction between the solitary Mr. Hire and his concierge, who is a bit frightened of him. It’s only after this portrait of a creepy, suspicious, bloody man is damningly established that we hear about the dead prostitute.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers here—not that it really matters who killed the prostitute, since catching the murder is of secondary importance to all the characters in this book. The police don’t really care—one of them would much rather spend his time trying to get with the attractive, busty woman in need of help—and neither does Simenon. He seems much more intent on creating interesting, bleak, troubling characters, all corrupt and unlikable, than pulling his reader’s along via plot twists and forensic discoveries.

In his afterword, John Gray has an interesting comment about this novel in relation to the typical crime book:

As has often been noted, the traditional detective novel is a morality tale in which any doubt we may have about the reality of order in the world is finally dispelled. Noir fiction arouse as a reaction against this kind of consoling narrative with its promise that wrongdoing is sure to be found out and punished. But much noir fiction is also a tribute to justice. Society and human life as a whole may prove systematically unfair; but the very fact that humanity rages against this predicament shows that deep in human nature there is a rejection of injustice that may be defeated but cannot be destroyed.

Morality and justice have no place in Simenon’s novel. As the plot unfolds, the real focus becomes the psychological plight of Mr. Hire, who is trapped in an impossible life and situation. Suspected of murder and fully aware that he is constantly being tailed, he tries to convince the beautiful, damaged blonde (the one he watches undress through her window every night) to run away with him and start a new life. The reader knows that things won’t end well, that redemption, hope, justice, and just illusions in this world, and after finishing the book, the catastrophic conclusion seems inevitable and destined from the start.

Part of the reason why this novel works so well is the understated nature of Simenon’s writing. The book has an existential flavor, drawing the reader in and leaveing him or her to fill in the gaps in order to understand and decipher the desires and workings of Mr. Hire’s mind.

Anna Moschovakis did a fantastic job rendering this book in English. The only real complaint I have is that Mr. Hire’s “cash reserve” switches from 80,000 francs to 8,000 francs, which seems like a bit of a difference. Simenon may well have written better books, and if you’re a fan of CSI you might not be satisfied, but overall, this is a tight, cinematic novel that lags only occasionally, and is definitely worth reading.

The Engagement
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
New York Review Books
135 pp., $12.95 (pb)

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