I’ve been a huge fan of NYRB for years. I think I even have copies of the first twelve/thirteen books in those very unfortunately designed covers. Every season I drool when their catalog arrives. I’ve been planning a post for weeks entitled “Albert Cossery is Effing Awesome,” which is due in part to NYRB’s publication of The Jokers. (And to give props where props are due, the post is also indebted to New Directions for publishing A Splendid Conspiracy. And to GoodReads for hooking me up knowledge-wise.) I love visiting Edwin Frank and Sara Kramer, and Edwin’s monthly missive about one of their new titles is by far the most erudite and learned of all publisher newsletters. NYRB is definitely one of the best presses publishing today.
The only this that sucks is that, thanks to their Random House distribution agreement, their catalog lists titles that aren’t coming out for another year. (These titles aren’t even on the NYRB website yet.) This is anguish-making . . . yet, the new list is pretty phenomenal, so as an interlude in my ongoing series of forthcoming fall translations, here’s a list of titles not coming out until spring/summer 2011.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated from the French by Louise Varese. (June 14, 2011)
Originally published in English in the ’50s, this has been out-of-print forever, and sounds like a great addition to the ongoing Simenon renaissance that NYRB has been undertaking the past few years. By the time this comes out, I think NYRB will have reissued 11 Simenon novels, including Dirty Snow, Red Lights, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and The Engagement. (Back some time ago, Mark Binelli and I co-hosted a Words Without Borders reading group on The Engagement. a That was a lot of fun, especially since we disagreed about the book—I thought it was pretty cool, Mark found the writing pretty annoying. Anyway.) This novel is about Charles Alavoine—an upstanding, bourgeois citizen haunted by a sense of loneliness—and his meeting with Martine, a “young woman helplessly adrift in the world” who both awakens Alavoine and “sets the stage for his tragic disintegration.”
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. (April 12, 2011)
Another excellent reprint. I read this years ago and absolutely loved it. The novel is a monologue from an aged man who tells a group of sunbathing women about his lovers, scandals, adventures. “As the book tumbles restlessly forward, and the comic tone takes on darker shadings, we realize we are listening to a man talking as much out of desperation as from exuberance.” All of Hrabal’s books are worth checking out, especially I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, and Closely Watched Trains. But this is really one of the best, and I’m glad that eight months from now it will finally be available again.
The Doll by Boleslaw Prus, translated from the Polish by David Welsh. (February 8, 2011)
I feel like this is a book that’s been recommended to me over and over again . . . And finally, come next February, I’ll finally have a chance to read it. From the catalog copy: “The Doll is a classic of Polish literature, a novel that takes in the whole nineteenth century and looks ahead to modern questions of empire, revolution, anti-Semitism, and socialism. [. . .] The rich cast includes the old clerk Rzecki, nostalgic for the revolutions of 1848; the young scientist Ochocki, dreaming of flying machines; the deranged adn manipulative Baroness Krzeszowska; the angelic widow Stawska; the wise dowager duchess; and many more.”
The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. (February 8, 2011)
This is an interesting publishing story and situation. Back some years ago, there was a great article about Vladimir Sorokin in either the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. (Thinking it’s the former, but my memory . . . blah.) Anyway, his work sounded really interesting and super-offensive. For example, his novel Blue Lard includes a gay sex scene involving clones of Khrushchev and Stalin. In fact, his work was so offensive that the Pro-Putin Youth dumped copies in a fake toilet bowl. (I can’t believe that I can’t find a picture of this on the Internet. Events like this are why YouTube exists!) Anyway, NYRB scooped up rights to a few of his books, including Ice, which came out in hardcover back in 2007ish. Ice got mixed reviews (memory serves, again, disclaimer), wasn’t quite as crazy/funny at The Queue (also available from NYRB, and which I would whole-heartedly recommend), etc. Now NYRB is bringing out The Ice Trilogy, of which, Ice is the middle volume. “Bro, the first section of Sorokin’s chef d’oeuvre, relates the mysterious emergence of the brotherhood in the aftermath of a massive meteroite striking Siberia (a historical occurrence known as the Tungus event.)” (I’m personally fascinated by the Tungus event.) “23,000 bring the trilogy to a wildly suspenseful close. All 23,000 members of the brotherhood have at last been brought together and they are preparing to stage the global destruction that will return them to their origins in pure light.” I read Ice when it came out, and although I didn’t love it, I found myself compelled, reading it in just a couple sittings, sucked in for inexplicable reasons. Very curious to see how it reads surrounded by the other two parts . . . .
UPDATE: Special thanks to Lisa Hayden Espenschade for this link to a story (in Russian) about the whole Sorokin controversy. And for these photos:
(Nate and E.J. go away for a day, and I start posting toilet pictures. Suppose it could be worse . . . )
Two startlingly similar short novels appeared in France in 1942, at the centre of each a conscienceless and slightly creepy young man, unattached and adrift, the perpetrator of a meaningless murder. One was Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, the other Georges Simenon’s La Veuve Couderc. Camus’s novel rose to become part of the literary firmament, and is still glittering, intensely studied and praised – to my mind, overpraised. Simenon’s novel did not drop, but settled, so to speak, went the way of the rest of his work – rattled along with decent sales, the occasional reprint, and was even resurrected as a 1950s pulp fiction paperback with a come-on tag line (“A surging novel of torment and desire”) and a lurid cover: busty peasant girl pouting in a barn, her skirt hiked over her knees, while a hunky guy lurks at the door – price twenty-five cents.
The Guardian has a blog post today about Georges Simenon, praising the roman durs and speculating on his popularity:
This relentlessly downbeat canon (the one exception among his straight novels was The Little Saint, which was very loosely based on the life of Marc Chagall) may be one reason why Simenon’s work has never been wildly celebrated in the US, where, coincidentally, he lived for several years and, some critics argue, was at the very apex of his powers as writer. Or perhaps it was the fact that Americans typically like their novels fat, and Simenon’s rarely broke the 200-page mark. Or maybe it had to do with the often wooden translations of his work, remedied to a small extent recently by new versions brought out by the New York Review of Books.
But my own take is that this popularity deficit has to do more with the pronounced American trait not to look too deeply within and to flinch at what we find there.
The September Issue of Words Without Borders is now online and features Portuguese writing from Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, and Brazil, “with Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Rosa Alice Branco, Alexander Cuadros, Mia Couto, Manoel de Barros, Augusta Faro, Rubem Fonseca, Teolinda Gersao, Milton Hatoum, Conceicao Lima, Alberto Martins, Joao Melo, Ondjaki, Paulo Polzonoff, and Ana Paula Tavares, set to a soundtrack provided by DJ Spooky.”
And the Reading the World Book Club for September is underway. Along with Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!), I’m co-hosting this, and we’re going to be reading/discussing Georges Simenon’s The Engagement.
At least in terms of output, Georges Simenon is a Herculean writer. He makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker, having written over 400 novels and short story collections in his lifetime. And if that weren’t enough, he added to his mythic stature through fun games like this:
In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter . . .
Which sounds intense . . . The story gets even better though when you find out that it never took place.
The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done.
(Both quotes are from Luc Sante’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Bookforum.)
With so many books, it’s very difficult to figure out where to start—even if you just consider the eight titles put out by New York Review Books. To be honest, I picked up The Engagement solely because it was a Reading the World book this year, and I’m going to lead a discussion on it for Words Without Borders this September. That said, I ended up absolutely mesmerized by this subversive little book.
The Engagement starts with an immediate reversal of a typical crime reader’s expectations—instead of starting with a crime, or the set-up for a crime, the book opens in the aftermath of a murder with a very tense interaction between the solitary Mr. Hire and his concierge, who is a bit frightened of him. It’s only after this portrait of a creepy, suspicious, bloody man is damningly established that we hear about the dead prostitute.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers here—not that it really matters who killed the prostitute, since catching the murder is of secondary importance to all the characters in this book. The police don’t really care—one of them would much rather spend his time trying to get with the attractive, busty woman in need of help—and neither does Simenon. He seems much more intent on creating interesting, bleak, troubling characters, all corrupt and unlikable, than pulling his reader’s along via plot twists and forensic discoveries.
In his afterword, John Gray has an interesting comment about this novel in relation to the typical crime book:
As has often been noted, the traditional detective novel is a morality tale in which any doubt we may have about the reality of order in the world is finally dispelled. Noir fiction arouse as a reaction against this kind of consoling narrative with its promise that wrongdoing is sure to be found out and punished. But much noir fiction is also a tribute to justice. Society and human life as a whole may prove systematically unfair; but the very fact that humanity rages against this predicament shows that deep in human nature there is a rejection of injustice that may be defeated but cannot be destroyed.
Morality and justice have no place in Simenon’s novel. As the plot unfolds, the real focus becomes the psychological plight of Mr. Hire, who is trapped in an impossible life and situation. Suspected of murder and fully aware that he is constantly being tailed, he tries to convince the beautiful, damaged blonde (the one he watches undress through her window every night) to run away with him and start a new life. The reader knows that things won’t end well, that redemption, hope, justice, and just illusions in this world, and after finishing the book, the catastrophic conclusion seems inevitable and destined from the start.
Part of the reason why this novel works so well is the understated nature of Simenon’s writing. The book has an existential flavor, drawing the reader in and leaveing him or her to fill in the gaps in order to understand and decipher the desires and workings of Mr. Hire’s mind.
Anna Moschovakis did a fantastic job rendering this book in English. The only real complaint I have is that Mr. Hire’s “cash reserve” switches from 80,000 francs to 8,000 francs, which seems like a bit of a difference. Simenon may well have written better books, and if you’re a fan of CSI you might not be satisfied, but overall, this is a tight, cinematic novel that lags only occasionally, and is definitely worth reading.
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
New York Review Books
135 pp., $12.95 (pb)
Beginning in September, Words Without Borders will launch a series of Reading the World Book Clubs. The final schedule is still being set, but I can say that in September I’ll be moderating a discussion about Georges Simenon’s The Engagement. (We should have a review of this up shortly.)
Other moderators in the WWB/RTW Book Clubs will include Michael Orthofer and James Marcus, and Mark Sarvas leading the discussion on Sandor Marai’s The Rebels, and Laila Lailami on Carmara Laye’s The Radiance of the King.
The new NYRB catalog just arrived and, as usual, is filled with interesting books.
Although it’s not a translation, I’m really looking forward to reading British author Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. The author of the plays Rope and Gaslight, Hamilton also wrote Hangover Square a great drunken, schizo book that Europa Editions smartly reprinted a few years back.
Also included in this catalog are new translations of Guy de Maupassant’s Afloat and Alien Hearts, along with the first-ever translation of Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl. There’s also a reprint of The Widow, the ninth Simenon book to be published by NYRB.
It’s difficult figuring out where to start though. . . Simenon was ten times more prolific than Joyce Carol Oates is, writing more than 400 books during his lifetime, including 34 in just 1929. Of course, most are pulp, but according to Sante, there are 117 roman durs (hard novels).
Sounds like he was quite a character as well: “In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public.” (Although this never actually happened, I love the image of swarms of people clamoring to see someone write.)
Simenon’s The Engagement is a Reading the World title and is translated by the amazing Anna Moschovakis, so I’ll probably start there . . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .