27 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Paul Doyle on Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear: A Novel on World War I, translated by Malcolm Imrie, and published by New York Review Books.

Here’s the beginning of Paul’s review:

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the overwhelming number of novels in English in the years following the war that prevented their appearance. Just looking at the list of American authors, a country whose contribution was quite short, Wharton, Cather, Cummings, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and of course Hemingway with A Farewell to Arms, makes it obvious that it was a subject that once had to be written about. Still, that doesn’t explain why perhaps the most famous WWI novel is from Germany, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe it was that a second even more devastating war eclipsed the first one, and pushed it into the background. It is a shame, because as Paul Fussell noted, World War I was a literary war and Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear: A Novel of World War I, ably translated by Malcolm Imrie, is a long overdue addition to that literature in English.

Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969) was called up at the beginning of the war, wounded, and after convalescing returned to the front for the remainder of the war. Fear follows a similar trajectory: call up, wounding and hospitalization, and a return to the front. It follows a typical pattern of novels written by veterans and even echoes that of Remarque. The power that comes in front line narratives is not in the intricacies of plot, but in how they can evoke the experience of war. Chevallier is successful in his descriptions of the front lines, the constant shelling, the gruesome description of the dead, and one will come away with a sense of the terror and fear men faced. At times there is a monotony in this and it seems as if all there is to the book is moving from shell hole to shell hole. Yet it is that repetition without seeming purpose, a drama played out on an isolated stage where little context exists and the characters just survive one shelling after another, that is the real story.

For the rest of the review, go here.

27 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the overwhelming number of novels in English in the years following the war that prevented their appearance. Just looking at the list of American authors, a country whose contribution was quite short, Wharton, Cather, Cummings, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and of course Hemingway with A Farewell to Arms, makes it obvious that it was a subject that once had to be written about. Still, that doesn’t explain why perhaps the most famous WWI novel is from Germany, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe it was that a second even more devastating war eclipsed the first one, and pushed it into the background. It is a shame, because as Paul Fussell noted, World War I was a literary war and Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear: A Novel of World War I, ably translated by Malcolm Imrie, is a long overdue addition to that literature in English.

Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969) was called up at the beginning of the war, wounded, and after convalescing returned to the front for the remainder of the war. Fear follows a similar trajectory: call up, wounding and hospitalization, and a return to the front. It follows a typical pattern of novels written by veterans and even echoes that of Remarque. The power that comes in front line narratives is not in the intricacies of plot, but in how they can evoke the experience of war. Chevallier is successful in his descriptions of the front lines, the constant shelling, the gruesome description of the dead, and one will come away with a sense of the terror and fear men faced. At times there is a monotony in this and it seems as if all there is to the book is moving from shell hole to shell hole. Yet it is that repetition without seeming purpose, a drama played out on an isolated stage where little context exists and the characters just survive one shelling after another, that is the real story.

What sets Chevallier’s work apart from other novels is his narrator, Jean Dartemont. He is a university student who is detached from the world and is not swept up by the crowds of patriotic enthusiasts. On reaching the medical examination he notes,

The war was already a few months old and I was beginning to fear that it might end before I got there. I saw war neither as a career nor an idea, but as a show—in the same category as a motor race, an air display or a sports match. I was full of natural curiosity and, since this war would be the most remarkable spectacle of the age—I would not want to miss it.

This sentiment makes Dartemont aloof, uninterested in military trappings. He is not even disappointed when can’t even make corporal. He is a lazy soldier who never learns how to use a hand grenade properly. He appears sarcastic and doesn’t trust the officers who seem to disappear at the first sign of shelling. His attitudes come from his observational distance, as if he is never quite in the war. At one point he comes across the bodies of two long dead Germans and investigates: “I spent some time in their company, turning them over with a stick, not out of hatred or disrespect but motivated rather by a kind of fraternal pity, as if asking them to deliver up the secret of their death.”

The narrative distance creates a curious phenomenon, especially the first section: there are few other developed characters other than Dartemont. Yes, there are plenty of people around him, but few have names and even fewer get more than a line of description. It’s as if in the first section he is so distant from it all he has no interest in even his companions. It is only when he is wounded by shell fire and spends some time in the hospital that the men around him take shape, gain names, and even converse about the state of the war. The hospital with its slow pace and constant reminders of the savage results of shell fire is when Dartemont loses some of his distance, as if he has now really become a soldier. It is also when he realizes the distance between the civilian and the soldier. He recounts to some young nurses he likes, “Would you like to know the chief occupation in war, the only one that matters: I WAS AFRAID.” They are horrified and run off, thinking he is a coward.

The distance you find in Dartemont makes for wry commentary set against the most extreme elements of the war. It is a refreshing narrative approach, because it limits the artificially clean exploration of the war that comes when trying to capture with dialog the shifting thoughts of soldiers. It also makes Dartemont quite capable of saying, “I understand now how slaves submit so easily, because they have no strength left for revolt, nor imagination to conceive it, nor energy to organize it. [. . .] I sometimes feel I’ve almost reached that state of utter subjection that comes from weariness and monotony, that animal passivity that accepts anything.” In the statement you find an intellectual analysis of the war, not one of emotions, or if they are there it’s not his attempt to render the sensation, but his description of it. This kind of analysis finds its clearest evocation towards the end of the book when he cross the battlefield and sees some ruins.

These particular ruins have their own pathos, and I imagine the destinies of the men who spent time here, many of them now dead. Along with pleasure comes pride in knowing secret places, which become my own domain, on this land that one army observes and another defends.

It is still a game to him. Perhaps it is because there is no other option but to take some sort of power over what he has so little power to control.

In the last part of the book Dartemont spends his time as a runner. It is a dangerous job, but one that keeps him out of attacks. It is a purposeful dodge that shows a cynical self-preservation that few detest. Again, it underlies the futility of the war and what it takes to preserve one’s life. The repetition of his journeys under shell fire and across the cratered landscape all the while finding in himself fear and apprehension create a sense of futility and pointlessness to the war. While Chevallier mentions the geographic areas where Dartemont is, some of them quite famous, Dartemont never engages in much action. Death and wastage are just around, a fact of life, and ultimately the third section which feels as if it is dragging, is actually a good representation of the daily disaster that was the war.

Ultimately, Fear feels more modern than some of its cohorts. While not as shocking as All Quiet on the Western Front, nor as dramatic as A Farwell to Arms, it has a humor and a cynicism that render the war’s indignities in all their mundane horror. Chevallier’s skill is to render the dark humor of phrases like, “Where we’ve been, you only salute the dead!”, against the cold analysis of a soldier in a pointless war. The conflict between the two makes Fear a welcome addition to a sometimes seeming well-trod literature.

22 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P. T. Smith on Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, and published by Seagull Books.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those leftovers of the war simmer to a boil, is World War II. Little Grey Lies is a war novel without war, and about the inevitability of the next. War is a filter over the book, it is life in the inescapable aftermath of war, not the destruction, not the loss of life and property, but instead the constant memory, the subconscious, ongoing afflictions. In that space, it is the intricacies of personal connections, of secrets and the desire to out them, that become the conflicts.

Max, the character we spend the most time with, is a journalist and the book is both the narrative of his discovery of the story, and the story itself. In the first pages, he witnesses a procession of veterans, in memory of the Battle of Mons, England’s first encounter with the Germans during World War I. It is from this battle that the novel finds its birth: a myth of angels as archers protecting the defeated, yet heroic troops becomes a necessary faith for some, and even those who don’t believe are awed by the legend.

At the front of the procession is Colonel William Strether, who becomes the focus of Max’s London investigation. Strether is a respected man, utterly in control with every precise movement of his body. Working as a maître d’ he plays the room like a puppeteer: “he didn’t take their order but dictated it to a server standing behind him, commented on the menu, assembled the meal while making the client feel he was doing it himself.” Strether is a true Fascist believer, a powerful leader of men, even if “he rarely spoke in public, took no defined position, he waited for when he was alone with the leaders.” He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to lead his men, to train them toward order. It’s all part of his hiding a lie—one that is again a violence, though now against himself—and part of the inevitable path to the next war.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

22 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those leftovers of the war simmer to a boil, is World War II. Little Grey Lies is a war novel without war, and about the inevitability of the next. War is a filter over the book, it is life in the inescapable aftermath of war, not the destruction, not the loss of life and property, but instead the constant memory, the subconscious, ongoing afflictions. In that space, it is the intricacies of personal connections, of secrets and the desire to out them, that become the conflicts.

Max, the character we spend the most time with, is a journalist and the book is both the narrative of his discovery of the story, and the story itself. In the first pages, he witnesses a procession of veterans, in memory of the Battle of Mons, England’s first encounter with the Germans during World War I. It is from this battle that the novel finds its birth: a myth of angels as archers protecting the defeated, yet heroic troops becomes a necessary faith for some, and even those who don’t believe are awed by the legend.

At the front of the procession is Colonel William Strether, who becomes the focus of Max’s London investigation. Strether is a respected man, utterly in control with every precise movement of his body. Working as a maître d’ he plays the room like a puppeteer: “he didn’t take their order but dictated it to a server standing behind him, commented on the menu, assembled the meal while making the client feel he was doing it himself.” Strether is a true Fascist believer, a powerful leader of men, even if “he rarely spoke in public, took no defined position, he waited for when he was alone with the leaders.” He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to lead his men, to train them toward order. It’s all part of his hiding a lie—one that is again a violence, though now against himself—and part of the inevitable path to the next war.

Max and his friend Lena also want to control their lives, Lena through her love affairs with men, Max by uncovering what has been hidden. This ever-present desire for order and control is the post-war condition. It is not just individuals composing their lives. We see the rise of fascism, recognize that the fearful need to control, birthed by war, creates the next.

Max and Lena meet with Strether as Max tries to get the Colonel to reveal his past. Overlapping this, Lena meets with her young lover, breaks up with him, and monitors his new affair. These are characters who are careful with their stories, shaping their identities, their lives. Max may claim to be a journalist seeking facts, but he wants to break a person apart, then tell that person’s next tale—all the while side-stepping his own past. They are held together by these efforts, as an English lord puts it late on in the book: “To reinvent life out of a lie.”

The unveiling of Strether to Max occurs disjointedly, as Strether is almost as intent on avoiding his past as Max is on bringing it to light. This meandering is one of the simple ways that Kaddour creates deep characters in this short novel. By moving around, purposely glimpsing at moments, each glimpse can be direct and revealing in an instant. Movements and character commentary shoot out of their own lies into poignantly relatable truths, which, when the novel’s greatest lie is revealed, become more intricate.

Even though Kaddour creates a character complex enough to fight with herself while having insights into others, the weakest part of the novel is the time spent with Lena. In her interactions with Max and Strether she is interesting; her perspective into them is sharp. Without her these conversations wouldn’t be as full, and her presence, her relationship with Strether, should be returned to when Stether’s past is understood. But the early-on section of her love affair peters out, and by the end of the novel is forgotten, feeling like filler.

Against that, though, is the way this skill of insight lets us open up to a character introduced midway through the novel, without explanation. The immediate supposition, given that we are read Glady’s story just after being introduced to Strether’s wife, is soon shattered. From there, we follow Glady because we know some truths must sit at the end of this tale, and because Kaddour is able to make us care enough along the way, to make Glady a complex character with motivations combatting against themselves.

For this review, the full complexities of Little Grey Lies must be passed over. The most interesting life it has to offer would be so much less so if a reader knows the answers going into the tale. As it goes, there is enough to make it an entertaining read, but without its final twist — and thankfully, it does not twist and then immediately end, but follows the path to explore a little further—Kaddour’s effort wouldn’t offer much more than the familiar. With a lie at its core, however, we are given a new way to look at how people find ways to make it through life.

28 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate, published by New Directions.

There’s some kind of summer flu-plague bug going around at the office here, so we’re short on humor and personal anecdotes. Also, Rochester is a city of downpours and flash flooding and even road-caving today, so it’s a great day to cut all pretense and just read about reading books. Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.

Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.

For the rest of the review, go here.

28 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.

Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.

Of course Anne falls in love with Julien, who, of course, leaves often without any notice or indication of when he will return. The reader quickly gets a sense that Julien is involved in some form of smuggling and burglary, but always wins women through lascivious gifts so they will overlook the details of his existence.

Anne, as expected, waits around a little too long and cares a little too much about Julien, causing her to withstand the prison-like conditions Julien has placed her in. That is, Anne has broken out of one prison only to willingly admit herself into a second created by Julien. To add fuel to the fire, the people she imposes on are only deferential when Julien is away or when Anne provides money. As Anne describes,

I realize that my hosts feel a greedy sort of servility toward him, hidden under their friendly tone of complicity, poised between the two extremes of respect for the guy who knows how to steal, and condescension for the guy you’re doing a favor for.

Eventually Julien is apprehended by the law and Anne is able to rediscover freedom, although through a man she is not attracted to and which she uses to hide the fruits of her own resorts to burglary.

You have probably encountered slightly different versions of this story before, but Astragal is worth the re-exploration for Sarrazin’s frank yet poetical prose and lens of a life that cannot be led by the faint of heart. Astragal would not exist if it were not for Sarrazin’s tumultuous life. Like the characters, she was young, imprisoned, and died at 29 due to a botched surgery. (Is anyone reminded of Clarice?)

As Patty Smith explains in her introduction, Astragal easily becomes a travel companion not only for its familiar love story, but also for its honesty on the daily life of someone hypersensitive to their relationship and also to physical pain, and who is now only identified by that relationship or pain.

Due to the focus on slightly seedy characters living under the radar of the law, there is also something scandalous and addictive about Astragal. The reader is left to wonder why Anne never tries to escape from Julien’s arranged prisons or his life of crime. However, Sarrazin counters these feelings by leading the reader through Anne’s growth and maturation—“Little by little, I get organized, I have a steady income, shopping lists . . .” Despite maturity, Astragal leaves us to wonder whether we are all imprisoned through our loves and relationships.

16 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving” quantity and degree of attention. What is also unsurprising—and slightly depressing—is the rather gossipy nature of the comment and controversy surrounding Labé’s work, both past and present. Her contemporaries, we are told, spread rumours that she was a courtesan, albeit one with discerning taste in her clientele. In recent years, one Renaissance scholar has claimed that Labé’s poetry was actually written by a group of men, and that Labé herself never even existed. The life of a female writer, it seems, comes with some interesting occupational hazards.

Regardless of what she was or wasn’t, Labé herself is proudly conscious of her femininity in her work, and Love Sonnets & Elegies offers some rewarding insights into a pioneering female mind. In her dedicatory epistle to Clémence de Bourges, Labé expresses her desire to see women “surpass or equal men not only in beauty but in learning & worthiness,” and her poetry contains nods toward a community of presumably like-minded women, whom she addresses with a charming spirit of familiarity in “Sonnet 24” (“Don’t reproach me, ladies, for having loved”) and in “Elegy I,” in which she pleads, “Join in my sorrows, / Ladies, when you read of my regrets. / Some day, I may do the same for you.” Such disarming intimacy is hard to resist.

Writing in the sixteenth century, it is inevitable that Petrarchan tropes find their way into Labé’s work from time to time. Love dominates all of her poetry, and her verse is least inspiring when it is littered with such clichés as “I live, I die: I flare up, & I drown / The colder I feel the hotter I burn” (“Sonnet 8”). Yet there is something undeniably refreshing in hearing a female voice engaging in the sort of poetic objectification usually dominated by Renaissance male writers, and Labé seems to positively relish beating them at their own game: “Sonnet 21” finds her wondering aloud, “What height places a man beyond compare? / What size? What shade of hair? What color of skin?”; elsewhere she coos to her lover in “Sonnet 11,” “How sweet your glances, how lovely your eyes / Small gardens blooming with amorous flowers.” Whenever she isn’t carefully evaluating her lover piece by piece in the best blason tradition, she is occupied with calling him out for the sort of perfidious behaviour usually decried as the preserve of sly females, as when she berates him in “Sonnet 23,” “Where are those tears once shed & now no more? / Or that Death on which you solemnly swore / You would love me for the rest of your life?” It is not often that we hear a female answering back in early modern verse, and it makes for enjoyable reading.

Yet happily for the modern reader, Labé is not a mere Renaissance novelty, for her work frequently rises above the literary constraints and conventions of her era to provide lines of genuine pathos and wit that translate well across the centuries. Her endings can be particularly strong, as when the close of “Sonnet 5” finds her confessing that, “when I’m almost completely shattered / Lying in bed as if nothing mattered / My screams shall light up the entire night,” or when “Sonnet 16” finds her chiding her lover, “You’ve doused your flame in some other sea, / Much colder than I ever claimed to be.” If Labé really is a (literally) man-made fiction, she is certainly a very convincing one—the voice in these verses is strong and distinctive, imbued with a warmth and charm that is consistently present.

Richard Sieburth’s translations are elegantly concise and direct, giving Labé’s verses a supple feel in his English renderings. Any reader with a taste for Renaissance verse will find much to enjoy in this slim volume, and even a general reader may find it well worth his or her time to make the acquaintance of the lady of Lyon.

30 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon, translated (illustrated, and with an introduction) by Wyatt Mason, and out from Yale University Press.

When’s the last time you read a book, and were so moved or inspired by what you read that you immediately hotfoot it to the closest bookstore to buy up all the rest of said author’s works? I, truly, can’t remember. Maybe Patrick Süskind’s works back in 2005? (By which logic, does that mean I’ve been only moderately inspired by authors I’ve read for almost the past 10 years? Yikes . . .)

Anyway, Tiffany (who, among many other things, runs a food and book blog, tiffany ist, and who should come to Rochester post-haste and make this for me) experienced just that after reading Michon’s work, something that in its own right is inspiring to once again contemplate, discover, and stock up on those authors whose works have moved you.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

For the rest of the review, go here.

30 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

In the first of five short stories, Michon provides the intimate details of Joseph Roulin’s life as it shortly overlapped with van Gogh’s until Joseph decides to sell one of his van Gough’s pieces. Michon dives into each and every minute detail of Joseph’s life—his job, political views, excessive drinking, reaction to van Gogh’s death, and inability to appreciate why van Gogh’s art reached the masterpiece level. Each and every word is carefully calculated like each line an artist commits to the canvas. The prose fluctuates between time and space without notice as the art that is being described. This is evidence in the following excerpt:

I want it to bear his name; so that words and the rhythms of language instantly endorse the great peacoat and hat of the post office; so that words and their rhythms grow old in Marseille and remember Arles; so that words end up sprouting beards; they’ll appear in Prussian blue; they’ll be alcoholic and republican; they won’t make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they’ll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me—and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.

The voice of Masters and Servants is synonymous with the narrator of Wes Anderson films. The narrator is neither neutral nor impartial because his/her agenda is to paint a specific image and induce a calculated perception of the artists and their subjects. The best descriptor I could find for the narrator’s voice was that of a personification of a manifesto; one whose goal is to remind use that artists are people and art does not stand on its own without the artist lest we forget the hardships, confusions, and externalities that resulted in our beloved masterpieces. For example,

Van Gogh—who never thought as far as Rome, who was too modest or barbaric to think that far—van Gogh had thought about Marseille throughout his life; I don’t know what novel had made him imagine it to be some sort of artists’ Mecca, as he’s said, but he was surely the only artist to think it so, all because the paint Monticelli had lived and died there—done in by arrogance, misery, and absinthe, a parinter he ranked as highly as Rembrandt, Rubens, Delacroix—Monticelli whose painting I wouldn’t know how to judge but that they tell me aren’t so ugly . . . So van Gogh wanted to go to Marseille with Gauguin . . . who knows if a rich van Gogh wouldn’t have been as elegant as Manet, and just as smitten with etiquette. Due has never made it there: and, postmortem, he delegated Roulin.

Each of the remaining four short stories are equally delightful and enlightening in content and language. I was so moved by this work, I promptly biked to the bookstore to pick up the remaining Michon works available in English, which, as it turns out, are all part of the Yale University Press Margellos Series.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Peter Biello on Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated by Anna Moschovakis (and introduction from Jennifer Moxley), published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Peter not only runs the Burlington Writers Workshop, but is also a friend to Open Letter—we had the pleasure of meeting him in person at AWP a couple weeks ago, and saddle him up with some great books.

Commentary, as many of you will know, is one of the 25 books that made the 2014 BTBA longlist.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.

Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.

In her responses to different aspects of his letter, Sauvageot paints the portrait of a woman trying to understand not only a relationship that has failed, but also the nature of love in general. Baby says that it isn’t his fault she’s in a sanatorium; that he couldn’t have made her happy anyway; that friendship should be sufficient going forward. The narrator doesn’t let him off the hook. She writes:

You scoured the past for a sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you: “You always told me that what you had loved in me was ‘Baby’ and you did not conceal from me that ‘Baby’ no longer existed.” And you shield yourself with this sentence without wanting to remember how you did not accept it. Now, you welcome it with glee, because it enables you to escape reproach for your infidelity. (67)

She goes on to say that, in his absurd justification for leaving the relationship, she sees “a petty salesman reneging on a deal he no longer wants to close.” (68) Her assessment of this man is honest, apt, and fair.

Along with her assessment of the relationship is her attack on the gender dynamics at play. “Is a woman in love not delighted when a man chooses her as a reward for her total love?” the narrator asks, with no small amount of snark. She goes on to say, in earnest, “what you are saying is the eternally idiotic, but eternally true, song of those who love and are loved.” (52) The narrator, in short, is critical of the superficiality of modern love—a criticism that remains relevant today.

In her introduction to this new edition, Jennifer Moxley refers to Baby as a “failed human being.” One could call Baby lots of things: insensitive, blind to his own male privilege, and self-serving to name a few. But to call him “failed” pronounces him dead, which he is not. The triumph of this book is that the narrator, while gravely wounded, sees through what Moxley would say makes him a “failed human being”—his weak attempts to justify his insensitivity. She knows him better than he knows himself. “I know you better, and that is not to love you less,” she writes (49). Could this narrator truly love a “failed human being”?

The story ends optimistically, with a dance. The narrator attends a dance party, finds a partner, and spends a lovely evening with him. “Lightly intoxicated by this rhythm, accompanied by my partner for the night, who by tomorrow will have forgotten this late evening, I slowly mounted the stairs to my door; and we took leave of each other after a kiss, without saying anything” (97). That kiss, after so much discussion of love, puts a cap of silence on a long meditation on the subject.

Why should we read this meditation in 2014? In a world in which social media encourage us to hide our flaws, this book attempts to remind us that those who love us because of our flaws, not in spite of them, are those who love us best.

17 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Allison Charette on Seyhmus Dagtekin’s To the Spring, by Night, translated by Donald Winkler, and from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Allison is another of the students at the University of Rochester in our lovely MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and her review was also written as an assignment for Chad’s publishing class. Allison is also one of the faces behind the relatively new ELTNA, the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, and the translator of Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s The Last Love of George Sand. She’s also got a mean kickball kick and a baking genius husband.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.

This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.

For the rest, go here.

17 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other, I was afraid. . . . Fears are a bit like fog, as are memories. On the one hand, one dreads to go forward and plunge into a future without end, and on the other, one is afraid to retreat into the past and lose oneself in a plethora of events and tales.”

A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.

This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.

What we were told must have happened, and would happen again. It was not one of those jokes for which grownups, some grownups in particular, had the secret, jokes they tossed our way with malicious delight to fill us with uneasiness and fear. They were informing us of a truth, telling us about something we were going to witness in our lifetimes, one day. And if we had any doubt, all we had to do was ask the grownups in confidence . Knowing about such an event was better than being taken by surprise, they told us. We had to expect, we had to accept that we could be overtaken by night in the middle of the day. And we had to live with an uncertainty that made the sun a being that could stumble and disappear at any moment. It was like the sudden death they had told us about, and there was nothing we could try, nothing we could do about either of them. One more thing to mourn, one less certainty.

A solar eclipse is not the only thing that our narrator fears. An already difficult rustic existence is much scarier when seen through a child’s eyes. But even when describing the monsters, djinns, wolves, and snakes that may catch you out at midday or during the night, the text is all very pensive, reflecting on the stories that the “grownups” tell the narrator and the events from the narrator’s past that have become stories to him. The book reads almost like an extended poem, which makes sense, considering that this is Turkish, Kurdish, and French author Seyhmus Dagtekin’s only novel alongside his seven prize-winning poetry books. With Donald Winkler’s English translation, we are treated to a lyrical, almost atmospheric telling of the narrator’s memories and state of being during childhood. The rich, sweet images flow unhindered from one idea to the next, like a spring bubbling up from its source.

Some of the images are strange, though, which lends them even more appeal. The feminine sun is depicted lying in long wait for her moment of ecstasy with the bull of darkness—that’s the solar eclipse—along with a black snake slithering down a woman’s throat to feed on her entrails, as well as an antelope that comes back to life after being the designated meal for the wolf who was shepherding the flock. The narrator’s primitive understanding of the immediate surroundings and inner consciousness is expressed in quasi-stories, which give only an elusive understanding of what is known in the village. The tales are exotic, yet bear a familiar whiff of fables that exist in various forms all around the world.

But they never told us more, claiming that they didn’t want to upset us with the horror of such a vision. Besides, they only knew the beginning of this story. But why begin a story if you don’t know how it turns out? Do you ever know how things are going to turn out for you? they said—and yet there you are, a story, a story whose ending you will never know.

As a story, this book is a strange one. There are no clues to help reveal any identifying markers about either the narrator or the village until well into the last third of the book, when we finally learn that our narrator is male and the village is Kurdish (until then, it could have been anyone telling a story about anywhere with a relatively temperate climate). At first, that information wasn’t important—the focus was on the land and its mystical qualities that inspired reverence in all its inhabitants. But once the details come spilling out, they can’t be contained. We have to learn more, and so does everyone in the village. They get a schoolteacher for the first time, and literacy suddenly skyrockets. But the school becomes a catalyst for opening their world to a wider expanse of knowledge, and the memories are going to change. It seems that once our narrator learns his alphabet, the words he’s been using all along suddenly have no more meaning. Although the book was originally written in French, it’s interesting to ponder what type of language the narrator might have been speaking all along.

This is a gorgeously authored and translated experience from the talented pair of Dagtekin and Winkler, which is great to see from McGill-Queen’s University Press. The novel is enjoyable to read, although a very different read than the jacket copy would have you believe. The back cover implies a very present plot, so I was waiting for “something to happen” for a long time. Eventually, however, I managed to get over that and just enjoy the book for what it really is: a beautiful experience.

12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Kaija Straumanis on A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Napoleon Jeffries, and out from Wakefield Press.

Based on the above paragraph and all the awesome that it contains, this book really shouldn’t need much more introduction: it’s a guide to adventuring, which is cool; the translator’s name is Napoleon, which, right on; it’s from Wakefield Press, one of my all-time favorite small presses. It is common practice at the Open Letter office that, when a new Wakefield review copy comes in the mail, Chad enters it into the “Translation Database” and then promptly hands the book over to me, at which I point squirrel it away and exclaim several things, including but not limited to “Shit yes,” “Mine,” “OmgomgWakefield,” and “I’M SQUIRRELING THIS AWAY.”

There are myriad reasons why I love Wakefield Press so much (they’re also the publisher behind the ENG translation of Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy), but I fell in love with their books after reading René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays. Pataphysical Essays was a book I wish I had written a review on, but was never able to bring myself to do it—partially due to laziness, but mostly because I had no idea how to write about a book I loved so much but could only peripherally understand. Pataphysical Essays is one of the most insane things I’ve read in the past few years; it’s so scientifically non-scientific, and a joy to find so much humor and delight in something that confused me. It’s absurd, it’s profound. And boils pataphysics (and the world) down to the beautiful equation of:

To know x = to know (Everything – x)

ANYWAY. Back to adventuring. Even without mind-blowing mathematics my brain can stomach, Mac Orlan’s guide (originally commissioned by Blaise Cendrars), is a witty and tongue-in-cheek book/commentary that essentially outlines two types of adventurer—the active and the passive—which of the two is better, how he must function in order to be successful, and warnings for individuals “wishing to seek literature in life.” Here’s the beginning of the review:

For the rest, go here.

12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs, or transport a secret package that turns out to be a member of a royal family? Though if you were to actually find yourself in those situations, chances are you’d pee an amoeba-shaped spot onto the front of your pants and wish you were anywhere but there. Basically, and for the most part, these types of scenarios and adventures are best left to the movies, books, and TV shows.

Pierre Mac Orlan says the same. Written in 1920, his A Handbook to the Perfect Adventurer is a dry humored and smart look at how fun it can be to be an “active” adventurer, but how, in the end, it’s probably best to be the “passive” adventurer—a manipulative character of sorts who encourages the active adventurer to go on ahead, and then sits in the safety of his home reading about adventures and imagining what they would be like (all the sexy parts of danger inclusive).

Because it’s been far too long since I’ve written a review, I’m going to apologize, and then just wing it. This is a book you can easily read in one night (if you skip the endnotes, and most of the introduction [sorry, Napoleon! Mac Orlan’s background is fascinating and the intro is well-written, but I just wanted to “GET TO THE WHALE!!” already]), and one that should make you chuckle out loud now and then, unless you don’t get dry humor, but maybe instead you’ll pick up on that WWI facet, in which case, man, those was rough times, hope you don’t get flashbacks.

With short chapters and the occasional list, the Handbook is an entertaining blend of reality and fiction with language that is both playful and essayistic. Mac Orlan doesn’t give you a moment of rest from his instructive train of thought, beginning the first lines of the book with:

It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it . . .

Because an adventure is only an adventure once you label it as such. As kids we devour adventure stories, recreate them in our backyards or basements; as adults sadly, the majority of us drift away from the Gulliver’s Travels and 20,000 Leagues level of adventure stories because we are painfully aware of how juvenile it all is. True, we find the detective, the futuristic—but for some reason, the level those types of books are on seem acceptable and even plausible (re the futuristic part). I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Mac Orlan isn’t so much saying that our imaginations die completely as we grow older, but perhaps our willingness to believe in a fiction more real weakens, instead opting for stories that are either more probable (zombies), or things so ridiculous (sexy[?] half-squid, half-jungle cat space goddesses), that we don’t have to do a lot of mental footwork to get into it.

Mac Orlan goes on to stipulate that the only position he as the writer can advocate safely is that of the passive adventurer. The person reading adventure novels, the person sitting snugly at home only imagining what it would be like to sink into quicksand, instead of being like the active adventurer (whose main features are “total lack of imagination and sensitivity”), who brings shame to his family (they would cry tears of joy if he accidentally got lost at a fun-park, never to return), is always causing trouble, and who would be better off far, far away from the rest of us.

The emphasis and preference placed on the “passive” adventurer is great, even though this type of adventurer is initially said to be a parasite that can exist “only on the exploits of the active adventurer.” But there’s much to be said for living vicariously through the adventures—real or fictionalized—of others, particularly if it means not dying in some stupid way at the hands of a half-squid-half-jungle-cat queen. Mac Orlan states the childhood of the passive adventurer must be completely opposite of that which the active adventurer leads, and can be achieved by a number of characteristics, including:

A conscientious study of the humanities (texts to restore in the future).
Discretion in lying.
A cult of sensibility.
A complete absence of what is commonly called “moral sense.”
A respect for traditions and discipline.
A hatred of violent games, of sports in general—at least in practice. When it comes to theory, the passive adventurer must be a well-informed sportsman.
Literary eroticism (in practice: normal relations with women).
Able to write “whore” in twenty languages.
Knows how to play a few sailor songs on the accordion.

And, most importantly,

Has a gullible friend who can be made into an active adventurer.

Basically, passive adventurers are knowledgeable book-nerds who get all kinds of laid while their unnecessarily macho friends are out futilely battling a band of alligators that have evolved to walk, talk, and kidnap rich heiresses (who probably had it coming anyway). Though all this could, of course, be applied to actual, tangible life, Mac Orlan equates the passive adventurer to being “a more or less conscious novelist.” There it is, my friends. The passive adventurer is someone who has essentially retained a pure imagination, someone who is a creator, someone who knows adventure inside and out without having to get his hands dirty, while the active adventurer is all “WOO, PARTY!” and not a lot of thought process.

While I wouldn’t say Mac Orlan would support an entirely Proustian lifestyle, he clearly favors the passive to the active, though he does maintain that the active adventurer has his purpose. It’s a Möbius strip situation: the passive adventurer creates these adventure novels that are then read by future passive adventurers, who then evolve to become the next generation of passive adventurers, who then create . . . And in turn, those who don’t evolve to become passive adventurers and instead pick up their machetes/slingshots/wasp spray on their way to become the next active adventurer—those are the people who serve as subjects for their passive counterparts. Without one, the other can’t exist.

20 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Andrea Reece on Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends, translated by Jordan Stump and out from Two Lines Press.

Andrea has worked as a professional translator for many years and recently completed an MA in literary translation at the University of Exeter. Here’s a part of her review:

All My Friends consists of five stories in a slim, 140-page volume whose length belies its complexity. Of course, short stories cannot be summed up in a single sentence, but just to give an idea of what they contain, whilst leaving them to reveal their own surprises to future readers, here are five one-line summaries:

The title story “All My Friends” is about a separated former school teacher who amorously pursues an ex-pupil; “The Death of Claude François” charts an encounter between two childhood friends that reveals very contrasting lives thirty years later; “The Boys” portrays two youngsters whose sacrifice rescues their families from hunger and hardship; “Brulard’s Day,” the longest story, follows a fading, second-rate actress as she loses her self-esteem. In the final story, “Revelation,” just six pages long, a mother and son go on a bus journey from which only the mother will return.

The deliciously mouth-watering opening sentence immediately gets to work: “The next time I see Werner, once this is all over, a nervous snicker will be his only greeting. He’ll back a few steps away, cautious and for once, unsure of himself.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

For my first review for Open Letter Books, I was delighted to discover in my letterbox in the French Pyrenees a copy of Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends. Tearing open the package, I savored the look and feel of the jacket covers, as is my habit prior to dipping into a book. It was smooth, rich and velvety to the touch, black as darkness on the front, and milky brown as my favorite galaxy chocolate bar on the back, deep, luscious colors connected by the electric blue of the spine.

I delighted in rolling the sound of the author’s surname on my tongue—two syllables or perhaps three, a name as exotic sounding as the translator’s definitive single syllable is business-like. His name on the cover already a pleasant surprise for a British reader accustomed to the translator’s invisibility, hidden away as he or she normally is in small font on an inside page.

And then there was the suitcase on the front cover—brown leather, battered and worn, disappearing into the black inkiness to who knows where. The back cover, a close-up of the tacks holding it together. Memories of a half a dozen or so such cases in my grandparents’ loft touched a profound emotional chord. I liked the book already, there are friends in the title and we are going on a journey or journeys with a suitcase—if there were but that in life, it would be plenty.

A final exterior tour before settling into the first story. The back cover blurb leaps out at me with the assertion that this is “NDiaye’s lacerating look at the personal trials we fight every day to suppress” and the New York Times Book Review on the inside cover flap boldly claims that NDiaye is a storyteller “with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives.” Intriguing . . . will I, inside these pages, find my personal trials or rock-bottom realities mirrored? Let’s see . . .

All My Friends consists of five stories in a slim, 140-page volume whose length belies its complexity. Of course, short stories cannot be summed up in a single sentence, but just to give an idea of what they contain, whilst leaving them to reveal their own surprises to future readers, here are five one-line summaries:

The title story “All My Friends” is about a separated former school teacher who amorously pursues an ex-pupil; “The Death of Claude François” charts an encounter between two childhood friends that reveals very contrasting lives thirty years later; “The Boys” portrays two youngsters whose sacrifice rescues their families from hunger and hardship; “Brulard’s Day,” the longest story, follows a fading, second-rate actress as she loses her self-esteem. In the final story, “Revelation,” just six pages long, a mother and son go on a bus journey from which only the mother will return.

The deliciously mouth-watering opening sentence immediately gets to work: “The next time I see Werner, once this is all over, a nervous snicker will be his only greeting. He’ll back a few steps away, cautious and for once, unsure of himself.”

NDiaye opens the suitcase and displays her consummate short-storytelling skills: a flash forward, the mysterious Werner who doesn’t appear again until eight pages later and whose identity is not revealed for another fifteen, a first-person narrator whose gender remains murky for seven long pages, and plenty more questions besides. NDiaye skillfully and elliptically draws us in. As a British reader, I linger on the unfamiliar American “snicker,” not sure of its exact intent (mocking, ironic, dry, embarrassed . . . ?) and also because it seems to tilt me into an American context rather than the expected French one.

Yet the snicker jogs me into wondering—is place important in NDiaye’s stories? Some characters’ names are French, others could cross borders unnoticed. Settings are generally in France or the Francosphere, but the further the reader penetrates the stories, the more the themes and motifs become insistently human rather than culture-specific.

The thread running through the work is the broken, defective connections between people themselves and between individuals’ inner desires and outer reality. These connections are like dots that, no matter how hard you try, are impossible to join up to make a coherent picture.

The protagonist in All My Friends, abandoned by his spouse and the victim of unrequited love, slides into an insanity that feeds his belief that even his house opposes him, as he speaks of “the disquiet that my house’s whispering depths inspire in me every night (for my house doesn’t like me).” His house machinates against him while Werner, more in control of his life, has “the house of a flourishing adult.” In “Brulard’s Day,” ageing actress Eve is tormented by the invisible presence of her youthful self and is caught in an unstoppable decline embodied by her “brown tasseled loafers. That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time.”

Other stories juxtapose wealth with poverty, choice with lack of choice and are peopled with characters who orbit one another in utterly different realities. In “The Boys,” “feeble, scrawny and misshapen” René, who blends in with the “shabby chiaroscuro of the far end of the room,” looks on enviously as his handsome young neighbor Anthony is sold to a rich city woman to rescue Anthony’s mother from hardship. Yet René’s fervent wish “Let me be bought, bought, bought” gets him something very different from what he anticipated.

Similarly, the characters in “The Death of Claude François” pay high prices to achieve their desires: to engender her ideal child, Zaka had “coupled with a white elephant, and that generous but slow-witted animal wouldn’t give up on the idea that it was her equal.” Desire and reality—like the stories themselves—slip in and out of reach.
“Revelation,” the final story, is a perfect distillation of all NDiaye’s themes—the opposition between inner and outer worlds, between self and the other, and the missed connections that do indeed mirror our personal trials, as the blurb suggested. Struggles that are never more clearly explored than in the mind of the mother willfully abandoning her damaged child: “She’d be coming home alone, thank God: how she would miss him!”

All My Friends is not an easy read; short stories by their nature are laconic and elliptical, and NDiaye courageously constructs plots and writes of issues that are inherently, almost overly, complex. The reader is required to engage his or her own imagination and interpretation—but is richly rewarded for the effort.

10 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Paul Doyle on Daniel Anselme’s On Leave, translated by David Bellos, from Faber & Faber.

Here’s the beginning of Paul’s review:

In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, a novel about three soldiers on leave from the Algerian War. At that point during the war, only two of its eight years had passed and the full savagery and politically instability that would mark latter years of the conflict had yet to occur. Yet despite the national trauma of the intervening years, On Leave, as translator David Bellos notes in his introduction, is one of the rare literary responses to the war. It is even more remarkable given it received little notice when it was first published, and was then soon forgotten. It now makes its first appearance in English.

The story is simple: three soldiers, comrades and friends, go on leave to Paris for the Christmas holidays. They are friends only because they serve together. The sergeant, Lachaume, is an English teacher with middle-class ambitions. The corporal, Lasteyrie, is a single man more interested in women than anything else. And the infantryman Valette, is a kid Lachaume looks out for. As they try to get some sleep on the ride into Paris, Anselme wastes no time in showing how difficult it is going to be to interact with the civilian world. A World War I veteran finds the men and begins to lecture them on how great a nation France was, especially before World War II, blaming the loss of the colonies on the Americans and the Soviets. The speech is a paean to a past that never was, when French soldiers were at their best. The irony here is the French lost so many soldiers in World War I that, in the last year of the war, the soldiers went mutinying. It’s a comical speech, too, as the old man admits the French have their flaws.

For the rest of the review and some Friday morning reading, click here.

10 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, a novel about three soldiers on leave from the Algerian War. At that point during the war, only two of its eight years had passed and the full savagery and politically instability that would mark latter years of the conflict had yet to occur. Yet despite the national trauma of the intervening years, On Leave, as translator David Bellos notes in his introduction, is one of the rare literary responses to the war. It is even more remarkable given it received little notice when it was first published, and was then soon forgotten. It now makes its first appearance in English.

The story is simple: three soldiers, comrades and friends, go on leave to Paris for the Christmas holidays. They are friends only because they serve together. The sergeant, Lachaume, is an English teacher with middle-class ambitions. The corporal, Lasteyrie, is a single man more interested in women than anything else. And the infantryman Valette, is a kid Lachaume looks out for. As they try to get some sleep on the ride into Paris, Anselme wastes no time in showing how difficult it is going to be to interact with the civilian world. A World War I veteran finds the men and begins to lecture them on how great a nation France was, especially before World War II, blaming the loss of the colonies on the Americans and the Soviets. The speech is a paean to a past that never was, when French soldiers were at their best. The irony here is the French lost so many soldiers in World War I that, in the last year of the war, the soldiers went mutinying. It’s a comical speech, too, as the old man admits the French have their flaws.

We grumble like hell, nothing is ever good enough for us. But it isn’t true that we’re lazy. We just work faster than other people, and as we’re not the ambitious kind, we take it easy the rest of the time.

None of the men are interested in what he has to say and ignore him for the whole of the journey.

Lachaume, who is the axis of the book, leaves the men, only to find his wife has left him. During his absence she had come to the realization that she did not love him. He waits in her apartment for a few hours hoping he will see her. But it is hopeless, and he ventures out into a Paris that he has little connection to anymore. He meets Thévenin, an old friend and doctor, who is uninterested in hearing about the war. He is more interested in Lachaume’s pending divorce or in complaining how the government’s plan to set doctor’s fees will destroy the French health system. Lachaume sees his friend for what he is:

But the idea that a misfortune of that kind could affect himself in the slightest particular didn’t even cross Thévenin’s mind. The Algerian War was reserved for the under-thirty-twos, just as silicosis was for miners. Thévenin was in no danger in either respect.

The uncomfortable nuisance of the war is used throughout On Leave to show a France that has grown corrupt. Anselme has a large vision of the problems facing France and in his characteristic biting humor pokes fun at the growing consumer culture. He describes the meal Thévenin and Lachaume share:
bq. What he now had beneath his nose was a large wooden platter bearing twenty small pots, each containing a different variety of salted, marinated, or pickled fish, labeled as if they were on display in the Trocadéro aquarium. The Market Greens, on the other hand, consisted of a plate of raw vegetables served unpeeled, so as to give them an authentic touch

Unfortunately, this kind of humor is sparser than it should be. Anselme, though given to humor, is also a communist and he can’t help, despite his relative honesty, showing that idealized French workers are, if not a solution, then at least a way forward. Lachaume goes to Valette’s home for dinner. Valette lives in a predominantly communist working class neighborhood nicknamed the “Little USSR.” The awkwardness here is not one of soldier and civilian, but of Lachaume’s middle-class manners and the working-class realities of Valette’s family. They are welcoming, anything but crude, and serve as an example of an ideal France, especially when the grandmother servers a dinner of French home cooking that everyone loves. Yet Lachaume can’t help but feel uncomfortable. When they were in Algeria the two men were friends, but among family the friendship they have seems distant. There is a subtle poignancy to the relationship that wants to bubble out from his writing.

Instead, the night and the story go wrong with the appearance of Luc Giraud, the neighborhood’s communist party representative. He has a great speaking voice and long ponderous explanations for why the workers are wining against the capitalists. It seems comical at first, but in one of the more unbelievable moments, Lachaume finds his way of speaking comforting, as if he agrees with Giraud. Giraud is no Thévenin and Anselme is at pains to show how important the man is. Still, Anselme is a brave enough author, despite his political sympathies: when the conversation turns to the war, Giraud’s only suggestion is that Lachaume take a petition with him and get some signatures. On hearing this, Valette explodes and goes against the party line, asking how that is going to help 500,000 soldiers who are losing their youth. Giraud has no answer and sulks away. The failure is not the want of conviction, but of action. He is, tellingly, the only civilian who proposes some sort of action to end the war. He is misguided and does not understand the soldiers—few do—but he wants to do something.

The rest of the book follows the men as they wander around Paris looking for something to do before they have to go back to the base. They don’t find much, as if leave were little better than the war itself. Anything short of the war’s end will always keep the men as outcasts. Everything Anselme sees as being wrong with France is summed up by Lachaume in one sentence:

“At the end of the day,” Lachaume said, “the only problem we have to solve is to decide which car we’re going to buy when we come back.”

Despite Bellos’s fine translation, Anselme’s style can occasionally be tedious, which is unfortunate because there are some excellent passages in this otherwise interesting book. Anselme uses a conventional realism to describe events and it fails him when he tries to dramatize some of the joviality the soldiers share together. The other issue that might leave a reader feeling as if Anselme did not fully grasp the complexity of the war is the publication date. Since the book was written during the early part of the war, the events that mark the chaotic period, the fall of the fourth republic, the attempted coup against De Galle, the rise of the paramilitary OAS with its campaign of terror against Algerians, had not yet taken place, so the book seems to have voids in it. Also, because Anselme had only served in the resistance during World War II, it could be argued he doesn’t have much firsthand knowledge of the war. So what comes from the book is more a question of where France is going, instead of what ultimately happened. However, given the paucity of works on the war this is a welcome translation of a lost work.

12 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Christopher Iacono on Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, out from New York Review Books.

Chris is a new addition to our reviewers, and is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.

After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”

Go here for the rest of the review.

12 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito-ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.

After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”

After Victory finds “her god. . . . a great connoisseur of feminine flesh,” she sends Telumee to live with her grandmother. Toussine brings Telumee across “the bridge of beyond”—“a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into a blue semidarkness”—to her cabin. Despite the circumstances that brought the two together, they immediately bond with each other.

During their first years together, Toussine instills wisdom into her granddaughter through proverbs such as “life is not all meat soup” and “They’re only big whales left high and dry by the sea, and if the little fish listen to them, why, they’ll lose their fins.” She also tells stories such as “The Man Who Tried to Live on Air” to remind Telumee and her friend, Elie, about good and evil in the world. However, their relationship is not just filled with pithy expressions and mythical tales. As Telumee points out, “she was only waiting for me to pour forth the last floods of her tenderness, to revive the gleam in her worn-out eyes. There we were in the woods, supporting each other, tackling life as best we could and as we pleased.”

Toussine also introduces her to some colorful characters including the sorceress Ma Cia, who has been known to change into animals such as horses or birds. Of course, the folklore surrounding Ma Cia makes an impression on the young girl, and no one—not even the wise Toussine—tries to dispel any of the myths. During their visit to Ma Cia, though, Telumee learns about the island’s dark past. “For the first time, I realized that slavery was not some foreign country, some distant region from which a few very old people came . . . It had all happened here, in our hills and valleys, perhaps near this clump of bamboo, perhaps in the air I was breathing.”

In addition, it is around this time that Telumee learns that even though she is not a slave, she is not one of the fortunate ones, either. During a brief visit, Victory brags about her other child, Regina, who wears fancy dresses and can read and write. As if that isn’t bad enough, Telumee later becomes an employee of the Desaragnes, who are descendants of slave owners, in order to help her ailing grandmother. As their employee, Telumee not only has to put up with the insults of Madame Desaragnes, the lasciviousness Monsieur Desaragnes, and poor living conditions, but she is also not able to see her family and friends for long periods of time.

This is not to say that Telumee’s existence is completely miserable. There are moments of happiness, albeit brief. For example, she and Elie have the opportunity to go to school. She also escapes from the Desaragnes and later marries Elie, who becomes a logger and is a big dreamer like her. Later, she finds joy with Ely’s logging partner Amboise and the child Sonore.

Unfortunately, though, things do not turn out the way Telumee hoped. Those whom she thought she could depend on end up betraying her, and those who do not betray her die, leaving her alone. At one point, she even tries to unsuccessfully conjure a spell with Ma Cia’s help. Still, she remembers the lessons she learned from her upbringing with Toussine.

I see that heaven’s gift to us is that we should have our head thrust into, held down in, the murky water of scorn, cruelty, pettiness, and treachery. But I also see that we are not drowned in it. We have struggled to be born and we have struggled to be born again, and we have called the finest tree in our forests “resolute”—the strongest, the most sought after, the one that is cut down the most often.

Overall, The Bridge of Beyond, which was brilliantly translated by the late Barbara Bray in 1974, is a unique experience, a spiritual journey in a harsh place that employs the vibrant language of proverbs, legends, lore, and even songs. Even though there is no linear plot, the reader is compelled to stay with Telumee’s story until the very end because of the unbreakable bond with her ancestors from whom she learned about crossing the “bridge of beyond” over the “murky water of scorn.” Through this amazing journey, Schwarz-Bart conveys the message that these hardships are part of life, but they should not be enough to bring us down.

25 October 13 | Chad W. Post |

Like most people in publishing—or most readers I know—I have approximately a hundred million books on my “to read” shelves. Which in no way stops me from buying more and more books, or, in this case, setting aside everything I “should” be reading to check out a book that won’t be available until April of next year.

The sort of cryptic, yet promising opening of the jacket copy first caught my attention:

Viviane is both an engrossing murder mystery and a gripping exploration of madness, a narrative that tests the shifting boundaries of language and the self. For inspiration, author Julia Deck read the work of Samuel Beckett, because, as she says, “he positions himself within chaos and gives it coherence.”

But it’s this line from the second paragraph that convinced me that I should read this right now:

You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.

Writing in the second-person is tough to pull off, but that sentence is basically perfect.

Aside from that, I don’t know too much more about this book. It’s published by Minuit—which is surprising, since they don’t often publish debut novels—and will be coming out New Press next year in Linda Coverdale’s translation. And it was nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman, three of France’s ten thousand literary awards.

Also of importance: This is a slim 149 pages, which is the perfect length for me to read tonight, seeing that most of the rest of my weekend will be consumed with baseball watching . . . I’ll let you know on Monday if it’s as good as Wacha’s postseason.

23 October 13 | Chad W. Post |

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre in fact called the book “the epic of masturbation”), Chris Tysh has taken Genet’s work and made something completely new out of it.

“On the news Weidmann, his head
Like a nun in white or a wounded
Pilot, falls down in silky rye
The same day Our Lady of the Flowers
Stamped all over France dangles his crimes
By a golden string—nimble assassins mount
The back stairs of our sleep”

The poem follows the life and death of the drag queen Divine, chronicling her (or his) misadventures and tribulations with the pimp Mignon-Dainty-Feet and the young murderer, the eponymous Our Lady of the Flowers. Throughout the narrative, there is love, hate, crime, passion, sex, and death. The story is told in the form of seven-line stanzas (two per page), broken up in a way to confuse any internal rhythm, just like the characters confuse traditional assumptions about gender. The last line of one stanza may appear to be one thought, but when read with the beginning line of the next stanza, it creates a completely different idea. The text is emotional and evocative, transgressive to both past and present audiences while never seeming to use shock for shock’s sake. It paints a scene of Gay Paris and the criminal underbelly those deemed immoral or unnatural by mainstream society were forced to accompany.

Reign holds court down below
I need a dream, a poem to shatter
The walls of my prison. Swallows
Nest in my armpits; if you look away
For a second, a young murderer appears
A silk hanky in his buttonhole, he’s just
Come back from a night of dives with sailors

I wish Tysh’s word alchemy were practiced by more translators. Turning a prose novel into a poem is a brilliant literary move, especially when coupled with talent like hers. According to the translator’s bio in the back of the book, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is the second work in a three-part project, called Hotel des Archives, “inspired by the French novels of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Marguerite Duras.” I can only imagine that those other poems are just as marvelous as this one is.

Overnight, Our Lady
Becomes a sensation
His name a household
Item across all of France
Under the rubric of thefts
Rapes and assaults with
A deadly weapon [. . .]

One last remark I would like to make is on the back cover art. Drawn by Alice Könitz, it depicts a room containing what appears to be modern sculpture, along with the handwritten text “An international team of well known doctors brings chemical remedies along with herbal solutions, and tangible devices to alleviate the suffering.” The meaning here is not precisely clear, but the art’s mystery, along with its starkness and sketch-like quality lends an atmosphere of ambiguity to the text that is warmly embraced by author and translator alike.

23 October 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by J.T. Mahany on Chris Tysh’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, which is available from Les Figues Press.

This is a strange book to review, since it’s less a “translation” and more of a “transformation,” but it’s also incredibly interesting and J.T. does a great job of highlighting what’s interesting about the approach and the text.

On a separate note, it’s worth spending some time with the Les Figues catalog. One of the most interesting presses in the States doing some really experimental, strange, intriguing works.

Here’s the opening to the review:

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre in fact called the book “the epic of masturbation”), Chris Tysh has taken Genet’s work and made something completely new out of it.

“On the news Weidmann, his head
Like a nun in white or a wounded
Pilot, falls down in silky rye
The same day Our Lady of the Flowers
Stamped all over France dangles his crimes
By a golden string—nimble assassins mount
The back stairs of our sleep”

The poem follows the life and death of the drag queen Divine, chronicling her (or his) misadventures and tribulations with the pimp Mignon-Dainty-Feet and the young murderer, the eponymous Our Lady of the Flowers. Throughout the narrative, there is love, hate, crime, passion, sex, and death. The story is told in the form of seven-line stanzas (two per page), broken up in a way to confuse any internal rhythm, just like the characters confuse traditional assumptions about gender.

Click here to read the full review.

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.

19 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the Fiction Writers Review, Jennifer Solheim has posted a great interview with the two translators of Duras’s L’Amour, which just pubbed this past Tuesday.

You can read the whole thing here, but here are a few highlights.

Jennifer Solheim: In your beautiful introduction, Kazim, you write, “_L’Amour_, never before translated into English, is at the heart of a constellation of texts, both verbal and visual, by Marguerite Duras, sometimes called the India Cycle.” So what is the story behind the translation of L’Amour? Why now? Did you approach Open Letter Books, or did they approach you? Why hasn’t it been translated previously?

Kazim Ali: I was a Duras lover, very enamored of her prose style, which seemed even more powerful in her middle-period (1965 – 1984, roughly) when she started recycling plots throughout her books. I happened upon L’Amour in a Paris bookstore and found it immediately charming and powerful—in fact, kind of a classic example of this spare disembodied style that she was cultivating. It almost reads like a treatment for a film, so it makes complete sense to me that after writing this book she more or less abandoned fiction for film. During the thirteen years that followed she did write four short prose narratives—the most well known of these is The Malady of Death—but essentially did not write another novel until The Lover.

I can’t say why no one had attempted a translation yet. It is a very experimental prose style and a very experimental novel in that not much really happens. Yet it has been written about by countless critics, all of whom were doing their own translations of the small excerpts they wished to discuss. I had approached a couple of different publishers, but this is a quirky book, even for Duras, who is quirky all on her own. Open Letter was very excited and enthusiastic about the book. They are doing a wonderful job and are devoted completely to literature in translation. They have another Duras book in their catalog (The Sailor from Gibraltar) and signed us up almost immediately.

JS: Since L’Amour is a centerpiece of the India Cycle, did the English translations of the other works in the cycle inform you? Were there stylistic or other elements in the translations that you decided you wanted to preserve or eschew?

KA: During the translation process I read every other translation I could find. Duras does sound a certain way in English through the excellent work of Barbara Bray. The few other Duras translations that exist have a different sense. Bray did an odd thing, which is that she did not “Anglicize” the syntax very much, so the sentences still have that sometimes ornate overdone word order of a French sentence. In L’Amour Duras writes very simply, very plainly. So I found an inspiration in Gertrude Stein’s English. But unlike Stein, Duras is in love with the comma—her sentences can just keep going and going. So it took a draft or two to get the hang of the rhythme du sens, so to speak. Which—eventually—seemed really important and related to the constant sound of waves that permeates life at the ocean; meaning the sentence structure and grammar was part of the meaning—it couldn’t be changed.

Read the rest here.

11 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by P.T. Smith on Kafka’s Hat by Patrice Martin, from Talon.

Patrick is pumping out these book reviews for us, and has much to say about Kafka’s Hat, the title of which, I’ll admit, makes me want to giggle. As does Wigrum. I don’t think I can explain why. Though it may have something to do with the fact that I’ve been up before 06.30 every morning for the past week and had to sit through my first ever jury duty pooling. SPOILER ALERT: I made it to the penultimate round and was sent home in the end. And now it’ll be another eight years before I can make my high school mock trial dreams come true. In Monroe County, at least.

ANYWAY! Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review, on a book that definitely seems worth checking out (and not just out of jury duty boredom):

Quebecois author Patrice Martin’s first book, translated into English by Chantal Bilodeau as Kafka’s Hat and published by Talon, is strongly influenced by Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Paul Auster. I’m putting this up front because it is something Martin really, really wants you to know. These authors are named in the jacket copy, all three are quoted for epigraphs, all three are repeatedly mentioned, quoted, or read during the course of the book, and, in the end, all three make their own parodic appearances. There is also, of course, Martin’s claim to Kafka, with the hat of the title playing the MacGuffin and a single initial protagonist, P. However, a stronger comparison, though with less claim to groundbreaking heights, would be Murakami—strange things happen to characters for no reason; their boring, private, structured lives are broken and exchanged with interesting, surprising ones; characters repeatedly make sudden decisions “without knowing exactly what is motivating [them]”; and, of course, love is found suddenly, by chance. It is this last reference point that says the most about what Martin accomplishes, rather than what he aspires to accomplish.

The first and longest of the book’s three sections focuses on the protagonist P. Set up as an analogue to Kafka’s Ks, he instead begins as something more interesting, and anxiety-inducing. His is a world of the mundane—when he enters a cab, he “exchang[es] a few banalities with the driver about the weather, chronic traffic jams and the New York tourist season”—so when he is given a mission by the Boss at Stuff & Things, Co., his one thought is to accomplish this business in order to be a good, successful, productive, and eventually rewarded employee. P. is not particularly interested in the importance of the hat of a famous writer, in fact he cannot remember who the writer is. His only interest comes from wondering why the Boss could want such a hat, what importance a writer could have to such an important business man. The mission and its strange interruptions begin P.’s break from what he believes about himself.

For the rest of the view, click through here.

11 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Quebecois author Patrice Martin’s first book, translated into English by Chantal Bilodeau as Kafka’s Hat and published by Talon, is strongly influenced by Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Paul Auster. I’m putting this up front because it is something Martin really, really wants you to know. These authors are named in the jacket copy, all three are quoted for epigraphs, all three are repeatedly mentioned, quoted, or read during the course of the book, and, in the end, all three make their own parodic appearances. There is also, of course, Martin’s claim to Kafka, with the hat of the title playing the MacGuffin and a single initial protagonist, P. However, a stronger comparison, though with less claim to groundbreaking heights, would be Murakami—strange things happen to characters for no reason; their boring, private, structured lives are broken and exchanged with interesting, surprising ones; characters repeatedly make sudden decisions “without knowing exactly what is motivating [them]”; and, of course, love is found suddenly, by chance. It is this last reference point that says the most about what Martin accomplishes, rather than what he aspires to accomplish.

The first and longest of the book’s three sections focuses on the protagonist P. Set up as an analogue to Kafka’s Ks, he instead begins as something more interesting, and anxiety-inducing. His is a world of the mundane—when he enters a cab, he “exchang[es] a few banalities with the driver about the weather, chronic traffic jams and the New York tourist season”—so when he is given a mission by the Boss at Stuff & Things, Co., his one thought is to accomplish this business in order to be a good, successful, productive, and eventually rewarded employee. P. is not particularly interested in the importance of the hat of a famous writer, in fact he cannot remember who the writer is. His only interest comes from wondering why the Boss could want such a hat, what importance a writer could have to such an important business man. The mission and its strange interruptions begin P.’s break from what he believes about himself, that:

He is, after all, a rational man. He loves playing chess. He reads articles on project management and public administration. Every night before he goes to bed, he takes a few minutes to reflect on his day. He takes his planner and reviews all the steps he wrote the night before. Then he determines what needs following up and plans the next day; he jots down a to-do list in a small notebook and puts it in his jacket pocket . . . . Once he is done, he slips under the covers and grabs the book on his bedside table (invariably a self-help manual). He then reads for exactly fifteen minutes, switches the light off and falls fast asleep.

This cold, structured rationality is what P. puts his faith in, what he believes will move him on and through the world. Martin’s humor (as when P. is particularly proud of a decision and “happy about the usefulness of books—the books in reference being those self-help books gently mocked more than once by the author) warns early on that this way of life may be both flawed in intent, and–for P.–flawed in execution. After elevator and elevator service hijinks, P., searching for a safe, effective way to Kafka’s hat, comes across a dead body (one of those chance, it-just-is events that serve no purpose of their own and can be replaced with any other event), which he then decides he must hide. There is no reason given for this decision, and it begins to clearly reveal the cracks in P.’s faith of reason. This is a man who, when making a list of steps to take, ends the list with “Step 4. Implement the first three steps right away.” The humor here is Martin’s, and P. is shown not as the K. it is so easy to compare him to, but to the bureaucratic antagonists who litter Kafka’s work. The assistants from The Castle come to mind, with the anxiety-inducing “rationale” that they subject K. to, interrupting and defeating his efforts to accomplish anything. Here, we are siding with P. as he interferes with himself, hoping he might see his way through such absurdities as when he closes his eyes to hear better, leading to: “He then tries to validate his hypothesis by closing and opening his eyes every ten seconds. He notices no improvement in his hearing. He figures there may not be anything to hear.” When he does eventually hear a knock louder than the one he heard with eyes open, he undermines himself with the realization that “he too knocked a little louder the second time.” It is this endless rationalization of possibility that freezes P. and leaves him to be determined by events, and those times when he acts even though “He can’t even imagine how the idea crossed his mind.”

The breakdown of P.’s ability to make decisions as he spirals in his version of rationality eventually leads him to a (chance) meeting with a woman who (by chance) is a Kafka fan, reading a book (by chance) that contains stories by Auster, Borges, and Calvino, the same three authors P. finds books by (chance again) in a bag he attempts to hide the discovered dead body in. For the record, the woman is also writing a book about a man who has written a book about the three authors. This is the type of metafiction at play, the belief that simply complicating the story with layers of stories conscious of another layer being a story is enough. This interaction, along with the reading of fragments of a manuscript found in the same bag, themselves interrupting the overall narrative, are enough for P. to start to discover the great power of storytelling—a realization which falls slightly flat, given its similarity with the mocking “usefulness” of self-help books.

After this, there are two more sections of the novel. One is the story of yet another writer, another life-changing and sudden meeting with a woman without a background of her own, and the third a brief tale of Calvino, Auster, and Borges heading off to a conference on The Writer as Character. Split among these are the stories found and read by P. Each plays itself in the style of one of the three authors (Calvino’s is about reading; Borges is about math; Auster’s has a detective and the protagonist is Mr. Martin) and, in fact, in their briefness and lack of holding back, manage to succeed in ways the rest of the novel does not. Instead of proclaiming influence as important in itself, they skillfully follow the lead. The careful description of and explanation behind the thought process for holding a book in the exact right position so that one can both read and not miss his bus is one of the more delightful moments in Kafka’s Hat. Neither of the latter two sections has quite the same humor as the first, and the stories are even more sparse; they mainly serve to promote that mission of metafiction, winking self-awareness, yet directionless. The second narrative gives us an author stand-in, Max, driving to New York to try to meet Auster in order to get him to write a preface to Max’s novel: “If Paul Auster agrees to contribute to my novel, no editor will be able to refuse it!” It is a desperate confusion that influence is the same thing as merit, and as in other places in the novel, it isn’t clear if this is wholly a character’s belief, or if it is Martin’s, too. Along with multiple stand-ins for the author, P.’s tale is also told in the other two sections—cleverly in Max’s as his explanation of his novel, matching what we just read of P. Here, Martin does intertwine them nicely: as Max describes the story, when it catches up to where we last left off, the narrative fully kicks back to P. It is fun, playful, but still has a lack, and leads nowhere besides itself. An intertwining text as an end in itself is simply a loose knot.

Patrice Martin may not reach the goals he set by comparison, but in this slim first effort, there is enough to find cheer and praise in. Almost as if he can’t yet avoid them, Martin allows himself to dwell in small clichés, particularly in his characterizations. That the characters here are flat is not entirely a flaw, and so when Max needs a deep thought “He grabs another cigarette, lights it and inhales deeply, as if he expected the river’s salty air to clear both his thoughts and his lungs. But nothing happens.” Even the character tics are given to cliché, “Max likes irony so, as he finishes the cigarette he usually smokes in the car, he smiles from the corner of his mouth.” These keen, playful expressions of the mundane give Martin some of his finer pieces of writing, and show that when he drops the metafictional games his attachment to influences raise, he does have characters to live with. And more importantly, given the way Kafka’s Hat proclaims the love and importance of story, Martin can tell one—when he is able to move onto his own, instead of someone else’s.

7 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by John Thomas Mahany on Les aigles puent by Lutz Bassman, from Éditions Verdier.

JT—as we know him—is an MA in Literary Translation Studies student at the University of Rochester, and a recent addition to the superfandom of Volodine’s work. He’s also working on a translation of Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven (Le Post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze, Gallimard 1998), forthcoming from Open Letter Books in Fall 2015.

Here’s a bit of his review (which is followed by a little excerptfrom Les aigles puent):

If you’ve been following any of the recent Antoine Volodine talk going around Three Percent—both on the blog or on the podcasts—and have heard his fans wax obsessive over all his alter author-egos, you’re probably starting to feel some Volodine fatigue setting in. One more mention of what his books do to your dreams, of postexoticism, prison literature, Untermenschen, or people with blends of Eastern European, Mongolian, and Middle Asian names, and you’ll start bleeding from your ears, right?

Sorry, but we’re not done yet.

Yet unpublished in English, Les aigles puent, a novel by Lutz Bassmann (one of Volodine’s many reoccurring faces/names/characters), is the tale of a man named Gordon Koum who has just returned from an assassination mission for the Party, only to discover that his home city has been devastated by a (possibly nuclear) bomb. Everything is completely and irreversibly demolished, turned to black ash and soot. Everyone whom Gordon Koum loved—his wife, his children, his comrades—is dead at the hands of these “witch bombs.” As he picks through the rubble, Gordon quickly realizes that everything is hopeless, that all is lost. Maddened, irradiated, and wracked with sorrow, our protagonist sits on a bit of rock and waits for death, his only companions a dead bird stuck in the tar, and a golliwog that had miraculously survived the blast. He uses his gift for ventriloquism to converse with them, and tells them stories of his lost friends: Benny Magadane, Antar Gudarbak, his wife Maryama Koum, and many others.

7 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you’ve been following any of the recent Antoine Volodine talk going around Three Percent—both on the blog or on the podcasts—and have heard his fans wax obsessive over all his alter author-egos, you’re probably starting to feel some Volodine fatigue setting in. One more mention of what his books do to your dreams, of postexoticism, prison literature, Untermenschen, or people with blends of Eastern European, Mongolian, and Middle Asian names, and you’ll start bleeding from your ears, right?

Sorry, but we’re not done yet.

Yet unpublished in English, Les aigles puent, a novel by Lutz Bassmann (one of Volodine’s many reoccurring faces/names/characters), is the tale of a man named Gordon Koum who has just returned from an assassination mission for the Party, only to discover that his home city has been devastated by a (possibly nuclear) bomb. Everything is completely and irreversibly demolished, turned to black ash and soot. Everyone whom Gordon Koum loved—his wife, his children, his comrades—is dead at the hands of these “witch bombs.” As he picks through the rubble, Gordon quickly realizes that everything is hopeless, that all is lost. Maddened, irradiated, and wracked with sorrow, our protagonist sits on a bit of rock and waits for death, his only companions a dead bird stuck in the tar, and a golliwog that had miraculously survived the blast. He uses his gift for ventriloquism to converse with them, and tells them stories of his lost friends: Benny Magadane, Antar Gudarbak, his wife Maryama Koum, and many others.

The book is in some ways very similar to Volodine’s Minor Angels: a man in pain is reciting strange short stories about others (I would consider the “In Memory of X” and “To Make X Laugh” chapters to be narracts), including stories about himself. In the case of Les aigles puent, however, the main character is not being punished for some crime, and in fact Gordon Koum could be said to be the antithesis to Will Scheidmann—as a Party member he is working against the dominant forces of (presumably) capitalism, whereas Scheidmann ended up restoring capitalism to its former state in his world.

Another interesting thing about the novel is the mention of a man named Müller, whom
Gordon Koum has killed. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Müller is the name of a brutal prison guard who threatens to have the character Tarchalski beaten if he doesn’t return to his seat during his interview with another character, Blotno. Could this be a possible revenge fantasy of Bassmann’s? Post-Exoticism mentions that yet another character, Elia Fincke, has compiled a list of all the prison guards who had committed violence against the post-exotic authors between 1975 and 1999, so one might begin to wonder if all the villainous characters in these works get their names from this list.

Bassmann’s writing here is quite compelling, and the book provides a counterweight for both Minor Angels(in Gordon Koum’s similarities and differences to Will Scheidmann) and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (as we get to see now the effects of Bassmann’s imprisonment and madness on his writing).

Here’s an excerpt1 from chapter eight of Les aigles puent, “To Make Ayïsch Omonenko Laugh”, in which the narrator prepares to come face-to-face with Noë Balgagul, a ruthless ferry captain who forces his passengers into a humiliating game of charades to ensure their safe travel . . .

Noë Balgagul was the patron of a ferry that he called his ark. He was an old mercenary who pretended to have given up crimes against humanity to commit to the purifying path of spirituality. In reality, the atrocities he knew or committed had forever scrambled his senses. His vision of the world had blackened, it was inhabited by monsters and phantoms. Noë Balgagul’s religion extolled nothing, advocated no morality, and gave no explanation for the omnipresence of suffering in the fates of living creatures. It brought neither relief nor hope. It was an obscure construction, devoid of divinities and even mystic principles. It came to him while he was kneading maniacally his own private bitumen of cruelty and insanity, and no reassuring flame ever came to this tar. The spiritual principles of Noë Balgagul were reduced to a lugubrious practice, whose teachings he did not try to disseminate, except for in his immediate entourage, a band of deserters and brigands who had pledged allegiance to him.

I had been warned that Noë Balgagul performed a species of baptism as soon as crossing candidates boarded his craft. First he took their dollar, then he divided the unfortunates into several categories whose criteria were known to him alone. To these categories, all of them degrading, he attributed arbitrary names, names of animals that provoked his crew’s contempt, but which provided the foundation for a wretched role-playing game. This game lasted the entire slow crossing. A few regular clients sometimes escaped this obligation, but no one else. One by one, the passengers stepped foot onto his enormous punt. Noë Balgagul took the coin they paid him all the while examining them from feet to head. He appointed them a seat and, immediately, classified and baptized them. This selection conformed to illegible religious principles and, ultimately, its only point of origin was in Noë Balgagul’s caprices and petty irascibility. According to the title he had received, the traveler had to adopt the behaviors of a pig, a parrot, or a male or female human. He had to act them out with determination and even fervor. His fate depended on it, and in that one could find a religious relation between the totem he had been saddled with and the consequences that poor observation of the ritual could provoke. Those who were too half-hearted in miming their animal were thrown into the water by Noë Balgagul’s assistant, a specialist in fencing who delighted in the idea of then jabbing them with the gaff hook and who never objected to carrying out his employer’s murderous orders. The river was nasty, opaque, punctuated by eddies and treacherous churnings. It was several hundred meters wide and Noë Balgagul never threw out anyone before reaching the halfway point. In numerous places, algae countered the swimmers’ movements. Those from the city, who had left the hell of war to fall into the hell of peace, were powerless. Very few managed to get back to the shore.

That is what I had been told about Noë Balgagul, biological products, and the river.

1 Trans. by John Thomas Mahany

26 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

The Invention of Glass by Emmanuel Hocquard, translated from the French by Cole Swenson and Rod Smith, and published by Canarium Books.

Brandon Holmquest is a poet, translator, and the editor of CALQUE.

1. Because it manages the difficult trick of being intellectual without being academic, of being lyrical without being Romantic, of being poetic without being precious.

2. Because it is skillfully, by which I mean subtly, modeled on glass itself. There is a transparent quality to the poems, they are faintly traced through with colors at times, they tend to slightly warp the images and people one glimpses through them.

3. Because it contains lines like:

. . . Between Deleuze and Wittgenstein
there is Reznikoff and there is also
a wall . . .

4. Because after an 84-page section called “Poem” comes a 24-page one called “Story” which appears to explain the references and anecdotes in the poems, and does to some extent, but which also contains a further crop of anecdotes, more prosaic but no less charming than any that come before.

5. Because in it there is an openly-declared influence of American poets, which somehow does not result in the translation simply sounding like the specific poets quoted or winked at. This “somehow,” in my experience, is almost always explained by the skill of the translators, and such is the case here.

6. Because it is a book of poems from France that is about the difficulties of being a real person, as opposed to the more frequently seen subject of recent French poetry, the difficulties of being a person with money.

7. Because in reading it one is reminded of those French poets of the last forty or fifty years that really matter, especially Ponge and Char, without feeling like what one is reading is derivative of those writers. It seems rather to be the case that Hocquard is himself part of something they are part of as well, and he therefore merits wider readership so that this larger whole may be better understood, if for no other reason.

7.5 Because there are many other reasons.

9 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball, and published by Indiana University Press.

Since I love The United States of Africa, I chose to write up this one.

1. This is the most political book on the longlist. (Of the ones I read at least.) The frame story of Transit takes in the Paris airport in the early 2000s, as two immigrants from Djibouti are entering the country. One, Bashir, is a recently discharged soldier, the other, Harbi, has been arrested as a political suspect. In a series of flashbacks, the reader learns about a shitton of horrors about life in Djibouti and the never-ending series of conflicts taking place between the government and the rebels. David and Nicole Ball’s introduction puts this into context:

Transit is as fresh and relevant today as when it first appeared in France in 2003. This is a terrible—and wonderful—thing to say.

Terrible, because its picture of an impoverished country ravaged by war and repression is still the reality of life in Djibouti, that little country squeezed between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea at the edge of the Horn of Africa. The drought that devastated these countries was not the only cause of the famine that reached catastrophic proportions in 2011; it merely aggravated the conditions we see through the eyes of the characters of Transit, even if those characters were created nearly a decade ago. Terrible, too, because its portrayal of their desperate attempt to flee the country is still relevant today—and not only in Djibouti.

2. Because, Djibouti. Such a fun word to say. And a place that most people couldn’t find on a map. But it’s home to one of the most interesting contemporary authors in Waberi, whose other books—The United States of Africa and Passage of Tears—are also worth reading.

3. African literature is some of the most underrepresented in English. How many translations of Sub-Saharan African writers do you think were published in English last year? Three. That’s it. Three. There were more books from Iceland—a country of 300,000 people—published in English last year than this. That’s fucked. If we’re going to view literature in translation as a way of learning about the rest of the world, we need to translate—and promote—more books from places like Africa.

4. Indiana University Press deserves some props. Honestly, I had no idea that Indiana University Press published fiction before finding out about this book. Nor did I have any idea that Dominic Thomas was editing a “Global African Voices” series for them that includes not just Waberi, but Alain Mabanckou, another personal favorite. And since the Hoosiers shit the bed in the tournament this year—wrecking my bracket in the process—I think the school needs this win as a salve for their self-esteem.

5. Bashir’s voices must’ve been incredibly hard to capture. Just check this out:

I’m in Paris, warya—pretty good, huh? OK it’s not really Paris yet but Roissy. That the name of the airoport. This airoport got two names, Roissy and Charles de Gaulle. In Djibouti it got just one name, Ambouli, an I swear on the head of my departed family, it’s much-much tinier. OK, this trip here, everything went all right. I gobbled the good food of Air France. Went direct to the war film before I fell into heavy sleep. I was stocked, no I mean scotched—taped—in the last row of the Boeing 747 where the cops tie the deportees up tight when the plane goes back to Africa. That’s true, that the way they do it.

David and Nicole deserve the award for the deft way in which they handled this throughout the book.

For all those reasons, Transit deserves to win.

3 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson

I wrote this one. Initially out of necessity—no one else snatched this one up—and a desire to read this “Céline-esque” novel, since I need a little more mud and anger in my life.

1. W. Donald Wilson’s introduction. Well, not specifically his introduction, which is fine in and of itself, but his articulation of the core problem in translating With the Animals:

In the original French, Paul [the narrator and protagonist of the novel, an uneducated farmer who smacks his wife around and can’t remember the names of his kids] lives in no specific place, nor does he use any particular form of speech or dialect: his idiom is an invented one. Of course many of the idiosyncrasies of his French are unavailable in English, such as his mangling of the more complex French negatives, his ease in inventing reflexive forms of verbs and his placement of adjectives before rather than after nouns (and vice versa). Also unavailable was his constant use of the impersonal pronoun “on,” used to create a greater impression of detachment and depersonalization than is allowed by its closes available English equivalent, “you.” I was therefore concerned to develop a voice that, while delivering that “slap in the face,” would not show any strained attempt to write incorrectly or distort the English language unnaturally, but would flow instead from Paul’s character and situation. Lacking any example or conventional usage to follow, Paul would have to improvise his language, resulting in a certain stylistic awkwardness. His word-order would be unconventional, reflecting the spontaneous order of his thoughts (for instance in the placement of adverbs or in stating the topic or subject of sentences first, as in Georges, he said). His use of conjunctions would be weak. Object pronouns would sometimes be omitted, and the definite article would sometimes occur where no article is normal in English. He would be uncertain of grammatical categories, confusing nouns, adjectives, and verbs. His grasp of verb forms, especially the verb ‘to be’ (as in there is + plural, or you/we/they was), and of pronouns would be unsure (as in me for I and them for those). Yet he would not use common dialect forms such as ain’t, and only occasionally employ double negatives.

In basic English, Paul don’t speak right. Which is really difficult to replicate . . . Seriously. Try writing incorrectly, yet coherently, for a paragraph. Then a page. Then 233. And as much as translation takes its cues from the original text, this is a massive act of creation on the part of Wilson.

2. This gambit of Wilson’s works. Right from the start, Paul’s voice is unique, strange, grammatically distorted, and, most important, interesting to read:

Before when I go out in the morning I’ve knocked back a good brimmer already and things fall together like straw. Till then I’ve a face like night on me and a garlic mouth and I can’t stand anyone wants to be coddled like a snot-nosed pup. Head under the tap and already I’m getting the machines out. Vulva, she’s still dragging round, she scrubs down in a corner and dries off in the kitchen.

3. Use of the term “brimmer.” I love neologisms and reappropriated words and slang that isn’t really slang because only a dozen people use it and none of them are Gawker. So “brimmer” is my new term for a full glass of “plum.” Sure, it’s 10:22 right now, but I CAN NOT WAIT to get home and fill some brimmers and knock them back.

4. Holy shitsnacks is this book offensive. All the Dalkey copy compares Revaz to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which, sure, I suppose so. Personally, I think that comparison is a bit broad—Céline wrote angry, narrator Paul is angry; Céline was insulting, narrator Paul refers to his wife as “Vulva”; Céline used a ton of ellipses, Revaz wrote in an untraditional way. That said, I think Revaz is up to something different—for one, her book isn’t written in a semi-autobiographical voice—and to reduce her to being “Céline-esque” feels reductive. But anyway, the hate and disgust Paul has for his wife and the world—not to mention the litany of insults and physical beatings he unleashes on “Vulva”—is pretty staggering. This isn’t a character you cuddle up next to and “relate to.” I like that. That’s a difficult thing to do well, to sustain for a whole book. Here’s an example from a point when Paul’s wife is in the hospital having a tumor removed:

What can you say to her, Vulva, when you never think of her? Me, in the end I’ve forgotten she exists, and what difference to me if she goes off to the hospital to have her belly sliced open or her varicose veins shrunk: I don’t give a rat’s fart, it doesn’t squeeze a single big tear out of me nor get the snot-rag out of my shirt pocket, so she can stay away there till the next century if that’s what she’d rather. At least it counts as much for me she’s not around no more to give her jeremiahs after us and go complaining at us every time we open a bottle or go on a wee binge.

5. Because Dalkey has yet to win the BTBA. Granted, this is a reason that goes beyond the text itself, but considering that Dalkey publishes more literature in translation than other publisher in the United States, they’re bound to strike gold at some point. And this book is both brilliant in and of itself, but also presents—and solves—a really fundamental translation challenge. For all these reasons, With the Animals by the Swiss author Noëlle Revaz should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

1 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Kite by Dominique Eddé, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and published by Seagull Books

This recommendation Rick Simonson, legendary bookseller at the “Elliott Bay Book Company.”:http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

Translator Ros Schwartz and Seagull Books have given English-language readers a brilliant, searing look at the layers of a very contemporary relationship in this translation of Dominque Eddé’s Kite. Going back and forth in time and in place—from Beirut to Paris, to Cairo and London—this book is both a powerful exploration of love and of the shifts in intellectual culture at a tumultuous time in the Arab and western worlds. Ros Schwartz deftly traces the shifts and changes in setting and narrative through Edde’s wonderfully dense and shifting prose.

But a novel from the Calcutta-based Seagull Books might still seem like a darkhorse in this race and this is only the second time a book of theirs has appeared on the BTBA long list, though they’ve been publishing translations for thirty years and they rank with New Directions and Dalkey Archive in the numbers of new translations they publish every year. They’re also gaining a lot of traction with indie booksellers—I’ve seen new staff recommendations for their books appear here at Elliott Bay, and all down the west coast at City Lights, Green Apple and Skylight Books. And with good reason: Kite contains a richly rewarding depiction of a character—one who reads, who writes!—going blind that is, by itself, worth the price of the book.

*

Chad here. To add a special bit of something to Rick’s write-up, here’s a really fun bit of the interview Seagull Books founder Naveen Kishore gave in Shelf Awareness:

Shelf Awareness: What do you love about books in translation?

Naveen Kishore: The “edginess” of literature different from mine. The “getting-under-the-skin” quality. The sense of dislocation and being “torn asunder.” And the intuitive recognition of humor across cultures!

SA: What do you think is the future of the printed book?

NK: Healthy. More beautifully crafted than ever before. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on the mammoth Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, which is translated from the French by Mike Mitchell and published by Other Press.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

I’ve been interested in this book literally for years, having first heard of it on a trip to France in 2009, and am very excited that this is finally available. (And hopefully I’ll have some time this summer to read it . . .)

Here’s a bit of Grant’s review:

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

bq.” Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.”

Click here to read the entire review.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.

The reader is not too optimistic about the outcomes for each story line, even when coming to care for the fate of the characters who de Roblès portrays in sympathetic terms, save for some unambiguously nasty people.

One of Elaine’s companions is a graduate student named Mauro, son of an overreaching, ambitious state governor and his alienated wife. Governor Moreira seeks a land deal to lure foreign investors, and he uses increasingly violent means to disposes from the land the poor who stand in his way. Eleazard meets and briefly socializes with the governor and wife. Eleazard is accompanied by Lordena, an Italian woman who is one of the few guests staying in the town inn, and who begins a relationship with him while hiding her bleak health prognosis. Her quest will lead eventually to a Santeria ceremony to seek healing.

Eleazard’s daughter Moema is a sometime college student who relies on dad’s money to fund drug binges for her and her lover Thais, and a young male professor whom the two women drag to an isolated fishing town for variations of sexual pairings and encounters with fishermen/smugglers. Moema will seek some real meaning through idealized human relationships and to herself; but she takes direction, for example, from a billboard she’s seen: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The reader is not inspired to confidence about Moema’s new resolutions.

The elite, powerful, and educated—the governor, Eleazard and Elaine, Lordena, Kircher and Scott in their own day and time—are counterbalanced by ten-year-old Nathan, a crippled beggar who lives in a favella with his uncle Ze. All the characters have at most only two degrees of separation from one another by the end of the novel. Ze and Nathan are on a collision course with Moema and the governor.

Also offering contrast are a shaman and his tribe who have been isolated for centuries, but who possess the memory of a Jesuit missionary from the eighteenth century who brought with him one of Kircher’s many books. They are the erstwhile rescuers of Elaine and her party. The tribe is on a quest of its own, to return to some ur-existence, in part guided by the Jesuit’s teaching distorted and parroted through generations of shamans.

Still, the story of Kircher takes up what seems a full half of the novel over against all of the contemporary Brazilian stories of Eleazard, et al. Kircher is a real figure from European history. Varyingly regarded as a last scientific holdover from a medieval natural scientific approach and a quintessential Counter-Reformation thinker, Kircher has become a subject for contemporary rediscovery. A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie (Riverhead, 2012) is one of the recent explorations of Kircher’s fascinatingly weird genius, captured by de Roblès, as Kircher gets almost everything wrong, from medical treatments, to his quest to identify the pre-Babel language of humanity, to natural phenomena. In one comical scene a dismayed Schott describes Kircher as he insists on drawing closer and closer to an erupting volcano’s opening:

The heat was almost unbearable and we were finding it difficult to breathe when dozens of crawling things suddenly started to pour through our refuge: all sorts of snakes, salamanders, scorpions and spiders scuttled between our legs for a few moments that seemed close to an eternity to me. Flabbergasted by this phenomenon, we did not think of using our equipment to collect some specimens. Kircher, who had observed the process with his usual concentration, immediately drew the most unusual of these creatures in his notebook. “As you see, Caspar,” he said when he had finished, “we have not wasted our time coming here. Now we know from the evidence of our own eyes that certain creatures are born of the fire itself, just as flies are engendered by manure & worms by putrefaction. Those there had been created practically before our very eyes . . .”

De Roblès makes this long novel readable by his control over pacing, with subject headings within each chapter linking to specific story lines. No one story goes on so long that the reader loses the thread of the others. Many of the quests lead to transcendent-seeming moments with de Roblès using effective, incantatory language to carry along the reader. The 32 shortish chapters, plus prologue and afterward, would seem to beg for one of those dramatis personae lists that authors of complex novels sometimes provide; not needed here.

Having said that, I’ll also admit that I bogged down about 1/3 of the way in. I’m the sort of reader who has finished some longer books after two or three attempts (Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow), never attempted any of those long Victorian novels, passed through the long-Russian novel phase in late high school years never looking back, and I still haven’t completed Ulysses (sorry Prof. Davis), nor Gaddis’ Recognitions or JR, no matter how many new copies with attractive new covers I’ve bought.

So I set this book aside for over a week. In order to write the promised review I returned to the novel when I decided I would try the last 100 pages just to find out how matters resolved. Clearly the plots had too many turns for this to work, so plan B was to skim the in-between parts. Be darned if it didn’t hook me instead. This novel is a quite satisfying read, one of best novels I suspect that will appear in English, in the original or translation, in 2013. The endings of the various quests draw in story lines closer and closer, characters previously separate eventually move into relationships with one another. If a new reader begins to doubt the worth of the effort, bogged down in some intellectual digression, this reassurance: the Prologue starts with a Eleazard distracted by a parrot named Heidegger (!): “‘Man’s swelling his pointed dick! Squaaak! Man’s swelling his pointed dick!’”

18 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd and published by Knopf

This piece is by New Directions publicity and Three Percent podcaster, Tom Roberge.

When dealing with any book by French author Michel Houellebecq, it’s almost impossible to discuss the book itself, by itself, so we might as well address this whole thing right now. Yes, he seems (how can we really know, after all; his writerly persona might be precisely that: a persona) to be a bit of a, to put it nicely, antisocial curmudgeon. He seems to have little patience for the literary world and the window-dressing sort of appearances and interviews that coincide with the publication of any novel by a well-known (if not exact well-loved) author. This is, after all, a man whose mother wrote some rather disparaging things about him in her own memoir. And these are all frequent topics of discussion because his narrators, too, possess many of these characteristics. They’re often selfish, apathetic, skeptical, and downright miserable. But, and I’ve been pleading this case for years now, I believe that underneath the surface-level nihilism and general ennui of his novels is an author who truly believes in love, in human beings’ ability to make each other profoundly happy. The ability, he suggests, is within all of us, if only we’d stop worrying about the rest of the crap that defines our modern world.

Which brings us to The Map and the Territory. I’ve read and reread all of Houellebecq’s novels, and though I think The Elementary Particles is brilliant and that Platform is insanely fun, I also think this is his best book, the most accomplished in terms of pacing and plotting, the most stylistically riveting on a page-by-page basis, and the most sophisticated in terms of its themes. And boy oh boy are there a lot of them packed in here, twisted into each other, fighting for control and attacking the reader with their combined power.

Artist Jed Martin is the novel’s central conduit for Houellebecq’s exploration of these themes, and the first section of the book focuses on a series of Martin’s digital prints that are fantastic enlargements of Michelin road maps, with quite a few creative embellishments. The prints critique something that a lot of Americans living in big cities will also recognize: the middle and upper-class romanticization of rural life, of farming, of living off the land, of what they imagine is “a simpler life.” All bullshit, obviously, and not exactly news, but Houellebecq dissects the trend beautifully, mimicking and mocking the obtuse language of the art world at the same time.

But then Martin stops working. Altogether. For years. And when he re-emerges, he decides to become a portrait painter, and yet again he takes dead aim at the prevailing trends of the middle- and upper-class consumers of “intellectual” products, be they works of art or gadgets or something in between. By which I mean he paints portraits of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but puts them in an imaginary scene in which they “Discuss the Future of Information Technology,” their expressions greedy and all-knowing, larger-than-life, terrifying. He also—and this brings me back to the opening paragraph, to the notion of Houellebecq as the antisocial curmudgeon—travels to Ireland to paint a novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who has agreed, after much trepidation, to write the catalog copy for an exhibition of the portraits in exchange for a portrait of himself. This is, and excuse the pun, a stroke of genius. It allows Houellebecq (the writer of the book, as opposed to the writer/character in the book) to confront the personal attacks on his character head-on, to bring the discussion of the prevailing themes that recur in his books into this book, to offer a subtle rebuttal to everything that’s been said about him and his work in the book, rather than having to appear on television to be mocked by a pretentious journalist, or having to endure an endless interview session. “Here,” he seems to be saying, “you want to know what I think about everything that’s been said about me? This is what I think, and this is why I’ve fled to Ireland, to get the hell away from your miserable games.”

There’s also one more theme and plot element that’s thoroughly amazing, but I really don’t want to spoil anything about this book for anyone who might be compelled to read it. Let me just say that it’s both typically Houellebecq-esque and wholly surprising and, of course, provocative. And who doesn’t love being provoked?

12 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters and published by Archipelago Books

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

For sheer narrative inventiveness and luxuriant delight in the seductive power of fiction, you can do no better than pick up a book by Eric Chevillard. Chevillard is one of France’s most mercurial and impish contemporary writers. He has written more than twenty idiosyncratic books that push Big Questions to absurd extremes and his Prehistoric Times is an intellectual roller coaster and fun house mirror gallery in one.

The unnamed narrator, an archeologist by training, was “derailed” by a fall while excavating a cave with dozens of Paleolithic paintings. He has been demoted to guardian and guide in the site, a position he is as unsuited to fill as the uniform that goes with it, his predecessor having been much shorter and fatter. In his meandering monologue, the narrator justifies his delay in taking up his duties despite increasingly menacing threats of dismissal.

The narrator’s reflections swing from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Sometimes his progress is logical, sometimes associative, but the connective tissue, Chevillard’s antic, slightly off-kilter, acrobatic prose, virtuosically rendered into English by Alyson Waters, makes the web of his thoughts seem inevitable and coherent even at its most absurd.

The size of his uniform’s cap leads the narrator to meditate on the genesis of thought and to formulate a series of hypotheses about how the shape of the skull might affect the quality of the thinking done in it. Would thoughts develop more freely in a dome-shaped brainpan or would they get lost or confused? Alternatively, would a turnip-shaped skull engender sharper, more focused thoughts or simply constrict them? Then he segues to recollections of his childhood, to wondering whether Homo Sapiens had usurped the place of more intelligent ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, to man’s need for rituals, to speculation on the aesthetic ideas of troglodyte painters and how imagination changes man’s relation to world. He zigzags over a great deal of territory, assuring the reader that he is not wasting time, though by now the reader feels as if he has been led by the nose in random circles and U-turns.

There is indeed a method to his meandering. His ruminations have all been preparation for his grand ambition, to create a work of art that will endure, like his beloved cave paintings, outside of recorded history. In Chevillard’s hands, the novel of ideas is as exhilarating as a metaphysical fairground. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.

11 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Among the stellar books included in this year’s BTBA longlist is a slim volume by Edouard Levé called Autoportrait (Dalkey Archive Press). It’s an uncategorizable book: not a memoir in any traditional sense, not a novel either. Like the best books, it resists the straightjacket of genre, existing outside the bounds of easy classification. I think it’s the most unusual and daring piece of writing in the bunch.

Autoportrait is a collection of allusively connected declarative sentences, ranging from the mundane to the subtly profound, all reflecting the narrator’s (let’s call him Levé) physical and mental life. Levé’s tone never rises above a flat monotone, which is unnerving and oddly comforting.

I can open a page at random to provide a sampling of the method of composition:

I am afraid of ending up a bum. I am afraid of having my computer and negatives stolen. I cannot tell what, in me, is innate. I do not have a head for business. I have stepped on a rake and had the handle hit me in the face. I have gone to four psychiatrists, one psychologist, one psychotherapist, and five psychoanalysts. I look for the simple things I no longer see. I do not go to confession. Legs slightly open excite me more than legs wide open. I have trouble forbidding. I am not mature. When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. I can see how drops of water could be torture. A burn on my tongue has a taste. My memories, good or bad, are sad the way dead things are sad.

Page after page of this may strike one as tedious, or interesting only insofar as the reader finds Levé interesting. There are no shocking revelations, no scandalous admissions, no salacious gossip. Instead, Levé takes a more daring risk: he confronts the unexciting self head-on, scrutinizing himself so closely that the resultant text verges on irrelevancy to anyone but its author.

Yet he manages to avoid tedium—the book inevitably lulls at times, but never bores—and somehow even heightens the stakes with a fine balance of facts and feelings. Despite its proliferation of I’s, Autoportrait paradoxically manages to be as much a book about us, each reader, as Levé. It sucks us into the whirlpool of another mind and spits us back out in our own, where we confront our own flat feet, our habitual failure to fill up ice cube trays, our discomfort in bathrooms next to kitchens. And while it may ultimately be egotistical to call a book that acts as a mirror one of the most memorable I’ve read this year, I think Autoportrait is a remarkable and unforgettable exploration of all that’s singular and universal in the self.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95

Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”

I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.

I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.

The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.

The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.

For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)

I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95

A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.

“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “

All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.

That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .

So yes, if your sister/mother/grandmother/aunt is done with that other series, recommend 18% Gray to them. Besides, Zack is WAY hotter than E.L. James. (Although he might not be quite as loaded.)

11 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by J.T. Mahany—a grad student here in the University of Rochester literary translation program—on Lutz Bassmann’s, or rather, “Lutz Bassmann’s” We Monks & Soldiers, which is translated from the French by Jordan Stump, and available from the University of Nebraska Press.

If you haven’t heard of Antoine Volodine or Lutz Bassmann, just listen to pretty much any Three Percent podcast from the past six months—I’ve been geeking out about Volodine ever since I read Minor Angels. He’s a fascinating, unique writer whose project—the production of an invented literary movement that’s something like sci-fi surrealist postmodern game-playing experimentalism expounded upon by a series of Volodine heteronyms—is one of the most exciting and ambitious things going on in contemporary world literature.

Here’s the opening of J.T.‘s review:

Lutz Bassman’s We Monks & Soldiers is a post-exoticist collection of several interrelated stories set during the final shallow breaths of humanity. An exorcism is performed that may or may not have resulted in the slaughter of an innocent family. An agent carries out a strange mission with varying levels of success. A vast prison is detailed. Two monks make their way into a new proletarian universe and are killed almost instantly by an oppressive military institution. A race of bird-people are cruelly tended to in their dying days inside a compound in the woods.


The point of all of these vignettes is to show a world of apocalypse―the end has come and it is time to make way for the spiders. Perhaps more importantly than future spider-people and dream quests is the critique of modern neo-liberal capitalism, and the dangers of any group, be it governments or corporations, owning our souls. In fits and starts, a picture is painted for us: the Communist Global Revolution foretold since Marx has finally come about, but it was quickly co-opted and compromised by businesses, and the people were left off worse than before. There is one very important, easy to miss line of description in the section “Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel” that provides ample implied evidence for the history of this damaged world:

“[The man] was endowed with an enormous chignon. Atop it he wore a black cap with a drooping, damaged visor and, on one side, an embroidered reproduction of a Coca-Cola calligraph in Chinese.”

Other parts of the book mention that some sort of absolutely devastating war happened, most likely with the use of nuclear weapons, involving America, and now the only safe spots left to live are on the coast as the last generation of humanity waits to die.
Something important to mention is that Lutz Bassmann is not a real person; the actual author is Antoine Volodine. Bassmann is merely one of his merely synonyms. It is also important to note that according to another text of Volodine’s, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Lutz Bassmann is incarcerated in a high-security prison for his literary crimes, along with every other author involved in the post-exoticist movement. Considering the chapter in We Monks & Soldiers entitled “The Dive,” it would seem that Bassmann penned this novel while behind bars, awaiting his dismal end.


To read the full review, just click here.

11 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Lutz Bassman’s We Monks & Soldiers is a post-exoticist collection of several interrelated stories set during the final shallow breaths of humanity. An exorcism is performed that may or may not have resulted in the slaughter of an innocent family. An agent carries out a strange mission with varying levels of success. A vast prison is detailed. Two monks make their way into a new proletarian universe and are killed almost instantly by an oppressive military institution. A race of bird-people are cruelly tended to in their dying days inside a compound in the woods.


The point of all of these vignettes is to show a world of apocalypse―the end has come and it is time to make way for the spiders. Perhaps more importantly than future spider-people and dream quests is the critique of modern neo-liberal capitalism, and the dangers of any group, be it governments or corporations, owning our souls. In fits and starts, a picture is painted for us: the Communist Global Revolution foretold since Marx has finally come about, but it was quickly co-opted and compromised by businesses, and the people were left off worse than before. There is one very important, easy to miss line of description in the section “Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel” that provides ample implied evidence for the history of this damaged world:

[The man] was endowed with an enormous chignon. Atop it he wore a black cap with a drooping, damaged visor and, on one side, an embroidered reproduction of a Coca-Cola calligraph in Chinese.

Other parts of the book mention that some sort of absolutely devastating war happened, most likely with the use of nuclear weapons, involving America, and now the only safe spots left to live are on the coast as the last generation of humanity waits to die.
Something important to mention is that Lutz Bassmann is not a real person; the actual author is Antoine Volodine. Bassmann is merely one of his merely synonyms. It is also important to note that according to another text of Volodine’s, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Lutz Bassmann is incarcerated in a high-security prison for his literary crimes, along with every other author involved in the post-exoticist movement. Considering the chapter in We Monks & Soldiers entitled “The Dive,” it would seem that Bassmann penned this novel while behind bars, awaiting his dismal end.


Bassmann (Volodine) has a bit of an obsession with odors, especially unpleasant ones. The adjective ‘urinous’ is used multiple times, and bad smells are always wafting up from somewhere, from street vendors frying dough, from people packed together on a long train ride, from dead birds. My best guess is that the focus is twofold: the first is that smell possesses a powerful link to memory, but it is often our most-forgotten sense. Secondly, Volodine illustrates a cornucopia of bad smells as a way of showing what humanity really is, beyond the glossy portrayal of irreality bestowed upon the populace by corporate advertising (one might recall Nietzsche’s constant allusions to “bad air” in Beyond Good & Evil).


Volodine certainly puts forth post-exoticist theory in We Monks & Soldiers. One such concept explored (although not explicitly stated) is that of the shaggå. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Volodine describes the shaggå as a short story told seven times, each one somewhat modified, with no clear indication of what the truth of the matter actually is. This undertaking can be seen in the repetition (although, thankfully, only twice instead of sevenfold) of “Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel,” wherein events unfold differently in both iterations of the story. It is definitely an intriguing concept, and casts doubt on what is real and what is fiction (as all good post-exoticist literature does), and the reader must decide for him- or herself what to take away from the text.


All in all, We Monks & Soldiers is not a book for everyone. There is no happy ending, and the writing becomes a Gordian knot in some places. It is a mystery without an easy solution (if one ever existed in the first place). I am sure that there will be plenty who will complain of the book being too dense, too pretentious, too mired in overt communist propaganda (though that last charge can easily be dismissed by the text’s overall pervasive political nihilism). However, it is continuously entertaining despite its gloomy atmosphere, and is an excellent read for the cheerfully suicidal. One final note to add is that Jordan Stump’s English translation is markedly brilliant. One can really feel his channeling of Volodine here, like some wild oneiric shaman by the sea. Overall I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable, from the gray pastiche of New Yagayane to the live immolation of two teenage girls on a train platform.



{Silence after the review.}

19 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Continuing on about my French editorial trip that will end with the End of the World on Friday, I wanted to write a slightly more serious post just to share with everyone some of the interesting things I’ve been finding here. So, in order of books that are closest to my keyboard to those farther afield, here are the titles I’d sign on immediately if I could do anything I wanted and completely trusted my instincts (I can’t read French at all, at all):

Chamboula by Paul Fournel: First goal when I get back is to talk to Rachel Galvin about this, force JT to read it, and convince Kaija and Nate that we need to publish it. Why am I so psyched about this? A) Oulipo love. B) Fournel love (he’s so fantastic). And C) this chart that diagrams how the novel is structured:



Danse avec Nathan Golshem, Les aigles puent, and Haïkus de prison by Lutz Bassmann; Onze rêves de suie by Manuela Draeger: I’ve been going on and on and on about Antoine Volodine and his insanely awesome, all-encompassing heteronym project all year, and to receive the Bassmann books (almost by chance, since I just happened to notice his name in the Verdier backlist catalog and asked about them) is such a perfect coincidence. And really, given the scope of his project—the creation of the post-exoticism movement as demonstrated in the collected works of a slew of heteronyms, most of which tend to write about strange post-cataclysmic times with a style that’s completely unique to him—the more Volodine books published, the better.

Ni ce qu’ils espèrent, ni ce qu’ils croient by Élie Treese: What I remember from my meeting with the lovely people at Éditions Allia is that this 75-page book is “like Beckett mixed with Faulkner,” with four people sitting around a campfire talking about how to “steal the petrol” while one is secretly plotting to shoot all the of the others. “It’s pretty dark . . . but also ironic? Ironic and dark.”

En ville by Christian Oster: I like—to varying degrees—all the Oster books that I’ve read, starting with A Cleaning Woman (in part because I had a hard core crush on the girl in the movie version . . . massive, total crush), and culminating in In the Train, which my students also loved. This book is broader than most of the others, featuring a host of characters (rather than continuing to mine the Toussaint/Echenoz vain of keeping the whole story within the head of One Strange Dude), whose lives fall apart. In the words of Olivier Cohen, publisher of the amazing Éditions de l’Olivier, it’s “a book all about disorder.” Sounded pretty entropic when he was describing the plot, which got me excited.

That’s it for now. Off to my last meeting of the day . . .

10 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by me— Aleksandra Fazlipour — on Peter Lapeyre’s Life is Short and Desire Endless, which is available from Random House.

Here’s a bit of my review:

The endearingly (and intentionally) peculiar tone of Patrick Lapeyre’s Life is Short and Desire Endless complements the subject matter of the novel very well. Nora Neville, a flighty and immature young woman, flits manically between two men (Murphy Blomdale, a successful American businessman in London and a married French translator in Paris, Louis Bleriot, who barely scrapes by off the charity of his prominent wife and his friends), and potentially countless unnamed others. The story of their intertwined affairs is the classic love triangle, yet Lapeyre manages to make it more confusing, more twisted, and somehow even more alluring, with the strange childish tone that has a slight biting edge, much like the character of Nora herself.

The strength of this novel does not come from its action. In fact, very little happens within the narrative. The story unfolds through the character’s fantasies, looking back on their interactions with Nora, and to be honest, many of the scenarios are not that exciting. And yet that’s what makes the psychological dimension of this novel captivating—it’s highly identifiable. The novel opens to Louis receiving a call from Nora after she has been gone without a trace for two years (unbeknownst to him, living with her American lover in London and maybe others along the way, as well). Then we become immersed in the action, as Nora oscillates from one lover to another somewhat predictably. When one’s generosity seems to wane, she flings herself to the other, frequently begging for charity, sometimes playing innocent and denying affections, and always managing to maintain an air of mystery and untruth (being a self-proclaimed, but very unsuccessful, actress). There is not really much more to it.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The endearingly (and intentionally) peculiar tone of Patrick Lapeyre’s Life is Short and Desire Endless complements the subject matter of the novel very well. Nora Neville, a flighty and immature young woman, flits manically between two men (Murphy Blomdale, a successful American businessman in London and a married French translator in Paris, Louis Bleriot, who barely scrapes by off the charity of his prominent wife and his friends), and potentially countless unnamed others. The story of their intertwined affairs is the classic love triangle, yet Lapeyre manages to make it more confusing, more twisted, and somehow even more alluring, with the strange childish tone that has a slight biting edge, much like the character of Nora herself.

The strength of this novel does not come from its action. In fact, very little happens within the narrative. The story unfolds through the character’s fantasies, looking back on their interactions with Nora, and to be honest, many of the scenarios are not that exciting. And yet that’s what makes the psychological dimension of this novel captivating—it’s highly identifiable. The novel opens to Louis receiving a call from Nora after she has been gone without a trace for two years (unbeknownst to him, living with her American lover in London and maybe others along the way, as well). Then we become immersed in the action, as Nora oscillates from one lover to another somewhat predictably. When one’s generosity seems to wane, she flings herself to the other, frequently begging for charity, sometimes playing innocent and denying affections, and always managing to maintain an air of mystery and untruth (being a self-proclaimed, but very unsuccessful, actress). There is not really much more to it.

Yet the story can be frustrating at times, because the strange tone takes even stranger turns, breaking the fourth wall several times:

It’s highly likely that if she’d never know she would be featured stark naked in a novel, Nora would have refused to take her clothes off. And she would have done everything in her power to make sure that, instead, her taste for Chekov’s theater or Bonnard’s paintings was mentioned.

At first, it’s not evident whether this is an issue with the translation from French. It seems perhaps too bizarre even for the grating tone the novel establishes as early as its very first page, so much that these instances seem jarring. Because of this, the final chapter of the novel seems equally out of place: it is uncharacteristically vague, suggesting different possibilities for the characters that were not presented in the novel, and does not mesh well with the highly detailed character development that is presented. And upon first glance, it’s unsatisfying. No character’s story wraps up neatly. It bothered me initially, upon reading and rereading the final few pages, that the book’s conclusion was so open and so vague. It didn’t conform to my literary expectations.

But this book is unlike any other that I’ve recently read. Many of the characters are unlikeable, but somehow strangely alluring because the reader is able to connect with their quirks, and even more so, their faults. The tone and the strong character development allows the reader to acknowledge all of the possibilities presented in this broadly sweeping ending because the characters are very believable. While at first I didn’t know what to think of the strange instances where the fourth wall was broken, it in a sense seems appropriate for the novel to acknowledge itself as a work of fiction. It complements Nora’s character because the men truly do not know whether anything she says is the truth, or whether she is, in fact, creating her own fiction (as Lapeyre is creating this novel).

Beyond that, the book really is entertaining. There are many false leads, bountiful odd occurrences that lead the reader into paranoia along with the characters, that ultimately build to… Nothing. Because that is the nature of paranoia, and the men in love with Nora are driven insane by their passion for her. All of the shortcomings I initially found with the book were quickly resolved upon a deeper consideration. And then I was really just stunned by how well-crafted this novel was.

I encourage you to take a look at the many possible interpretations of this novel, and report back with which you find most alluring.

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which Sam Taylor translated from the French and is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.

Here is part of his review:

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

That said, I do not wish to criticize the book for a lack of focus. HHhH is hardly a book about Heydrich or Nazism or Gabčík and Kubiš. HHhH is about the limits of recreation. Much has already been made over the meta structure of the book and Binet’s interjections. Early in the story, Binet discovers an expensive volume that would aid in his research, though he is conflicted about whether or not to spend the money. The book in question, written by Heydrich’s wife, would surely pay an important role in the retelling of Heydrich’s wedding, but Binet justifies not buying the book by writing:

It’s not a bad story. I just don’t feel like doing a ballroom scene, and even less the romantic walk in the park. So it’s better for me not to know more of the details; that way I won’t be tempted to share them […] so in the end, maybe I can do without this overpriced book.

Such statements, which may suggest a lack of commitment to some readers, can also be seen as a confession, one that must ring true to even seasoned historians. There are limits to research, sure, but how often have writers imposed them on themselves? Is this laziness or the admission that not everything needs to be included? If we accept this, we must also accept that even the most exhaustively researched material is subject to the whims, tastes, and interpretation of the writer. Binet’s confessions do not shake my confidence in his ability to tell a story; they merely remind me that all nonfiction is filtered through a net of subjectivity.

What Binet decides is that he is writing an “infranovel”—this after reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. He wonders how Littell “knows that [Paul] Blobel had an Opel.” Binet’s contention is that “if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book.” He goes on to discuss the plausibility of Bobel having an Opel, but decides that, “plausible is not known.” This is the sort of quandary that torments him, the sort of small detail the average reader would accept without question. Such is Binet’s true concern in writing HHhH: to show the reader how much of their cherished historical works—be they billed as historical novels or nonfiction—are peppered with bullshit.

The savvy reader will not care. Many of us are aware that even the most detailed and researched work will fall short of the truth (whatever that is). And we will scratch our heads and wonder why the reading public privileges experience over invention. We will wonder, again, why memoirs are so damn important to people who would never pick up a novel. We will be reminded of the debacle over James Fray’s A Million Little Pieces and ask ourselves how so many people could be so easily duped and, more importantly, why they were so hurt to learn that this absurd book was really fiction.

If Binet succeeds in reminding readers that historical fiction, as HHhH could be labeled, is riddled with bits of speculation, that’s great. He has picked up and added to an interesting conversation. This is why HHhH should be read and discussed. Also, it’s quite fun. The story is good and, at times, riveting. Binet’s prose, translated by Sam Taylor, is enjoyable in a way that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, more so for the often amusing injections than the brief chapters, some of which total a sentence or two. There are definitely worse ways to introduce such a conversation to a wide reading public. To that end, the publicity onslaught of HHhH is justified. Here’s hoping that readers normally averse to works in translation will pick up a copy of this book and reconsider long held beliefs in the superiority of factual literature.

20 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In The Truth about Marie, Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint takes us on a journey from Paris to Tokyo, with a sensuous detour to the island of Elba. It’s a book that begins with a thunderstorm and ends in massive forest fires, a love story examined through the lens of a tumultuous breakup. When the novel opens, Marie is spending a night with her new lover, Jean-Christophe, in the apartment she and the unnamed narrator formerly shared. At the same moment, in his apartment a few blocks away, the narrator is making love to a woman about whom we learn only that she, too, is named Marie. A drama will unfold this evening, bringing the ex-lovers back together, if only long enough to move a dresser out of a bedroom.

Readers familiar with Toussaint’s œuvre will recognize these characters: though the book is not exactly a sequel, it is narratively linked to the 2005 novel Fuir (published in the U.S. in 2009 as Running Away, also translated by Matthew B. Smith). The earlier book focuses on the disintegration of the couple’s relationship during a trip to Japan, and The Truth about Marie begins months after their breakup proper. Toussaint beautifully renders that period—for some of us, indefinite—when a relationship has ended, but we continue to live in its atmosphere. The “truth” he describes has little to do with Marie herself; rather, it speaks to the idea that the only stability in love is instability. “I loved her, yes,” the narrator tells us, “It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”

When the narrator does focus his attention on Marie herself, it’s often in frustration: “. . . Marie always left everything open,” he says, “windows, drawers—it was exasperating, she’d even leave books open, turning them over on her night table next to her when she was done reading.” He wants closure. Toussaint, on the other hand, seems more interested in narrative possibility. The novel follows its own associative logic, and the plot has less of an impact than the dream-state the language creates. On several occasions, the narrator imagines the most intimate details of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s relationship, describing entire scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. It is the tension between the thrilling immediacy of these scenes and the frequent reminders that they are all “made-up” that gives The Truth about Marie its haunting quality. The narrator—like so many people who love and dream—revels not only in his fantasy of the other, but also in the knowledge of his self-deception.

This might give the impression that he is insufferable, but fortunately, the narrator has a sense of humor about his own unreliability. As Beckett once wrote, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and unhappiness is as familiar to this narrator as weather. It is the particular unhappiness of the scorned lover who clings to his version of events, often willingly obscuring reality. For example, about a third of the way through the novel, the narrator learns that Marie’s new lover’s name is actually Jean-Baptiste, but he continues to refer to the man as Jean-Christophe, providing a comically self-reflexive explanation:

I even suspect I’d done this intentionally so as not to deprive myself of the pleasure of getting his name wrong, not that Jean-Baptiste was a better name, or more elegant, than Jean-Christophe, but the latter simply wasn’t his name [. . . this] jab, however small, however simple, gave me great pleasure (had his name been Simon I’d have called him Pierre, I know myself).

In an interview with Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, translator Matthew B. Smith discusses Toussaint’s use of humor:

This is one of the main reasons I wanted to translate his work. I think it’s also what sets him apart from other writers. Toussaint uses a certain type of situational humor whose operating principle is actually quite simple. It consists of relating a comic act or absurd situation [. . .]in a markedly flat or unassuming way. Although it sounds simple, I think to actually pull it off and make it funny takes a tremendous amount of skill. After reading and rereading Toussaint, it still remains somewhat of a mystery to me how he makes it seem so effortless.

If it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Toussaint’s writing makes us laugh, it is even harder to render that humor, with all its nuances, into another language. Grammatically, Smith’s translation keeps the idiosyncrasies of Toussaint’s style intact. In Marie, the most prominent of Toussaint’s stylistic features is the long sentence. Like Proust’s, these sentences can run on for pages, and some translators might be tempted to “smooth out” certain passages by breaking them down. To do so, however, would be a disservice to readers; these sentences are often carefully constructed to mirror the cadences, the rises and falls, of the narrator’s inner voice. Consider one of my favorite passages, in which he describes Marie’s failure to locate her passport at a checkpoint near Tokyo’s Narita airport :

But Marie could never find her passport when she needed it, and, suddenly roused from her reverie, as if caught off guard, her face already betraying the tiresome futility of the search to come, she was overcome by a mad frenzy, that strange mix of panic and goodwill she displays when looking for something, desperately digging through her purse, turning and shaking it in every which way, taking out credit cards, letters, bills, her phone, dropping her sunglasses on the ground, trying to stand in the limousine and twisting around to check her skirt’s back pocket, the pockets of her leather coat, of her sweater, positive she had it with her, that damn passport, but not knowing in which pocket she’d put it, in which bag it could possibly be, twenty-three bags exactly (without counting the plastic sack with the fugu sashimi, in which she also glanced just to be sure)—all in vain, the passport was nowhere to be found.

The breathlessness within these clauses reproduces the narrator’s (and, ostensibly, Marie’s) mental state. We get the sense that, while the narrator is poking fun at Marie here, the franticness of the passage actually reveals his own instability at this moment, as he searches for Marie and is unable to find her. The length of the sentence allows us to experience the way in which sentiment can, without warning, throw a moment into terrible relief. The image of Marie glancing in the plastic bag containing her lunch is funny, but it’s also poignant. And perhaps this is what is most remarkable about Toussaint’s work: it is always driven by compassion and deadpan intelligence, but neither quality upstages the other. His prose is exacting and buoyant, and it never flags. I don’t know how he does it, either, but I do know that this story of love regained and lost is moving and utterly true.

20 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Katie Assef on Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth about Marie, translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Katie Assef is another of Susan Bernofsky’s students who very kindly offered to write reviews for Three Percent. Here’s the opening of her review:

In The Truth about Marie, Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint takes us on a journey from Paris to Tokyo, with a sensuous detour to the island of Elba. It’s a book that begins with a thunderstorm and ends in massive forest fires, a love story examined through the lens of a tumultuous breakup. When the novel opens, Marie is spending a night with her new lover, Jean-Christophe, in the apartment she and the unnamed narrator formerly shared. At the same moment, in his apartment a few blocks away, the narrator is making love to a woman about whom we learn only that she, too, is named Marie. A drama will unfold this evening, bringing the ex-lovers back together, if only long enough to move a dresser out of a bedroom.

Readers familiar with Toussaint’s œuvre will recognize these characters: though the book is not exactly a sequel, it is narratively linked to the 2005 novel Fuir (published in the U.S. in 2009 as Running Away, also translated by Matthew B. Smith). The earlier book focuses on the disintegration of the couple’s relationship during a trip to Japan, and The Truth about Marie begins months after their breakup proper. Toussaint beautifully renders that period—for some of us, indefinite—when a relationship has ended, but we continue to live in its atmosphere. The “truth” he describes has little to do with Marie herself; rather, it speaks to the idea that the only stability in love is instability. “I loved her, yes,” the narrator tells us, “It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”

Click here to read the entire review.

6 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we HIGHLIGHTED (past tense) the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We had a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts prompted you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Private Property by Paule Constant, translated by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn

Language: French

Country: France
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Why This Book Should Win: A university press deserves to win this prize one of these years. The boarding school the protagonist attends is named “The Slaughterhouse School,” which is creepy/gross/intriguing.

The person who was going to write this piece wasn’t able to get it done on time, leaving me with a bit of a dilemma . . . I haven’t read this book, so rather than make up something in sincere, I thought it would be more useful to cobble together parts of Claudine Fisher’s introduction, and the review that Jessa Crispin wrote for NPR. Just trying my best . . .

From Jessa Crispin’s review:

There is no greater horror to a child than standing out. Being different means being easy prey. When your daughter comes home crying because someone has made fun of her freckles, her hair, her thick glasses, you might try to console her with “one day you’ll appreciate those freckles, you’ll find them beautiful,” but she won’t be comforted. A child wants only to blend in, to be absolutely the same as everyone else.

Tiffany, the 9-year-old at the center of Paule Constant’s Private Property, is not like the other girls, and she has no mother to wipe away the tears. Her parents, French colonialists living in Africa in the years leading up to the Algerian War, have sent her back to France alone to live and be schooled at the Convent for Slaughterhouse Ladies. The nunnery’s name sums up the atmosphere of the place, where the playground becomes the setting for young girls’ bloodsports and the nuns dole out about as much softness as the scratchy stiffness of their garments. The other girls tease and torment Tiffany for her African origins, her missing mother and for the way she does her hair. Every time she reaches out for solace or companionship, she is, at best, met with indifference. Understandably, she strives to become an invisible observer, at a remove from everyone else. [. . .]

The author surprises with her quirky imagery and powers of observation, like her description of the Mother Superior’s habit: “When she stood it was as if a ship had hoisted all its sails.” Also perfectly conveyed are Tiffany’s ostracism on the playground (“The recess periods were spent in a pretense of playing so as not to displease the Lady, and at not playing so as not to irritate those who were playing. She played at playing . . .”) and the daily torture chamber that is the lunch cafeteria.

Small of scale does not mean small of consequence. That goes for the diminutive Tiffany as well as Private Property itself. Those moments that look so tiny, those school humiliations and emotional kicks at home, continue to shape us into adulthood. Constant’s portrait of a little girl lost, someone who would be happier to camouflage herself in the furniture than to take the spotlight, will loom large in the mind.

And from Claudine Fisher’s intro:

Private Property serves as a fictional backdrop for Constant’s own educational experience when she herself was sent to France while her parents were assigned to various posts in Africa, South America, and Indochina. The boarding school, modeled on the one Constant attended, is transformed fictionally into “La Pension des Sanguinaires,” taking its name from the street on which it is found, named for the slaughterhouse at the end of the road, and is translated as “The Slaughterhouse School,” underscoring the violent nature of the child’s experience there.

The irony in Tiffany’s repatriation is that the homeland does not feel like home. The colonial Africa of the 1950s (Ouregano) is her adopted “real” homeland. Though a white child, Tiffany was in harmony with her African roots. Her attachment to the natural environment, its people, and African animals provided her with a sense of self. She now lives a doubly heartbreaking experience when arriving in the southwest of France: separation from the land she loved and from her parents, especially her mother, who is distant and unapproachable but nevertheless her mother. France becomes, in part, a land of exile and the boarding school a jail, another exile of the soul, compared to her free-spirited and roaming lifestyle in the African countryside.

And there we are. Twenty-five books in twenty-five days . . . And Tuesday we’ll all find out which ten move on . . .

2 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany LaFerrière, translated by David Homel

Language: French

Country: Haiti/Canada
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre

Why This Book Should Win: On one level this is a calmly experimental and defiant novel that dismisses the label “world literature” as a cheap marketing ploy. It’s also a loving reminiscence of formative readings experiences that continue to haunt and fuel the writer’s life.

Today’s post is by Matthew Jakubowski, a writer and literary journalist who’s written for Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Quarterly Conversation, Barrelhouse, and BOMB. He lives in West Philadelphia.

Laferrière fled to Montreal from Haiti during the Duvalier regime after some of his fellow journalists were killed. Throughout his career, he’s refused to let race or nationality define him or his work and I Am a Japanese Writer, blends fiction and autobiography as its writer-narrator, also a black writer from Haiti living in Montreal, causes a small international incident after he tells his publisher his new novel, which he has yet to start writing, will be called I Am a Japanese Writer.

I made a case for this potent little novel in my positive review for The National, a book which Laferrière dedicates to “everyone who would like to be someone else.” This phrase is meant somewhat literally, in that it’s directed at book lovers, implying that in Laferrière’s view we read with the silent hope or expectation that at some point we forget our own life and have the chance to feel like someone else.

One of the best aspects of this book is the comforting rhythm and ease with which Laferrière assembles an increasingly madcap plot and various digressions about his writing career, switching perspectives and tone so easily and assuredly that after the first few short chapters it doesn’t matter what aspects are true or completely invented.

The result is a funny yet sharp and experimental novel that meanders with purpose, intercut with memories from the narrator’s early life in Haiti, and riffs on the influence of Basho, Borges, and Baudrillard.

The plot’s fairly simple: pressed for time, the writer throws out a crazy book title to his publisher, who loves it and cuts the writer a check, who leaves the office laughing. Complications follow as the writer tries to research the book, and things get out of hand when a Japanese consul tries to intervene.

But the writer’s joke on his publisher turns out not to be a joke, because he says, “I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” But how can a Haitian writer living in Montreal claim to be Japanese? Eventually, Laferrière gives one form of answer: “Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer, or a French language writer?’ I answered without hesitation: ‘I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.’”

At another point, he elaborates on this idea: “Born in the Caribbean, I automatically became a Caribbean writer. The bookstore, the library and the university rushed to pin that title on me. Being a writer and a Caribbean doesn’t necessarily make me a Caribbean writer . . . Actually, I don’t feel any more Caribbean than Proust, who spent his life in bed. I spent my childhood running. That fluid sense of time still lives in me.”

Writing like this kept me reading and loving this book, wondering about what happens to the self during the time that we read, and what becomes of us later on as we remember and keep reassembling those memories of books we loved.

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Jacques Dupin’s Of Flies and Monkeys, which is translated from the French by John Taylor and available from Bitter Oleander Press. (Probably easiest to order this directly from SPD.)

“Vincent Francone” is one of our regular contributors. (In fact, he has a “25 Days of the BTBA” piece coming out on Friday.) Additionally, he’s a writer and a reader for TriQuarterly Online.

Here’s the opening of his piece:

My head hasn’t been in poetry lately. Call it burn out—last year I read mostly poems—or attribute it to grad school killing my love for poetry, but I have been reading more prose as of late. Subsequently, my recent poetry reading has mostly been out of obligation.

That being said, it takes a lot to get me excited about poetry. Jacques Dupin’s work is, thankfully, the kind of poetry that does intrigue, delight, and reward, making it the ideal poetry to reignite my old love. The recent release of three of his works, collected under the title Of Flies and Monkeys, makes the case for Dupin’s importance in the world of contemporary poetry. Dupin is an interesting figure. A contemporary of Yves Bonnefoy and follower of Francis Ponge, his name is not bandied about with the regularity of his peers. Add to that, his poems ride the crest between the legacy of surrealism and the state sanctioned aesthetic of political rumination. Neither of these trends suited Dupin, whose work is at once immediate and startling (“a clearing sodomoy / her saintly hem fucked / under the same low leaves”) even when the images veer into the obscure (“As if I were the moist imprint of her voice. The oil and the gathering of her endless worm-screws in the air”). Dupin’s images are both strong and subtle, suggesting a modern-day Artuad who pulls back just before his poems become clouded by the grotesque. This is a writer who understands his craft, and while he refuses to adhere to trends his work has the balance and grace of a trained master.

Click here to read the entire review.

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My head hasn’t been in poetry lately. Call it burn out—last year I read mostly poems—or attribute it to grad school killing my love for poetry, but I have been reading more prose as of late. Subsequently, my recent poetry reading has mostly been out of obligation.

That being said, it takes a lot to get me excited about poetry. Jacques Dupin’s work is, thankfully, the kind of poetry that does intrigue, delight, and reward, making it the ideal poetry to reignite my old love. The recent release of three of his works, collected under the title Of Flies and Monkeys, makes the case for Dupin’s importance in the world of contemporary poetry. Dupin is an interesting figure. A contemporary of Yves Bonnefoy and follower of Francis Ponge, his name is not bandied about with the regularity of his peers. Add to that, his poems ride the crest between the legacy of surrealism and the state sanctioned aesthetic of political rumination. Neither of these trends suited Dupin, whose work is at once immediate and startling (“a clearing sodomoy / her saintly hem fucked / under the same low leaves”) even when the images veer into the obscure (“As if I were the moist imprint of her voice. The oil and the gathering of her endless worm-screws in the air”). Dupin’s images are both strong and subtle, suggesting a modern-day Artuad who pulls back just before his poems become clouded by the grotesque. This is a writer who understands his craft, and while he refuses to adhere to trends his work has the balance and grace of a trained master.

The title work, “Of Flies and Monkeys,” is flanked by two other books, “Mother”—a series of mostly prose poems—and “Hazel Tree.” Of them, the middle section is the strongest. It is there that the reader sees Dupin vacillating between direct confessionalism and the unapologetically imagistic:

I write whenever

in the distance
fertilized by anguish

fear squirts out

and no longer has but words
but knives

to calibrate the suffering

If Dupin lapses into dreamy poetics, and risks alienating his readers, he does so in a manner that continues to engage:

As long as I breathe monkeys dance

A dance whose long arms dangle
voluble thoughts
a glass language a language

of sulfur
of iron pigments leading astray

the ocher of the excremental
eye

the firedamp blue of interstice.

To significantly excite this reader, a poet needs to involve me in the process of reading the poem. In short: craft is not enough. I need something more to hang my hat on. Lesser poets churn out works riddled with empty vulgarities, which I find dull, or capitulate to the trends of academia, which I find unforgivably dull. Dupin’s work extends itself, inviting one in even as it does the reader no favors. There are no easy answers in his work, but however elliptical these poems may be they remain engaging and graceful, excrement and all.

23 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Why this book should win: The pleasure-to-page-count ratio. Because Dalkey Archive is overdue. Because if this book doesn’t win, it’s a victory for Nisard.

Today’s piece is by Eric Lundgren, a graduate of the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the chapbook The Bystanders (All Along Press).

Demolishing Nisard asks us to believe that a literary critic poses a grave threat to our world. It’s a rich premise. Who is Désiré Nisard? A notorious bore, pedant, and careerist, author of a fusty four-volume history of French literature, sporting muttonchop whiskers and an Academie Française robe. Oh yeah, and he has been dead for over a century. An unlikely enemy to say the least, but Eric Chevillard’s seductive narrator will quickly convert you to his cause.

I want to call this book something other than a novel. Chevillard uses the term “broadside,” which just about does justice to its sustained antagonism. There’s a plot of sorts (the narrator’s hunt for Nisard’s suppressed and saucy-sounding fiction A Milkmaid Succumbs) but Chevillard isn’t all that invested in conventional storytelling. This book is anchored in voice and style. It doesn’t so much develop as intensify, gathering complication and depth along the way. Fans of books that relentlessly pursue their subjects, like U and I or The Loser, will feel right at home here.

Instead of the careful embroidery of well-made fiction, Demolishing Nisard offers rough edges of trash talk raised to an art. It’s tempting to quote whole reams of Jordan Stump’s translation. Do I choose the part where the narrator laments Nisard’s facial hair, because it doesn’t cover enough of his face? The catalog of suggested assaults, which includes “spray herbicide on his golf course”? The beautiful passage in praise of birds, because they carry feathers (i.e. pen quills) away from Nisard? Chevillard is a master stylist and he writes coiled, serpentine sentences that unfold at just the right heat and pace. In English lit you have to reach back to Pope or Swift to find invective of this quality:

He is the slime at the bottom of every fountain. Irretrievably, there has been Nisard. How can we love benches, knowing that Nisard often pressed them into service? Gently stroking a cat’s silken fur, my hand inevitably reproduces a gesture once made by Nisard . . . Did Nisard ever make one move that we might want to follow or imitate? Did he ever incarnate anything other than the tedium of being Désiré Nisard, definitively, forever and ever?

Like the allergens and vermin to which he’s often compared, Nisard invades the book. His name appears in a series of contemporary newspaper columns quoted by the narrator. In these columns, Nisard morphs into a drunk driver, a shoplifter, a tennis player bested by Rafael Nadal at the Davis Cup, a defender of the war in Iraq, a politician promoting austerity, the captain of an errant oil rig . . . comic exaggeration, yes, but it’s also Chevillard showing the ways that Nisard’s brand of conservatism lives on. A former student’s memoir informs us that, while head of the École Normale, Nisard promoted the notion of the “two moralities,” a stricter code for the lower classes and a more permissive code for the elites, an idea that would not seem out of place in U.S. political culture today.

In quiet moments, the narrator dreams of a book without Nisard (“the reader would be first of all amazed by the light”) but his thoughts are always half-formed and tentative. The paradox is funny: there can be no radical without tradition. Eventually the narrator concludes:

In order to finally read the book without Nisard—possible only in a world without Nisard—we must first pass through this book chock-full of Nisard, depending on that overabundance to arouse the purgative reflex that will at long last expel Nisard from this world forever.

This gets at Chevillard’s double project, which is both a demolition and an exhumation. The animus driving the narrator is at times quite close to an obsessive love (“For three weeks I thought of nothing but his thighs”). As he scours research libraries for A Milkmaid Succumbs and ventures closer to Nisard’s hometown, he begins to fear his own “Nisardification.” This strange intimacy between writer and critic comes to the fore toward the end of the book. “What did I ever do to him,” the narrator wonders, “that he should assail me so relentlessly!”

For my part, I’m convinced. Nisard is out there somewhere, working on his column on the death of the novel. But Eric Chevillard has struck a blow against him on our behalf. This slim and delightful book casts doubt on Nisard’s theory that literature has been in irreversible decline since the end of the eighteenth century. In fact, Demolishing Nisard feels very twenty-first century, and it’s everything Nisard is not: original, imaginative, wild, and a lot of fun.

20 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye (which sounds like an Oulipian pseduonym)

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.

Today’s post is written by John Smieska, MPAS PA-C, whom I met when working at Schuler Books & Music approximately 29 years ago.

When you read any text produced by a member of the Oulipo group, there is an invitation to read with an awareness of the construction, an alertness in the background of the experience. Oulipo is an exclusive challenge-society, a think-tank that seeks to generate narrative constraints; these constraints spur the private literary ambitions of its members, and subvert the aesthetic traditions of narrative and language. Some works of this group are front-loaded, with the constraint or device announced in tandem with the debut of the text—this allows the act of reading to be textured with an editorial or fact-checker’s spectatorship. In other works, like Upstaged, the constraint is not made explicit, which allows the act of reading to be infused with a cryptographic undercurrent, a puzzler’s inquiry.

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, to my best reckoning, is about a theatre and its doubles. (Indeed, there is some vulnerability in publicly proposing a solution to any puzzle that may or may not be absolutely correct.) The narrative folds around pairs; it splits and replicates like a feral blastomere, or like a work of dialectic origami. The narrator is the director’s assistant (herself, the self described factotum/factota of the playwright/director) during a routine performance of a play that becomes unsuspectingly vitalized when an unknown performer, known as “the Usurper,” invades the zona pellucida of a principle actor’s dressing room, and in the tender moments before his entrance, binds him naked to a chair and proceeds to hijack his role. (This all occurs in the national theatre of a Republic that is a double of the real—as much as politics are fictions used to organize, compel, and interpret events.) The play is a political play about a leader who disguises himself in order to mingle with the citizens, but who, while soliciting prostitutes (the doubles of intimacy?), encounters his estranged brother who was once united in a common cause, but has now split to lead the rebel faction.

The Usurper disrupts the timing (the seconds?), the delivery and finally the plot—which forces improvisations and the continued splitting and shifting of roles. At the end of the second act (rescued from chaos by the improvisational skill of the second prostitute) the Principle actor is released from his bondage, and the Usurper has disappeared (along with the second prostitute who may or may not have been in her dressing room). The show must go on, and the troupe must coalesce, and take new roles, the director and assistant even take to the stage as actors, to salvage the third act. The resulting performance yields a unique, inspired and resonant plot, favorably reviewed as a new and burgeoning aesthetic by one of the two present critics.

To hold even this key (although it may be a false one), even in a very general retelling, the plot hums and pops, restrained from your knowledge, with new hidden doubles and splits, I restrict from you an active but private hive of details, a mania of inquiries we might well discuss and connect. (Are the teller and voyeur split? Is the voyeur split into the role as cameraman/camerawoman? Is the inverse of the riddle gametogenesis? Are we, as readers, part of the double structure? Are we the double of the rat pulled across the boards by invisible strings? Does speculating the value of the structure make us the double of the critic? Etc. etc. ) This is a plot where even the title bestowed to express one’s singularity and uniqueness is split into halpax or unicum depending on who crowns you with it.

I recommend this book as an adventure, an adventure whose calling intensifies in recollection as much as it does in reading. It is an adventure into the aesthetics of Oulipo and it is a treasure map into the theatre of its doubles.

13 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Suicide by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Why This Book Should Win: The crazy intense backstory. The fact that Dalkey—one of the leading publishers of literature in translation—has yet to win a BTBA award.

Today’s post is written by Tom McCartan, who writes, works, and, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He recently edited the collection Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations for Melville House Publishing. His fiction has been published in Unsaid, the upcoming issue of which contains both Tom McCartan and Edouard Leve.

Despite my best efforts, it has proven somewhat impossible to discuss Edouard Levé’s Suicide without discussing Eduard Levé’s suicide. Let’s get it out of the way. Levé delivered Suicide to his editor ten days before taking his own life. This fact, as macabre as it is, is the house in which the novel lives and every review or blurb about Suicide from now to eternity will mention it. This is kind of a shame because Levé’s prose is good enough on its own. However, those inclined towards the postmodern are probably salivating over the idea, for it would be hard for a book to be more self-aware than Suicide. Some have even suggested that Suicide was Levé’s suicide note. I really hope that wasn’t the case, it would ruin the delicacy. Regardless, we’ll never know.

The novel does not have a plot, but rather its narrator (who could or could not be Levé) addresses a friend (wait, maybe the friend is Levé) who committed suicide twenty years ago. The result is homage in pointillist prose to a troubled soul explored in minute detail. It is a glimpse into the psychology of suicide. The narrator recounts the instances of his friend’s life in which he felt disassociated and addresses them back to his friend as if to absolve him of his suicide, although the narrator never claims to understand his friend’s pathos fully. We are only given the images and are left to wonder at reasons.

Suicide reads like a photo album. This is no surprise, considering that Levé was as much an accomplished photographer as he was anything else. The prose is clipped, almost terse; while each line can be seen to represent a single idea in just the same way a photo in an album represents one moment in time. These ideas, like collections of photos in an album, create events and distinct sections in a book where there are no chapters. Praise must be given to translator Jan Steyn who deftly maintained the integrity of each line/photograph while keeping the entire piece cohesive.

Suicide is at times beautiful, immensely sad at others, and in more moments than one might want to admit there is the potential in the text to be deeply relatable. I will not sit here and say, however, that Levé uses suicide as some sort of literary device for to teach us truth and/or beauty, because that is not what he does. Suicide is about suicide. Given that, however, there are still so many instances where a line, again like a favorite photograph in an album, so concisely articulates one of our more complex emotions or frames the nature of contemporary relationships.

Levé has written several books and put out a number of collections of photographs. The only other piece I’ve read, though, is “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” that was in the Paris Review last summer. I loved it.

7 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: It’s a 517-page one-sentence novel. (Kind of.) How many other 517-page one-sentence novels have you ever heard of? That’s the kind of monumental project that should be rewarded.

Like with My Two Worlds, this Open Letter title has a pretty fun backstory. I heard about this via a review online and a quote from Claro claiming that it was “the novel of the decade, if not of the century.” (Realizing now that I’m sort of a sucker for respectable authors using that “X is the X of this [long time period]” mode of recommendation. Hmm.)

Anyway, based on a review, a hyperbolic blurb, and a relatively short sample (which erroneously ended with a period, but the less said about that the better), we made an offer on the book right before the Frankfurt Book Fair. Of course, the French publisher was hoping for a bidding war (they always are) and some Exorbitant Big Press Advance (who isn’t?), so they held our offer in check. Aannnddd then the economy collapsed and the Jonathan Littell book underperformed and the idea of a 517-page one-sentence novel sounded like a Bad Business Decision.

Which was awesome for us. Rights secured, we told Publishers Weekly who ran this as a notable Frankfurt acquisition, which led to the Chicago Tribune running this piece, cautiously titled: “The Longest Literary Sentence,” and which contained the dumbest quote (or at least one of the ten dumbest?) I’ve ever given:

But is the record-setter gibberish? Not at all, says Post.

“It’s told from inside this guy’s mind as he takes a train trip,” he says. “It has a lot of commas.”

Lot of . . . Jesus. Well, it does have commas by the truckful, and semicolons, em-dashes, and a whole slew of non-period punctuation. (Except the hyphellipses. If only . . .)

Anyway, that all happened well in advance of publishing the book. And in terms of the book itself, this truly is Epic Literature. It’s about the violence in the latter part of the twentieth century and is narrated by a former information agent who has decided to give it all up and is on a 517-kilometer long train ride to hand over all his secrets to the Vatican. During the train ride he has a little time to think, about his wartime experiences, about info gathering, about women he’s been with, about, well, basically everything. He also reads a book while he’s on the train, which serves as the sort of clinamen to this whole “one-sentence” thing.

But speaking of that—I may have praised it above, using this unique trait as a reason why this book deserves the BTBA, but in a way, I wish we never had to talk about it. Zone is not a gimmick. It is a fully realized, amazingly ambitious novel. As you read it and fall into Francis Servain Mirkovic’s mind, you witness an author going for it all, like authors never seem to do anymore . . . which is really why this book deserves the award.

Here’s what Stephen Burn said about it in the New York Times:

Near midnight on a Friday in April 1854, Gustave Flaubert wrote one of his many letters to Louise Colet. Flaubert had spent days hidden away in his Croisset retreat, researching theories of clubfoot and discarding pages from the manuscript of “Madame Bovary,” and he told Colet that he had come to the conclusion that “the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time. They knew everything.” This conception — the novel that knows everything — would come to obsess Europe’s modernist writers, who dreamed that a narrative of infinite detail and esoteric knowledge could blur the boundaries between traditional genres, with fiction shading into nonfiction, poetry bleeding into history.

At other times and in other places, similar ambitions can be found, but it is a specifically modernist legacy that obsesses the French writer Mathias Énard in his novel “Zone.” Like Flaubert and James Joyce, Énard seems to have found a model for his omnivorous novel in the Homeric epic, while Ezra Pound’s ghost also haunts “Zone.” Énard describes Pound’s “Cantos” as “magical,” and it seems significant that in a canto beginning with an invocation to “poor old Homer,” Pound reflects on a voice “weaving an endless sentence,” because in “Zone” — aside from three excerpts from an imagined Palestinian fiction — Énard takes up the challenge of writing an endless sentence by including only one period in his long novel. This ambitious gamble won Énard considerable praise in France, and now, with Charlotte Mandell’s lucid translation, readers of English can evaluate his text and larger mythic framework.

But don’t take our collective words for it, check out this sample to get a sense of this amazing novel.

Or just watch this:

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: The New Press

Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.

This was one of the first books we included in the currently-on-hiatus “Read This Next” project. As part of that, we ran a preview of the book, and interviewed Linda Coverdale, and ran a review of the book. And then, on the the Three Percent podcast on the Best Fiction of 2011, I plugged this again. As I did in last week’s podcast. In other words, I am fond of this book. (Worth noting that on last week’s podcast, Tom chose this as the book he thinks will win the award.)

Unlike similarly constructed sentences, such as “everyone likes a reenactment,” or “haven’t you always wondered what it would be like to live in Ireland in the 1800s?,” it’s FACT that everybody is interested in Tesla.



Just look at that shit! That is totally wicked insane. And named after TESLA. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg—this guy invented EVERYTHING.1

In addition to all the awesomeness of his experiments (dude almost destroyed most of New York when he was just fucking around) and his strange obsessions with electricity and pigeons, one of the reasons Tesla keeps resurfacing every few years (most recently in Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else) and seizing the public imagination is his captivating life story and how it can be interpreted into so many different archetypal myths.

For instance, there’s the idea of the solitary, eccentric inventor. Someone who is maybe a bit socially awkward (recluse), has some odd quirks (pigeons obsession), but can see the world in ways that no one else ever has (death ray).

Also, the thing that struck me in reading this book, and in reading about Tesla in general, is how he was one of the last pure inventors outside of the corporate world. Part of that was because he was THE WORST at business matters, some of that is because Edison was a total bastard (electrocuted an elephant), and because capitalist assholes have seemingly always taken advantage of the brain-muddled and trustworthy.

Getting to the book itself, this is part of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius” trilogy that includes Ravel and Running. These are very different from his earlier works, which are a bit more noirish and funny. Here’s what Linda Coverdale had to say in the aforementioned interview that we did:

Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.

Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.

Partially because it’s Tesla, partially because his style really fits the content, but of the three “Eccentric Genius” books, Lightning is the most successful and captivating. It recounts the life of Tesla (referred to as “Gregor” in the book) from birth to death in a chatty, informed narratorial voice.

To give you a taste, here’s a bit from the beginning when Gregor is born right around midnight:

We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born. We prefer to be aware of the numerical moment when it all takes off, when the business begins with air, light, perspective, the nights and the heartbreaks, the pleasures and the days. [. . .]

Well, that precise moment is something Gregor will never find out, born as he was between eleven at night and one in the morning. Midnight on the dot or a bit earlier, a bit later—no one will be able to tell him. So throughout his life he will never be sure on which day, the one before or the one after, he has the right to celebrate his birthday. [. . .]

Gregor’s birth proceeds like this in the clamorous darkness until a gigantic lightning bolt—thick, branching, a grim pillar of burnt air shaped like a tree, like its roots or the claws of a raptor—spotlights his arrival and sets the surrounding forest on fire, while thunder drowns out his first cry. Such is the bedlam that in the general panic, no one takes advantage of the frozen glare of the flash, its instant broad daylight, to check the precise time according to clocks that, cherishing long-standing differences, have disagreed among themselves for quite a while anyway.

A birth outside of time, therefore, and out of the light, because in those days the only illumination comes from candle wax and oil, since electric current is as yet unknown. Electricity—as we employ it today—has yet to impose itself on custom, and it’s about time for someone to deal with that. It’s Gregor who’ll take charge, as if sorting out another item of personal business: it will be his job to clear the matter up.

This one is a MUST READ for any and everyone. It’s short, charming, and utterly enjoyable. And, I think, a definite finalist.

1 Because this is absurd, yet makes the point, here’s a list from Wikipedia of “Electromechanical devices and principles developed by Nikola Tesla”:

Various devices that use rotating magnetic fields

The Induction motor, rotary transformers, and “high” frequency alternators

The Tesla coil, his magnifying transmitter, and other means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations (including condenser discharge transformations and the Tesla oscillators)

Alternating current long-distance electrical transmission system (1888) and other methods and devices for power transmission

Systems for wireless communication (prior art for the invention of radio) and radio frequency oscillators

Robotics and the electronic logic gate

Electrotherapy Tesla currents

Wireless transfer of electricity and the Tesla effect

Tesla impedance phenonomena

Tesla electro-static field

Tesla principle

Bifilar coil

Telegeodynamics

Tesla insulation

Tesla impulses

Tesla frequencies

Tesla discharge

Forms of commutators and methods of regulating third brushes

Tesla turbines (e.g., bladeless turbines) for water, steam and gas and the Tesla pumps

Tesla igniter

Corona discharge ozone generator

Tesla compressor

X-rays Tubes using the Bremsstrahlung process

Devices for ionized gases and “Hot Saint Elmo’s Fire”.55

Devices for high field emission

Devices for charged particle beams

Phantom streaming devices56

Arc light systems

Methods for providing extremely low level of resistance to the passage of

electric current (predecessor to superconductivity)

Voltage multiplication circuitry

Devices for high voltage discharges

Devices for lightning protection

VTOL aircraft

Dynamic theory of gravity

Concepts for electric vehicles

Polyphase systems

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.

27 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the precursors to the Oulipo, and cult-author extraordinaire, Raymond Roussel is one of those authors that everyone of a certain aesthetic leaning likes to rave about. He is the admiration of many a literary fan-boy, and if there was an international fiction cosplay festival, his hat, cane, and ‘stach would adorn many a nerd.

That said, his books still aren’t as widely read as they should be. Part of that is due to the fact that for the longest time Calder was the only publisher of Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa. Calder is a great home for both of these books (the quality of the Calder list taken as a whole will likely never be replicated), but there were various distribution and availability issues.

Thankfully, last summer Dalkey Archive issued Impressions of Africa in Mark Polizzotti’s new translation.

I haven’t read this version, but knowing the book, and knowing Mark, I’m 100% sure that it’s brilliant. And for those of you unfamiliar with this book, here’s the Dalkey description:

In a mythical African land, some shipwrecked and uniquely talented passengers stage a grand gala to entertain themselves and their captor, the great chieftain Talou. In performance after bizarre performance—starring, among others, a zither-playing worm, a marksman who can peel an egg at fifty yards, a railway car that rolls on calves’ lungs, and fabulous machines that paint, weave, and compose music—Raymond Roussel demonstrates why it is that André Breton termed him “the greatest mesmerizer of modern times.” But even more remarkable than the mindbending events Roussel details—as well as their outlandish, touching, or tawdry backstories—is the principle behind the novel’s genesis, a complex system of puns and double-entendres that anticipated (and helped inspire) such movements as Surrealism and Oulipo. Newly translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, this edition of Impressions of Africa vividly restores the humor, linguistic legerdemain, and conceptual wonder of Raymond Roussel’s magnum opus.

Anyway, the main point of this post is to gush on about Roussel in context of this fantastic essay by Alice Gregory that went up on the Poetry Foundation website earlier this week.

First of all, anything with the subtitle “the upside of crazy” is effing awesome in my book. But more importantly, this is a really interesting look at Roussel’s odd being and its relation to his very strange works. You really have to read the whole article, but here are a few bits:

“Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light,” a young Raymond Roussel told his psychoanalyst, Pierre Janet. “I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid that the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink; I wanted suddenly to throw back the screen and light up the world.” Roussel was speaking literally, and Janet, who would treat Roussel for years, was taking notes.

Though nobody knows for sure, it’s suspected that Roussel first started seeing Janet in the years just before World War I, almost a decade after that first ecstatic experience he described in their early sessions. The manic spell coincided with the editing of La Doublure, a novel in verse that took most of Roussel’s adolescence to complete and that he believed “would illuminate the entire universe” when it was published. When it finally was published in 1897, La Doublure was ignored by critics. The reception to his obsessively detailed and obviously unsalable work ushered in a lifelong series of public disappointments for Roussel, a writer whose work was met—in his own words—with “an almost totally hostile incomprehension.”

In later sessions with Janet, Roussel proved himself to be outlandishly hubristic and deluded about his chances at fame, predicting, for instance, that he would “enjoy greater glory than Victor Hugo or Napoleon.” Over dinner recently, I quoted this prophecy to a friend and roussellâtre (what one calls a Roussel enthusiast), and he laughed. “That’s what’s so insane about him,” my friend shouted over the restaurant’s ambient noise. “He actually thought that what he wrote was normal, that people would like it, that he deserved—and would find—a mainstream audience!” [. . .]

Roussel’s world is strange because it is so specific, and his imaginative audacity reminds me of nothing so much as anime. Like Hayao Miyazaki movies—in which buses look like cats, amphibious girls have mouths full of salubrious saliva, monsters vomit up bathhouse employees, and decapitated spirit heads cure leprosy—Roussel’s works are littered with inconceivable amalgams. But at least in anime, there are protagonists with motives, however simplistic—they avenge family members, fall in love with characters that look like themselves, and seek adventure in parallel worlds. Roussel’s characters, if they can even be called that, express almost nothing a reader could identify as emotions. Bearing witness to the products of Roussel’s imagination isn’t nearly so unnerving as the moment that comes—quite late, it seems—when you are finally struck by the severe lack of human feeling. Janet outlines what he understands to be some of Roussel’s aesthetic principles: “The work must contain nothing real,” he deduces, “no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but completely imaginary combinations.” [. . .]

Roussel’s eccentricities were sundry and systematic. His biographer, Mark Ford, generously identifies them as “attempt[s] to screen out or neutralize the anxieties of living.” He fasted for days, wore garments for only limited amounts of time (collars, once; neckties, three times; suspenders, 15 times), and started and stopped work always on the hour. Roussel’s love for his own mother bordered on the erotic, and when she died, he had a pane of glass inserted into the lid of her coffin so that he could look at her corpse just a bit longer. There are more impish examples too, like his habit of tearing pages from his favorite books so that nobody could see what he was reading and then devouring them in the back seat of a chauffeured car. Most telling of what was clearly a personality disorder was Roussel’s conduct at social events, where “he became so afraid of causing offence, or of himself being offended, that he would pre-empt all potentially upsetting topics by asking an endless series of factual questions.”

That last little bit is so amazing . . . I think I’m going to employ it next time I’m anxious at some social event . . .

But seriously, you should check out this article and then read the new translation of Impressions of Africa.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue, which just came out from Archipelago Books in Sheila Fischman’s translation.

Larissa Kyzer is a regular reviewer for us who has a great interest in all things Scandinavian and Icelandic. Mister Blue doesn’t quite fit that, but it does sound like a really fun book:

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Click here to read the entire piece.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

19 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Jules Verne’s The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, which came out earlier this year from the University of Nebraska Press in Peter Schulman’s translation.

Kaija is an about-to-graduate MA student in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester. For her thesis she’s been translating Inga Abele’s High Tide from the Latvian—a book we’ll be featuring here on Three Percent in the not-too-distant future when Kaija and I do a special podcast about Latvian literature, Harlequin romance novels, and other things both appropriate and in-.

Since Kaija sort of explains Verne in the opening part of her review, I’m going to abandon the typical format and just go straight into that:

Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:

1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.

2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.

3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.

To read the full review, click here.

19 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:

1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.

2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.

3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.

If you’re like me and grew up in the suburbs reading the Wow! Doritos of literature like the Fear Street series or anything based in the Midwest and prominently featuring ox-drawn wagons and corn, you had almost zero contact with anything Vernian and probably looked up the above summaries on a website that’s like Wikipedia on paint fumes.

That said, I was excited to crack open my first ever Verne book (and the first English translation of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz). However, the only information I had to reference style-wise was what translator Peter Schulman wrote in his introduction: “. . . Verne’s later novels became increasingly pessimistic and alarming to a young readership used to the earlier, joyous tales of travels and discoveries.” Additionally, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is said to be Verne’s final novel, and one of those mystical manuscripts that was only discovered and published in the original French in the 90s.

The plot of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz deals with the elements of dark magic and, more importantly, the idea of invisibility. Narrator Henry Vidal, travels to Ragz, Hungary, to meet his brother Marc’s fiancé Myra Roderick and her family. But soon Henry learns that creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy Wilhelm Storitz, who recently proposed to and was turned down by Myra, is still lurking in the peripheral picture and is probably out to take revenge. For the longest time no one’s really sure how far the scorned Storitz will take things, but once all kinds of weird, invisibility-related shit starts happening to the family and in relation to Marc and Myra’s upcoming wedding, it’s almost unanimous that the source is a certain creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy:

That’s when I saw . . . actually, a hundred people could see what I was seeing, but we all refused to believe it.

Here was the bouquet lying on the table—the engagement bouquet, suddenly ripped to shreds; its flowers were apparently being stomped upon and strewn all over the floor . . .

This time it was a sensation of terror that fell upon us! Everyone wanted to flee the scene of such strange goings-on! . . . I was even asking myself if I were completely sane amid such irrational occurrences.

Captain Haralan had just joined me, and pale with anger, he announced:

‘It’s Wilhelm Storitz!’

Wilhelm Storitz? . . . Had he gone mad? . . .

At that very moment, the bridal wreath rose from the cushion upon which it had been placed, traveled across the drawing rom, then, without our being able to see the hand that was holding it, flew through the gallery and vanished into the garden.

The rest of the story mostly involves waiting for the narrator and other characters to catch up to Storitz and figure out how he’s been pulling all these freaky-malicious stunts.

Because I’m unable to compare The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz to Verne’s earlier works, my next best bet was to line it up next to Henry James—specifically The Turn of the Screw. Not only does Verne’s story contain the similar, chilling and spooky content as James’ famous ghost story, but Schulman has done well in mimicking the vocabulary and sentence structure of late 1800s/early 1900s English in his translation, something that is already apparent in the first paragraphs of the text.

While not as fantastically flourished as James’ writing, that turn of the century feel the translation has is immediate—something that definitely made it easier to get right into the swing of and accept Verne’s novel for what it was—a simple and straightforward kind of mystery-cum-fantasy story. And as said in the book’s introduction, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz definitely has its share of dark events and pessimism. The plot itself stays within Verne’s realm of magic realism, and reads quickly and lightly, but also has those undeniably dark moments that keep it far from slipping into the children’s literature genre. Think city mobs, torched houses, and semi-random corpses.

And while I can’t say I agree with the quotes on the back cover that say the novel “soon accelerates into an intense, high-speed thriller” or that the plot is “a sinister, devious fable with an unprecedented ending that grows more and more astonishing the longer you think about it” (I mean seriously, have any of these people read The Turn of the Screw? That book and ending eff with your mind for weeks . . .), or Peter Schulman’s incorrect use of the word “myriad” (three times in 190 pages), what I can say that it was an enjoyable read and wonderful introduction to Verne’s style of storytelling.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Dany LaFerrière’s I Am a Japanese Writer, which is translated from the French by David Hormel and available from Douglas & MacIntyre.

Will—who got a certificate in literary translation from the U of R and focuses on Japanese lit—is one of our contributing reviewers. You can read all of his pieces by clicking here.

Dany LaFerrière is an author I’ve been interested in checking out for a while, in part because his book titles are so strange and provocative. (The last novel of his to be translated was How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.) May be way off base here, but based on the descriptions, his work brings to mind the novels of Percival Everett. All the novels sound fun, playful, interested in identity and race and nationality, etc.

Anyway, for more info on LaFerrière, be sure to check out this interview that just went up at Words Without Borders. And here’s the opening of Will’s review:

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity.

Click here to check out the whole thing.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity. The novel begins with the unnamed narrator getting a call from his publisher looking for the next book in the narrator’s contract. The narrator has no such next book, and looking at all the junk littering his editor’s desk, he pulls a title out of his head: I Am a Japanese Writer. His publisher loves it, but to the narrator it’s nothing special at all, telling the reader: “It was pretty banal, actually—except for the word ‘Japanese.’ And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” He starts telling people randomly on the street about how he is a Japanese writer:

On my way out, just to gauge his reaction, I tell him, “I am a Japanese writer.”

His eyes cut back to me.

“How’s that? You changed nationality?”

“No. That’s the title of my new book.”

A worried glance at his assistant, a young man busy wrapping fish. My fishman never looks at the person he’s speaking to.

“Do you have the right?”

“To write the book?”

“No. To say you’re Japanese.”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going to change your nationality?”

“No way . . . I already did that once, that’s enough.”

“We should find out about that.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, at the Japanese embassy . . . Can you imagine me waking up one morning and telling my customers I’m a Polish butcher?”

“I’d think you’d be a Polish fishman, since you’re in fish.”

“Anything but a Polish fishman,” he answers, turning back to the next customer.

The rest of the novel follows the narrator doing everything except writing the book. He constantly is reading the Japanese poet Basho or evading his landlord. He befriends a Japanese musician named Midori and her entourage, even getting mixed up in one of their suicides. But even so, word spreads of his latest book until it causes an uproar in Japan. Members of the Japanese embassy start visiting him to help him go to Japan, learn about it, so as to better write his book, but as the fervor for his book grows more and more intense, the narrator becomes increasingly desperate to escape the attention.

I Am a Japanese Writer is written almost like a noir—the tone is dark, and the plot almost Kafkaesque in its gritty lunacy. David Homel deserves credit for his excellent translation in keeping the tone of the work consistent and for rendering various cultural nuances and artifacts clear and recognizable in American English. But the novel is at the same time incredibly fun to read, with an absurdism that makes the novel both incredibly funny and at the same time nightmarish. What else is there to do but utter a bewildered laugh when a character named Haruki Murakami, the same name as the most popular and famous Japanese writer in recent memory, is a black, gay New Yorker?

It is a recurring element throughout the novel: nearly every Japanese person in the book, regardless of who they are or what they do, is named after a famous Japanese writer or cultural figure. In fact, all cultures and peoples in the novel are portrayed using the most obvious clichés and stereotypes. For as the narrator himself tells us, “the problem with being a foreigner is that you’re not allowed to play anything but folklore.”

By using these deliberately clichéd elements, I Am a Japanese Writer offers an amusing and very readable analysis on the flimsiness of racial identity, and illustrates the power literature has to transcend ideas of race. The ideas would work well without them, but the meta-fictional games LaFerrière uses bring a whole new depth and clarity to his arguments. As the narrator describes reading Mishima as a teenager:

I dove into the universe set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. That was their sentence for some unnamable crime . . .

I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them. Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Cesaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot—they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer? I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.

8 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was actually announced a couple days ago, but I just received an email from French publisher P.O.L. celebrating the awarding of the Prix Renaudot to Emmanuel Carrère for his new novel Limonov.

Limonov is not a fictional character. He exists. I know him. He was a lout in Ukraine; an idol of the Soviet underground under Brezhnev; a tramp, then a manservant to a millionaire in Manhattan; a trendy writer in Paris; a soldier lost in the wars of the Balkans; and now, in the immense chaos of Russian post-communism, an old charismatic chef of a party of young desperados. He sees himself as a hero, it’s possible to consider him as a bastard: I’ll reserve my judgment.

His life is adventurous and ambiguous: a true novel. And I believe his life tells us something. Not only about himself, Limonov, not only about Russia, but about the history of us all after the Second World War.

This is how Emmanuel Carrère describes his last novel. What he doesn’t say is to what extent he has succeeded in creating a breathtaking contemporary epic novel from this extraordinary life, to be read without stopping in great exaltation. Most certainly because his knowledge of the subject is complete, his inquiry was thorough, having read all of Limonov’s books, of course, and what has been written about him, meeting him himself, and all the witnesses it was possible to contact, but especially because his talent as a narrator is immense, and that he masterly rendered not only the character’s complexity, but also that of his country and his time.

This sounds fantastic, and like a great follow up to Lives Other than My Own, which came out earlier this year, and which we featured on Read This Next. FSG already bought the rights to this new book, although there’s no info available about when it will be available in English translation.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Wednesday, November 9th at 7:30pm, Two Lines is collaborating with The Bridge reading series to put on a special event at McNally Jackson (52 Prince St.) in celebration of the new issue, Counterfeits. “Counterfeits” editor Luc Sante will host the event, and will be joined by translators Aaron Kerner, Patrick Philips, Alex Zucker, Alyson Waters, and author Magdaléna Platzováfor.

In preparation for this event, Two Lines just posted an interview with Alyson Waters about Albert Cossery and her translation of The Colors of Infamy, which is coming out next month from New Directions.

Scott Esposito: We’re here to talk about your excerpt from The Colors of Infamy, which comes from the third novel by Egyptian-French writer Albert Cossery to be published in the past couple of years. Cossery, who died in 2008 and did most of his writing decades ago, has become something of a sensation lately, with these new translations getting rave attention in a lot of leading periodicals. Why do you think Cossery has caught on so much?

Alyson Waters: I wish I could say that he’s moved into best-sellerdom, but that would be overstating the case a bit! I think that Cossery’s a great writer, and maybe it’s taken some time for people to realize that here—an Egyptian author who writes in French translated into English is not everyone’s first choice as a “go-to” book. We’re fortunate to have wonderful publishers like New Directions and New York Review Books who took a chance on publishing these translations in the last few years, although some of his work was translated into English decades ago, but it’s all gone out of print. I started translating The Colors of Infamy for the pleasure of it some seven or eight years ago, but it wasn’t until I won a PEN Translation Grant for the book that publishers sat up and took notice. I was lucky that Barbara Epler of New Directions wanted me to translate A Splendid Conspiracy as well. And now, in addition to The Jokers, brought out last year in Anna Moschovakis’ translation, New York Review Books is bringing out a revised version of a translation by Thomas Cushing of Proud Beggars that was originally done in 1981. It would be nice to think that all this interest has to do with the Arab Spring, and that may be true right now as far as new readers are concerned, and I hope interest continues to grow. But those of us who have been pushing for Cossery to have a bigger presence in the English-speaking world have been doing so for about a decade, some even longer. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, a very appealing anti-work/anti-capitalist/anti-materialist philosophy that goes with our current recession mood, I think, and a rather cynical—though some might say accurate—view of the benefits of any revolution for the poorest of the poor—all of which can be seen quite clearly in The Colors of Infamy.

Click here to read the full interview, and be sure to order a copy of the new issue while you’re there.

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.

Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:

A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.

While he lays forth the catastrophic circumstances of the tsunami, he questions his own ability to love and whether he has the strength to withstand grief and loss of this magnitude. Focusing mainly on the wake of disaster, these personal questions bring immediacy to the reader as to how we would react in these situations. As self-important as this may seem—chronicling the grief of someone else as an impetus for creativity and personal reflection—the reader can’t help but empathize with Carrère as a witness but also respect his compassion for his subjects as he does in this somber passage:

There we are, neat and clean, untouched, while around us cluster the lepers, poisoned by radiation, shipwrecked souls reduced to a savage state. Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.

After Carrère returns home from Sri Lanka, they are met with their own loss. Carrère’s wife, Hélène, loses her younger sister, also named Juliette, to cancer. Juliette leaves behind a dedicated, sweet and earthy husband and her three young daughters, the youngest only fifteen months. Through interviews with Patrice and Juliette’s friend and business colleague, Étienne, Carrère constructs the life of an ambitious, intelligent woman who was loved for her determination and fairness. What becomes most compelling about this story of loss is that it focuses mostly on Étienne, a fellow judge of Juliette’s, who was automatically drawn to her because of their physical handicaps. Etienne lost a leg and Juliette was unable to walk without crutches because of an earlier treatment of radiation that damaged the nerves in her spine.

It is clear that Carrère respects, and is somewhat mystified by, the strength and love Etienne and Patrice have for Juliette. Again, he questions his devotion to Hélène but realizes that after seeing Patrice lose the woman he had married, Carrère wants to grow old with Hélène. The story of Juliette’s cancer is brutal and takes up most of the book’s length. It does digress into the details of her work as a judge who protects clients from creditors but I am not convinced it is a necessary addition. It undermines the contemplative and somber tone set in the beginning by Carrère and takes it into the drier arena of legal mechanics.

Obviously, Carrère wants to highlight the seemingly limitless value of human connection with these two lives other than his own. The exploration of grief, shock and survival dominate the narrative while Carrère flounders for his own sense of worthiness as a person capable of offering emotional support and sustenance. He brings to light that none us truly know our limits until we have to face the death of our loved ones or our own mortality. This includes an emotional mortality that plagues some from the beginning which he purports that this emotional turmoil can develop into a life force of its own, namely cancer:

. . . but I do believe that certain people have been damaged at their core almost from the beginning and cannot, despite their courage and best efforts, really live. I also believe that one of the ways in which life, which wants to live, works its way through such people can be in disease, and not just any disease: cancer. That’s why I am so stunned by people who claim that we are free, that happiness can be decided, that it’s a moral choice. For these cheerleaders, sadness is in bad taste, depression a sign of laziness, melancholy a sin. Yes, it is a sin, even a mortal sin, but some people are born sinners, born damned, and all their courage and best efforts will not set them free.

There is a profundity and truth to many of the conclusions he draws from bearing witness to the pain of others. There is also a sense of self-exploration that deepens from his proximity to all this mourning.

As Carrère delves into grief head first, the reader has no chance to turn back. What doesn’t work for the reader is not the onslaught of damage and survival, but that the stories do not feel connected. It’s as if they should be two different books or tied together in a way that doesn’t come across so tonally different. Perhaps this was his goal in highlighting how loss can be different. There is the soul-numbing shock of sudden death as in Jérôme and Delphine’s case, or the grinding misery of a gradual loss as in Juliette’s case. The tonal shifts are so abrupt that the reader can’t help but feel they are reading two different books. Once we meet Étienne, we are taken into the world and history of someone who is still living, whose job inhabits part of Juliette’s story and whose presence is lively and vivid, almost a distraction from the loss of Juliette.

This is a powerful book filled with honest and beautiful passages that showcase Carrère’s abstract gift as a writer. Lives are disjointed, but the job of the writer is not to replicate life as is, but present a seamless version that appears as is. Rightly, he reminds us that loss takes the person away, but the survivor still carries them around in their own way and in a way that will metamorphose as they grow in life. And as Carrère points out in this apt quote from Céline, “The worst defeat in everything is to forget, and especially what did you in.”

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on this week’s Read This Next title, Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere, which is translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and forthcoming from Metropolitan Books.

Monica Carter is a contributing reviewer to Three Percent, and a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction panel. She lives in Los Angeles where she used to work at the wonderful Skylight Books and is now concentrating on her writing.

Here’s the opening of her review:

France’s Emmanuel Carrère, filmmaker, novelist and biographer, attempts to hit fate below the belt in his latest effort, Lives Other Than My Own. Difficult to classify—it could be memoir, it could be fiction, it could be a treatise on compassion—Lives Other Than My Own presents stories of grief about people the author knows. We’re not talking about typical down-on-your-luck stories either; we are talking gut wrenching and life-altering stories of grief brought on by the cruelty of fate. Under the guide of Carrère’s nuanced prose, simultaneously journalistic and emotionally astute, you will journey through this book only to rise up out of your chair shaking your fists and screaming towards the heavens, “Why, fate, why?” by the turn of the last page.

Carrere opens this book with the tragedy of the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. On vacation with his wife and their two boys in Sri Lanka, the hotel they are staying at is untouched by the disaster. Yet a couple, Jérôme and Delphine, they have befriended during their trip loses their four-year-old daughter, Juliette. As devastating as the summary of this loss sounds, Carrère’s style brings us to the edge of this loss to witness the irrefutable void of mourning:

“A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. He has taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.”

Click here to read the entire piece. And click here to read an extended preview of Lives Other Than My Own.

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For this week’s Read This Next, we have chosen a book by French author and screenwriter Emmanuel Carrère, who began his career writing fiction but has transitioned to a particularly self-examining non-fiction. His last book was the revealing autobiographic My Life as a Russian Novel, and the one before that The Adversary, the story of Jean-Claude Romand, the notorious French criminal who pretended to be a doctor for almost two decades and then killed everyone who might expose him, including his parents and family. But even within The Adversary, Carrère keeps himself in the text, including much of his correspondence and incidents in his own family life, and questioning his motives in writing the book.

In Lives Other Than My Own, the subject matter is tragic—Carrère is present at the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, and a couple whom he and his girlfriend, Hélène, have befriended lose their young daughter to the wave; Helene’s sister is diagnosed with cancer, a relapse from her teenage years. Throughout all this, Carrère suffers no personal misfortune other than his connection to these sad tales, and like an ethnographer striving for full disclosure, he presents himself, his jealousies, his sympathies, in the very telling of the stories of those the book is titled after.

This week, we have an interview with Carrère, a full review, and an excerpt from the text in which we start off by situating ourselves in Sri Lanka and becoming familiar with the complications that have arisen between Carrère and Hélène.

Click here to read an extended preview of Lives Other Than My Own, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and coming out in September from Metropolitan Books.

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To supplement the advance preview of Jean Echenoz’s Lightning — this week’s Read This Next — book, I talked with translator Linda Coverdale about Echenoz, and the three “Eccentric Genius” books of his that she’s translated.

You can read the entire interview here, but for now, here’s an excerpt:

Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.

Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.

CWP: Do you know how historically accurate these books are? I mean, Ravel seems very much based on historical records, whereas in Lightning, Tesla’s name is changed to Gregor, which raised some questions for me.

LC: With this new style, he stuck very close to biography in the first novel—and they’re all novels, he says very specifically that they’re all novels, but in Ravel, I did the research and I checked up on lots of things, and I kept coming across information that Echenoz must himself have found. He did extensive research—he was looking at letters, he was looking at memos, he was looking at scribbles on manuscripts, looking at books about Ravel, you name it. The idea was, he would have so much . . . So when I say his style became compressed, it seems to me that, after eating all this information, he was very very choosy, he distilled all the data and events and emotions, and crafted his sentences to make them really rich and resonant. Most of the dialogue in Ravel was in fact rooted in reality, but he didn’t create a lot of it in the three novels, because what he was writing was a novel that stayed very close to the actual life that he wanted to explore. Then when he finished Ravel, he thought he’d like to do the same thing again, but he decided to pick an area about which he knew very little, and he decided, sport, sport would be good, and he found his character, Zátopek, and he also started looking into the history and politics of the period, which he didn’t touch on really at all in Ravel. So he was taking the same idea but playing changes on it, and then seeing what would happen, which turned into Running. [. . .]

CWP: And this led to Lightning . . .

LC: It was a logical progression, he thought he’d like to do it once more, and this time he was looking for a scientist, and Tesla was the one he latched on to. He relied on Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man out of Time, which he credited. But he had given himself more freedom with the second book when he was dealing with Emil—Echenoz was a little more roman-esque, and allowed himself some curlicues—and he decided that this time, he was going to do more of that. Frankly, he was going to take liberties that he hadn’t taken before, and structure his book more like a novel. Well, listen, Tesla’s life is like a novel. The man was insane.

So when people say it’s a trilogy, Echenoz makes a real point of saying no, it is a suite. He didn’t conceive of it as a trilogy. Each thing led to the next one, and in a way, he was moving blindly, but confidently. After he’d done his research and made his choice, then he knew where he was.

And be sure to check out all the RTN info about Lightning by clicking here.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is my review of this week’s Read This Next book, Lightning by Jean Echneoz, which is translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and coming out from The New Press.

Lightning is the third of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which also includes the novels Ravel and Running. Each of these books takes a historical figure as it’s base—one who was a bit quirky, and as a result, also very fascinating. These are still novels in the sense that Echenoz creates situations around historical facts, providing unverifiable insights, and bringing these characters to life—while avoiding the typical traps of “historical fiction.”

I have yet to read Running, but I’d highly recommend Ravel in addition to Lightning. But as I say in the review, Lightning plays to my obsession with Tesla, which is one reason we chose to include this as a Read This Next title. Speaking of, click here to read a sample from Lightning.

And here’s the opening of the review:

There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.

And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.

I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business. Case in point: The War of Currents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.

And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.

I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business.

Case in point: The War of Currents. Back at the turn of the twentieth century Thomas Edison (whose reputation has not been well-served by the passage of time) was promoting the direct current model of electricity distribution. Not to get into all the technicalities of this, but basically, because this system required all electricity to move in one direction only (generator to outlet), it caused for a lot of start/stop problems for things like trams, was very limited in how far it could be distributed, and was overall not that efficient. Tesla had an idea for an alternating current system that would solve a lot of these problems, by using transformers and whatnot.

While working at Edison Electric, Tesla brought up his idea, but Edison “explodes each time as if his assistant were extolling the Antichrist.” But over time, Edison might be developing some doubts as to his system and lets Tesla (named Gregor in the book—more on that in a minute) take a shot at solving the problem:

Fine, go to it: there’s $50,000 in it for you if you succeed. Gregor goes to it, for six months, at the end of which the generator winds up in fine fettle indeed. Gregor hurries to report to his employer.

Great, exclaims Edison, lounging in his armchair with his feet propped up on his desk. Good, very good. Really? asks Gregor uneasily. You’re pleased? Ecstatic, declares Edison, delighted. So, then, ventures Gregor, unable to finish his sentence because—So then what? breaks in Edison, whose face has turned to stone. Actually, says Gregor, screwing up his courage, I seem to remember something about $50,000. Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off his desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?

Prick. And it’s not like this is the only d-bag move Edison makes. When Gregor ends up working with Western Union (after losing all his money to the backers of his successful arc light), the so-called “War of Currents” kicks off, with Edison protecting his DC distribution model at all costs. Such as by demonstrating the dangers of AC by electrocuting cats and dogs on the streets. And then an elephant. He even creates a really brutal electric chair and kills a convict.

In some ways, Edison is the anti-Tesla—at least when it comes to business. He claimed the patents for inventions his workers came up with. The lengths he went to to preserve his monopoly more resemble today’s corporations than the image I have of Edison from my grade school textbooks.

To bring this home, when Tesla signed a contract with Westinghouse, he was promised a modest sum for the sale of electricity via his AC system. When they “won” the current war, Western Union owed him $12 million. Since this would dismantled Western Union, Tesla tore up the contract, content to go off to Colorado to play with electricity. (And supposedly discover a way to deliver free electricity to everyone, everywhere. Something that’s as anti-corporate as it gets.)

That’s how it will go with Gregor: others will discreetly make off with his ideas while he spends his life bubbling away with new ones. But it’s not enough to keep things boiling, one must then decant, filter, dry, crush, mill, and analyze. Count, weigh, sort out. Gregor never has the time to cope with all that. The others, off in their corners, will take the time they need to carry out his ideas while he, dashing on, will have already pounced on something else. And his patent applications won’t help, won’t any more keep Roentgen from claiming the X-ray than they’ll prevent Marconi later on from saying he invented radio.

Echenoz, who changed Tesla’s name from Nikolai to Gregor to emphasize that this was a novel and not a biography, does an amazing job capturing the fascinating eccentricities of this genius. Because not only was Tesla a great inventor, he was quite a showman as well, such as in this description of his “demonstration” at the 1893 World’s Fair:

As mystified by these scientific matters as I am, the audience at this point is already goggle-eyed and openmouthed at such a spectacle. When Gregor begins, however, in a crashing din, to pass between his hands currents in excess of 200,000 volts, which vibrate a million times a second and appear as shimmering phosphorescent waves—and then turns himself into a long cascade of fire, the crowd screams for the rest of the act. After which, in the gradually falling silence, Gregor’s motionless figure continues briefly to emit vibrations and haloes of light that fade slowly into the returning darkness, until the audience holds its breath in a theater as black and silent as the crypt.

For such a short book (142 pages), Echenoz (and superstar translator Linda Coverdale) sure cover a lot of ground. There’s the Edison bit, the time in Colorado when he “communicates with martians,” his time at the Waldorf Astoria, his time at the much less chic New Yorker hotel, the time when he falls in love with a pigeon.

This book works though, not just because of the wealth of awesome material that was Tesla’s life, but because of the compression (Linda Coverdale’s term) of his writing. It’s concise, but not minimalist. Serious and very precise on one hand, but with that typical Echenoz flair, such as the occasional references to “I” and “we” and the general “lightness” that makes all of his fictions so incredibly enjoyable. And makes Lightning one of my favorite books (so far) of 2011.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Lightning by Jean Echenoz, a book that I truly love. Simply put, Echenoz’s charm + Tesla’s crazy genius = Incredibly Engaging Novel.

Over the rest of the week, we’ll be posting a few things about Echenoz’s general career (his noir books, his transitional period, the Eccentric Genius suite), along with an piece about an interview I did with translator Linda Coverdale, and a full length review of the book.

For now, check out the preview here, and here’s the short intro to the book:

Echenoz has had an interesting and diverse career as a writer. His first few books—_Cherokee_, Big Blondes, Double Jeopardy, Chopin’s Move_—are fun, noirish sort of novels. A few years back though, after _I’m Gone and Piano, Echenoz embarked on a “suite” of three books about historical figures: Ravel (about Maurice Ravel), Running (about Emil Zátopek), and Lightning (about Nikola Tesla).

These three novels may signal a sort of new direction in terms of what Echenoz is writing about, but all three are infused with the typical Echenoz voice. And it’s that signature voice that transforms the “Eccentric Genius Suite” from a series of biographies or historical works into charming novels that lucidly depict the quirky lives these people led.

Over the past few years, Tesla has sort of come back into the public eye, especially thanks to Samatha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else. The reasons for this resurgence of interest are varied, ranging from the general strangeness of his person and the movie-like quality of his life, to the way that Tesla was one of the last pure inventors—one who was destroyed by big business and his own inability to function in that world.

Lightning is a stunning novel that is captivating right from the start. In our advance preview, you can read about Gregor/Tesla’s birth, his early successes, his fall out with Edison (who always comes off as a bastard when you read about Tesla), and the start of the “War of Currents.”

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.

25 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on Christian Oster’s In the Train, which is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and available from the stylish Object Press.

Emily Davis is a grad student in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester, and is currently working on a number of projects, including a sample from Damian Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography. She was one of the many students in my class who loved In the Train for its creepyish humor . . . I think this book is absolutely brilliant, which is why we’re running this review more than a year after the book came out.

You know those niche documentaries about people who are really into some specialized hobby or interest—old-school arcade games, typography, central Asian throat singing? The ones that make you think: wow, these people are so kooky, they make me seem normal! and yet at the same time you can almost, in a way, see where they’re coming from? I don’t mean that you can necessarily relate to their specific interests, though naturally that is possible. For the majority of us who are neither typeface designers nor reigning Donkey Kong champions, though, what draws us to the protagonists of these films is their passion—persistent, imperfect, somehow essentially human—for their hobbies, their professions, their artistic pursuits.

In the Train is like that, in the sense that its narrator is undeniably odd and yet, despite—or maybe because of—his social ineptitude and mild-to-moderate neurosis (his characteristics and motivations are identifiably human, only taken to extremes), also strangely endearing.

Oster’s novel begins in a train station in Paris, where Frank, the narrator-protagonist, notices a woman (Anne) on the platform struggling with a heavy bag—which Frank immediately identifies as a potential premise for getting to know her. However, Frank does not operate on whim, exactly. On the surface, his actions may appear unhindered by a second thought, but the truth is that he thinks everything through and takes pains to justify (to himself, to the reader) every action that might otherwise seem out of the ordinary or socially unacceptable.

Click here to read the full piece.

25 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You know those niche documentaries about people who are really into some specialized hobby or interest—old-school arcade games, typography, central Asian throat singing? The ones that make you think: wow, these people are so kooky, they make me seem normal! and yet at the same time you can almost, in a way, see where they’re coming from? I don’t mean that you can necessarily relate to their specific interests, though naturally that is possible. For the majority of us who are neither typeface designers nor reigning Donkey Kong champions, though, what draws us to the protagonists of these films is their passion—persistent, imperfect, somehow essentially human—for their hobbies, their professions, their artistic pursuits.

In the Train is like that, in the sense that its narrator is undeniably odd and yet, despite—or maybe because of—his social ineptitude and mild-to-moderate neurosis (his characteristics and motivations are identifiably human, only taken to extremes), also strangely endearing.

Oster’s novel begins in a train station in Paris, where Frank, the narrator-protagonist, notices a woman (Anne) on the platform struggling with a heavy bag—which Frank immediately identifies as a potential premise for getting to know her. However, Frank does not operate on whim, exactly. On the surface, his actions may appear unhindered by a second thought, but the truth is that he thinks everything through and takes pains to justify (to himself, to the reader) every action that might otherwise seem out of the ordinary or socially unacceptable. Take this passage from the second page, an early glimpse into Frank’s inner monologue:

My immediate problem was knowing whether I should offer to carry it, her bag, or, more rationally, more economically, in terms of effort—as much mine as hers—to get her to agree to put it down. The second solution was definitely short on panache, on gallantry even. The first, in comparison with the second, didn’t have that obvious necessity without which any man feels that addressing a woman betrays premeditation.

Now there was nothing premeditated about what I was doing, I just instantly felt a need to help this woman.

The irony, of course, is in Frank’s trying to pass off his action as unpremeditated, immediately after having described exactly the thoughts he struggled with as he was premeditating it. This is just the beginning of the humor woven through the entire book. It is worth noting that the sole reason Frank has come to the station in the first place is not to go to any particular place for any particular reason, but, essentially, to pick up a woman:

At best, mind you, I was picturing a sort of honeymoon: I met her, she liked me, we more or less traveled together, depending on the availability of seats. It was more than the beginning of a story, it was a story. At worst, either I set off on my own or I went home to my apartment alone, having asked for a refund on my ticket.

If you think about it, the “at best” scenario is not so outlandish to imagine. And if you really think about it, who among frequent or even occasional train travelers has not entertained a similar storybook fantasy? People meet by chance in all sorts of places, and every so often those places are trains (in fact, I’m speaking from personal experience here—but I assure you the original and principal purpose of my taking an overnight train from Seattle to San José was to get home). Normal people might allow such a meeting to happen by chance, the companionship to develop naturally, whereas Frank has the express goal of making such a “chance” occurrence happen on purpose. As it happens—or rather, as it is made to happen—the “at best” scenario is more or less how the story plays out, thanks not to any special chemistry between Frank and Anne, but rather to Frank’s persistence and his patently strange, creepy, stalkerrific behavior.

Therein lies the vital difference—what makes the novel a parody of the human condition, specifically the human desire for companionship. As readers we can, on a certain logical and psychological level, understand Frank’s motivations; the difference is that he acts out in a way no person in their right mind would dare. And yet Frank’s constantly analyzing and justifying his thoughts and actions are clearly his attempt to demonstrate that he is in his right mind. This is part of what makes the book so hilarious, and the humor shines in Adriana Hunter’s English translation. There is a delicate balance to be found in the narrative voice of In the Train—a balance which, in order for the book to be effective both as a whole and at every point along the way, must have the reader continually teetering on the fulcrum between sympathizing with Frank and thinking him completely mad—a balance that Hunter has navigated with incredible sensitivity to nuances of rhythm and tone.

To better illustrate this seamless duality of the voice, here is one final example from the text. Having already accompanied Anne on the train and then secretly followed her to her hotel, Frank is now wrapped up in the task of locating her within the hotel by what seems to him a perfectly rational and unproblematic means: systematically knocking on the door of every guestroom in the building until Anne answers one of them.

In the meantime, more doors, other doors, kept opening. Some at the same time as each other, in fact, because my knocking proved so firm. It saved me time, at least. I gave my apologies to two people, even three or four at once. And on I went. On my travels I met a few reps, at least people who I took to be reps, initially seeing them just as sales people, sales representatives, but then, when I thought about it, simply as representatives of humanity, because I felt for the first time that I was meeting it, humanity. It was all there, it seemed to me, laid out in samples in that hotel, and every time a door opened the spectrum grew wider, I felt not only that I was integrating myself in it but that I too was opening, and all this, as usual, was because of a woman, it was always women who brought me to other people. Except that in this instance, as I’ve said, I’d never seen so many people, or established so much contact. So it was as if my sociability improved with every door, I felt more and more comfortable, and by the time I got to the last few doors it felt like a routine, I could see myself as a visitor, in the same light as a hospital visitor, watching over not only distress but every ramification of human feeling, surprise, irritation, intolerance, joy, sometimes, that the door should be opened, shyness, generosity, not to mention the women, of course.

Frank’s behavior is so embarrassingly awkward that the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable to witness, as Frank draws more and more people out into the hallway and into his delusional world, and yet—and yet, there are occasional moments like this one where his calculating thoughts digress to something approaching perceptiveness… until they crumble once more under the weight of his social dysfunction topped with cluelessness.

In the Train is a short novel, yet it is anything but superficial; on the contrary, it manages to be deeply disturbing—in a productive, thought-provoking way. What’s more, it’s immensely entertaining. If you’re easily embarrassed by laughing out loud in public, I recommend staying home with this one… but by all means, read it. A little added skepticism of unusual men in train stations aside, you won’t regret it.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Stephen Weiner (who runs the Suspicious Humanist newsletter) about Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s Hocus Bogus, translated from the French by David Bellos and published by Yale University Press.

Hocus Bogus was one of my favorite books from the 2011 BTBA shortlist, a delightful surprise based around a fascinating, strange hoax. Stephen lays this out in the review, so I won’t rehash it here . . .

But I will say that one of the fall books that I’m most excited about is David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Doesn’t look like Macmillan/Faber and Faber have a page up for this yet, but here’s a clip from the jacket copy:

Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices fo Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron’s Avatar.

More on that as soon as we get a galley . . .

But in terms of the Hocus Bogus review, here’s the opening:

Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”

Click here to read the entire piece.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”

More than other kids my age, I was aware of world events, especially the anti-colonial struggle sweeping the third world at the time. I vividly remember media reports of bombs going off in the French Algerian war. So it was that I was already tuned into the issues of the book. Gary took on themes that were to become of significant social importance in the future, including the environment and race relations. In Los Angeles he became a full-blown celebrity, writing articles for, among others, Life Magazine, and appearing often on television in both France and the U.S. As we shall see, this fame was exactly what he later sought to escape.

In 1945 Gary won the Prix de Critiques for his novel A European Education about anti-Nazi resistance movements. In 1974 his book Cuddles, a strange tale involving a python in a Paris apartment, was nominated for the Renaudot prize, awarded to a first novel by a new writer. It was only eligible because it was written under Gary’s secret pseudonym, Émile Ajar. He anonymously withdrew it from the contest in order not to deceive the judges. By the time he wrote Hocus Bogus in 1976, Gary had been intensely criticized by younger people who labeled him a Gaullist, part of the old, tired establishment. He was caught in the ironic dilemma of having taken a pseudonym to hide from the celebrity he had worked so hard to achieve.

Life Before Us became the best-selling French novel of the twentieth century and was also nominated for the Prix Goncourt, a prize that may not be awarded to an author more than once in his/her lifetime. Gary, of course, had already won for The Roots of Heaven. He was well aware that because of his deception, other nominees might be deprived of their chance to win. In an extremely convoluted series of events he threw the reporters, who were desperately searching for the author of this book, onto the track of his cousin Paul Pavlowitch. They had no choice but to believe that Pavlowitch, like the first person protagonist of Hocus Bogus, suffered from mental illness, which served to further confuse everyone. This was exactly what Gary had intended. The book did win the prize and was accepted by Pavlowitch. Even after the truth of its authorship was revealed, many reporters as well as academics refused to believe it, so convincing was the hoax.

Hocus Bogus is the false (but actually true) confession of Gary admitting to be Ajar, and an extremely clever critique of the literary critics. The ambiguous protagonist—Gary? Ajar? Pavlowitch?—believes he is a paranoid schizophrenic who confuses his personal paranoia with the world situations of the mid 1970s. This book is of particular interest to me because of my own schizophrenia. My whole life is involved in dealing with this debilitating condition, and yet, because I am intelligent enough to hide my disability, I am often put in the ironic dilemma of educating my friends and family as to its nature and severity. I also relate to Hocus Bogus in that I am often tortured by inner questions about my personal identity, feeling alternately that I am the only thing that exists, and that I do not exist at all.

To me, Romain Gary will remain a hero of humanist literature, not only because of what he wrote but also because of the life he lived.

13 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Andrew Barrett on Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal and published by Wakefield Press.

If we haven’t sang the praises of Wakefield Press yet, it’s because I’m a forgetful idiot. Prior to starting Wakefield Press, Marc worked at—and translated for—“Exact Change,”:http://www.exactchange.com/ one of the coolest publishers ever. In 2009, Marc (and a few comrades) launched Wakefield with this mission:

Wakefield Press is an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable, yet elegant paperback editions. Our publications include the Wakefield Handbooks series (the guidebook as imagined through literature) and the Imagining Science series (science as imagined through literature), as well as forays into classic experimental fiction (literature as imagined through literature). Authors range from literary giants to those underrepresented (or unknown) in English.

Their kicked things off with two gorgeous (I love the careful design of all their titles) offers: Balzac’s _Treatise on Elegant Living, Pierre Louys’s _The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments, the latter of which is DIRTYAWESOMEFUN and was in the front display at Idlewild Books until a few customers figured out that the “good manners” being taught here would make a porn star blush. . . . If that whets your curiosity, you can find a few samples by clicking here.

Since these first two very elegant publication, Wakefield has also brought out An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, and as part of their “Imagining Science” series, they recently published Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, translated by Andrew Joron.

Anyway, for more info on the press, visit their site, or read this interview with Marc Lowenthal.

Andrew Barrett is a translation grad student here at the University of Rochester, and is working on a translation of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, which he wrote about for us a few weeks back. We workshopped a piece of this a few weeks back, and after you give in to the odd stylings of the Greek Epic, it’s pretty awesome. Based on the very surrealistic descriptions of bad-ass supervillain Typhon (such as throats flying through the air eating birds), so it only makes sense that Andrew would write this review . . . Speaking of which, here’s a bit from the beginning:

“The President of the Republic could be seen in the distance, dressed in a diving suit and accompanied by the King of Greece, who seemed so young that one had the urge to teach him how to read.” The defining traits-cum-pleasures of surrealism—hallucinatory imagery, dark humor and irreverence toward authority—are already in full bloom by the third sentence of “At 125 Boulevard Sainte-Germain,” the opening story in Marc Lowenthal’s new translation of founding Surrealist Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. Each story in this collection (originally published in French in 1957, towards the end of Péret’s life) proves to be a highly saturated snapshot of Péret’s twilit poetic consciousness, wherein all manner of images bleed together in ways humorous and lyrical amidst a palpable atmosphere of derision for taboo and convention. In other words, the experience of reading one of Péret’s stories is comparable to staring at a Dalí painting; you can try to unlock its secrets, which are shrouded in the free association logic of automatic poetry, or you can simply bask in its sheer beauty and strangeness.

It is unquestionably Péret’s devotion to the automatic writing technique, mentioned above, that lends his stories a quintessentially surreal flavor. But, to view the stories in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works as simply undiluted automatism can be misleading. Péret always weaves a thread of traditional narrative structure around the dense, variegated imagery generated by his use of the automatic technique. While nothing approaching a traditional narrative ever actually unfolds in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, the bare conventions of storytelling are always present to give a story its initial momentum. Thus, Péret’s stories never make for difficult reading (even as they consistently startle, confound and amuse), while their mixture of conventional narrative signposts with dream-like, chimerical imagery presents the reader with compelling linguistic textures that are always unique and accessible.

Click here to read the entire piece.

13 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“The President of the Republic could be seen in the distance, dressed in a diving suit and accompanied by the King of Greece, who seemed so young that one had the urge to teach him how to read.” The defining traits-cum-pleasures of surrealism—hallucinatory imagery, dark humor and irreverence toward authority—are already in full bloom by the third sentence of “At 125 Boulevard Sainte-Germain,” the opening story in Marc Lowenthal’s new translation of founding Surrealist Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. Each story in this collection (originally published in French in 1957, towards the end of Péret’s life) proves to be a highly saturated snapshot of Péret’s twilit poetic consciousness, wherein all manner of images bleed together in ways humorous and lyrical amidst a palpable atmosphere of derision for taboo and convention. In other words, the experience of reading one of Péret’s stories is comparable to staring at a Dalí painting; you can try to unlock its secrets, which are shrouded in the free association logic of automatic poetry, or you can simply bask in its sheer beauty and strangeness.

It is unquestionably Péret’s devotion to the automatic writing technique, mentioned above, that lends his stories a quintessentially surreal flavor. But, to view the stories in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works as simply undiluted automatism can be misleading. Péret always weaves a thread of traditional narrative structure around the dense, variegated imagery generated by his use of the automatic technique. While nothing approaching a traditional narrative ever actually unfolds in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, the bare conventions of storytelling are always present to give a story its initial momentum. Thus, Péret’s stories never make for difficult reading (even as they consistently startle, confound and amuse), while their mixture of conventional narrative signposts with dream-like, chimerical imagery presents the reader with compelling linguistic textures that are always unique and accessible. Consider, as an example, the opening lines of “The Misfortunes of a Dollar”:

It had been a lovely morning, although all the ducks in town had suddenly died at sunrise, which had not failed to worry M. Detour, the town mayor. M. Detour was a good, if somewhat unrefined man. The sole tooth of his upper jaw made for an admirable substitute for a watch. It actually had the power to turn different colors according to the hour of the day. Red at noon, it went through all the colors of the spectrum to attain a phosphorescent green at midnight. He had a daughter, who had gone off to Paris some years before in the hope of making the acquaintance of a taxidermist. No sooner had she gotten there than the poor woman was killed by a cigarette cast from the mouth of a smoker, which hit her right in the face, penetrated her very cerebellum, and established a cancerous ulcer that carried her off three hours later.

So that morning had been lovely.

Marc Lowenthal’s ability to preserve the almost contradictory elements of Péret’s style—that tension between clarity and chaos—in his English translation is truly commendable. While a lesser translator would perhaps be apt to sacrifice Péret’s syntactical lucidity to the kaleidoscopic parade of his images and characters (or vice-versa), Lowenthal manages to keep the two in perfect balance.

Péret’s wildly imaginative stories remain largely unknown to current devotees of Surrealism in the English-speaking world, even though Péret himself founded Surrealism with André Breton in the early 1920’s and could count Octavio Paz and the aforementioned Salvador Dalí as ardent followers. This is due partly to the rather private manner in which Péret lived (unlike Breton and Dalí, he never sought out the spotlight) but also to the relative lack of Péret material that has been readily available in English translation. Until fairly recently, translations of Péret’s stories and poems have been scatter-shot at best, while a full length English language biography of the man has yet to appear. Thus, Marc Lowenthal’s excellent translation of The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works should be a cause for celebration. Not only does it offer us a sustained and pleasurable experience of Péret at his peak, but it also gives lovers of all things early twentieth century and avant-garde the opportunity to comfortably place Péret into proper historical context within Surrealism’s inverted pantheon.

So, slap a copy of Trout Mask Replica on the hi-fi, pop Un Chien Andalou into the old Betamax, settle into your favorite armchair coated with intestines and crack open The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. You may or may not find out why “That morning little orange-colored fish circulated through the atmosphere,” but either way you will be smiling.

6 April 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, a relatively new biography on the author of Suite Francaise by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt. This originally came out in France a few years back, but is now available from Knopf in Euan Cameron’s translation.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.

Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’” . . .

Click here to read the full piece.

6 April 11 | Chad W. Post |

Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.

Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’”

This comprehensive biography of Irene Nemirovsky’s is the first of its kind to explore the details and nuances of both her complicated personal life, and her successful literary life. Originally written in French and published in France in 2007, where it achieved bestselling status, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is available in English for the first time. Part biography, part literary analysis, and part history, coauthors Philipponnat and Lienhardt have endeavored to familiarize readers with the life of this extraordinary writer, and contextualize her short stories and novels within the backdrop of the tumultuous period of history in which she lived and wrote.

“’And so, I regret nothing. I have been happy. I have been loved. I am still loved, I know that’s true, in spite of the distance between us, in spite of the separation.’ She leaves behind a husband and two dearly beloved little girls. As well as an unfinished novel, Suite Francaise.”

With these concluding sentences of the prologue, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt summarize Irene Nemirovsky’s life in her own words. While she enjoyed immense success during her lifetime, today Nemirovsky is best known for her tragic death and the incomplete manuscript she left behind, largely untouched and read by only ten people in fifty-plus years. By narrating Nemirovsky’s arrest, deportation to Auschwitz, and subsequent death, the authors cleverly establish a foundation from which to build their narrative upon. By knowing what tragedy surrounded the end of her life, readers can better appreciate the success and critical acclaim that she possessed during her most prolific literary years. Having established the end of the story, so to speak, the authors then turn their attention to chronologically narrating Nemirovsky’s life for the remainder of the biography.

_The Life of Irene Nemirovsky_’s organization into three parts establishes a strong frame from which to support a woman’s life story which is filled with a myriad of personal blows and professional knockouts. Nemirovsky was a prolific writer, and happily she left behind a veritable treasure trove of primary sources such as handwritten notebooks containing entire manuscripts and outlines for stories, hundreds of letters, and newspaper clippings containing reviews of her work. Philipponnat and Lienhardt pieced these puzzle pieces together to create a portrait of Nemirovsky’s literary processes and personal feelings. It is in brilliant passages such as this that readers gained unparalleled insight into Nemirovsky’s identity as a writer:

I never make a plan. I begin by describing for my own purposes the physical appearance and a full biography of all the characters, even the less important ones. In this way, even before getting down to the actual writing itself, I know my characters perfectly, even, it seems to me, down to the way they speak; I know how they will behave, not just in the book but throughout their lives. When this is done, I begin to write.

The earlier part of the biography focuses upon Nemirovsky’s personal life, childhood, and how the dark wave of history charted her life on a course that no one foresaw, but the majority of the narrative contextualizes Nemirovsky’s literary life. All autobiographical references become ancillary to the primary plot chronicling her writing process, and the success she received by way of sales and critical reception. Even her confused relationship with her national and religious identity—though by heritage Jewish and Ukrainian—Nemirovsky considered herself French first and foremost, are tangential to the prolonged analyses of Nemirovsky’s short stories and novels. The problem in these chapters is that an overabundance of literary criticism bogs down an otherwise seamless narrative, and is lost upon those not intimately associated with the stories and novels that Philipponnat and Lienhardt chose to highlight; some are not even available in English, such as an intriguing-sounding novel The Wine of Solitude, whose themes and critical reception dominate a portion of this biography.

The last few chapters will contain themes and historical narrative that most readers familiar with Suite Francaise will recognize: the German invasion of France in 1940, the subsequent flight of thousands of French citizens in June of the same year, and subsequently Nemirovsky’s inspiration to pen what she referred to as her magnum opus, and we know as Suite Francaise. Planned in three parts, only two were completed at the time of her arrest and deportation in July 1942. She knew it was coming. The Life of Irene Nemirovsky shines and moves in its final pages with such passages:

On 11th July, Irene Nemirovsky walked up to the Male woods to enjoy the last remaining pleasures that were not forbidden to her. She was feeling cheerful, too cheerful, as if all her anxiety had ebbed back to distant shores. It was a very peaceful, almost miraculous morning . . . These were her last words as a writer. “I’ve written a great deal lately [referring to Suite Francaise] I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”

Two days later Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and deported. Several months later her husband, Michel was arrested and led off to Le Creusot prison prior to his deportation to Drancy. His final words to his and Irene’s daughters: “Never part from this suitcase for it contains your mother’s manuscript.”

Despite several chapters heavy in literary criticism, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is an accomplished work possessing keen insightfulness into the life and literature of an author famous and bestselling in France in her day, but in light of the war and her Jewish heritage, was largely forgotten by the literary world, until earlier this century. Nemirovsky’s body of work, as well as her life, deserves to be recognized, respected, and understood once again. So spoke a literary critic in 1946, “Irene Nemirovsky does not leave her admirers empty-handed. She worked up to the last moment. Her books do not stop with her. Some precious manuscripts, together with her published work, will reinforce her literary survival.” Thankfully, due to the diligence and creativity of these two authors, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky will contribute to her literary survival both in America, and abroad.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Guardian is one of my favorite newspapers for any number of reasons, but I particularly like their series and their overall international focus.

For instance, earlier this month they launched their New Europe Series, which features an in-depth look at four European countries: Germany, France, Spain, and Poland. (The Poland page will be available next week.)

Each section features tons of pieces about the focus country, mostly in the political, economic, and social bent, but most pertinent to this blog, there’s also a lot of literary coverage.

For years, the Guardian has been running a “World Literature Tour,” but according to Richard Lea’s intro to the new Germany focus, technology and the internets rocked the archives, decimating all the comments people wrote about the literature of Finland, Turkey, Germany, etc., etc.

So now they’re kicking this off with a new system. Instead of having a space for comments, there’s now a form where you can make a recommendation, which is fed into a very readable, very browseable spreadsheet. (I have to admit that having tried—on several occasions—to slug through the hundred of comments for any particular country, that I’m very jacked about this new method.)

And although it can still be a bit overwhelming, the results are pretty cool. Here are the spreadsheets for Germany, and for France. (Doesn’t look like the Spain one is up yet.)

Richard Lea’s overviews are all worth checking out as well, so here are links to the pieces on Germany, France, and Spain. And don’t forget to log in your own recommendations at the bottom of these pages. (Like maybe all your favorite Open Letter titles?)

As if this weren’t enough, as part of this series there are also “What They’re Reaidng In XXX” for each of the respective countries:

In Spain:

Meanwhile, the publishing engine continues its unstoppable course. Long ago, a few large publishing companies, such as Santillana, Planeta and Mondadori, took control of the lion’s share of the market. However, despite the steamrolling presence of these companies, not only do small publishers survive but new ones keep popping up and – even in this recession-ridden 2011 – it is these small players who manage to keep alive the embers of independence and surprise: Periférica, Libros del Asteroide, Páginas de Espuma, Minúscula and Nórdica, to name but a few distinguished examples.

Talking of new arrivals, one has to mention Juan Marsé‘s new book Caligrafía de los sueños (Lumen), an introspective inquiry into the Barcelona of the post-war period. Marsé is a master of the art of covering the same territory a thousand times and always making it seem new. The author of unforgettable portraits of a Spain facing a very uncertain future, such as Ronda del Guinardó, Si te dicen que caí and Rabos de lagartija, returns to familiar material: everything is sad in Marsé, a sadness that also includes meanness, humour and, of course, memory. His legions of followers are delighted as always.

b. But in Spain, right now, the most awaited book of the year is undoubtedly Javier Marías’s new novel, Los enamoramientos (Alfaguara). The eternal Spanish Nobel prize candidate and the author of what have already become contemporary classics, such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White, has handed over to the printers a spine-chilling story about the highs and lows of our miserable lives. Marías is always Marías, and his arrival in the bookshops is always the publishing event of the season. [. . .]

Looking a little further back, Anatomía de un instante (Mondadori) by Javier Cercas is one of those essay/fiction books that is so linked to a real – and brutal – event that it not only managed to hypnotise Spanish readers at the time of its well-publicised launch many months ago, but still manages to do so now. The recent commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup d‘état by a group of military officers, on 23 February 1981 (the real pretext for this work of literary pseudo-fiction), has helped to maintain interest in Cercas’s book. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting authors on the young literary scene in Spain, besides being an especially lucid and sharp columnist.

The Germany piece is kind of funny. It’s kind of a downer, focusing either on books that were derided by critics, or that sold really poorly:

More challenging fare was provided by Melinda Nadj Abonji. Her novel Tauben fliegen auf (“Falcons without Falconers”), a family drama about Yugoslavian immigrants in Switzerland, won the 2010 German Book Prize, Germany’s answer to the Booker. But unlike previous winners by authors such as Katharina Hacker, Julia Franck and Uwe Tellkamp – all reliable suppliers of highly marketable light novels for a moderately demanding reading public – Abonji’s novel was a commercial disaster, just reaching number 50 on the bestseller list shortly before Christmas.

New books by Günter Grass and Christa Wolf reminded us that there were once such things as great German writers. Gruppe 47 (Group 47), a literary association that influenced an entire era and encompassed the country’s best authors, disbanded long ago. Which author under 60 could play that role today? Thomas Lehr, perhaps, whose September. Fata Morgana is a linguistic tour de force set in the aftermath of 9/11 and is both celebrated and controversial. Pedantic critics derided it for not having a single punctuation mark (despite the full stop in the title), as if punctuation has anything to do with literature.

The piece on French literature doesn’t have too many recommendations, but does have some info on the French publishing scene (and French controversies):

To understand what literary life in France is like, imagine a pond. A pond that’s getting smaller and smaller, with just as many fish in it, so that the water is getting more and more crowded. You can guess what happens: each one has less and less space to evolve, to find food, and even to develop the energy required to discuss ideas. Sales of books continue to be weak in 2011, after a particularly flat year for publishers and bookshops. Apart from the usual juggernauts, such as titles from the bestselling authors Mark Lévy and Amélie Nothomb, and more sporadic successes such as the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq (winner of the Prix Goncourt in November last year), most novels and essays struggle to make any money. [. . .]

This polarisation is reflected in the way the press talks about books. In newspapers the space devoted to literature is now relatively stable after a dramatic decline over the past 10 years. As a result, critics struggle to cover the full range of books produced, caught between the need to talk about what everyone else is talking about, the need to explore types of literature that almost no one is talking about and the wish to get themselves talked about by taking up increasingly clear-cut positions.

In these circumstances, what happens to the discussion of ideas? It is still alive with regard to the big questions that run through society (political, religious, social, historical, and so on). According to the philosopher and novelist Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French situation is unusual in that, instead of being permanently fixed, “intellectual groups re-form around each issue like iron filings around a magnet”, a situation which has become more marked in the last 20 years. In January 2011 the “affaire Céline” shook the cultural world. The writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote some truly great books and also some violently anti-semitic tracts, was included in the calendar of national commemorations, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. His presence in this official brochure provoked such a furore that the minister of culture eventually backed down and removed Céline.

There’s tons more worth checking out here, including a review of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog and an article on the 100 Years of Gallimard. It’s very easy to spend a morning (or a month) looking through all of this. Especially once all the Polish stuff is up . . .

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by BTBA poetry judge Jennifer Kronovet.

Geometries by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
Pages: 80

Why This Book Should Win: Charming yet deep; sweet and funny; stimulating, challenging, and yet approachable; private, but easy to relate to, sexy. No, I’m not describing my perfect mate—wait, yes I am!—but I’m also describing the wonderful poems in Geometries, by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth and originally published in French in 1967.

Each of these poems is based on a geometrical figure—presented in its Euclidian simplicity at the top of each piece. These poems bounce playfully, deftly, and philosophically between the unchanging fact of the simple, named form, and the nameless feelings and attitudes we have toward space, the way it shapes us, is us, and comes between us.

Some of the poems in Geometries are intimate addresses to the shapes, such as in “Ellipse,” which begins, “Listen, I know how hard it is/To achieve this kind of balance,//With everything pressing in/On each of your outer points.” These poems, by commiserating with forms, by sometimes chastising them, by truly conversing and engaging with them, reshape shapes from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. The condition of the body and the mind, minds that love and bodies that love—the troubling trouble of it all, is playfully illuminated. “Ellipse” ends “Two centers,/Either oblivious/To each other,/Or at war.” How like our own—my own!—sense of a self at odds with itself. I find I can relate to this ellipse. Who knew.

Many of the poems in the collection give a voice to these shapes, which speak to us out of their self-awareness and their striking personalities. These shapes are resigned to behaving as their dimensions demand—just as may know where the arc of our particular behavior leads us. The “Point” ballsily notes:

I am no more than the fruit
bq. Of an encounter.

I have nothing.

‘Get the point.’
bq. ‘Miss the point.’

What do I know?

Yet who would venture
bq. To erase me?

The cover of the collection says that these poems were “Englished” by Richard Sieburth. They are indeed. Sieburth captures in English the specific spokenness of the poems, their philosophical wit, their pathos (who would have thought shapes could have pathos!), without losing a sense of the inherent playfulness of the project. These shapes are foreign mirrors—yet astounding mirrors nonetheless. These poems are part game, part serious seriousness, and Sieburth stealthily draws the poems down that line into a wonderfully pleasing feeling that something true has been discovered in the oddest of ways.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As referenced in this article in the New York Times, the April issue of Oprah Magazine has a special feature on Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets. And one of the featured poets? None other than Anna Moschovakis, who is one of the editors at Ugly Duckling Presse (whose collection Geometries by Guillevic is a poetry finalist for the BTBA), author of a new poetry collection, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, and . . . translator of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which is a fiction finalist for the BTBA.

Congrats, Anna!

Favorite quote from the piece:

“I use writing as a way of thinking. Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t add up.” While she’s drawn to dissonance in her writing, when it comes to clothes Moschovakis most prizes ease.

Love that turn from “dissonance” to “ease” . . .

Also worth noting that this particular issue of Oprah Magazine has a bit with David Duchovny on his favorite books, which include The Crying of Lot 49. Admittedly, I’m a bit surprised at how well done and literary this particular section was. Makes the rest of glossy mag media look illiterate. As if they didn’t already.

16 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the Festival of New French Writing that took place in NY last month, today we have the second of JK Fowler’s write-ups and interviews, this time on Pascal Bruckner.

According to the Festival’s website, “Pascal Bruckner belongs to that venerable lineage of French philosophers and essayists who, for centuries, have cast an ironic and always intelligent critical glance on the weaknesses and excesses of their society.” His books include: The Tears of the White Man, The Temptation of Innocence, Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, and The Tyranny of Guilt.

Here’s a bit about the panel that Bruckner was on with Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla:

Religious flagellation is to be the topic of the panel’s discussion. The heavy burdens of guilt, the revisitation of times long-gone must necessarily be stopped. The spirit of critical examination so widely employed throughout Western societies a gift of prison-like fortitude to be shared with other cultures around the world. Selective hypermnesia, the focusing-in on past events selective towards the dark, selective towards the guilt-invoking. [. . .]

How is it, Bruckner asks, such a de-Christianized society such as France continues to live by very Christian ideals? Through countless bloody religion-driven wars, through the struggles between the monarchy and the Church, through the beheading of large numbers of priests, the anti-clerical stance against priests, nuns, the pope, through all of this and more the values of the Christian tradition have remained, manifesting themselves daily through unexpected avenues.

To Lilla, God is invoked in America with few Christian values encased within. Gopnik states that while this may be true, religion is seen as deeply important in American politics but asks why and how deep it actually goes. Lilla explains that while people may believe, it amazes him the extent to which people will believe in very simple things. The result: the intellectual life of American religion is vapid, a statement which is only emboldened by walking into any of the countless religious-material stores in American malls. Religion emerges then as window dressing in the American political realm. And how strange this all is, all three contemplate, considering that historically deeply religious confrontations would become extremely violent whereas today, confrontations are kept within the realm of the political, rarely gaining foot outside of the smoothly-contoured halls of plastic political rhetoric. We encounter anxiety today over the prospect of living without God while never free of God, a paradox which is not lost on the audience.

Bruckner explains that the religious experience in Europe and America seems very different, the latter being more a venue for the creation and nurturing of a particular collective life. As the constitutional monarchy rests within the collective subconscious of the British, the constitution of religion leaks into the American mind through the appeased experience of the faith. [. . .]

The event ends on a discussion of the schizophrenic nature of French society: on the one hand gauged as the most pessimistic country in the world and on the other, possessed of one of the fastest reproducing populations globally. It is to the children that the future which the elders have lost is entrusted.

You can read Fowler’s entire write-up here.

He also interviewed Bruckner, and here are a few interesting bits:

JK: Atiq Rahimi and Russell Banks were talking yesterday about how, in their late teens, they travelled to and through different cultures and saw different modes of seeing life, of operating. So there is something to be said about shaking one from the norm.

PB: Yes, I think that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to be locked into its village. That’s why the life in the countryside was so dull. You were condemned to the small succor of your family, your folks. So you had to reproduce a destiny of your ancestors and this is why big cities have been created: to allow men and women to forge their own destinies without being pre-determined by the purse or the social class and that’s all the movement of modernity. You are not doomed to reproduce what your ancestors have done. The son will not be like his father, the daughter will not be like her mother. She can invent something new. I think that is the best message of modernity, that’s what we have to preserve. Whatever the flows of our modern times are the idea is that you can create something new out of nothing and that the race and the social class . . .

JK: But nothing emerges out of nothing . . .

PB: Not out of nothing but you can create something new, you can deviate from the trodden path. At least that’s the dream many have. So at the end of our life we can always wonder, did I really do something new?

JK: But then it is so often the case that we wake up later in life and realize that we have repeated many of the same mistakes of our parents, isn’t it?

PB: Absolutely. That’s why Sigmund Freud was invented [laughter] in order to say that we must free ourselves from the burden of neurosis. Yes, it is a teenage rebellion. You rebel against your parents in order to reproduce later on the same mistakes as they did with you. You produce them with your own kids.

JK: So how can one not feel trapped? Because there is that feeling if you start to see these things and you start to realize that, “Wow, I am doing the exactly the same things I said I would never do.”

PB: Yes, I know but I think the fact that you are aware of it is a way to go far from it maybe but you know, you do not always reproduce the family fatalities.

JK: Yes, it is repetition with difference.

PB: Yes, repetition with difference.

JK: So we have this credit boom in the 70s in the States at least, the goal of which is to give people immediate satisfaction. The reality is that I am not sure how much satisfaction people actually received from the experience and when we start talking about homes and ownership of property . . .

PB: Yes, we have the subprime crisis. Yes, this is the interesting paradox. Well, firstly the economic system cannot be based on satisfaction. It’s based on un-satisfaction. Suppose you are satisfied with your car, you are satisfied with your house, you stop buying things and so the industry collapses. So the trick and it’s quite a trick of genius, is to appease your hunger but also to relaunch it or…

JK: Breed new desires.

PB: Breed new desires, yes. So you have to avoid the double experience of frustration and society.

JK: And this is where advertising comes in.

PB: Yes, advertising, marketing. Because the worst thing would for people to be satisfied and this would be very sad. There would be nothing left to desire. And of course the other side of this movement is that as Capitalism lowers the wages without wanting to frustrate people they invented this credit system of sub-primes in order to make every American an owner of his house which ended in dispossessing so many of their own habitat.

JK: Right. But they had it for a few years [laughter].

PB: Yes, which Europe has avoided. The rules for credit in Europe are more strict.

JK: In talking about happiness, again we have this strange thing where the people in France and the United States consume the highest amounts of anti-depressants in the world and yet regularly preach happiness.

PB: I know, I know. I don’t know about in the United States but in France we consume a lot of anti-depressants. I think we have an art of life which goes back to the Middle Ages and we shouldn’t so that but the new thing about happiness which has changed…it’s not only related to consumerism which would be too simple. We all know that buying a car, buying a house cannot bring happiness. But what changed in the sixties is that the obstacles between me and my happiness have disappeared. There’s no more religion telling us that we must suffer and to go through pains to gain our salvation and there are no more social classes prohibiting us from being happy. So the only obstacle between me and my happiness is myself. So being the main obstacle, I must work on my own soul, on my own spirit and this is where a huge market of happiness enters which is one of the biggest markets of today. It can be found in chemistry, medicine, surgery, religions, it’s a huge array of possibilities which are given to us in order to make us happy.

So what has changed in our conception of happiness? It used to be formally related to something maybe a little silly. You know it was ignorance and bliss. You were ignorant so you could be happy with almost anything but today happiness has become a major stake in the construction of your self. You construct your happiness as you construct a house and you have to work on it. It is a daily job and that’s why the people that try to be happy look so unhappy because you know they do not have one moment of oblivion. It’s a constant concern. And this is quite visible in two domains which are sexuality and health. Health is obvious. You know if you want to be healthy people you have to start very young and for one simple reason that life is a mortal disease because death will be the end, whatever you do. So that’s why so many people consume so many drugs, care so much about their food, stop smoking, do sport and work out because they want to preserve this capital of health which is, no matter what we do, vanishing day after day because we are doomed to disappear one day. And so the cult of happiness turns into a huge concern which to my opinion is exactly contrary to what happiness should be: a paradise of enchantment. You’re happy when you leave your concerns to the side and when you experience a pure moment of joy with friends. So happiness has become like the myth of Sisyphus, an unending job. You are never done with it. Go back to your quest for happiness. And so we reproduce in secular societies exactly the same kind of commandments that religious societies had before. We are doomed to be free, we are doomed to be happy, we have no way to escape it.

You can read the entire interview here.

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Small Beer
Pages: 231

Why This Book Should Win: Craziest (in a fun way) French author to finally make his way into English; looks almost exactly like Kurt Vonnegut; first book from Small Beer to make the list; Edward Gauvin is one of the brightest up-and-coming translators working today.

We will have a more formal post about this book in the near future, but in the meantime, I wanted to draw some attention to Edward Gauvin’s blog, which is very interesting and includes a post on A Visit with Chateaureynaud that provides some good material on why Chateaureynaud deserves more attention—and even a prize:

Châteaureynaud had just come from signing 300 press copies of his latest book, a memoir of his early life from Grasset, entitled La vie nous regarde passer [Life Watches Us Go By].

“I lost fifteen copies,” he said. “I left them in the metro. The stockroom did a good job sealing the box up really tight, so instead of trying to open it, the police have probably blown it up by now.”

“It’s one way to spread the word… or words,” I said.

“Yes . . . you could say that book really burst onto the scene!”

Châteaureynaud’s latest work of fiction, Résidence dernière [Final Residence], had come out a few weeks earlier from Les Éditions des Busclats, a small press founded by poet René Char’s daughter, Marie-Claude, and her partner, critic Michèle Gazier. Since 2007’s De l’autre côté d’Alice [Through a Looking Glass Darkly]—three adult meditations on popular children’s heroes Alice, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio—Châteaureynaud had been experimenting with thematically linked triptychs of short stories. The tales in Résidence dernière, featuring a decrepit sphinx, a magic mirror, and a nightmarish limbo, revolve around writer’s retreats, examining such typically Castelreynaldian themes as solitude, the anxiety of creation, and the writing life. I thought the final, title story among the finest he’d written. In it, a number of aging writers, worrying over posterity, find themselves on a bus headed for a mysterious residency. [. . .]

An alcove off the dining room is stocked top to bottom with the handsome red Hachette hardcovers of Jules Verne, a few postcards and figurines propped against the gilt backdrop of their spines. In a corner of the glass-fronted armoire, among china services collected from his days as an antiques dealer, the certificate naming Châteaureynaud a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur stands rolled up in its original mailing tube. A photocopied picture was wedged between mirror and frame, above the liquor cabinet.

“Guess who it is?” G.-O. asked. A weathered-looking Vonnegut with a hat and a cane stared out from a street corner. “He does look like me, doesn’t he?” [. . .]

G.-O. said that he himself had met Borges’ friend, the Argentine fabulist Adolfo Bioy Casares, “in Nice once, or maybe Cannes. Somewhere warm.”

He’d asked Bioy Casares a question only to be met with practiced deflection. “But he was very old by then, you know; I don’t think he could’ve stood up straight without his nurses.”

I pictured the author of The Invention of Morel, one of Châteaureynaud’s favorite novels, flanked by a pair of Russ Meyer valkyries. Among the many ways in which meeting Georges-Olivier has not disappointed me is that he never plays the persona card. You have the feeling of talking to a real person who pays you the compliment of his attention and does his best to answer, an approachability almost shocking in a public figure. There is, of course, the hat and the merry air of slight befuddlement most often worn at book fairs, but even that, one suspects, is less pretense than actuality, and endearingly human.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: “I didn’t use to believe in the efficacy of verbal torture. And now as of these last few minutes I’ve started to believe in it.”

This post was written by aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate, Jen Marquart.

After receiving news that he has a rare form of cancer, Nobel Prize winning author Prétextat Tach decides to grant interviews to five journalists. The first four approach Tach from a straightforward manner—believing to have out smarted former colleagues—to be torn apart, humiliated, sickened and broken. Only with Nina, the fifth journalist, does the obese, grotesque, misogynist author meet his match in a brutal game of verbal wit. By the end of the interview both Nina and Tach have plunged into an inescapable abyss.

With each interview reading as a separate story around the central theme of literary culture (more specifically what it means to be a “good writer/reader” and the politics surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature) Nothomb, in her powerful first novel, commands a dialogue digging at these issues:

“[…] You have sold millions of copies, even in China, and that doesn’t make you think?”

“Weapons factories sell thousands of missiles the world over every day, and that doesn’t make them think, either.”

“There’s no comparison.”

“You don’t think so? And yet there is a striking parallel. There’s an accumulation, for example: we talk about an arms race, we should talk about a ‘literature race.’ It’s a cogent argument like any other: every nation brandishes its writer or writers as if they were cannons. Sooner or later I too will be brandished, and they’ll prepare my Nobel Prize for battle.”

“If that’s the way you look at it, I have to agree with you. But thank God, literature is less harmful.”

“Not mine. My literature is even more harmful then war.”

“Don’t you think you are flattering yourself there?”

“Well I’m obliged to, because I am the only reader who is capable of understanding me. Yes, my books are more harmful than war, because they make you want to die, whereas war, in fact, makes you want to live. After reading me, people should feel like committing suicide.”

“And how do you explain the fact that they don’t?”

“Well, I can explain it very easily: it is because nobody reads me. Basically, that may also be the reason for my extraordinary success: if I am so famous, my good man, it is because nobody reads me.”

These funny and critical exchanges are taken to a higher level with Nina, who plays Tach’s game equally well, if not better. She plays with his words and calls bullshit on his “Freudian Slips,” all in an attempt to tease out the ‘real’ Prétextat Tach.

With biting witticism and the criticism of literature swirling around the disturbing life of one Nobel Prize author, Hygiene and the Assassin is one of the funniest and most engaging books I have read.

22 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson

Language: French
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Bitter Lemon
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: Second Chessex book to make the longlist in two years; Switzerland deserves some play; maybe the most accessible and gripping of the longlisted titles; people love WWII-related novels; title is one of the more disturbing of eligible books this year.

I wrote today’s post.

Michael Orthofer turned me on to Jacques Chessex last year when he recommended The Vampire of Ropraz for the BTBA longlist. I tend to avoid “those” sorts of books—the crime-related ones, the ones with vampires in the title, the books that sound like they could be gory. But Michael is a sharp reader, and I have to admit that Ropraz took me by surprise and totally won me over.

When Bitter Lemon sent along a copy of A Jew Must Die a few months back, I fell into my same old prejudices: the title is a bit off-putting, the cover a little less than appealing, it’s about World War II (sorry, but /yawn), there is a murder involving an iron bar, etc., etc.

But, once again, I totally sucked at evaluating the greatness of this book. Once the BTBA committee picked it for the longlist, I decided that I really should read it (I’m working my way through all 25 title, and will hopefully finish all of them before the winner is announced), and once again, I was captivated.

It only took an hour to read this novella, which is perfect, since this is essentially a written version of a Dateline episode set in 1942 . . . Seriously. Just listen to the voice over narration of a few key moments:

Arthur Bloch usually covers the short distance between Monbijoustrasse and the railway station on foot, stepping out to the rhythmic tap of his stick. He gets into the first train to La Broye, which reaches Payerne via Avenches. He likes this ninety-minute trip through the stretches of meadows and valleys still filled with mist in the early-morning light.

Arrival in Payerne at 6:18. Chestnuts in bloom, silken hills, bright weather, all the more beautiful since threatened from within and without. But Arthur Bloch is unaware of the danger. Arthur Bloch does not sense it.

Almost the whole book has this same sort of omniscient distancing that causes this to read like a news report. Which makes this even more compelling, and avoids a lot of the trappings of writing a book about a horrific Nazi crime. Characterization is spotty, so we don’t have to experience the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a fucking monster. Bloch’s death is told in direct, unadorned facts, which both keep the narrative from becoming too melodramatic and create a very creepy vibe.

A Jew Must Die is a horrifying book about a horrifying crime committed by horrifying people. And for all the books about this sort of thing that have been written, this one manages to distill the horror into something direct that will remain in my memory for a long time.

21 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Second Annual Festival of New French Writing kicks off this Thursday in NYC and will take place through Saturday afternoon. I’m actually moderating the first event and planning on attending most (if not all) of these, so I should be able to write this up in full all next week.

In the meantime, here’s the schedule with links to the bios of all the participants:

Thursday, February 24

7:00pm – Winner of the Prix des éditeurs and Prix Femina Geneviève Brisac + Rick Moody (The Ice Storm and The Four Fingers of Death), moderated by Open Letter Publisher, Chad W. Post

8:30pm – Novelist Stéphane Audeguy (The Theory of Clouds and The Only Son) + European Correspondent for The New Yorker, Jane Kramer.

Friday, February 25

2:30pm – Philosopher Pascal Bruckner + Essayist and Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, Mark Lilla, moderated by New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik

4:00pm – Graphic Novelists David B. (Epileptic) + Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, The Jew of New York and Shoehorn Technique), moderated by New Yorker Art Director Françoise Mouly

7:30pm – French/Afghan writer and filmmaker and Prix Goncourt winner, Atiq Rahimi (The Patience Stone) + Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, _Cloudsplitter), moderated by journalist Lila Azam Zanganeh

Saturday, February 26

2:30pm – Laurence Cossé (A Novel Bookstore and A Corner of the Veil) + Arthur Phillips (Prague, The Song is You), moderated by NYU Professor of French, Judith G. Miller

4:00pm – Writer and film director, Philipe Claudel (I’ve Loved You So Long, Brodeck, By a Slow River) + A.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter, This Book Will Save Your Life), moderated by Harper’s Magazine Publisher John R. (Rick) MacArthur

Free and open to the public, The Festival of New French Writing will take place at:

Hemmerdinger Hall
Ground Floor, Silver Center
NYU
100 Washington Square East (Entrance on Waverly Place)

Simultaneous interpretation from both languages will be available. Booksignings will follow each event and the authors’ books in English and French will be available for sale by Fieldstone Book Company.

Speaking of the first Festival of New French Writing, Tom Bishop, NYU’s Director of French Civilization and Culture, said that the French-American conversations brought out the singular qualities of each author and the national similarities and differences. In looking forward to the second edition in 2011, Bishop emphasized that “the 2011 Festival will showcase some of the best of this generation of French authors who are producing exciting, powerful, often humorous writing. They represent world literature at its best. In conversation with American counterparts with whom they share original takes on life in the 21st century, they will discuss their own works as well as the future of literature itself.”

21 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: Europa Editions publishes a ton of translations and deserves a victory; Nothomb was all of 25 when she wrote this; Nothomb has written 20-some-odd books and still doesn’t get the attention she deserves from American readers; She’s coming to Rochester days after the April 29th announcement, and that would be effing awesome if she won; most importantly, she deserves to win because of the passages below and the constant referencing of Celine.

I wrote today’s post.

This novel—Nothomb’s first, publishing in French in 1992, and just now available in English—may be the sharpest, funniest book on this year’s BTBA fiction longlist.

Here’s the basic set-up: Pretexat Tach (what a name!) is a Nobel Prize winning author, who is a recluse, and who is about to die. Because of his impending death, he agrees to be interviewed by a series of journalists, each one as moronic as the last. Tach tortures each of them in turn, berating them, humiliating them, and coming across as a total prick—but one who, despite (or maybe in part because of) his disgusting appearance, thoughts, and rants, is fairly entertaining.

Actually, instead of trying to describe the merits of this book—the way the final journalist undoes Tach, the way the plot feels all piecemeal until the last few moments when all the literary traps are sprung and the plot points braided together in a very tense, exciting way—I’m going to stop here and leave you with a couple examples of Tach’s awesome rants (and Nothomb’s stunning ability to come up with these, and Anderson’s skill at translating them).

Tach on how few people have really read his books:

“Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or cavier; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say ‘you,’ I should say ‘I myself and a few others,’ because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know ‘what it’s about.’ And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, ‘Did this book change you?’ And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, ‘Why should a book change me?’”

“Allow me to express my astonishment, Monsieur Tach: you have just spoken as if you were defending books with a message, and that’s not like you.”

“You’re not very clever, are you? So are you of the opinion that only books ‘with a message’ can change an individual? These are the books that are the least likely to change them. The books that have an impact, that transform people, are the other ones—books about desire, or pleasure, books filled with genius, and above all books filled with beauty. Let us take, for example, a great book filled with beauty: Journey to the End of the Night. How can you not be transformed after you have read it? Well, the majority of readers manage just that tour de force without difficulty. They will come to you and say, ‘Oh yes, Celine is magnificent,’ and then they go back to what they were doing.”

But really, the best section is this one on how Tach’s books are dangerous, how “writing is harmful”:

“There’s no comparison. Writing is not as harmful.”

“You obviously don’t know what you’re saying, because you haven’t read me—how could you know? Writing fucks things up at every level: think of the trees they’ve had to cut down for the paper, of all the room they have to find to store the books, the money it costs to print them, and the money it will cost potential readers, and the boredom the readers will feel on reading them, and the guilty conscience of the unfortunate people who buy them and don’t have the courage to read them, and the sadness of the kind imbeciles who do read them but don’t understand a thing, and finally, above all, the fatuousness of the conversations that wil take place after said books have been read or not read. And that’s just the half of it! So don’t go telling me that writing is not harmful.”

18 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell

Language: French
Country: Morroco
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 118

Why This Book Should Win: Book that pleasantly surprised me the most from the longlist; Robyn Creswell won a PEN Translation Fund Award for this; New Directions; I think this is the first Moroccan book I’ve ever read.

I wrote today’s post.

I’m not a huge proponent of the “you should read translated literature to understand other cultures” argument. People don’t like medicine, and although this isn’t quite that, it still smells a bit funny, you know?

Besides, not all works of international literature give the reader great insight into other cultures. Sure, you can sometimes see how a character’s mind works, how the cultural context influences a particular character’s decisions, actions, and beliefs, but generally, people seem to read translations for the same reason they read any work of literature, which includes a lot of factors (style, complexity, plot, characterization, beauty) other than “to better understand another part of the world.”

Then again, occasionally there is a book that’s not just beautiful and intriguing, well-written and compelling, but does give you a special insight into a different culture. Enter The Clash of Images.

Kilito’s book is about the shift from the “old Arabic world of texts and oral traditions” to the new “modern era of the image, the comic book, photo IDs, and the cinema.” By taking this moment in time as its base, and crafting beautiful short pieces around this theme, Kilito provides a special perspective on what it was like growing up in this culture—a perspective that actually can provide foreign readers with subtle shades of meaning and understanding. Witness these bits from “The Image of the Prophet”:

I had never seen any images properly speaking, except my own in the mirror. On the walls of our house there were no photographs, no reproductions of any sort. The walls were white, cold, and smooth, with no more than on Quranic verse in calligraphy: “The All-Merciful is seated firmly upon the throne.” An ambiguous verse and one that—despite the ingenuity of exegetes bent on removing all traces of anthropomorphism—_presents an image_ (Arab theologians needed several centuries to quell the tendency to lend divinity a human form).

It was only once I learned to read that I was actually able to decipher images.

There were a number of these, images with a certain prestige, sold not far from the great mosque. Each told a story, or else the climactic moment of a story, with a religious subject. [. . .]

These were considered edifying images that exalted the faith and exemplary figures of the past, though at the cost of violating the ban on figural representation. One limit was respected, however: the prophet of Islam was never pictured. The prophet was a story, a word in the mouth, not a face. And yet many claimed to have seen him in their dreams (with what features?).

This is a short book, one that’s quick to read, but which sketches out a number of lasting images, lines, stories. In particular, I’d recommend the “Revolt in the Msid,” “A Glass of Milk,” “Don Quixote’s Niece,” and “Cinedays” sections—all of which are brilliant and prove why this book should win the BTBA.

16 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 160


A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 224

Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author

Today, Bill Marx of World Books and The Arts Fuse takes a look at both books by Albert Cossery that made the longlist.

Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.

Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.

Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.

Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of my all-time favorite books is Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and for months years, I’ve been meaning to reread it.

Well, starting sometime soon, Conversational Reading will be hosting a Big Read of Perec’s classic novel.

No real info up there yet, but as soon as the schedule is announced, I’ll post it here. It’s been ages since I participated in an online book club, and I’m a bit psyched . . . Mostly just to reread Life, but also because Scott does such a great job of getting interesting content about the title under discussion. (I’m not-so-secretly hoping to contribute something myself.)

If you’re interested in joining in, be sure and get a copy of Godine’s revised edition of the book. This version contains some corrections, etc.

For more info about the new edition, and Perec in general, be sure to check out this interview Scott conducted with Godine editor Susan Barba.

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Launched in 2006, the French Voices program exists to promote contemporary (re: published after 2000) works of French literature. To that end, every year they come out with a list of titles (fiction and non) selected by their international committee that will receive $6,000 translation subsidies.

As you can see from the 2010 list reprinted below (which will be online at their site in the near future), there are a lot of great books here, and a lot of titles that are still seeking an American publisher . . .

For more info on the program, and details on how to apply for 2011 (the deadline is March 1st), please click here.

On to the lists!

Fiction

  • Daewoo, by François Bon, Fayard, 2004 (translation by Alison Dundy & Emmanuelle Ertel) ~ seeking an American Publisher (click here to read a sample, which appeared in Words Without Borders)
  • Corniche Kennedy by Maylis de Kerengal, Editions Verticales, 2008 (translation by Michael Lucey) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Des hommes by Laurent Mauvignier, Editions de Minuit, 2009, (translation by David and Nicole Ball) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Personne by Gwenaëlle Aubry, Mercure de France, 2009 (translation by Trista Selous) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Les Onze by Pierre Michon, Verdier, 2009, to be published by Archipelago Books, (translation by Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays)
  • Mourir, Partir revenir, le jeu des hirondelles by Abirached Zeina, Editions Cambourakis, 2007 (translation by Edward Gauvin) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Mais le Fleuve Tuera l’homme Blanc de Patrick Besson, Fayard, 2009 (translation by Edward Gauvin) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Saisons sauvages by Kettly Mars, Mercure de France, 2010 (translation by Jeanine Herman) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Audimat Circus by Thierry Maugenest, Liana levi, 2007 (translation by David Beardsmore) ~ seeking an American Publisher

Non fiction

  • Démocratie dans quel état? by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaïd, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, Kristin Ross, Slavoj Zizek, La Fabrique 2009, published under the title Democracy in What State? by Columbia University Press (translation by Willam McCuaig)
  • Vivre avec: la pensée de la mort et la mémoire des guerres by Marc Crépon, Hermann, 2008 (translation by Michael Loriaux) ~ seeking an American Publisher
  • Les Islamistes Saoudiens by Stéphane Lacroix, PUF, 2010, to be published by Harvard University Press (Translation by George Holoch)
  • Mangeurs de Viande by Marylène Patou-Mathis, Plon-Perrin, 2009 (translation by George Holoch) ~ seeking an American Publisher

Lots of good stuff here worth checking out . . .

19 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all you French speakers out there living in NY, this sounds like a really interesting event:

The 100th anniversary of Gallimard
Monday, January 24, 7:00 p.m.

Antoine Gallimard in conversation with Olivier Barrot (in French)

In 1988, Antoine Gallimard became the head of the Editions Gallimard, one of the world’s most prestigious publishing houses. He succeeded his father, Claude Gallimard who, himself, had followed his father, the founder of this venerable enterprise now celebrating its centennial year. Gallimard is a unique, independent house, boasting more Nobel Prize winners and Goncourt Prize novels than any other French publisher. In 22 years at its helm, Gallimard has both followed a singular tradition and kept his company young and forward looking into the 21st century. One of the most respected persons in his industry, Gallimard was elected President of the French National Publishers Syndicate in 2010.

Presented with the additional support of Sofitel, Open Skies, CulturesFrance, and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

La Maison Française
New York University
16 Washington Mews (corner of University Place), New York, NY 10003

Florence Gould Event (in French)
A Special Edition of French Literature in the Making

26 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a sharp critique by Adelaide Kuehn of Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist, which was translated from the French by Helen Marx and published by Helen Marx Books.

Adelaide Kuehn is one of our interns this semester (and will be next semester as well, so expect to hear more from her) and is reading a ton of books from both Zulma and Les Allusifs. Over the past summer, Addie also had a chance to intern at the Villa Gillet during the International Forum on the Novel. (An event I’ve wanted to attend for years . . . )

Anyway, her review is a bit testy . . . which seems fitting to post today, post-Thanksgiving, in the midst of Black Friday, when most everyone is griping about crowds, our family, that missing flask of alcohol, the fact that the Lions always suck, the horridness of omnipresent holiday music, the ways in which 2010 was just as meh as 2009, the inevitable gift disappointment right around the corner, etc., etc.

So here’s her opening:

The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani follows the three characters in the title during a royal marriage turned violent. The novella is based on the assassination attempt of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia on their wedding day in 1906, winding its way through the thoughts of the three main characters to portray the events leading up to the wedding day. The young, naive British Princess Mary Eugenia Victoria spends the entire novella first having to pee during the procession to the palace and then worrying about her wedding night because she has no understanding of basic human biology. The King Alfonso XIII is preoccupied by an insistent erection while he points out different buildings in Madrid as they move slowly to the palace. In the days leading up to the bombing the bitter and depressed anarchist, Fernando, wanders around Madrid cold and hungry.

The novella is intended to be a snapshot into the royal lifestyle but is so simplistic that it comes off as forced and unrealistic. Even though the Princess has blood all over her dress and sees bowels oozing at her feet, she feels a little bit nauseous but quickly recovers. The King is practically grateful for the disaster because he can cancel the planned dance and can get down to business with the princess. The whole thing is so improbable, which in itself is not so problematic but when combined with the bizarre sexual subtext of the novella, just does not add up.

Ouch. But definitely check out the full review if for no other reason than to read her bits about the wacky sex stuff in this novella . . . And Merry Christmas!

26 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani follows the three characters in the title during a royal marriage turned violent. The novella is based on the assassination attempt of Spanish King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia on their wedding day in 1906, winding its way through the thoughts of the three main characters to portray the events leading up to the wedding day. The young, naive British Princess Mary Eugenia Victoria spends the entire novella first having to pee during the procession to the palace and then worrying about her wedding night because she has no understanding of basic human biology. The King Alfonso XIII is preoccupied by an insistent erection while he points out different buildings in Madrid as they move slowly to the palace. In the days leading up to the bombing the bitter and depressed anarchist, Fernando, wanders around Madrid cold and hungry.

The novella is intended to be a snapshot into the royal lifestyle but is so simplistic that it comes off as forced and unrealistic. Even though the Princess has blood all over her dress and sees bowels oozing at her feet, she feels a little bit nauseous but quickly recovers. The King is practically grateful for the disaster because he can cancel the planned dance and can get down to business with the princess. The whole thing is so improbable, which in itself is not so problematic but when combined with the bizarre sexual subtext of the novella, just does not add up.

One would hope that adding a little sex into an otherwise benign and somewhat pointless plot would help this book out, but alas, it does not. The princess spends the entire novella trying to piece together the small bits and pieces she has heard about sex to figure out what exactly she is in for that evening. She remembers what a few of her cousins had told her:

Emily had specified: like a medium-sized carrot. And the orifice was so narrow! It got bigger: the flesh down there was unbelievably expandable. “Do you realize, Mary, how expandable in order for an eight-pound baby to go through?” But even so, a large carrot is hard to believe. Wouldn’t shorter and skinnier have been better? Did the seed need that kind of bulk to pass? Or rather, did God want women to suffer? But why? What had she done to deserve such punishment?

And if that does not satisfy your crazing for perplexing sexual references, the King continually frets about when he will get his much anticipated “release.” Here the King visits the queasy princess in her quarters as she gets ready to come down to the celebratory dinner that “evening”:

The word “evening” renewed his stiffness. His rod, an erect mast in the middle of his body, is ebony, steel. What will he do if nothing changes? What if, stubbornly, it has decided to keep this sign of hardness until consummation?

“I leave you now, Mary Eugenia, and shall return in ten minutes. I will give the order to delay the first course a quarter of an hour.”

He exits, climbs the staircase, and reaches his private quarters. He feels around the erect baobab of his pubis, an intense, painful tingling. What will happen this evening if she has not recovered, if she wants to see the doctor or has a fever? What if she goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up until morning, then what will he do? Watch over her, as taut as a bow with an arrow ready to fly?

Seriously, “erect baobab of his pubis”? Really? There are times when this novella reads like an early twentieth-century harlequin. And not in a good way.

The princess’s neurotic interior monologue is annoying and the king is a sleazy narcissist who can think of nothing else but sealing the deal with his new wife. By default, the anarchist is the most likeable character in the novel and his portrayal is highly simplistic. For example, he has planned every detail of the bombing but readers are supposed to believe he has no escape plan? Unlikely. Where the story really goes off the deep end is when the princess and the anarchist, both of whom have snuck into the royal garden, have sex in a shed. There is no explanation, context or emotions expressed about this loss of virginity right before going to bed with her husband for the first time.

The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist, released by Helen Marx Books and translated by Helen Marx, is a fluffy and baffling novella.

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote on Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which was translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis and published by NYRB earlier this year.

For a long time I was planning a post called “Albert Cossery is $%^&ing Amazing,” after reading A Splendid Conspiracy and totally falling in love with Cossery’s style, sense of humor, etc.

I’ve told this story a few times already, but I think the “how” of how I came to read Cossery is an interesting 21st-century story about how books will be recommended in the future . . . Back at the beginning of the summer, I noticed that Tosh Berman from Book Soup in L.A. had given Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy 5 stars on GoodReads. Which made me take note, since a) I’d never heard of Cossery except in typing his books into the Translation Database and b) Tosh has great taste. (See TamTam Books, his publishing company, which publishes a ton of Boris Vian works.) So I added A Splendid Conspiracy to my “to read” bookshelf—something that was automatically posted on my Facebook wall.

A couple of days go back (like literally two), and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op in Chicago gives Cossery’s The Jokers 5 stars on GoodReads. Since Jeff is a) also a great reader and b) part of the BTBA judging committee for fiction, I marked The Jokers as a book “to read,” which was automatically posted to my Facebook wall.

A half-hour later, I was watching my kids try and injure themselves jumping off of dirt ramps in the forest by my house, and decided to check my e-mail. There was a message notifying me that Brad Weslake—a professor at the University of Rochester and member of our editorial committee—had posted something on my Facebook wall. This something turned out to be a link to Cossery’s wiki page and a comment about how interesting he sounded. (And the wiki page is pretty intriguing, especially this bit: “In 60 years he only wrote eight novels, in accordance with his philosophy of life in which ‘laziness’ is not a vice but a form of contemplation and meditation. In his own words: ‘So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it.’)

Three times makes a trend, so I picked up my dirty, sweaty children and ran off to the local bookstore to buy a copy of A Splendid Conspiracy, which I read over the next three days and also gave a 5 star rating . . .

And to drive home the connectedness of this all, as of this morning, six GoodRead friends have either marked A Splendid Conspiracy as something they want to read or gave it a 5-star rating. And of non-friends who have read/rated this, there’s at least one who also gave it 5 stars and included the comment “Tosh: You were right.”

I don’t know what this all means, but in the class I teach to my interns, we’re talking about the future of book recommendations, about how we’ll find out about stuff when it’s all e-book this and that and there are no friendly indie stores where we can go to talk to over-educated, more-than-well-read booksellers willing to give us accurate, individualized suggestions. I’m not sure if the Facebook/LibraryThing/GoodReads networks can actually ever replicate this, but it’s interesting to talk about and see in action . . .

Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:

Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.

It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)

That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.

In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters.

To read the full piece, simply click here.

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.

It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)

That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.

In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters. One of the best parts of The Jokers is the opening set-piece in which a policeman, under orders to remove all homeless people from the streets, attacks a beggar who has seated himself outside of a bank. He begins with insults, moves onto kicking, goes a bit crazy, and ends up knocking the beggar over:

Bending over the old man, he grabbed him by his turban, shaking him with savage fury in an attempt to bring him back to life. This action was both rash and irreparable: as if by magic, the beggar’s head became detached from his neck and remained stuck to the turban, which the policeman continued to brandish in the air like a bloody trophy. [. . .] What had at first appeared to be a genuine flesh-and-blood beggar was in fact only a dummy, ably made up by a skilled artist, that had been left out in this respectable neighborhood precisely in order to provoke the police. [. . .] Far from calming the crowd, this discovery incited it to an opposite extreme: people began to snigger and sneer at the unfortunate cop, who stood there stunned.

And with that little prank, we’re off, leaving the dusty, baked streets behind to find Karim — the brains behind this prank — in bed with his latest “conquest.” (Whom he calls Zouzou, because he calls all of them Zouzou.) Karim wasn’t always so a joke bombing, Egyptian Yippie — as we come to find out, he spent some time in jail for his more violent revolutionary outbursts.

This philosophical conflict — do you defeat violence and oppression through more violence or jokes? — runs throughout the book, as in this somewhat pedantic and stilted debate between a joker and a more traditional revolutionary:

“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”

“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”

It might be due to the time when this was originally written (1964), but these political diatribes are a bit of a blindspot for Cossery, coming off in stiff, naïve terms that aren’t a tenth as interesting as his more subtle depictions of the attraction his characters have for children and childlike activities. These bits really underscore the philosophical bent of the novel, such as when Karim waxes poetic about making and flying kites, or when co-conspirator Urfy starts a private school so that he wouldn’t have to spend all his time with those hideous adults:

What Urfy admired in children was, above all, their complete lack of ambition. They were content with their daily lot; they strove for nothing but the simple joys of being alive. But for how much longer? It passed quickly — childhood and the marvelous pointlessness of youth — an undeniable truth that filled Urfy with bitterness. These children would later become men. They would join the pack of wolves; they’d abandon their intransigent love of purity and lose themselves in the anonymous crowd of murderers.

Cossery’s strength is in constructing these characters out of minor quirks (Karim always calls them Zouzou, Heykal wears the same luxurious suit every day, Urfy’s anxiety about feeling bad for his insane mother, etc.) and weaving together these viewpoints into a cohesive, compelling plot. Even amid the various missteps (e.g., not detailing what’s written on the poster that brings about the governor’s downfall), it’s clear that Cossery’s most interested in the characters — the jokers of the title — and not necessarily on the jokes themselves, which is one reason this book still resonates today. It’s a rich work, and taken in combination with A Splendid Conspiracy establishes Cossery as one of the most interesting international authors — living or dead — to be published in America this year.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Laurence Cosse’s A Novel Bookstore, which is available from Europa Editions in Alison Anderson’s translation.

Larissa reviews for us on a regular basis, when she’s not learning various languages, writing for L Magazine, or reading Scandinavian lit . . . She’s a smart reviewer, and this look at Cosse’s novel is interesting both in its praise and criticisms. Here’s the opening of her review:

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

Click here to read the full piece.

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Who should we see at the police to denounce attacks against literature?” Such is the question that two bookstore owners—one an elegant heiress, the other a self-educated, solitary, bohemian bookseller—solemnly pose at the opening of French author Laurence Cossé’s satirical biblio-thriller, A Novel Bookstore. Both avid and opinionated readers, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli and Ivan (Van) Georg embarked on an entirely idealistic enterprise—to open The Good Novel, “a perfect bookstore, the kind where you’d sell nothing but good novels.” Their inventory selection process was complex and clandestine: a panel of eight unidentified novelists—each with their own code name, such as “Quinoa” and “Strait-laced,” or “The Red” and “Green Pea”—would generate lists of titles to be stocked. Books on hand would be old and new, from countries worldwide. However, The Good Novel would not fall prey to current publishing trends, and would not depend on forthcoming novels or best sellers—“books not worth bothering with”—to make a profit.

The Good Novel had a fabulous debut, but its unfettered success was not to last. Shortly after its opening, the store faced a sudden onslaught of attacks. Vitriolic opinion pieces declaring the store’s mission to sell only good books as “totalitarian” were published in newspapers. Malicious customers arrived in hordes, ordering Danielle Steele books they never planned to pay for. Most shocking, three of the members of the secret selection committee were not only identified, but violently attacked by mysterious strangers who pointedly taunted them: “It’s like being in a bad crime novel, huh. . . . ? With vulgar characters and a stupid plot . . . So this isn’t a good novel, huh?”

While the novel flirts with the mystery genre, it ultimately defies such classification. Starting much like a thriller, A Novel Bookstore quickly steps back, exploring—in great detail—Francesca and Van’s first meeting, their histories, and their debates on everything from Pierre Michon to whether the store’s inventory should be organized alphabetically, chronologically, or geographically (they opt for combination of the three). Cossé also playfully manipulates the narration, starting the story in third person, and then revealing an unnamed first person narrator who is actually a character in the story as well.

Each character is precisely articulated, with personalized quirks and gestures and even wardrobes. Cossé observes the smallest details—such as a hole in the elbow of a favorite sweater—and imbues them with meaning. These characterizations, combined with such explicit details about preparations to open the bookstore, immerse one in a world that feels entirely real. The thriller aspect of the novel falls to the wayside, with its eventual explanation feeling almost irrelevant to the real meat of the book. Reveling in minutia, occasionally overwrought declarations of literary superiority (Cormac McCarthy is consistently touted the greatest living writer), and piquant asides on the state of literary criticism in France, Cossé seems to have created an ideal shaggy dog story: it’s not really a matter of what “happens” or doesn’t, as the case may be, but simply immersing oneself among these characters.

As the novel progresses, however, this verisimilitude gives way to a much more fictional fiction—a plot-driven, theatrical dénouement that feels strangely out of step with the rest of the novel. Suspicions that The Good Novel is the victim of a greater “conspiracy”—wrought by members of the greater (very cynical) literary community—are actually well founded. And as the trials and tribulations faced by the bookstore and its denizens become more and more dramatic and outlandish, so do the characters’ responses. “With all due allowance, something happened here that is comparable to what happened with Al Qaeda and its consequences,” the policeman investigating The Good Novel attacks remarks.

It seems clear that the dramatic shift in tone at the end of the novel is intended to symbolically illustrate Cossé’s pet moral: that mainstream society only has a literary appetite for banal bestsellers, and that “lazy and frivolous” critics and journalists are in great part to blame for this mediocre taste.“They heap praise on books that are nothing but fluff, and in the rush they overlook real jewels,” we’re told. But maybe there is a bit of a wink in the self-righteous exclamations of the downtrodden booksellers. Cossé is, after all, a journalist herself. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of A Novel Bookstore is to simply compel readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously. For as Van says, “one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.”

31 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I feel like this is a week of individual themed days . . . Yesterday was all Japanese literature and Michael Emmerich, today is all Zone . . .

Publishers Weekly‘s Indie Press Sleepers list for the fall came out yesterday, featuring twenty titles from independent presses that may be slightly less hyped than Franzen’s Freedom, but have a real shot at “breaking out,” capturing the imagination and interest of the reading public, and selling thousands of copies thanks to great indie stores, solid reviews, word-of-mouth, etc.

These lists are always fascinating, especially when they include one of our titles (the only translation included on the list . . . at least the one in the magazine. There are 20 additional titles featured online, including Laurence Cossé‘s A Novel Bookstore, translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions):

Zone by Mathias Énard, trans. from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)

This 517-page novel, winner of the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Decembre, has an unusual conceit; it’s told in a single sentence. Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat, travels by train from Milan to Rome with a briefcase, whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican. It contains information about the violent history of the Zone—lands of the Mediterranean basin: Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy. Over the course of a single night Mirkovic visits the sites of the tragedies of these lands in his memory and recalls how his own participation in that violence has wrecked his life. Author and translator Christophe Claro acclaims it as “the novel of the decade, if not the century.”

Not to jinx anything, but there is a lot of momentum for this book, so, fingers crossed . . . (I actually have a dream that one day I’ll see someone on the subway reading one of our titles, and I have some hope that it’ll be Zone.)

On a less self-promotional note, here are some other interesting titles from the list:

The Instructions by Adam Levin (McSweeney’s)

This massive 1,026-page debut novel covers four days in the life of 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee, a potential Messiah and accused terrorist, possibly both, who was ejected from three Jewish day schools. “This is wonderful in a quirky way,” says Sheryl Cotleur, at Book Passage, who is considering it for her Buyers Bookmark Club. “I see a great future for this author and really hope this book catches on. I’ll do my part!”

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf)

During WWII, tube stations across London have been converted into bomb shelters; immigrants and East Enders alike sleep on the tracks and wait. But on March 3, 1943, as the crowd hurries down the staircase, something goes wrong, and 173 people lose their lives. When the neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to a young magistrate, who is forced to revisit his decision decades later. “The Report is a stealthy, quiet page-turner that understands there is as much tension in reckoning a disaster as there is in the disaster itself,” says Elizabeth McCracken.

Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin (Coffee House Press)

“Through the eyes of three outsiders, Extraordinary Renditions takes the reader deep into the heart of Budapest, both its past and present,” says Stewart O’Nan. “The whole city is here, the banks of the Danube brimming with history, intrigue, art, food, drink, and most important of all, music. His characters may be lost—even the one native is a foreigner—but Andrew Ervin is a sharp-eyed, sure-handed guide.”

Richard Yates by Tao Lin (Melville House)

This could be Lin’s breakout book. Although the title of this novel comes from the real-life writer Richard Yates, it has little to do with him. Instead, it tracks the relationship between a young writer in his 20s and his 16-year-old lover. Clancy Martin calls Lin “a Kafka for the iPhone generation. . . . [He] may well be the most important writer under 30 working today.”

20 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I just received an invitation to the award ceremony for the French-American Foundation & Florence Gould Foundation Annual Translation Prizes, and since I think I missed the announcement of the finalists, I thought I’d take this chance to congratulate all ten translators being honored.

Fiction:

John Cullen for Brodeck by Philippe Claudel (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

C. Dickson for Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio (David R. Godine Publishing)

Richard Howard for Alien Hearts by Guy de Maupassant (New York Review Books)

Charlotte Mandell for The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (HarperCollins)

Richard Sieburth for The Salt Smugglers by Gerard de Nerval (Archipelago Books)


Nonfiction:

Beverley Bie Brahic for This Incredible Need to Believe by Julia Kristeva (Columbia University Press)

M.B. DeBevoise for Manichaeism by Michel Tardieu (University of Illinois Press)

Jody Gladding for On the Death and Life of Languages by Claude Hagege (Yale University Press/Odile Jacob)

George Holoch for Orphans of the Republic by Olivier Wieviorka (Harvard University Press)

Loic Wacquant for Prisons of Poverty by Loic Wacquant (University of Minnesota Press)

Great list of translators/books/publishers . . .

The prizes will be given out on Thursday, September 16th at a special event at the Gallery at the Century Association. For more information about the awards (and how to attend the ceremony/reception—which is always quite stunning) contact Sierra Schaller at sschaller [at] frenchamerican [dot] org.

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erin O’Rourke on Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, which was translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions earlier this year.

Erin O’Rourke has been interning with us all summer, reading a lot of the Italian books that were passed along thanks to our recent visit to the Torino International Book Fair. In her own words, she is an aspiring crazy cat lady, and is currently on a plane to San Francisco. (These two statements are unrelated. Maybe.)

She like the book quite a bit, and it does sound really interesting:

In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.

With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:

For that passage, and the rest of the review, click here.

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.

With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:

I determined where the bookshelf would go, along with the desk, facing the window, above the foliage that would inspire poetry to make Antonin Artaud and Octavio Paz week in unison in their graves, and then of course the bed, maybe a palatial king-size, where I would roll about with creatures to tempt angels and demons alike; a bathroom in tones of green and yellow, two sinks side by side, an oval tub that could easily seat two adults and into which I would plunge each of my future conquests and myself along with them; a separate toilet with a bookshelf that went right to the ceiling, where I would place my collections of Diplo and Politics, my graphic novels, and the girlie magazines I intended to acquire . . .

However, Basile (also called Mohamed, and sometimes Momo) is something of a paradox: although he claims that he only has eyes for Western women, the women he becomes involved with are all Muslim, Algerian, and just the sort of woman his mother would approve of. Each of these women inevitably thwarts Mohamed’s plans to bed them, leaving him continually frustrated. As time wears on and Mohamed’s “conquests” multiply—he is always certain that a wild night of sexual abandon is right around the corner—we begin to question Mohamed’s reliability as a narrator. He starts to lose chunks of time, staying up all night entertaining his girlfriends—or does he?—and sleeping all afternoon. Then, suddenly, he jumps ahead three months as though it were the next day. A mysterious writer, Loubna Minbar (or Louisa Machindel, or is it Lisa Martinez?) appears as a common link between everyone Mohamed meets. A manuscript Mohamed believes to be written by her appears in his apartment, throwing the reality of the events of the entire story into question.

For the unobservant reader, it would be easy enough to miss the clues that Marouane—who coincidentally shares the same initials as the mysterious writer—has sprinkled throughout the story, details that seem too murky and puzzling for such a lighthearted, frivolous story. Even so, it would be impossible to escape a growing suspicion that Mohamed is not really the narrator but the protagonist in someone else’s story. Each chapter begins in the other writer’s voice, saying “he said,” before returning to Mohamed’s narrative; every so often Mohamed addresses an unnamed figure in the second person; and he is reading a novel called The Sultan of Saint-Germain that seems to be based on his cousin’s life, or even his own. The central mystery revolves around the chameleon-like Loubna Minbar, who may or may not be Mohamed’s concierge, and who exacts her revenge on men by stealing their life stories for her novels and driving them mad in the process. Because, while Marouane’s novel masquerades as a man’s story, it’s really a story about women, about the countless Algerian women who have had to make the humiliating journey to freedom in the Western world on the currency of their wits and their bodies. Ignored by Mohamed in his quest for sexual liberation, they become the heroines of the story, enjoying the same freedom that eludes him. As their stories cleverly illustrate, it may be a man’s world, but women get the last laugh.

Like its title, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris intends to provoke. And if you’re not careful it may also send you in circles, trying to get to the bottom of that staircase. As one of Marouane’s characters warns Mohamed, “Just reading her is enough to send you round the bend.”

16 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just received a copy of The Jokers last week, and as soon as I finish it I’m going to write my own appreciation of just how awesome Albert Cossery is. I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before this summer . . . His books are incredibly funny, smart, well-crafted—but more on that in a later post.

In the meantime, here’s David Ulin’s wonderful review of both Cossery books that came out this year: The Jokers (translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by NYRB) and A Splendid Conspiracy (translated by Alyson Waters, published by New Directions):

The Jokers is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is A Splendid Conspiracy, from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. The Jokers is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. . . . But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”

Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.

Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes.

Cossery’s definitely worth checking out . . . I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find both of these books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist for this year . . . (Again, I’m not on the judging committee, so this is pure speculation.)

28 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In some ways, the books we publish are like having children—the newest one always smells the best, is the most EXCITING THING EVER, and is that much more aesthetically refined, er, more adorable, or whatever. But seriously, when I read our titles for the final proof, I frequently fall in love all over again, getting all exciting about sections I want to talk about with my friends, which, well, isn’t quite possible in the traditional sense, seeing that I’m reading books that haven’t been published yet . . . Which is why this whole blogging thing is fricking awesome.

Zone is due out in December, but has already been written about by the Chicago Tribune (an article that also featured the dumbest quote I’ve ever given a reporter) and in The Quarterly Conversation. Yes, this book is kinda sorta a 517-page sentence, but that’s not really the point. This book is fucking good. It’s aesthetically daring, ambition, important, artistic, impressive, erudite, and a host of other words that could be capitalized.

Anyway, here’s a spectacular bit I came across last night. Not that you need a lot of set-up, but Francis Servain Mirkovic, who fought for the Croatians in the Yugoslav war, is on a train headed to Rome to sell a briefcase of info he’s gathered over his years as part of the French Intelligence Service. Enjoy!



Chapter VIII

the landscape of the Po plain is very dark also, little fireflies of farms and factories are disturbing ghosts, in Venice at the Santa Lucia station I had wondered for a while about going back to Paris, another night train was going south at around the same time, headed for Sicily, terminus Syracuse, a journey of almost twenty-four hours, I should have taken it, if there had been someone on the platform to guide me, a demiurge, or an oracle I would have taken the train to Syracuse to settle on the rocky island on the slopes of Etna home of Hephaestus the lame, who often sprinkles lava onto the peasants and Mafiosi taking cover in the countryside, maybe it’s because of that volcano that Malcolm Lowry settled in Taormina in 1954, in that village that looks so pretty it seems fake, he had written Under the Volcano ten years earlier, maybe it was his wife Margerie who chose the destination, a change of air, Lowry the drunkard had definite need for a change of air, he joined the contingent of Anglo-Saxons who peopled the Zone, Joyce, Durrell, Hemingway, Pound the fascist and Burroughs the visionary, Malcolm didn’t let go of his bottle as he watched the swordfish gleam in the Bay of Naxos, he got drunk morning to night with a serious steadfastness, their little flower-covered house is too beautiful for him, he says, it’s all too beautiful, too brilliant, too luminous, he can’t manage to write, not even a letter, his eyes dazzled by the too-blue Mediterranean, Margerie is happy, she goes for walks all day long, she visits the archeological sites, the steep inlets, she returns home to find Malcolm drunk, drunk and desperate, holding a copy of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that he can’t manage to read, even drink doesn’t console him, the pages of his notebooks remain desperately blank, life remains empty, Margerie, fed up, decides to lock up all the alcohol in the house, so Lowry goes out to stroll through the little streets, he climbs up to the ruins of the Greek amphitheater and watches the spectacle of the stars on the sea beyond the stage wall, he feels a powerful hatred, he wants to drink, he wants to drink, everything is closed, he almost knocks on the first house he sees to beg for a glass of grappa, one drink, to drink one drink, anything, he goes back home, he’ll try to break open the hutch where his wife has locked up the liquor, he works away at the little wooden door, nothing to be done, he’s too drunk already, he can’t manage it, it’s her fault, it’s his wife’s fault, Margerie’s who’s sleeping after being stupefied by sleeping pills, she’ll give him the key, she’ll pay, Margerie who’s pumping all the talent out of him, who’s preventing him from writing, Lowry goes into the bedroom, his wife is stretched out on her back, her eyes closed, Malcolm goes over to her to touch her, he’s standing up, he’s thirsty, with an infinite thirst, an infinite rage, he stammers out insults, she doesn’t wake up, he feels as if he’s shouting though, the bitch is sleeping and he’s dying of thirst, she’ll see, he puts his hands around her neck, his thumbs against her Adam’s apple and he squeezes, Margerie instantly opens her eyes, she fights Lowry, presses harder and harder, he squeezes, he squeezes the carotids and the trachea, he’ll kill her, the more he squeezes the weaker he feels, he looks at Margerie’s eyes rolling in terror, her arms thumping him weakly, he is strangling Margerie and he’s the one who is out of breath, the harder he presses the more he observes his wife’s face becoming purplish-blue the more he feels sick, he doesn’t loosen his grip, despite her pummeling him with her fists and knees, he’s the one he’s in the process of killing, it’s no longer Margerie’s neck he has in his hands but his own, his own face as in a mirror, he is asphyxiated, he is asphyxiating himself, his fingers let go, his fingers let go little by little and he collapses on the floor, unconscious, while Margerie tries to cry and get her breath, in the saffron-yellow dawn that’s showing through the Persian blinds: in Sicily deadly island Lowry and his wife lived eight months of hell under the shadow of their second volcano, every other day the villagers were obliged to carry Malcolm home on their back, when the fishermen discovered him, at dawn, collapsed in a street, conquered by the steep slope and by sleep, in the end maybe I did well not to take the train to Syracuse, who would I have strangled in the Sicilian night, grappling with the bottle and my savagery—my father, whenever, as a child, I broke something or mistreated Leda my sister, always said to me you’re a savage, and my mother intervened then to chide him, no your son isn’t a savage, he’s your son, and now a little closer to the end of a world I wonder if the great thin man my pater wasn’t right, as the train is approaching Reggio capital of Emilia with the gentle name, I am a savage, brutal and coarse, who despite all the civilized threads that all the books I’ve read have clothed me in remains a wild primitive capable of slitting an innocent person’s throat of strangling a female and eating with my hands,

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Matthew Weiss on Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad, which is translated from the French by John Lambert and was published by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year.

On a random note, assuming I finish writing my review of Patrik Ourednik’s Case Closed by Friday, we’ll have reviewed three Dalkey books in two weeks . . .

Anyway, most all of Toussaint’s books (in English) are available from Dalkey and I’d highly recommend The Bathroom and Television.

Matthew Weiss is a new reviewer for us and will hopefully be writing more in the near future. Here’s the opening of his review:

“Every time I travel I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).”

Before the story even begins, Self-Portrait Abroad presents us, for better or worse, with a statement of themes. Departures, arrivals, mingled dread and elation, death, sex, and a modest tone of bemusement, distance, and irony all constitute Toussaint’s mode of apprehending his existence in the world. Place-names give Toussaint his chapter headings: Tokyo, Kyoto, Cap Corse, Tunisia. Our narrator travels from airport to airport; cars drive him from place to place; conference organizers present him with things: flowers, telephones, wine . . . He wanders through a festival in Japan; he plays petanque in Corsica; he has sex in a train in the Czech Republic; he is aroused in a humid car in Tunisia; he sits back in a rickshaw in Hanoi . . . Places exist in this novel only insofar as they give rise to Toussaint’s thoughts on himself. He arrives in Tokyo by plane: “Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.” Indeed, from the elevation of Toussaint’s head, there is little difference between the sweat of Hanoi traffic or the amusements of lazing petanque competitors in Cap Corse.

As an author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint is known for the just-so observation; he attempts to sustain this style throughout this latest work, albeit with considerable difficulty. Words which surprise, it seems, have left him: “Taking off our coats we walked side by side in Tokyo under the island sun before stopping at a modern, insipid, and impersonal café.” Even in this single sentence lie clues to the author’s deeper problems. Toussaint tries, in Self-Portrait Abroad, to find meaning in the impersonality of cosmopolitanism by diverting all far-flung experience into his own personal fountain of self-illumination. In doing so, however, he reduces his writing—as opposed to his life—to an even greater insipidness than can be found in any modern café. And yet, Toussaint is not a poor writer; rather, his difficulty in Self-Portrait Abroad, presents itself slowly and, ultimately, reveals itself as the difficulty of a man writing, who has lost, by the end, his need to write.

Click here to read the full review.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Every time I travel I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).”

Before the story even begins, Self-Portrait Abroad presents us, for better or worse, with a statement of themes. Departures, arrivals, mingled dread and elation, death, sex, and a modest tone of bemusement, distance, and irony all constitute Toussaint’s mode of apprehending his existence in the world. Place-names give Toussaint his chapter headings: Tokyo, Kyoto, Cap Corse, Tunisia. Our narrator travels from airport to airport; cars drive him from place to place; conference organizers present him with things: flowers, telephones, wine . . . He wanders through a festival in Japan; he plays petanque in Corsica; he has sex in a train in the Czech Republic; he is aroused in a humid car in Tunisia; he sits back in a rickshaw in Hanoi . . . Places exist in this novel only insofar as they give rise to Toussaint’s thoughts on himself. He arrives in Tokyo by plane: “Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.” Indeed, from the elevation of Toussaint’s head, there is little difference between the sweat of Hanoi traffic or the amusements of lazing petanque competitors in Cap Corse.

As an author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint is known for the just-so observation; he attempts to sustain this style throughout this latest work, albeit with considerable difficulty. Words which surprise, it seems, have left him: “Taking off our coats we walked side by side in Tokyo under the island sun before stopping at a modern, insipid, and impersonal café.” Even in this single sentence lie clues to the author’s deeper problems. Toussaint tries, in Self-Portrait Abroad, to find meaning in the impersonality of cosmopolitanism by diverting all far-flung experience into his own personal fountain of self-illumination. In doing so, however, he reduces his writing—as opposed to his life—to an even greater insipidness than can be found in any modern café. And yet, Toussaint is not a poor writer; rather, his difficulty in Self-Portrait Abroad, presents itself slowly and, ultimately, reveals itself as the difficulty of a man writing, who has lost, by the end, his need to write.

The author finds himself in Hanoi where “the traffic . . . is like life itself, generous inexhaustible, dynamic, in permanent motion, constant imbalance and slipping into its midst and become one with the chaos gives you an intense feeling of being alive.” He tells us that, “very often, seated in the back of a cycle rickshaw, I let myself be carried along the streets of Hanoi for hours at a time, abandoning myself to the random succession of crossroads and avenues.” Toussaint drags himself everywhere, but never sees the people and places that make up the world; rather, he is concerned only with painting his self-portrait, so to speak. Thus, the novel’s scenes are jarring: the author, of course, can afford to abandon himself, to let himself go with the flow of traffic in which he sees life. The rickshaw driver, however, whom Toussaint barely perceives, cannot abandon himself so easily: the driver can see what he likes in the flow of traffic, but unlike our author, he has no choice whether to flow or not. If the traffic in Hanoi is chaos, it is only because Toussaint refuses to distinguish, to give name and understanding to the logic of the crossroads and avenues, to the undiscovered logic of the human lives around him. Instead, Toussaint sits stunned by a realization of his own inner logic.

Sitting in his little rickshaw, Toussaint comes to grips with time and death; the traffic is like water in a torrential riverbed, never meeting any obstacles, always avoiding them, sweeping them around and continuing on its way, ever curving, always find new directions and advancing without resisting or forcing anything, imposing on nothing and nevertheless irresistible, imperious, with the force of the wind, the necessity of the tides.

The description, as it starts, could easily describe Toussaint himself: avoiding all hardship, never resisting, only taking advantage of his own freedom for some momentary pleasure, never confronting the world as it is. Toussaint apologizes, in a sense, for this state of affairs: his non-committal bystanderism is as irresistible as the tides. And yet, although even great art cannot solve crises, art can nevertheless bind us together by its own force; it can reveal new truths about the world and the self which can lay the foundation for existence in the world. Toussaint, however, perverts this aspect of art by stealing the possibility of revelation, through travel, for himself—his travels don’t illuminate us or the world, but rather only provide a weak glow, as from a space-heater, that he can purr beside, without ever opening his eyes.

At times, Toussaint’s writing retains its former charm:

I suddenly became aware looking out the window that it was neither day or night outside, but simultaneously day and night, and that to the right of the plane I could see the moon, shining in the sky in-line with the wing, as well as the sun, far out in front of us, which for the moment was still just a blurred pink and orange glow similar to the cottony contours of a Rothko, lighting up the horizon of the immense sky divided evenly into day and night, into Europe and Asia.

The rest of the passengers in Toussaint’s plane are asleep; the buzz of globalization cannot conquer the hum of a peaceful sleep. Toussaint’s grappling with this paradox of time and place in the face of globalization, however, never comes to fruition. Toussaint ignores the essential paradox of globalization, that while one group of people have become stupendously mobile, losing their ties to time and place, scouring the globe for the least sign of self-discovery, another, larger, group of people have become even more immobile, tied to poverty, to whom Toussaint’s self-portrait would present a laughable enigma. Toussaint retreats further into himself rather than confront the mingling of Europe and Asia; the sky suggests a Rothko, but only insofar as Toussaint can delude himself into an appreciation of nature, one not informed by a willing opening up of the self to new experience, but to the channeling of novel experience into long eroded paths.

So what are we to make of this series of half-funny impressions, muted realizations, and cut-off narratives?

By the end of the novel, Toussaint reveals that in his past, writing had indeed been a way of resisting time, a way of making scratch marks on the river-bed. But that time, he tells us, is over. Now, he realizes how fully powerless he is against time; he is as impotent to slow his progress downstream as his writing is impotent to move us. For a novel cannot allow itself to be carried forward, the novel is that which carries us forward. The tragedy of Toussaint is that he has convinced himself that writing, in the face of death, can only be brief amusement and dry anecdotes, questioning, to the point of self-destruction, its own importance. He has lost in the river of time the knowledge that all writers must possess to continue on, that writing is not important in itself but that writing grants its own importance, by the breadth of its scope, by the abysses it reveals, the pleasures it denies, the joy it hints to, by the moving secrets that echo in the throat of the author and in the stomach of the reader. Writing which doesn’t believe in itself is always insipid.

Yet the failure of Toussaint the novelist is a victory for Toussaint the human being. His novel is a record—for those who read it—of the self-discovery that Toussaint does not need writing to live; that the appreciation of life is enough for him. In that sense, Self-Portrait Abroad, is, at times, moving, but only in the way a conversation with a man finally content with himself might be, not in the way of great art. Its value lies in staging the tension, which all artists must deal with, between life and art. Indeed, although the writer is dead, the man lives on.

29 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Tim Nassau’s piece on Pierre Siniac’s The Collaborators, which is translated from the French by Jordan Stump and came out earlier this year from Dalkey Archive Press.

This is kicking off a few weeks of Dalkey reviews . . . We already have a piece on Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad ready to post on Tuesday, and a review of Patrik Ourednik’s Case Closed in the works for next week . . .

But anyway. Tim — who you may remember from last summer, when he interned for Open Letter and wrote a few reviews and other pieces — does a great job summing up this complicated book, which, even though his review isn’t 100% positive, sounds pretty fun and intriguing. Here’s the opening of Tim’s piece:

The Collaborators is a novel about a novel. The book in question is called Dancing the Brown Java, volume one of a sprawling epic set in Resistance-era France, and perhaps the greatest French work since Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night. The reader doesn’t learn too much about the content of this new masterpiece over the course of Pierre Siniac’s book—certain episodes of the plot are sketched out, a sentence or two is read by some character, critics praise the “little music” of its prose—for it is the events that swarm around it, the violent and even absurd machinations Dancing the Brown Java sets in motion, that constitute the almost 500 pages of this work.

It becomes clear early on that Dancing the Brown Java is an atypical book, not in some metaphysical or metafictional sense (like Borges’s “The Book of Sand”), but perhaps more as a MacGuffin, a mysterious force driving the action and leaving dead bodies in its wake. The Collaborators opens with an episode of Book Culture, a TV show dedicated to the literary arts. Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel are the stars of the evening, brought on to discuss Dancing the Brown Java, their critical and commercial hit. The two are an unlikely pair to have spawned a great work of literature: Dochin spent his life as an unemployed drifter, while Gastinel worked as a puppeteer until he became so fat his stage burst one day as he was performing beneath it. And as for being collaborators? They are decades apart in age and hardly seem to like one another . . .

Well they don’t and they aren’t. We learn very early on that Dochin wrote the book alone. Somehow, Gastinel involved Dochin in a murder and is now using this as blackmail so that he may live his dream of being a famous and esteemed author; imagine the Devil so admiring Faust’s intellect that he forced a deal on the poor scholar just to get a byline. And this is not the only time Dancing is tainted with blood. After it is published, any critic that plans on giving it a bad review quickly finds himself permanently incapacitated before a bad word about the novel can appear in print.

Click “here”: for the full review.

29 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Collaborators is a novel about a novel. The book in question is called Dancing the Brown Java, volume one of a sprawling epic set in Resistance-era France, and perhaps the greatest French work since Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night.1 The reader doesn’t learn too much about the content of this new masterpiece over the course of Pierre Siniac’s book—certain episodes of the plot are sketched out, a sentence or two is read by some character, critics praise the “little music” of its prose—for it is the events that swarm around it, the violent and even absurd machinations Dancing the Brown Java sets in motion, that constitute the almost 500 pages of this work.

It becomes clear early on that Dancing the Brown Java is an atypical book, not in some metaphysical or metafictional sense (like Borges’s “The Book of Sand”), but perhaps more as a MacGuffin, a mysterious force driving the action and leaving dead bodies in its wake. The Collaborators opens with an episode of Book Culture, a TV show dedicated to the literary arts.2 Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel are the stars of the evening, brought on to discuss Dancing the Brown Java, their critical and commercial hit. The two are an unlikely pair to have spawned a great work of literature: Dochin spent his life as an unemployed drifter, while Gastinel worked as a puppeteer until he became so fat his stage burst one day as he was performing beneath it. And as for being collaborators? They are decades apart in age and hardly seem to like one another . . .

Well they don’t and they aren’t. We learn very early on that Dochin wrote the book alone. Somehow, Gastinel involved Dochin in a murder and is now using this as blackmail so that he may live his dream of being a famous and esteemed author; imagine the Devil so admiring Faust’s intellect that he forced a deal on the poor scholar just to get a byline. And this is not the only time Dancing is tainted with blood. After it is published, any critic that plans on giving it a bad review quickly finds himself3 permanently incapacitated before a bad word about the novel can appear in print.

And if these weren’t mysteries enough, there is one more overarching head scratcher: how could anyone even write a good word about Dancing the Brown Java? The majority of the novel follows Dochin as he works on his magnum opus, and his opinion of his own prose is consistently low:

“I picked up one of my books, opened it, and once again discovered my pointless prose, my thick-headed wordplay, my malformed sentences trudging painfully over the page, my shallow, police-report behaviorism, my inane descriptions, my lovely syntactical screw-ups poking out here and there like weeds, my dialogue straight out of a dimestore novel or a TV series . . . Line after miserable line . . . I paged through the book, a strange weariness coming over me. The flatness of the thing hit me square in the face, just like a cream pie, only some joker had replaced the custard with cement. Talk about empty intellectual calories! I was already sure of it, and now the book in my hands made it clear as day: this was the best I could hope for, I’d never do better, never rise above this ocean of blather, this mountain of commonplaces, this forest of clichés.”

Why would someone with such a low opinion of his writing even try to get it published? The answer is Ferdinaud Céline, owner of an inn where Dochin ends up living for several years while he works on his book, and progenitor of the French title of this novel.4 A former bookstore owner, she becomes Dochin’s lover, mother, and the most avid fan of his work, maniacally pushing him to finish his book as she prepares a typed manuscript for the publishers. She has Proust on her bookshelves, so obviously she can recognize good writing, right?

Of course people, like works of literature, are never quite what they seem, and as facades begin to fall away at the end of The Collaborators, Siniac shows how deception can operate on both a literary and a real level. But I should qualify this: The Collaborators is itself a work of deception, but of the simplest kind: it is a thriller, a mystery novel. At the pure level of plot things are not as they seem, and we as readers get caught up in this and relish being led along to a surprising, twisting, and unexpected conclusion. Yet there is little more.

Siniac lampoons the literary community in his novel. He presents the silly politicking of publishing a book, of making it a success; critics savor their ability to destroy a new writer simply for its own sake, to feel important and relevant in a world where they are mere leeches. The bullshit of academese that plagues literature is hilariously mocked as a panel praises Dancing the Brown Java on Book Culture:

“So captivating, so blistering, so masterful in its descriptions, it’s terrific!, it’s tremendous!, so utterly new in its suggestivity, so irresistibly piquant in its paroxysmal sub-quintessenciation of the unsaid and the sub-experienced, in the neo-Brechtian parody of the context and the underlying depths of style.”

Unfortunately, this is easily the best line in The Collaborators, and it comes about twenty pages in . . . Again, this is a book about deception: Dochin is deceived about his ability to write and about the motivations of his friends. On another level, there are the deceptions of the publishing world. The public is deceived into thinking Dancing the Brown Java has two authors, but there are broader and more structural book culture deception as well: authors given paltry advances by publishing companies, critical jargoneers swarming around literature like piranhas at the smell of blood . . . Yet the world of publishing and all the apparatuses that feed off of it are impermanent. Written culture has evolved over thousands of years and will continue to do so with the advent of e-books and online distribution. And as in any hierarchical power structure people will be tricked, swindled, and abused. But this does not touch on the deceptive essence of literature, on its power to make you think that it is important, that the people you read about are in some way real, that it has some inherent meaning. This is essential to literature as an art, but it is the non-essentials clustered around this art that Siniac touches on. And he does so in a highly enjoyable fashion. Look no further for a brainy thriller about a topic rarely scratched by the genre . . . but if you recognize that life is more than a series of plot twists, stick with a real Céline; you’ll be satisfied with something more like Dancing the Brown Java than The Collaborators.

1 Available from New Directions. Siniac’s act of describing the greatest new French novel rather than writing it himself reminds me of the song “Tribute” by Tenacious D.

2 Can you imagine such a thing being popular here in the U.S.?

3 According to this book, there are no important French literary critics that aren’t men.

4 Ferdinaud Céline

8 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

In the Train by Christian Oster. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. (France, Object Press)

I wrote about this novel and Object Press a few weeks back after reading In the Train in one go and being unable to contain my enthusiasm. This is a spectacular book, a perfect summer book—being short, being laugh-out-loud funny—and a great introduction to this particular French literary “movement.”

Oster has had a few books translated into English, including The Cleaning Woman and The Unforseen, all of which have a very specific style that brings to mind other French writers such as Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Eric Chevillard. The books are narrated through the eyes (and mind) of a semi-befuddled, and definitely odd, man who stumbles his way through life, trying to find love, but fucking things up thanks to his strange ideas and way of viewing the world. Broad brush strokes, I know, and there’s a lot more going on in these books than just that, but personally, I think the best of these (Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Oster’s In the Train) really work because the narrator’s observations and way of seeing the world is so wack, that it’s incredibly compelling.

Quick digression: A few years back, the amazing literary critic Warren Motte wrote a book entitled Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Fiction that traced the similarities—simple writing, repetition, symmetry, playfulness—among the works from these three writers and a host of other French authors working a similar vein. So if you’re interested in finding out more about this trend or other interesting French writers, this is definitely worth checking out. Although Motte’s an academic, his books aren’t laden with academese, and instead are very interesting and readable.

The plot of In the Train is very simple: a man goes to the train station looking for a woman to crush on. He sees a girl struggle with a heavy bag, approaches her, helps her, sits next to her on the train, has an awkward encounter, stalks her to her hotel, stalks her inside her hotel, and eventually the two have a romantic tryst.

Obviously leaving out a bunch of details here so as to not spoil everything, but the book is very nicely divided into three (unmarked) sections of about the same length: Frank meets (and basically stalks) Anne, explanation of Anne’s current romantic situation, Frank and Anne’s tryst. It’s an incredibly well-structured book, and these shifts are very effective in adding depth and complexity to a rather straightforward boy-meets-girl story.

That’s all fine and good, but as mentioned above, the most important thing here is the voice. All of the humor in this novel comes from Frank’s odd trains of thought and his self-justifications for his bizarre behavior. I marked dozens of passages in this book, and although these work a lot better in context, here are a few fun examples that hopefully illustrate Frank’s mind.

After Anne gets off the train, she tells him that she’s going to meet her sister. He follows her to a hotel, checks in, and then tries to figure out the best way to “accidentally” run into her again. Waiting in the lobby, he sees a woman who maybe possibly could be Anne’s sister—so he wanders over:

If this woman was her sister, then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I managed to exchange a few words with her. It was a roundabout way of getting in touch with Anne. Even if it was clumsy. It might well be clumsy but, precisely because of that, it would be irreversible. My connection with Anne would be established. I would have to wait and see what happened next but the connection would be there: whatever form it took, and however much embarrassment it engendered, there it would be. So I really didn’t have much reason to hesitate, particularly as she could just as easily not be her sister.

I stood up. I went over to her. Just as if she were about to faint. She wasn’t actually going faint, though. She just looked a bit withdrawn, nothing more. I cleared my throat. She looked up. I said are you alright? Are you feeling okay? Are you sure everything’s alright?

Now she did look at me. She said what the hell are you doing? And then, for the first time, I did actually wonder what the hell I was doing. Still, I answered nothing, nothing at all, I just thought, I’m sorry. It’s okay, she said, and, by the way, I’m fine, thank you, and I went and sat back down.

I hadn’t got very far. She could still be Anne’s sister. And be feeling terrible. Or great.

One other bit . . . After he checks into the hotel, he realizes that since he wasn’t planning on staying overnight, he doesn’t have any clean underwear. And if all goes according to insane plan, Anne might find out, think he’s got issues, etc. But if he leaves to buy underwear, he might miss Anne. So:

And anyway, finding underwear, in Gournon, even on a Saturday afternoon, wasn’t going to prove easy. And, if and when I did find some, I wasn’t going to rush to let Anne know, in order to reassure her about my personal hygiene and the coherence of my behavior. All of which meant that—thanks to this woman, actually—I was confronted with a serious personal hygiene problem, which I was going to have to resolve, come what may. So then. So then, never mind, I told myself, I’m going out. I’ll take the risk. After all, she could wait for me too, if she happened to want to see me again, in this hotel. It may even be better like this.

All praise to Adriana Hunter for presenting such a fluidly quirky voice. Amazing translation job. And the book is very pretty, in keeping with the simplicity of Object Press’s aesthetic.

This novel is amazingly fun, and right at the top of my recommendation list. Hopefully the panelists on this year’s Best Translated Book Award (I’m not one of them) will take a close look . . .

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

A few months back, I was contacted by the editor of Object Press, a relatively new publishing house in Toronto that was in the process of bringing out Christian Oster’s In the Train.

I’m always excited to find out about new presses doing lit in translation, especially ones with simple, effective, attractive websites (do you know how rare this is? do you? I can count the publisher websites that aren’t hideous on one hand) and an elegant cover design. I’m also a big Oster fan—mainly of The Cleaning Woman, and in part because of my intense crush on Émilie Dequenne who starred in the movie version.

Anyway, before talking more about In the Train (a full review of which will appear next week), here’s how Object Press describes itself:

Object Press was formed in 2008. We are a small, independent press that publishes fiction in slim, quality paperback editions.

While our publications might not easily fit into categories, there are certain motivations that unite the work we do. One of them is the desire to present fiction—focusing on, but not limited to, the novel—that is somehow different, expanding its potential, its horizon of possibility. One aspect of this is reflected in presenting titles of relatively short length, favoring writing that is precise, inspired and thoughtfully structured. Another important motivation for us is something we don’t hear very much of in publishing, and that is the pursuit of joy. The joy of writing, reading; of discovering a new narrative, a new voice; of holding and handling books; of seeing them on shelves, inviting them into our lives, our thoughts. These books are objects for use, objects for reflection. And these are our projects, focusing on literary innovation, good design and the pleasures of literature.

In the Train is a short novel (more like a novella, I suppose), and it is precise and well-structured. It’s also incredibly funny. I can’t remember the last time I literally laughed out loud while reading in a public place. But I spent yesterday afternoon cracking up in Java’s despite any and all odd looks . . . I’ll write more about the book later, but it’s a fantastic love story (of sorts) about a guy who goes to the train station essentially looking for someone to crush on. There he meets an odd, captivating woman and helps her with her bag . . . Things progress from there, all told through Frank’s point-of-view, which is skewed and charmingly insane in that way that contemporary French authors can portray slightly creepy old dudes as being charmingly insane. As a single man, I have to say that these sorts of odd neuroses and strange turns of thought are never as captivating to women you meet in real life . . . At least not here in Rochester. But because it’s funny, I’m totally willing to suspend my disbelief when it comes to Frank not getting slapped during his second meeting with Anne, which takes place in the hotel that he followed her into:

What about my room number? she asked. How did you get that?

I knocked on doors.

She looked worried. Or impressed, I’m not sure. She said I won’t really have time to see you.

That’s not the point, I said.

I’d sort of forgotten what was the point. But it wasn’t necessarily to see her, not for me, not now. I wanted to keep the connection, that was all. To say see you, like on the platform, that yes. I said it.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how much I love this book, but I’ll save it for the review. But seriously—check out Object Press. Very cool what they’re doing and I wish them the best of luck.

3 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Brittle Age and Returning Upland by Rene Char. Translated from the French by Gustaf Sobin. (France, Counterpath)

This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!

On one particularly bad night we were all in the kitchen with this book, idly translating it into German, Spanish, Chinese. Then the war began. Another time, I handed it to a guy and, flipping through it and seeing how “The Brittle Age” is composed often of single sentences each on their own page, he called it a waste of paper. I made him take it home and when he returned it I asked him if he still felt the same and he shook his head very slowly. I think I’ve read it five times now. Maybe six.

All of which is to say that The Brittle Age and Returning Upland is an eloquent, disquieting book. One that makes an impact. That these two works by a poet who’s been dead for more than two decades is being published in this country for the first time is both great and puzzling. I am unfortunately ignorant of the history of how it came to be published. But neither am I terribly concerned about that, grateful as I am for the mere fact of its existence.

The book contains two poems written in the 60s. The first, “The Brittle Age,” stretches across some 87 pages, made up of single fragments, none of them longer than five lines, many a few words. The second, “Returning Upland,” is more properly a series of poems, if not a serial poem. The two works are discrete, having no relation other than having been written by one person, translated by another.

“Comfort is crime, the fountain told me from its rock.” And on the next page: “Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.” And the next: “Death’s great ally, where its midges are best concealed, is memory: the persecutor of our odyssey, lasting from an eve to the pink tomorrow.”

And so on. “The Brittle Age” is undoubtedly the star here, though I doubt very seriously is “Returning Upland” could get a fair hearing in any court containing the other poem. The inclusion of both of them makes the most sense in light of the fact that both were translated by Gustaf Sobin, an American poet for whom Char appears to have been something between mentor and father-figure.

Even the cursory sort of French I possess is enough to reveal the quality of Sobin’s work here. His ear is so good, and his sense of English poetry so sound that he can rewrite individual sentences as he needs to in order to maintain Char’s voice, changing the letter, capturing the spirit of the thing, as when Char’s French reads:

Il advient que notre coeur soit comme chassé de notre corps. Et notre corps est comme mort.

And Sobin’s English gives us:

Sometimes our heart seems as if chased from our body, and our body, as if dead.

Sobin makes two sentences into one. He uses commas to create pauses that work to excellent rhythmic effect and to enable a reproduction, with the double use of the word “body,” of an echo of the homophonic effect the French has with couer and corps, which is where most of Char’s art in this passage resides.

One example, pulled at random from a book which teems with them.

16 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We did it! Here’s the final featured title from this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Desert by J.M.G. Le Clézio. Translated from the French by C. Dickson. (France, David R. Godine)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. Thanks again for all your help covering the longlist titles!

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a perfect example of why Le Clézio won the Nobel in 2008, even though he was little known in the United States—sprawling, place specific narratives that bring to life the histories of cultures we do not know and that the world is quickly forgetting. One thing not to expect when you read Desert is a fast-paced narrative that immediately transplants you into another place and time. It does take you to another place, but in a slow, slightly repetitive pace that moves like the Earth’s rotation. A pace that you know is happening but subtly enough that you don’t notice.

The novel begins with the story of Nour, fourteen year old boy who is part of a North African people, the Taureg, more commonly referred to as the “blue men” because of the sky blue robes that they wear to honor the father of their people. In 1909, the French Colonialists are forcing the blue men out of their native land and into an aimless horrifying journey through the desert, led by their frail spiritual leader, Ma al-Aïnine. From the onset of the novel, there is the presence of an unnamed character, which is the Earth itself and all it’s natural elements. Throughout the novel, we learn Nour has a family—parents, sisters and brothers—and we learn of his staid character, his generous and loyal nature. But mostly he is the observer, the eyes we see through as we watch this Berber tribe lose their land, their leader and their hope to ward off the superior warring efforts of the Christians. Although, it’s the Earth that is just as prominent in the narrative being equal parts friend and enemy, and becoming a major character that only has allegiance to itself. The Earth shows no favoritism. She provides food and water to sustain them yet also tortures them with unrelenting rugged terrains and a scorching sun that dehydrates and destroys. Nour observes the toll of the journey and the effect of the elements on his people:

Standing by the side of the trail, he saw them walking slowly past, hardly lifting their legs, heavy with weariness. They had emaciated gray faces, eyes shiny with fever. Their lips were bleeding; their hands and chests were marked with wounds where the clotted blood had mixed with golden particles of dust. The sun beat down on them as it did on the red stones of the path, and they received a real beating. The women had no shoes, and their bare feet were burned form the sand and eaten away wit the salt. But the most painful thing about them, the most disquieting thing that made pity rise in Nour’s breast, was their silence. Not one of them spoke or sang. No one cried or moaned.

The close third person point-of-view by Le Clézio makes it difficult for us to not feel the effects of the sun, the scorching ground under our feet, the utter exhaustion that Nour and his people must endure. To combat complete fatigue of the reader, he introduces Lalla, a young girl living in the slums of Tangier as a descendant of the blue men. This is where nature becomes cleansing, vivifying and spiritual. Lalla does not go to school. She does not read or write. Instead she wonders her countryside jumping dunes, laying on the white sand and running along with the wind, breathing in its rhythm and essence. She lets the sun edify her, erasing her hunger and loneliness, inhaling it as if it were the source of life itself. She befriends flies and wasps, recognizing their role in the cycle of life and she finds comfort and solitude in the sea and the freedom it offers.

But the voice is still murmuring, still fluttering inside of Lalla’s body. It is only the voice of the wind, the voice of the sea, of the sand, voice of the light that dazzles and numbs people’s willpower. It comes at the same time as the stranger’s gaze, it shatters and uproots everything on earth that resists it. The in goes farther out, toward the horizon, gets lost out at sea on the mighty waves, it carries the clouds and the sand toward the rocky coasts on the other side of the sea, toward the vast deltas where the smokestacks of the refineries are burning.

Lalla lives with her Aunt Aamma. Lalla’s parent died when she was young and what she knows of them is through Aamma. Lalla has friends like the shepherd boy, the Hartani, who does not speak and the fisherman, Naman, who regales her stories of all the places where he has traveled. There is al-Ser, which stands for the Secret, a spirit she visits in the middle of the desert who fills her with an overwhelming sense of well-being and becomes her spiritual guide. After an attempt by her aunt to arrange a marriage for her, Lalla leaves with the Hartani to escape her destiny. The Hartani and Lalla become separated and Lalla ends ups months later in Marseilles, where her aunt has already situated herself in one of the immigrant tenement housing projects. Lalla finds work and befriends a gypsy teenager, Radicz, who steals for a living. She is thrust in the eye of the public as the ethnic model, Hawa, after a photographer spots her in a café and she becomes his muse. She goes through life like the wind, without a true purpose, flowing in any direction that pulls her. But the freedom and solitude that nature offers her are the only real things that compel her to thrive. Eventually she returns to Tangier to give birth to the son of the Hartani in the vast landscape of Morocco with its promise of peace and independence.

Le Clézio facilely creates the symbiotic relationship between the Taureg and nature. Lalla and Nour listen to the earth for answers, sustenance and portents. The wind, the sun and the sea do not control their lives, but they pulse within their blood and live within their hearts. This is what Le Clézio gives to the global readership, a perspective of a people that roamed the desert in search of their own land and their own traditions. But the hunger for power slowly wipes clean the slate of ethnic diversity. Desert is Le Clézio’s effort to give voice to the people who spoke through their journeys and through their respect for nature and through their silence, he makes hear how much they deserve a place on this Earth.

8 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eight days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi. Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball. (Djibouti, University of Nebraska Press)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. She’s going to be helping out this week with a couple other posts so that we can be sure to cover all 25 books before 2/16’s announcement of the finalists . . .

Abdourahman A. Waberi writes in his novel, In the United States of Africa, what many people in third world countries dream of—that they were born into the richest country in the world and had every advantage that Americans have. What is so captivating about this novel is its commitment to this idea, to realizing this dream in an imagined world, to reimagining the context of race and politics. Immediately, the reader is struck by that concept—what would it be like if Africa were America and the United States and Europe were third world countries where the whiteness of your skin was a disadvantage, a mark of poverty and prejudice. To enrich this conceit, Waberi adds two characters, Yacuba and Maya. These two characters do not know each other or interact, but react to each other’s appearance according to their own backgrounds. Yacuba, a poor carpenter from the bowels of Europe, emigrates to Africa in search of a better life. Yacuba’s life does not improve; in fact, it hovers in the same misery and becomes even more miserable as he is opened up to the constant prejudices that he sees propagated against himself and his people daily in real life and in the media.

But most of the novel is told through the eyes of Maya, or at least, through the mind of Maya. Waberi chooses a removed second person, as if someone is telling Maya her history, her movements and her thoughts:

Ever since your mother’s illness, everything—your body and your mind, your dreams and your feelings—have been focused on death. You examine every sin, Maya, every word, every particle of darkness, every rumor you hear on the radio. Just yesterday, your were struck by a detail in a popular song written by our great lyric songwriter, the illustrious Robert Marley.

Maya, adopted when she was little by African doctor, is white and privileged. She never realized the color of her skin would be a problem until she went to school and other children made fun of her. Feeling out of place with the world she lives in, she goes in search of her mother. This leads her to the underbelly of France, ripe with the grit and grime of poverty and hopelessness. Maya (her real name is Malaika) encounters head on her prejudices but also the contrast of the color of her skin with her background.

Already the theater of your journey is set up in this corner of France. You have a solid advantage, Maya. As you very well know, you have the local color. As long as you don’t open your mouth, nobody can suspect your foreign status, the source of many privileges. You usually keep quiet or else you express yourself in elementary French, as correct as possible. You try to erase your accent, which sounds like it comes from far away, as it wasn’t easy to find a professor to teach you the rudiments of this language—your parents insisted you learn it, if only because of your personal history.

Subtle as this point is, it reverberates—imagine that your culture, your language, your customs were slowly and quickly dismissed because your country’s financial status didn’t have an impact on global economy. Who you are as an individual is wrapped up in the disregard of rich countries and their motivations. Waberi attempts to deliver this message with alternating turns of humor and emotion, leaving us to wonder what our roles are in all of this.

Equally impressive to the goal of this novel, is Waberi’s sense and use of language. He is lyrical and direct, both earthy and ethereal. In his language you sense the rugged landscape of his native Djibouti but also the fantastical lightness of its traditions. All this is served so well by the deft translation of David and Nicole Ball.

This novel is not perfect, but it is imperfect in a very acceptable and forgiving way. The lofty aim and the mechanics Waberi uses emphasize his talent as a writer and his responsibility as a writer. To make us think in a different way about the world we live in, but rarely question. For moral integrity alone, this book deserves to be on the longlist.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Desert, translated from the French by C. Dickson and published by David R. Godine as part of the amazing Verba Mundi series.

Timothy Nassau, an intern here last summer and current student at Brown, wrote this review. Tim’s a really sharp reader, and has reviewed and written for us in the past.

Desert made the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist, and we will be featuring this next week in our one-a-day series. Tim seems to have some mixed feelings about this novel, but he does make it sound really interesting:

The lack of any article in the title should immediately tip off the reader: Desert is not about a particular desert, such as the Sahara, or even the desert, that great thirsty body that covers the world in sandy blotches and makes travelers conflate Perrier with Dom Pérignon. Both are certainly integral to the novel, but the desert here is more than a geographical place, more than some combination of climatic conditions and topographical features. For Le Clézio, it is spiritual, the embodiment of a way of life and a means of interacting with the world that comes from the meeting place of a harsh landscape and a resilient human will. The analogy may be silly, but I am reminded of a post-colonial version of the Force from Star Wars—Desert as intangible power that liberates man from the constraints of time, space, and, more specifically, from the destructive powers that the French unleashed in Africa early last century, a destruction that the author traces through its modern iterations.

Desert chronicles the story of a young man and woman, separated by time and space, but unified by a common ancestry and the ubiquitous Desert they inhabit. The two plots are told intermittently throughout the book, but we begin with Nour, a young member of desert warriors known as “the blue men.” Forced to migrate by the steady encroachment of the “Christians,” Nour and his tribe, along with dozens more, move northward through the desert in a brutal and futile search for new lands. Decades later, in an unspecified part of Morocco, Lalla, a late descendant of the blue men, makes a similar journey. Less historical and thus more personal, in these sections we follow Lalla’s life in a shantytown called the Project. To avoid an arranged marriage, she becomes an immigrant in Marseilles where work and happiness are often hard to come by. So as Nour flees from the French, Lalla runs to them, yet both refuse to be conquered by circumstance: Nour joins the hopeless final stand of his people, while Lalla finally finds success as a model.

Click here to read the full review.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

The lack of any article in the title should immediately tip off the reader: Desert is not about a particular desert, such as the Sahara, or even the desert, that great thirsty body that covers the world in sandy blotches and makes travelers conflate Perrier with Dom Pérignon. Both are certainly integral to the novel, but the desert here is more than a geographical place, more than some combination of climatic conditions and topographical features. For Le Clézio, it is spiritual, the embodiment of a way of life and a means of interacting with the world that comes from the meeting place of a harsh landscape and a resilient human will. The analogy may be silly, but I am reminded of a post-colonial version of the Force from Star Wars—Desert as intangible power that liberates man from the constraints of time, space, and, more specifically, from the destructive powers that the French unleashed in Africa early last century, a destruction that the author traces through its modern iterations.

Desert chronicles the story of a young man and woman, separated by time and space, but unified by a common ancestry and the ubiquitous Desert they inhabit. The two plots are told intermittently throughout the book, but we begin with Nour, a young member of desert warriors known as “the blue men.” Forced to migrate by the steady encroachment of the “Christians,” Nour and his tribe, along with dozens more, move northward through the desert in a brutal and futile search for new lands. Decades later, in an unspecified part of Morocco, Lalla, a late descendant of the blue men, makes a similar journey. Less historical and thus more personal, in these sections we follow Lalla’s life in a shantytown called the Project. To avoid an arranged marriage, she becomes an immigrant in Marseilles where work and happiness are often hard to come by. So as Nour flees from the French, Lalla runs to them, yet both refuse to be conquered by circumstance: Nour joins the hopeless final stand of his people, while Lalla finally finds success as a model.

J.M.G. Le Clézio, who became known in America after he won the Nobel Prize last year, currently lives between Albuquerque, New Mexico, Nice, France, and the island of Mauritius, off the Southeast coast of Africa. If this does not suffice to make him absurdly cosmopolitan, he has also lived in Nigeria, England, and Panama, among other places. In this context, the geographical expanse of his novel seems less impressive—merely a hop over the Mediterranean from the African desert to Southern France—but Le Clézio’s Ulyssean life also underscores and explains his central thematic concern: how we live in a place, what it means to do so, and how that place becomes some part of us.

It is the treatment of these questions that is the books greatest strength, but also the source of its failings. Perhaps from all his traveling, Le Clézio seems to have gained an appreciation, an admiration even, for places that correspond to his own way of inhabiting them; just as he is free from the confines of one country, just as his characters are equally footloose, so too are the locations in Desert obstinate and independent. They are marked by disappearance and infinitude and thus cannot be contained; they refuse to be marked by humans. Le Clézio says of the desert, “It was the only—perhaps the last—free land, the land in which the laws of men no longer mattered.” In our age of environmental erosion, such a land untouchable by our hands can be highly appealing, and Le Clézio’s writing is at its best when describing this mystic place:

It was as if there were no names here, as if there were no words. The desert cleansed everything in its wind, wiped everything away. The men had the freedom of the open spaces in their eyes, their skin was like metal. Sunlight blazed everywhere. The ochre, yellow, gray, white sand, the fine sand shifted, showing the direction of the wind. It covered all traces, all bones. It repelled light, drove away water, life, far from a center that no one could recognize. The men knew perfectly well that the desert wanted nothing to do with them.

The same sense of an imperturbable and unalterable space reoccurs in the descriptions of Lalla’s life abroad. She leaves the African desert to find its reflection in the anonymity of the city, though whereas the indifference of the African desert appears majestic and liberated, in Marseilles this same characteristic is more ambivalent. When Le Clézio describes the hotel where Lalla works, his prose maintains its precise descriptive power, but the images it leaves is far more elegiacal:

None of those people really exist, except for the old man with his face eaten away. They don’t exist because they leave no trace of their passage, as if they were nothing but shadows, ghosts. When they leave one day, it’s as if they’d never come. The bed with canvas webbing is still the same, and the wobbly chair, the stained linoleum, the greasy walls, where the paint is blistering, and the bare, flyspecked, electric lightbulb hanging at the end of its wire. Everything stays the same.

Yet it is in this context that Lalla can pass unnoticed, that she can slip back into her Desert: “Even in the middle of straight avenues, where there is a constant flow of cars and people going up, going down, Lalla knows she can become invisible.” And so too the blue men become invisible, wiped out by the French and more or less forgotten by history.

Desert is the chronicle of people and places that refuse to be tamed and this we can admire, but the novel often falls prey to its namesake. Page after page of description, however beautiful it may be, gives one a sense of sprawling expanse, but it also bogs down the reader despite constant evocations of freedom. At times, too, it seems that the characters are either living extensions of the places they inhabit, pawns placed there for the author to make his points about setting. While reading the novel, the historical context frequently feels like an afterthought, an excuse to put characters in a specific circumstance. As for Nour and Lalla, with symbolic weight comes an absence of individuality and interest; the desert is, ultimately, the most intriguing character of the novel.

And, finally, there is the problem of what it means to be untouchable and anonymous, to stand unbendingly against the forces of change. For the blue men it inevitably leads to destruction; Lalla maintains her fierce independence and finds success as an immigrant, but at the human cost of aloofness—she refuses to use her real name as a model. Ultimately in this novel, only nature can maintain the ideal, only the desert can ignore human life without loss. But is this even possible? Recent studies suggest that the climate change we have induced has caused a greening of the Sahara. It is a frightening testament to our destructive power that thirty years after it was published, Desert can be read as a utopian novel.

22 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by our own E.J. Van Lanen on Jean Echenoz’s Running, which was recently released by The New Press in Linda Coverdale’s translation.

Personally, I’m a big Echenoz fan—especially of his earlier noir-detective books like Cherokee—and this is one of the many books I’m looking forward to reading for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards. (Since it released in December, this isn’t eligible for this year’s award.) In fact, there are a slew of Dec-Feb books that I can’t wait to read . . . but more on that tomorrow.

Here’s the opening of E.J.‘s review:

Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

“Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

“Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.”

Click here for the full review.

22 December 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.

Emil’s running style and training methods are self-taught and unorthodox—Echenoz makes a few attempts to describe Zátopek’s strained and painful-looking style—but these methods prove effective for Emil. He begins winning races around occupied Czechoslovakia and comes in fifth at the European Championships in Oslo, breaking the Czech record. After the end of World War II, Emil is drafted into the army, whom he represents at the Allied Forces Championships in Berlin. During the race he laps several of the competitors and the crowd goes wild—Emil suddenly finds himself world famous.

His fame makes him the perfect propaganda tool for the fledgling communist country, so Emil is made an “Athlete of the State”. He marries a fellow athlete, and he wins gold in the 10,000 meters in the 1948 Olympics in London—the first such medal for Czechoslovakia. This is the beginning of Emil’s dominance of distance running. He wins everywhere he goes and sets a world records almost every time out. He is the fastest man on earth. His career reaches a peak at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he wins gold in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and, incredibly, in the marathon—a race he had never run before in his life.

Inevitably, age catches up with Emil, and he begins losing races, until he finally retires following the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

In Running, Echenoz has chosen a compelling figure to focus on. Zátopek’s story—a reluctant athlete who, through serendipity and will, becomes a legend and a hero to his country—is truly fascinating. Echenoz’s style here is perfectly suited to the action, the races in particular are well described, and Linda Coverdale’s translation is transparent.

The novel, however, can at times feel like a simple recapitulation of Emil’s victories. There isn’t really any psychological depth to the ‘character’ of Emil nor much tension in the telling of his story. This seems intentional for the most part; Echenoz appears to be more interested in the accomplishments, which are astounding, than in the man, and much of the political background of the novel serves more as context, or simple fact, than as motivation for anything that takes place. I’d categorize it as creative non-fiction rather than as a novel. At a really brief 128 pages, Running is a fascinating story that rescues, for me at least, an important and highly influential athlete from obscurity.

10 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu on Jacques Reda’s Europes, which was translated from the French by Aaron Prevots and published by Host Publications.

Daniela Hurezanu—a translator and author who wrote a great review for us of Memory Glyphs—makes this book sound incredibly interesting. There’s a bigger sample below, but I love this line from her review: “Reda’s style is an homage to the long sentence made of complex clauses with subordinates that intricately follow each other—a perfect mastery of grammar as logic-machine.”

Anyway, the one gripe I have is about Host Publication’s website (surprise!). I really like what Host has done over the past few years, and they have quietly become one of the most consistently interesting presses publishing today. Especially in terms of poetry in translation. But for whatever reason, it looks like their website hasn’t been updated in months. At least. In fact, unless I suddenly became incapable of reading and/or using the Internets, Europes isn’t even listed on Host’s site. Not that I can actually “search” the site, seeing as that there is no seach function . . . (Sorry, everyone at Host. This kind of thing is a pet peeve of mine. And trust me, you are light years ahead of clusterfuck sites like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s, which I’ve decided is either a joke or some devious experiment.)

Back to the subject at hand—Reda’s Europes and Daniela’s review:

After having published Return to Calm, Host Publications now offers us another book by Jacques Réda, also bilingual and also in Aaron Prevots’s translation—Europes. If in an “official” way Europes could be called a “travel essay,” the book’s fluid character undermines this characterization. Recording the fleeting instants of the narrator’s peregrinations, Europes includes essays on Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia and France—one or two essays followed by one or more poems for each country. The poems are “poèmes de circonstance,” that is, topical poems, in this case, poems on the countries described in the preceding essays, written in the tradition of Raymond Queneau: playful, silly, ironically rhymed.

Réda is what the French call a flâneur, a roamer who enjoys his anonymous status in a city’s labyrinth. When a flâneur crosses a border into a new territory he becomes a tourist. The difference between a flâneur and a tourist is that a tourist usually has a destination and certain goals—“Today is Paris Disneyland, tomorrow Auschwitz.” Réda is that rare species of tourist-flâneur; more a traveler than a tourist, he doesn’t entirely belong to the first category either, since as early as the eighteenth century it was common for travelers to have a project: that of letting themselves be formed by the experience of travel. Réda wants to be neither formed nor informed by his travels, he simply has “la bougeotte,” as the French would say, i.e., he can’t stay put.

Although Réda’s style is very literary, he is no snob, and he probably wouldn’t mind being called a tourist. With complete lack of snobbery, he declares that he loves supermarkets “for themselves,” a love only natural for someone who has grown up in poverty (after all, to despise richness is a luxury only the rich can afford). But this confession is immediately followed by an unexpected critical reflection: supermarkets are “counter-museums” or “museums of the instant,” Réda says, “whose instants are accessible, consumable, nearly straightaway consumed but indefinitely renewable . . .”

Click here for the full review.

10 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After having published Return to Calm, Host Publications now offers us another book by Jacques Réda, also bilingual and also in Aaron Prevots’s translation—Europes. If in an “official” way Europes could be called a “travel essay,” the book’s fluid character undermines this characterization. Recording the fleeting instants of the narrator’s peregrinations, Europes includes essays on Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia and France—one or two essays followed by one or more poems for each country. The poems are “poèmes de circonstance,” that is, topical poems, in this case, poems on the countries described in the preceding essays, written in the tradition of Raymond Queneau: playful, silly, ironically rhymed.

Réda is what the French call a flâneur, a roamer who enjoys his anonymous status in a city’s labyrinth. When a flâneur crosses a border into a new territory he becomes a tourist. The difference between a flâneur and a tourist is that a tourist usually has a destination and certain goals—“Today is Paris Disneyland, tomorrow Auschwitz.” Réda is that rare species of tourist-flâneur; more a traveler than a tourist, he doesn’t entirely belong to the first category either, since as early as the eighteenth century it was common for travelers to have a project: that of letting themselves be formed by the experience of travel. Réda wants to be neither formed nor informed by his travels, he simply has “la bougeotte,” as the French would say, i.e., he can’t stay put.

Although Réda’s style is very literary, he is no snob, and he probably wouldn’t mind being called a tourist. With complete lack of snobbery, he declares that he loves supermarkets “for themselves,” a love only natural for someone who has grown up in poverty (after all, to despise richness is a luxury only the rich can afford). But this confession is immediately followed by an unexpected critical reflection: supermarkets are “counter-museums” or “museums of the instant,” Réda says, “whose instants are accessible, consumable, nearly straightaway consumed but indefinitely renewable . . .”

As a flâneur, Réda is an heir to Baudelaire. As a true Frenchman, he doesn’t simply record what he sees, as American writers usually do, but also analyzes it; yet I wouldn’t say that he writes in the tradition of, say, Sartre, or de Beauvoir (I am thinking of their writings on their travels to the States), whose critical impulse is to seize the unknown in the Other and freeze it through their aphoristic pronouncements. Neither a lover of exotic experiences—Réda prefers to stay in his European milieu rather than look for spicy otherness through some eco-tourist agency—nor a nostalgic ruminator for the good old days, Réda is a lover of trains—that is, of rhythmic movement and chance encounters—of temporary estrangement, and strangely familiar places. The only contemporary writer I can think of who belongs to the same family is John Taylor, an American who lives in France, whose Some Sort of Joy has recently come out in a French translation.

Réda’s style is an homage to the long sentence made of complex clauses with subordinates that intricately follow each other—a perfect mastery of grammar as a logic-machine. At the end of the sentence you experience the climactic joy of a detective who has discovered the criminal. The long, complex sentence is, alas, an endangered species, at least in this country, where “economy” of style or so-called “minimalism” is synonymous with “good writing,” when in fact it is often simply laziness of thinking.

Reading Réda, the bilingual reader is also struck by something else: Réda is a very ironic writer, but you have to read him in French in order to realize that. This is not because Prevots’s translation is not good enough—it is a perfectly good translation—but because what we call irony is different in every language. The irony of French writers is more artificial than that of their American counterparts because, as in Réda’s case, it represents the tone of a persona or a mask the author has put on, and the authorial masks we use are generally grounded in voices that have preceded us. In other words: our irony is never entirely “authentic”—rather it is a mimesis of the irony of other authors that have written in our language, and the reader can experience that irony because he can recognize the tone in his cultural repertoire. Contemporary American writers practice an irony that is more colloquial and more nihilistic in the sense that the authorial voice situates itself somewhere above good and evil, and is rarely self-ironic. Réda is self-ironic, which, of course, makes him funny.

The last piece in the book, “A Paris Crossing” includes some metatextual commentary on the story’s source, namely the fact that it had been initially commissioned by a so-called geographic tourism magazine, which, having asked for a piece in ten thousand characters, ends up rejecting it because it failed to comply with the magazine’s editorial policy. We find this out both in the first paragraph and in a footnote at the end of the story. In the first paragraph, Réda lets the reader know that the magazine suggested to him to “cross Paris in ten thousand characters,” and he compares this editorial practice with the ethos of athletic competitiveness, adding: “Moreover, I’ve just squandered three or four hundred characters complaining about my fate.” I am the kind of reader who gets a lot of pleasure out of these disclosures, all the more so when I imagine the editor of said tourism magazine reading the piece that makes fun his policies.

I hate to sound didactic, but this a book that anyone who teaches French culture and literature should have.

22 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Looks like this is going to be a week of Dalkey Archive reviews, with my piece on Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao coming out on Thursday or Friday . . . And not to give away too much, but my review is much more positive than what Timothy Nassau (former Open Letter intern who’s actually back in school and still reviewing for us) has to say about Gerard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, which was published earlier this year in Jane Kuntz’s translation.

As frequently occurs, a few days ago I was browsing through a bookstore when something caught my eye. The book was Negative Horizon by Paul Virilio, which “sets out [his] theory of dromoscopy: a means of apprehending speed and its pivotal—and potentially destructive—role in contemporary global society.” Chapter titles include “The Aesthetics of Disappearance,” “The Metapsychosis of the Passenger,” and “From the Site of the Election to the Site of the Ejection.” I did not purchase the book (the one time I’ve read anything Continuum published it took me over an hour to get through the first ten pages, though kudos to them for putting out a translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but something about it struck me as simultaneously so French and so absurdly pretentious that Paul Virilio has stayed with me.

Gérard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, a book I actually have read, has similar qualities. The title comes from the Bertolt Brecht line, “And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” These morbid connotations, coupled with the three numbers, present a taste of what is to come. The basic story is that a youth from the housing projects of a Parisian suburb rapes and kills his mother’s boss, the manager of a supermarket. The novel aspect of the book is that the story is told three different times in three sections of eleven chapters each.

At first this may sound like a more drawn out and more blood-thirsty version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The back of the book certainly backs this up as it describes how each section is “in a different tone or mode and with different sets of images and vocabularies—borrowed from tropical botany, the shipping industry, and ancient Greece.” But this is actually misleading. The whole book sticks fairly close to the same style throughout, and each retelling is more a chance to flesh out the basic plot than to cast it in an entirely new light.

Click here for the full review.

22 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As frequently occurs, a few days ago I was browsing through a bookstore when something caught my eye. The book was Negative Horizon by Paul Virilio, which “sets out [his] theory of dromoscopy: a means of apprehending speed and its pivotal—and potentially destructive—role in contemporary global society.” Chapter titles include “The Aesthetics of Disappearance,” “The Metapsychosis of the Passenger,” and “From the Site of the Election to the Site of the Ejection.” I did not purchase the book (the one time I’ve read anything Continuum published it took me over an hour to get through the first ten pages, though kudos to them for putting out a translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz), but something about it struck me as simultaneously so French and so absurdly pretentious that Paul Virilio has stayed with me.

Gérard Gavarry’s Hoppla! 1 2 3, a book I actually have read, has similar qualities. The title comes from the Bertolt Brecht line, “And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” These morbid connotations, coupled with the three numbers, present a taste of what is to come. The basic story is that a youth from the housing projects of a Parisian suburb rapes and kills his mother’s boss, the manager of a supermarket. The novel aspect of the book is that the story is told three different times in three sections of eleven chapters each.

At first this may sound like a more drawn out and more blood-thirsty version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. The back of the book certainly backs this up as it describes how each section is “in a different tone or mode and with different sets of images and vocabularies—borrowed from tropical botany, the shipping industry, and ancient Greece.” But this is actually misleading. The whole book sticks fairly close to the same style throughout, and each retelling is more a chance to flesh out the basic plot than to cast it in an entirely new light.

To be sure, there are slight variations in each third of the novel: the first has occasional mentions of palm trees and coconuts; the second starts with a scene of two truckers on their way to the supermarket; and the third has certain qualities of solemnity and grandiosity reminiscent of the ancient world. But the most intriguing difference comes in the slang of Ti-Jus, the violent youth, and his friends. Anyone with an eye on France in the past few years knows that the suburbs around Paris are a place of constant tension as the young (infamously dubbed la racaille, or scum, by Sarkozy) start riots or have angry confrontations with the police. Gavarry captures the element of otherness that separates this generation from older ones by honing in on language. When Ti-Jus and his gang are on a train, they use words like Nucifera, spadices, coir, and drupe:

Because they use words like these—much more than because they’re brawny, restless, and voluble—the four adolescents in the Paris-Corbeil look like alien creatures: as foreign as winged angels, as subtropical sprites, or as young and dangerous pagan gods whose slightest prank would surely have unleashed a catastrophe upon mere mortals . . . But deprived as they are of the crutch of language, reduced to apprehending nothing but physical signals and assigning them meaning based solely on intuition, the passengers of the Paris-Corbeil have been demoted to an animal state, excluded from Homo loquens.

In the second section the slang changes to lining the windlass, stowing, and slackening the hawser while in the third we get Furreez, Pholus, and kyroballs! These words are nothing from my limited knowledge of slang in English or French, so a more fitting comparison for Hoppla! 1 2 3 than Exercises in Style seems to be A Clockwork Orange, another novel featuring four unruly youth and their own made up language.

But the key difference is that A Clockwork Orange is narrated wholly by someone already initiated into the patois such that we as readers eventually pick up on his manner of speaking and are able to follow along and empathize with Alex. Yet here the slang appears so infrequently that we are never allowed into the world of Ti-Jus, and thus never get to know him. In fact the characterization of everyone in the book is so spare that we can’t ever feel any attachment to them. This begs the question, who is the subject of the book?

Rather what, for the answer is language, and not that of Ti-Jus, but rather that of Gavarry. The reason I am so resistant to the description on the back of the book is that yes, the slang vocabulary changes from time to time, but it is overshadowed by the third person narrator, who keeps the same voice throughout. Luckily this voice is highly unique, but not without its problems, as the following passage demonstrates:

In the comfort of their passenger compartments, however, people were furious. The radio confirmed it—“You’re furious out there on the southbound!” In the Opel, in particular, Madame Fenerolo, in a fit of rage, went so far as to hit the off button on her car radio . . . and this made all the difference.

Switching off a car radio was a harmless gesture. A show of temper in such circumstances was perfectly understandable. Thus, the THIS in this made all the difference pertains not to the gesture itself, nor even to the acerbic abruptness of its execution, but to the fact that the manager had so fully and unreservedly embodied the meanness and viciousness of her gesture. The act itself has been brief. It lasted only as long as a click or a clack—“You’re furious out there on the click . . .” Nonetheless, just as when hatred or deceit have appeared, even once, on the most beloved of faces, and that same face then becomes forever hostile and deceptive in our eyes, convincing us that it had always been thus, the THIS which the manager’s act had manifested defined in advance the actions, positions, and words to follow, and indeed her entire person, and by retroactively modifying the images that she had previously generated at the SUMABA, THIS devalued those marvels into vulgar fantasies—not without their own attractions, certainly, but not even remotely loveable. Henceforward, both inside and outside the Opel, the climate degenerated—with each passing moment, the silence grew more oppressive, and then, all of a sudden, hail . . . THIS was in the air, epidemic, and THIS threatened to contaminate all persons and all matter, to infest every land, to gangrene burns and deepen wounds until all human bodies were stricken with its inhumanity. Wherever one went, whatever one did, soon dreaming would amount to nothing. However long and high the battlement, no matter how defrosted the surrounding woodland, our lookouts would be reduced to futile expectation, to pointless searching. Such that no mirage, no view anywhere in Île-de-France could console those watchers, our dreamers, nor could reason still have a hope of checking the ruthless momentum of the avenging hordes.

Near the end, Gavarry attaches an almost absurd level of bombastic and cataclysmic consequences to the smallest of gestures, yet he appears to do so completely without irony or humor. It is a style of writing that used sparingly could be highly effective, but when spread out over 160 pages becomes tedious. Gavarry has numerous passages about space and dimension, gesture and body. It is this that reminds me most of (how I imagine that book) by Paul Virilio, and the work of French post-modernists in general. From the most commonplace occurrences they are able to draw great significance that often seems to be baseless. Fiction should show how transcendent daily life can be, but if every second of it were like Hoppla! 1 2 3, I think the sheer awesomeness would drive me mad. An opera is good for four hours, but would become exhausting if it were any longer. That is why with much of this book, I felt like I only had a superficial understanding of what was going on due to the richness and complexity of the writing, yet I have no desire to ever read it again.

28 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Normance, which was translated by Marlon Jones and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

Monica is one of our long-time reviewers and runs the always excellent Salonica World Lit website. She also works at Skylight Books whose tagline (“What a neighborhood bookstore should be . . .) equals awesome. Skylight is also our “featured bookseller of the month summer” and recently redesigned their website. (It looks great! And the book search database works a lot better now. Although it sucks that you can’t click on the author’s name anymore to get a full list of her/his titles. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t gripe in the middle of this post, but it’s Friday.)

As many of you know, I used to work at Dalkey, and after leaving, there have been pointed comments from both sides. Well, in the spirit of something, I want to recommend that any Facebook users become fans of the Dalkey page. It’s just too sad to see them sitting there with 29 fans . . . And while I’m at it, Open Letter has both a group and a fan page. Well, after looking at these more carefully, we’ve decided that the fan page is the better option, and as a result, we’re going to be posting much more frequently there. So if you’re not already a fan (or if you’re only part of our “group,” which has hundreds of more members), please “fan” us by clicking here.

OK, back to literature . . .

Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan is one of my all-time favorite books, and Normance seems to have a bit of the same unhinged, manic energy. Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.

For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.

He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Berbert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:

“We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!”

Click here for the full review.

28 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When a reader, and I mean a true reader looking for guts, the unexpected and the challenging, encounters Céline, she knows that her literary fate is forever changed. Gather your beatniks, your cynics, your semi-autobiographers and toss in a dirty handful of John Kennedy Toole and this might give an idea of what reading Céline is like. Céline’s misanthropy is sobering and hilarious, best rendered in Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, and is also a reaction to war, to unabashed nationalism and unquestioned authoritarianism. In Normance, the doctor turned writer returns to the theme of war, giving us unrelenting and dizzying account of the Allied bombing of Paris from April 21-22, 1944.

For this reason, this not an easy book to read, even for the Céline fan. And to translate it is even more challenging, but the task is easily handled b Marlon Jones, who also delivers an introduction that serves as a valuable companion to the book. Céline can be an obstacle in any language, but when the translation is this good, it justifies our efforts to attempt to read and understand his work.

He doesn’t separate much between the narrator, Louis/Ferdinand, and himself. And the reader doesn’t need to know if there is a difference once she is incessantly bombarded by the tommy-gun narrative that delivers blow after blow of loaded phrases broken up only by ellipses and exclamation points. Stuck in a building with his girlfriend, Arlette/Lili(again the blurring of fiction and reality), and the other tenants, he focuses on his lost cat Bébert and Jules, the hunchback artist he accuses of seducing his girlfriend and conducting the bombing:

We’ll talk about Jules’s wizardry later! . . . criminal wizardry! directing all the bombs toward us! From way up in the sky! From La Fourche Valley! From the right, from the left! But he doesn’t get swept away himself! The hurricane doesn’t carry him off! it respects him! the sweetheart! doesn’t get his head chopped of by the propeller! doesn’t flip over with his canes, plunge into the bushes . . . onto the grill! Oof! he catches himself every time! a big gust . . . he’s spinning! vrrrr! he rolls to the other edge!

Amongst all the narrative shrapnel and the suffocating prose, we are forced to conjure up the horror of war, the imaginings of how destruction tastes and smells what it feels like. There is no other option and that is Céline’s redemption. Just as if you unwillingly placed in the middle of a battle zone, you beg Céline to stop, to change, to quit pounding away at the repetitive circle of the same scene we are forced as readers to walk in, hoping for any chance to escape. But he is unrepentant. He spares no acrimony for himself, his characters and especially his readers:

I’ll accept all your criticisms, your insults, but only as long as you’re not one of those book-borrowing, cadging, and then re-lending types! plague of humankind! If you got your claws on this book by the “let me just borrow it for a while and I’ll give it back” method, you can just keep quiet . . . naturally, by today’s standards, you’re quite right to do it this way! . . . you can say books should be stolen rather than bought without anyone batting an eye . . . it’s even sort of a matter of honor to never buy a book . . . not one person in twenty who’s read your work actually paid for it! pretty sad, eh? if we’re talking about ham, you think one slice can feed twenty people? or that forty asses can cram into on seat at the movies? . . . smile and say hi, poor plundered scribbler! although what’s worst of all is their utter contempt for your work after they got it for free! . . . the way they trash your writing, loathe it, use it to wipe their asses, don’t understand a fucking thing, run off to sell whatever’s left on the riverbanks . . . you’ll say, but there’s a solution! just drown all the loaners! And borrowers with them! imagine, letting the people who actually pay for my goods get screwed . . . fine! the grocer expects you to heckle him a little over the herring . . . but try to rip him off? call the police! . . . isn’t it horrible that I have to babble and clown for nothing? me, who’s paid out so much himself! . . . just the thought of being robbed makes me go pale, I start suffocating worse than I did in the ogre’s fists! . . . my blood, heart, nerves coagulate . . . worse than Delphine! . . . some guy comes up and asks, “Can I borrow that?” I lose consciousness! . . . and then this! look! this philosophy! . . . you can have it! hey there, you squandering slut of a muse, enough’s enough!

This is the type of vitriolic and sarcastic rant that abuts against another, with anger ebbing only when Céline needs to catch his breath. The immediacy of this narrative holds value for it’s literary ingenuity and witness to World War II, but it also reminds us of our own recent catastrophes in the United States, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina. Destruction is cruel and pitiless and inescapable.

But as you read the last sentence, two competing but equally powerful feelings will converge within you—relief and anger. You have survived the Céline’s literary blitz . . . and be thankful that you weren’t really there.

16 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our reviews section is a piece by Timothy Jourdan on Annie Ernaux’s The Possession, which is translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis and recently published by Seven Stories.

Here’s the start of the review:

Over the past decade, Seven Stories has brought out a number of Annie Ernaux titles, including A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and A Simple Passion to great critical acclaim. The Possession, which was originally published in France in 2002, is the most recent title of hers to be beautifully rendered in English by Anna Moschovakis (who also translated Georges Simenon’s _The Engagement).

This is a very slim novel, a precise, almost objective depiction of a woman’s jealousy post-love affair, when after breaking up with her boyfriend of the past six years, she finds out that he’s moving in with another woman.

“This woman filled my head, my chest, and my gut; she was always with me, she took control of my emotions. At the same time, her omnipresence gave my life a new intensity. It produced stirrings that I had never felt before, released a kind of energy, powers of imagination I didn’t know I had; it held me in a state of constant, feverish activity.

“I was, in both senses of the word, possessed.”

Click here for the full review.

16 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past decade, Seven Stories has brought out a number of Annie Ernaux titles, including A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and A Simple Passion to great critical acclaim. The Possession, which was originally published in France in 2002, is the most recent title of hers to be beautifully rendered in English by Anna Moschovakis (who also translated Georges Simenon’s _The Engagement).

This is a very slim novel, a precise, almost objective depiction of a woman’s jealousy post-love affair, when after breaking up with her boyfriend of the past six years, she finds out that he’s moving in with another woman.

This woman filled my head, my chest, and my gut; she was always with me, she took control of my emotions. At the same time, her omnipresence gave my life a new intensity. It produced stirrings that I had never felt before, released a kind of energy, powers of imagination I didn’t know I had; it held me in a state of constant, feverish activity.

I was, in both senses of the word, possessed.

The narrator—whose voice is so clear, so telling, that it’s hard not to believe that this book isn’t based on experiences that Ernaux suffered through—then proceeds to provide a step-by-step depiction of the onset of jealousy and the way it can consume one’s life. One of the most poignant moments—for anyone who’s had a spouse cheat on them—is also quoted on the back of the book:

The strangest thing about jealousy is that it can populate an entire city—the whole world—with a person you may never have met.

Having lived through a similar situation, I can say with certainty that Ernaux nails a lot of the strange, contradictory desires that come up when trying to process this sort of consuming jealous. Such as her quest for knowledge about the “other woman” (“I absolutely had to know her name, her age, her profession, her address. I discovered that these details by which society defines a person’s identity, which we so easily dismiss as irrelevant to truly knowing someone, are in fact essential.”), and the reaction against all that this other person embodies (“I discovered that I hated all female professors—though I myself had been one, and many of my friends still were.”), to a desire to reclaim the past (“When I wasn’t preoccupied with the other woman, I fell prey to the attacks of an outside world bent on reminding me of our common past, which now felt to me like an irremediable loss.”).

The Possession is a very rational portrait of how a person falls prey to the “green-eyed monster” and how jealous can become all-consuming passion (or possession). But it’s also about the end of jealousy. About how life moves on and people—most people—put their lives back together and stop Googling this other woman/man every day.

Although brief, this is a surprisingly complete book. My one reservation is that it can be a bit clinical at times. It’s a retrospective look at jealousy, and as such, loses a bit of its emotional power by too objectively examining the distress and unhinged nature of someone coping with a situation such as this. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth reading.

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Class is a novel about the everyday life of a Paris public school literature teacher who thinks that his current position is a bit useless. The teacher who narrates this book paints not only a picture of his depressing life but of those other educators who are in the same position. Through weighty dialogue, Begaudeau also highlights the struggles that come along with placing a mixture of cultural backgrounds in a single room to learn basic concepts of French literature. The outcome of this situation and overall message of the book seems to be that sometimes teaching can be less than rewarding when you are placed with a rowdy crowd of kids.

The middle-aged narrator comes across as angry, impatient man unwilling to go out of his way to capture the much needed attention of these adolescent teens. His interaction with these ninth graders is less than intolerable and seems more of an obligation than a passion to inspire. At times his behavior even comes into question.

“M’sieur you see how he shoved me?”

“I don’t care.”

The novel is one long string of fight after fight from the students and complaint after complaint from the faculty. The chapters are interchangeable, going from classroom scene to faculty lounge and back. This setup flows, but sometimes it can take a few paragraphs to understand what the complaint or complication (because it has to be one of the two) is for a particular chapter.

Begaudeau does a remarkable job getting the point across that the life of a teacher can be very hectic and unruly at times. However, there is a lack of characterization among both the faculty and the students, which causes everyone to blend together into a huge blob of chaos. Begaudeau might have done this on purpose to help further the point that the narrator has no passion for teaching “The Class” and no sympathy for the whiny staff. This lack of character description makes it very difficult to identify with the teacher, who is just a blurred vision of annoyance. And on the other side of the equation, it’s hard to understand the struggles of these teenagers without being able to connect with them in some way. Or even identify them—oftentimes the focus is more on a clothing detail than anything substantive or permanent about the students:

Frida now had long hair and red letters spelling GLAMOUR appliquéd on her black T-shirt.

Which goes to show how little the narrator cares about his students.

The so-named sat down, a glaring welt in the middle of his forehead.

The ending, possibly the most “happening” scene from the book, is a bit confusing for a couple reasons. There is a soccer game going on outside and one of the literature teacher’s “9-A’s” comes to tell him that they have been disqualified from the game. The teacher’s attention automatically zero’s in on the soccer game, with a play by play description, and just when you think that this is the point where he will defend these kids and let down his guard; the end. You leave the novel the same way you entered it; confused1.

1 This novel was put on the big screen in 2008 and even played at the opening night of the New York Film Festival. It was the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee and seems to fill the it the gaping holes in the novel. Michael Dargis from the New York Times says that it’s “an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and attempts to transform those bodies into citizens . . .” The struggle that comes about when you place so many characters into one book is learning how to express identities and knowing how to connect the reader with the characters. The movie makes those connections and allows the audience to paint the whole picture, furthering their understanding of The Class.

30 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Monica Carter’s piece on Mr Dick or The Tenth Book is the latest addition to our review section.

In addition to checking our Monica’s review, I’d also recommend checking out her recently redesigned web publication Salonica World Lit. Included in this redesign—which looks great—is an announcement about E. Lire an online literary journal she’s launching that will include translated works of fiction, poetry, essays, and literary criticism. Click the link above for more details.

Mr Dick is French bookseller Jean-Pierre Ohl’s debut novel and was released by Dedalus Books earlier this year. Translated from the French by Christine Donougher, the book has received some nice attention in the UK, including this interview with the author.

Monica’s review confirms that this is an interesting book worth checking out:

Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. Generally, I’m leery of books based on literary figures or borrowing heavily from a previous book to bolster a premise, but Mr. Ohl, a bookseller from Bordeaux, France, manages to rise above the common pitfalls of not only a first novel, but of other devices used when one exploits a classic text. Mr Dick or the Tenth Book is inspiring and challenging with its eclectic mix of narrators—François Daumal, the down-trodden boy turned seemingly failed scholar who is obsessed with Dickens, Évariste Borel whose journal tells of his time spent with Dickens during his final days, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of a séance where Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson are present to contact the spirit of Dickens himself—that keep us guessing even when we are not sure what we are guessing about. . . .

Click here for the rest of the review.

27 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. . .

Read More...

13 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. (France, Europa Editions)

Based in part on choice editorial selections and in part on savvy marketing, Europa Editions has a knack for building huge audiences for their translations. And the independent stores love them. Love them so much in fact that Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog landed on the independent booksellers bestseller list.

Doesn’t hurt that this book has been getting reviewed everywhere.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very approachable, engaging book featuring two bookishly intelligent characters: Renée Michel, an aging concierge who hides her intellectual pursuits from all of the residents of the swanky apartment building where she works, and Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to kill herself.

In alternating chapters, Barbery (and by extension, her excellent translator Alison Anderson, who does a marvelous job capturing the voices of these characters) gives life to these two characters, allowing the reader to be fully immersed into the character’s head and various psychological issues. This sample is a good example of the tone, and subject of the book.

Monica Carter reviewed this for us, and touches on this novel’s wide appeal:

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [. . .]

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in an educated, sophisticated yet casual style with philosophical permeations throughout the novel. The philosophical presence is not inherent in either of the narrator’s points-of-view, as in many French novels, but it is used as more of a literary accessory for both Renée and Paloma—something to demonstrate an element of their character. Because it is a commercial novel, the lack of philosophical depth is overshadowed by Barbery’s statement on French society and the novel’s sentimentality. Ultimately, the reader connects with Renée and wants her to be valued and loved by an intellectual compatriot and the reader also wants her to recognize her self-worth regardless of her station in life.

In addition to the sample I linked to above, the Europa page for this book also includes a short interview with Barbery:

Your concierge, on the other hand, is an expert on Tolstoy, but also on philosophy. And even the teenaged Paloma, in her own way, expresses a propensity for abstract speculation.

MB: I followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy. I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn’t work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.

In this novel, erudite citations are side by side with references to comic books or the movies, and not just art house movies but commercial blockbusters.

MB: Like my characters, I ask myself: what do I like, what moves me? A good novel, of course, but also the brilliant manga of Taniguchi. Or a film made well and made purely for entertainment. Why deny oneself these things? I am not afraid of eclecticism.

7 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Jordan Stump. (France, Archipelago)

The Waitress Was New, Dominique Fabre’s first novel to be translated into English, is a quiet, beautiful book that packs a lot of emotional power into its 117 pages. It fits in with a number of other “minimalist” books coming out of France these days and focuses on a few specific days in the life of Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender at a bar that suddenly closes due to the owner’s midlife crisis.

This doesn’t seem like much of a plot, but Fabre creates an incredibly rich world through the mind of his aging bartender, whose life is filled with routines, and who is just a few years away from a full pension when the bar closes down.

One of our favorite reviewers, Ben Lytal, does a great job describing Pierre:

Pierre has been working at Le Cercle, a cafe in the busy Parisian suburb of Asnieres, for eight years. He has been a bartender for all of his working life, and Mr. Fabre’s book is chiefly a meditation on what that life has made of him. In some ways, it has made him humble and slightly invisible. But like Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Pierre is more than a Jeeves: His years of service have been a genuine moral education. He seems to know more of the finer points of human conduct than his bosses, Henri and Isabelle, whose seemingly fuller lives have actually distracted them. They have been married, raised a daughter, dealt with taxes and a life of small business proprietorship, and are now dealing with Henri’s oddly severe midlife crisis—but they are still children, compared to Pierre, who after an early divorce has merely had girlfriends and kept bar.

And E.J. nicely summed up the impact of this novel in his review:

As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his “everyman” life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the “slice of life” feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

I know this sounds hokey, but it’s a perfect book for a rainy afternoon . . .

A lengthy excerpt from the beginning of the book is available online as well, and worth checking out if you want to “sample” the novel. Pierre’s “voice” comes through right from the start, in part because of the fantastic job Jordan Stump’s did translating this novel. (Which comes as no surprise—Jordan is one of the best translators working today.)

And for those of you who speak French, below is an interview with Fabre about a more recent book of his. (I don’t understand French, but I really enjoyed watching this. Fabre’s expressions and mannerisms make him seem like a really cool guy. It would’ve been great to meet him during his U.S. tour . . .)

5 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We just got Ohl’s Mr Dick or The Tenth Book in for review, and after reading this piece in The Guardian I’m pretty sure we’ll be covering it in the near future.

Monsieur Dick, Ohl’s first novel, came out in France four years ago and has won three literary prizes. The English translation has just been published by Dedalus as Mr Dick. “How do you think that title will be received in Britain?” the author asks me, understanding all too well the potential snigger factor. Mr Dick is a character from David Copperfield and Ohl’s book is in many ways a homage to Dickens. It is the story of two young Frenchmen whose lives are consumed by their obsession with Dickens’s life and books and in particular his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s a playful and highly literary detective story, like a Gallic mélange of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and AS Byatt’s Possession. [. . .]

The one aspect of British life that Ohl doesn’t appreciate, however, is the current state of the nation’s bookshops. “Things are bad in France,” he admits. “It’s difficult for independent booksellers here. But in Britain, the situation is catastrophic.”

Before lunch, I visit the bookshop where Ohl works, Librairie Georges, in Talence, near Bordeaux. It is not, as I expected, an old-fashioned, cave-like place, with books stacked in high, random piles all over the floor; indeed, it looks superficially like many modern bookshops. It is large, well lit and has a cafe at the front. Dig a little deeper, though, and the differences are obvious.

For a start, Ohl, who runs the literature section, has a considerable influence over which books (and how many copies of each) his shop buys in and displays. He chooses them not on the basis of how much the publishers pay him for shelf space (as is the case with certain UK chains) but by actually reading them.

Throughout the shop, you can see books labelled with paper of three different colours: green for “recommended”, orange for “highly recommended” and purple for “coup de coeur” – the books that have most thrilled or moved or made the bookshop’s workers laugh. Ohl and his four assistants also give regular “literary breakfasts”, where readers come to drink coffee and eat croissants and listen while the booksellers tell them about the best books they have read in the past few months. The morning I was there, 30 people turned up – male and female, young and old – and listened for two hours, many asking questions and taking notes. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you’re likely to see in Waterstone’s or Borders these days.

Or in many U.S. bookstores . . . A literary brunch at an indie store (or public library) where readers could get staff recommendations and talk about new books would be frickin’ fantastic . . .

8 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith. (France, Dalkey Archive Press)

Camera is one of three Dalkey Archive Press titles that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 list (along with I’d Like and Homage to Czerny), and one of four Jean-Philippe Toussaint books that Dalkey currently has in print (the others are The Bathroom, Television, and Monsieur, with Running Away due out in 2010).

Toussaint is a strange, affecting writer. Nothing really happens in any of his books, or at least no “exciting” events like you find in a lot of plot-heavy books—in this one, a self-obsessed man falls in love with the woman from a driver’s ed office, they fall in love, they go on vacation, he finds a camera on a ship—but that’s sort of the point. The focus of his novels is more on the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind (workings which are usually a bit off, in a captivating, humorous sort of way), rather than external events that befall him.

In the afterword included in Camera, Toussaint describes this novel as “the description of a condition, the condition of someone’s place in the world. The book progressively shifts from the ‘struggle of living’ to the ‘despair of being.’ “ Sticking with the theoretical (sic) for a moment, Toussaint then goes on to explain the underlying program of this novel:

Yes, you’re right, it’s a manifesto, a program. I don’t know how aware of this I was. But still, it took me over a month to write the first paragraph. [. . .] It’s a very impertinent opening. I’m responding very offhandedly to Kafka’s famous aphorism: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world,” with “In the fight between you and reality, be discouraging.” So yes, it’s a manifesto, but it isn’t a theoretical essay or piece; it’s there, in the book itself, int he opening paragraph of the book, as a theory in action. Underlying my novel is, although it isn’t express theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the “not interesting,” the “not edifying,” on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

Don’t let this emphasis on the “uninteresting” dissuade you though—Camera, like all of Toussaint’s books, is a very funny, very charming novel. That first paragraph that Toussaint alludes to is a great example:

It was about at the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that in my immediate horizon two events came about, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to this idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend, in a letter composed with a typewriter, a rather old typewriter, had informed me he was getting married. Now, personally, if there’s one thing that terrifies me, it’s long-lost friends.

Over at The Front Table, editor Martin Riker explains his view of Toussaint and why Dalkey brought out three books by Toussaint this year:

There’s something very exciting about publishing several of an author’s books together. Instead of putting a single work out into the world, you’re putting into the world a whole way of seeing. You’re saying: This is not just about a book. Here’s a writer who is doing something beyond mere temporary curiosity. This is the real thing, an actual innovation, literature finding a new way to relate to life.

This is why, in the jacket copy for Camera, I refer to Toussaint as a “comic Camus for the twenty-first century.” It isn’t because Toussaint’s writing reminds me of Camus’s stylistically, but because Toussaint offers something that Camus once offered: a new way to think about the experience of being. Though both comic and compelling, Toussaint’s “being” is also quite strange, and at times disorienting. Something often seems to be missing, and indeed something often is.

22 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week Vulpes Libris put together a special week with reviews, interviews, and guest essays all revolving around French literature. (This week is dedicated to ferrets, so don’t be surprised when you click on the above link—just scroll down.) The review of Marguerite Duras’s Summer Rain is definitely worth reading, as are the two guest articles that Leena Heino brought to my attention.

The first is by Jane Aitken, Managing Director (and co-founder) of Gallic Books a relatively new UK press doing all French books in translation. She wrote about the difficulties of marketing French literature, and although I don’t agree with all her points (like the 3% figure being anywhere near accurate when you’re talking about fiction & poetry), the piece is pretty interesting:

For many of us, our unfamiliarity with other languages has traditionally been a barrier to picking up a novel by a foreign author. And I would argue that it is not our fault that many of us in the UK never manage to master another language. We are surrounded by English wherever we go and it is often used as the common language by people whose first language is not English. Whilst there has always been a market for foreign fiction – Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera to pick out a few – the general perception has been that foreign fiction was literary, high-brow and not commercially successful.

But this perception is changing. The popularity of Haruki Murakami, of Shadow of the Wind and of the many bestselling foreign crime novelists, Henning Mankell, Andrea Camilleri, Fred Vargas and Boris Akunin for example, means that foreign fiction is no longer just a literary niche. [. . .]

But there have been developments in French fiction that the UK market has not wanted to follow. The first started in the 1960’s and 1970’s when a group of French authors advocated the Nouveau Roman, which rejected traditional linear story telling, and all other literary, political or moral constraints. And the second is ‘auto-fiction’ a term coined in 1977 by Serge Doubrovsky to refer to a form of fictionalised autobiography. As a result of these two influences, some modern French fiction is highly introspective – a first person narrator demands the reader be interested in their intimate soul-searching but without the framework of a plot or a reason to be interested in the character. I feel that this kind of novel would not be well received by the UK market.

Which in many ways is unfortunate . . . Duras, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Pinget, all wrote really incredible novels and have had a lasting impact on fiction. (See Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.) Sure, some of the followers to the original group were nearly unreadable or too cerebral to be of much interest, but it always bugs me when a country’s “experimental” (read “unreadable,” read “difficult”) tradition is blamed for said country’s lack of commercial success in translation. There are so many problems with that, not the least of which is that commercial appeal is linked with success . . .

Nevertheless, Gallic Books looks really promising—they’re doing the UK edition of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery,= which Europa is doing here in the States—and it’s always cool to find another press dedicated to literature in translation.

The other interesting guest article was by Kit Maude, Sales & Marketing Director for Marion Boyars Publishers, about the publication of Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui, a bilingual novel M.B. recently published.

Banquet of Lies is a novel originally written by the Algerian writer Amin Zaoui in French, which we had translated into English by the acclaimed translator Frank Wynne and then published in a bi-lingual edition in May of this year. This was an unusual thing to do. You won’t find many bi-lingual books, unless you count dictionaries, in your local bookshop. There’ll be some poetry perhaps, but no novels. Why would we do this? English readers want to read in English don’t they? It’s already been published in French hasn’t it? Well, yes and yes, but it’s never been published in translation.

We had been looking to do this for a while. We (Marion Boyars Publishers) have been trying, along with others, to raise the profile of literature in translation in various different ways. To actually publish not just a translated book but the translation itself seemed to be a logical extension of this policy. We did have precedent: Marion Boyars has published Paris by Julian Green (freshly reprinted ­- one of the best books on Paris to be found; it describes the great city as it was, and perhaps, if you care to follow me, as it might one day be again) very successfully over a number of years in a bilingual edition, so we knew that the idea could work.

Part of the problem was finding the right book: obviously it needed to be fairly short, a three hundred page novel printed twice comes to six hundred pages which will look a little off-putting in a bookshop. It also needed to be something that would be interesting to translate – a straightforward text (He moved over to the table. He picked up the glass. He drank. Slowly) wouldn’t really make for much cross-textual discussion. Banquet of Lies, a hundred and fifty page, gloriously playful book that’s both a meditation on the painful beginnings of independent Algeria and a slightly psychotic celebration of the allure of older women, fit this criteria.

It is pretty unusual to see a bilingual novel . . . but pretty interesting as well. And the book sounds like something we should be reviewing . . . Overall, it’s cool that Vulpes Libris ran a week of all things French. Hopefully there will be similar features in the future . . .

3 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I mentioned this just before I left for BEA, but last Wednesday the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation hosted the Twenty-First Annual Translation Prize ceremony in New York.

This Prize is for the best fiction and nonfiction translations from French into English over the past year and comes with a $10,000 case award. The shortlist was loaded with great books and translators, all of whom were incredibly deserving.

In the end though, the winners were Linda Coverdale for her translation of Jean Echenoz’s Ravel, and Linda Asher for her translation of Milan Kundera’s The Curtain. Congratulations to both Lindas!

25 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Small Worlds, Warren Motte categorizes Christian Oster as a “minimalist,” placing him in a group with other young French writers such as Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Marie Redonnet, and Eric Chevillard, who “exploit the principle of formal economy in their writing.” Each does so it his/her own way, yet there is something that similar in their approach—a terseness in their writing that tends to put a greater emphasis on the mindset of the characters (especially the protagonist) than on the description of the plot, setting, etc. The Unforeseen fits squarely in this tradition, complete with all the typical charms and frustrations.

The plot of the novel is hardly worth mentioning, but here it is: an unnamed narrator is on a trip with his girlfriend, Laure, to attend a birthday party. On their way, Laure gets sick. (“It is my fault: I always have a cold, they inevitably catch it. Once they have recovered, they always leave me . . . and I am left with my own cold.”) She shacks up in a hotel to recover, and sends the narrator on his way to the birthday party. Unforeseen events ensue, such as attending someone else’s birthday party in a sick, drunken haze.

What drives this narrative though isn’t the plot points—or the quasi-surprising ending—but the way in which the narrator processes these events. Nothing is ever really thought through, and his selfish nature is both irritating (to the reader and those around him) and his main charm:

“And, anyway, I’m not waiting for anything or anyone,” she told me, “the only thing in you that holds me, the only thing with you that holds me, well, the only thing in me with you that holds me,” she clarified, “that gets me hooked, I mean, that makes me feel good, if you like, is your selfishness, and I can’t get involved with your selfishness, I don’t really have the time. I’m sorry.”

How the narrator processes events, how he thinks about the world, is the primary charm of minimalist books like this one. Unfortunately, in contrast to Toussaint’s Television or anything by Echenoz, or even Oster’s earlier book A Cleaning Woman, this novel falls flat. The narrator is like Larry David without the funny. Or a less neurotic Woody Allen.

Adriana Hunter’s translation is adequate, but there are some wonky lines that don’t do the book any favors. The translation of a book so dependent on tone and word choice needs to be almost flawless.

That said, this novel may not be a masterpiece, but it is worth checking out. It’s a nice diversion and a pleasant example of one trend in contemporary French fiction.

The Unforeseen
by Christian Oster
translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Other Press
$13.95 (pb), 257 pgs.

14 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

According to the Literary Saloon, Prix-Litteraires.net is the best place to keep track of all the longlists, shortlists, and winners of the French book prizes. It’s a bit daunting though . . .

The Literary Saloon also points out that the longlists for the Prix Médicis and Prix Renaudot have both been announced.

From the Prix Médicis, the books that jump out to me are:

  • Antoine Volodine, Songes de Mevlido (Univ. of Nebraska published Minor Angels a couple years ago);
  • Jean Hatzfeld, La stratégie des antilopes;
  • Linda Lê, In memoriam (another UNP author); and,
  • Olivier Adam, A l’abri de rien (which we have on submission).

The Adam book is also up for the Prix Renaudot, the longlist for which also includes:

  • Paul Fournel, Chamboula (the current secretary of the Oulipo, I believe);
  • Amélie Nothomb, Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam (a book we’re interested in considering); and,
  • Lydie Salvayre, Portrait de l’Ecrivain en Animal Domestique (which sounds like one of her best).
12 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From the Times:

France’s cultural heritage is in peril because students are shunning literature in favour of more practical courses that they believe will help them to secure well-paid jobs, the Education Minister said.

Amid sweeping cultural changes, the term “literary” has taken on a pejorative meaning for young French people, according to a report by the Education Ministry inspectorate.

(Thanks to Ed Champion for pointing this out.)

6 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The August 6th set of Publisher Weekly fiction reviews are now online and feature a couple of interesting books in translation.

The first is Cries in the Drizzle (which sounds like a translated title) by Yu Hua “depicts a family’s life in the Zhejiang province of Maoist China during the 1970s.” According to PW, “The narrative flits between time and space to create the landscape of Sun Guanglin’s youth [. . .] Though the fractured structure has its disjointed moments, Barr’s translation perfectly captures the ebb and flow of a community on the brink of change.”

Personally, I’m more interested in the review of Christian Oster’s The Unforeseen, the review of which ends with this intriguing statement:

The result is a love story deeply informed by Beckett (complete with the narrator acquiring a limp like that of Molloy‘s title character), where swells of feeling are tracked in sneezes as involuntary as love itself.

I thought A Cleaning Woman was an excellent book—and movie (and not just because I have a crush on the leading actress)—and can’t wait to read this new title. Good to see that someone is still publishing quirky, funny French writers. There are a slew referenced in Warren Motte’s excellent Fables of the Novel, although only a handful of the books he writes about have made it into English.

....
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