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.

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.}

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.

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

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 . . .)

4 February 08 | E.J. Van Lanen |

The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.

I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.

The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.

Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.

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.

Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future.

The Waitress Was New
by Dominique Fabre
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
117 pages, $15.00
978-0-9778576-9-2
Archipelago Books

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