4 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Josh Billings on City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Josh Billings has reviewed for The Literary Review in the past, and is also a writer and a translator from Russian. His two book-length translations are Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel, both of which are available from Melville House.

Here’s a bit of Josh’s review:

Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that movie, its perched-on-the-shoulder meandering through a foreign city (Los Angeles in Wolf’s case, Tokyo in Coppolla’s) is patient to the point of boredom; at the same time, it is a very rigorous attempt to represent a state of being that more eagerly-paced works ignore. The effectiveness of this attempt is undeniable within the works themselves, but communicating it outside of the works can be frustrating. It’s like trying to tell a friend about a great dream you had: the events add up, but the atmosphere that surrounded those events vanishes. Reverse-engineering this disappearance, we could say that the most successful part of both City of Angels and Lost in Translation is not their locations, or their characters, but their dreaminess: that is, their capacity to transform the world (at least while we’re reading/watching them) into a place where everything means something, or has the potential to mean something. Wandering around in this supercharged world becomes a sort of metaphysical sleuthing. Does that sunset matter? Will the pair of shoes dangling from that telephone line have an eventual bearing on our fate? We don’t know for sure, and because we don’t know for sure we feel compelled to keep searching for whoever or whatever knocked our lives out of whack to begin with.

This is all fine and dandy—but one of the really great things about City of Angels is the way that it reminds us that in dreams (unlike, say, episodes of CSI), every character is you, meaning that after a certain point the trace-hiding villain and the clue-uncovering detective must turn out to be the same person. The book’s particular value as a work, not just about, but of atonement, lies in its relentless struggle to make the two Christa Wolfs face one another. This is much harder than you might think, given Wolf’s relentless honesty as an author and public figure—but then doesn’t it make sense that the better a detective was at detecting, the better their concurrent villain would be at covering his tracks?

In City, it is precisely this ability to cover, or rather sublimate (to borrow a word from the man whose overcoat furnishes the subtitle to this book) that scares Wolf. When a German newspaper uncovers and then reports a series of meetings that she had with the communist authorities decades earlier, she finds herself flabbergasted, not by the crime itself, but by her inability to remember it.

Click here to read the entire review.

4 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that movie, its perched-on-the-shoulder meandering through a foreign city (Los Angeles in Wolf’s case, Tokyo in Coppolla’s) is patient to the point of boredom; at the same time, it is a very rigorous attempt to represent a state of being that more eagerly-paced works ignore. The effectiveness of this attempt is undeniable within the works themselves, but communicating it outside of the works can be frustrating. It’s like trying to tell a friend about a great dream you had: the events add up, but the atmosphere that surrounded those events vanishes. Reverse-engineering this disappearance, we could say that the most successful part of both City of Angels and Lost in Translation is not their locations, or their characters, but their dreaminess: that is, their capacity to transform the world (at least while we’re reading/watching them) into a place where everything means something, or has the potential to mean something. Wandering around in this supercharged world becomes a sort of metaphysical sleuthing. Does that sunset matter? Will the pair of shoes dangling from that telephone line have an eventual bearing on our fate? We don’t know for sure, and because we don’t know for sure we feel compelled to keep searching for whoever or whatever knocked our lives out of whack to begin with.

This is all fine and dandy—but one of the really great things about City of Angels is the way that it reminds us that in dreams (unlike, say, episodes of CSI), every character is you, meaning that after a certain point the trace-hiding villain and the clue-uncovering detective must turn out to be the same person. The book’s particular value as a work, not just about, but of atonement, lies in its relentless struggle to make the two Christa Wolfs face one another. This is much harder than you might think, given Wolf’s relentless honesty as an author and public figure—but then doesn’t it make sense that the better a detective was at detecting, the better their concurrent villain would be at covering his tracks?

In City, it is precisely this ability to cover, or rather sublimate (to borrow a word from the man whose overcoat furnishes the subtitle to this book) that scares Wolf. When a German newspaper uncovers and then reports a series of meetings that she had with the communist authorities decades earlier, she finds herself flabbergasted, not by the crime itself, but by her inability to remember it. Practically everyone living in communist East Germany collaborated, she explains—but to forget this collaboration completely, and for so long? It’s like she’s robbed a house while sleepwalking: the standard language of will and guilt are literally applicable, but incapable on a deeper level of explaining exactly what happened. Is she guilty despite the fact that she forgot her crime? Because of this? Couched as they are in ecstatically-recriminatory language, the newspapers’ explanations of the case don’t make sense; and because they don’t make sense, Wolf is unable to feel any catharsis from their condemnation. On the contrary, she feels like a ghost, which is like being a prisoner except worse, since without sentencing there can be no hope of serving one’s time and being released.

In the face of this disjunction, Wolf turns to the only tool she knows for righting (writing) the world. Her atonement, which begins in thinking and journaling, but then progresses into a novel that I think we can say without too much of a jump into meta-ness is City of Angels itself, is a linguistic act. It’s a naming, meaning an attempt to assemble words into a shape that fits her suffering the way a map fits a city. In order to do this, Wolf uses a number of formal devices that seem alienating at first, but gradually reveal more and more to her, and us. One of the most effective of these is her habit of addressing a “You” who we realize after many pages is not a separate person at all, but the young German idealist that she used to be. As developed and dipped into over the course of the novel, this conversation manages to be strangely both dispassionate and intimate at the same. It’s as if we were reading the letters of an old married couple, now divorced, but still very close to one another: the insights are sharp, but there’s a tenderness about the liberties taken that make us realize that, for all their bickering, these are two people who share more than they want to admit.

One of the things they share, of course, is memory—not just specific memories but the patterns of remembering that Wolf suggests makes a person who she is. In her particular case these patterns are (like certain abnormal heartbeats) reliably unreliable. “I know that, sometimes. And then I forget it again,” she says apropos some insight—a sentence that can be read as both harmless and terrifying when we consider the fact that the person speaking has been, over the course of her life, not only a writer, but a German and a communist. Her pedigree gives Wolf a perspective on idealism that makes American amnesia look less like a cultural feature and more like something all human minds indulge in. At the same time, it doesn’t make this amnesia any less frightening. “I didn’t forget most of the things in my life, I wouldn’t survive,” counsels a sympathetic friend. To which the horrified Wolf asks, “Was our whole life for nothing?”

It’s a question that people have been asking for years in Los Angeles—which may be why, for all its Sebaldian meandering, City of Angels feels like a perfect fit for its setting: the great lost Teutonic Raymond Chandler novel. It’s a detective story, meaning a Bildungsroman played backwards or maybe looped, until the heroine finds herself forced to unlearn certainty and so enter into a more capacious acceptance of what she will not and, more importantly, cannot know. This sounds suspiciously similar to the forgetting that disturbed Wolf to begin with; but it is really a step in the opposite direction. It’s the step we see offered and declined at the end of that great proto-detective story Oedipus Rex, or offered and accepted at the critical moments in Shakespeare’s comedies. A generic signpost, in other words, pointing this way to a work where everyone ends up dead, and that way to a work where the heroine’s pride gives way to her love, and we all go back to our normal lives. Did we find out whodunit? Not exactly—but the killer is no longer at large. Writing—meaning exploration, detection, the search—has seen what it needed to see and then stepped back, leaving the unknown there but still lucidly absent, like a chalk outline on a sidewalk. Or, as Wolf puts it in her notebook:

“Now, writing is just working your way towards the border that the innermost secret draws around itself, and to cross that line would mean self-destruction. But writing is also an attempt to respect the borderline only for the truly innermost secret, and bit by bit to free the taboos around that core, difficult to admit as they are, from their prison of unspeakability. Not self-destruction but self-redemption. Not to be afraid of unavoidable suffering.”

The idea that any line of inquiry might pull back with the truth in its crosshairs sounds strange when we think about it from a legal point of view, but Wolf is not a lawyer: she’s a writer, meaning, among other things, someone concerned with lived experience. Like Dostoevsky and Melville, she understands that there is a blind spot at the center of all epistemology, whether it occurs on TV, or in a courtroom, or at a communist rally. Words don’t fit; so, as users of words we must either willfully blinker ourselves or accept that no tabulation will ever be perfect, and that we will always, on some level, be at fault. We will also be at least partially innocent—a_ fact that would seem like a relief but which Wolf struggles over the course of _City to accept. That she does not (in my reading at least) completely testifies both to her seriousness and the book’s strange faith; not in words necessarily, but in the ultimate unknowability of what words try to describe.

26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Josh Billings on Miljenko Jergović’s Mama Leone, translated from the Croatian by David Williams and published by Archipelago Books.

Josh Billings has reviewed for The Literary Review in the past, and is also a writer and a translator from Russian. His two book-length translations are Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel, both of which are available from Melville House.

Here’s the opening of his review:

Like Scotts or High Elvish, childhood is simultaneously both a real language and a totally made-up one. We all spoke it once, but in the time since we spoke it last we’ve forgotten enough that our own memories can seem, if not incomprehensible, then at least significantly garbled. Being adults—meaning, being creatures that pride ourselves on having ostensibly figured our shit out in the world—we don’t like to admit any of this. We tour our childhoods with regal condescension; but it only takes a single misstep to start us blustering like tourists in a marketplace, until finally all we can do is stutter here! here! and retreat to the embassy. Later, we blame our confusion on the fact that when we were children we thought like children, but now we have put away childish things—like eating entire jars of marshmallow Fluff. Except that even as we say this, we know it isn’t true and that nothing has changed: that the old hurts still hurt, and the Fluff is still sitting there in the cupboard, drawing us to itself like a rubbery star. All of a sudden we jump out of our chairs—Back! We want to go back! But if the past is really another country, then even the most childish of us must admit that we can no more go back “there” than we can go back to Middle Earth, or Ancient Greece, or any of the other kingdoms of the imagination. For we are not just tourists, but exiles; travelers whose visits to the old country, city, neighborhood, block, or bedroom must inevitably be suffused with the one feeling that we do not want to admit our childhood contained: loss.

Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone is a book about loss, and about the hopeless and beautiful attempt to recover what has been lost. It begins in one child’s experience and ends so far away from it that it’s impossible not to see the shift as commentary not only on the fragility of childhood, but on the very act of loving recreation that makes the first half of the book so rich. If this sounds paradoxical, well, it is. It is also in keeping with the paradoxical criticism/embrace the narrator makes a few seconds after being born in a Sarajevo hospital:

“I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.”

Click here to read the full piece.

26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like Scotts or High Elvish, childhood is simultaneously both a real language and a totally made-up one. We all spoke it once, but in the time since we spoke it last we’ve forgotten enough that our own memories can seem, if not incomprehensible, then at least significantly garbled. Being adults—meaning, being creatures that pride ourselves on having ostensibly figured our shit out in the world—we don’t like to admit any of this. We tour our childhoods with regal condescension; but it only takes a single misstep to start us blustering like tourists in a marketplace, until finally all we can do is stutter here! here! and retreat to the embassy. Later, we blame our confusion on the fact that when we were children we thought like children, but now we have put away childish things—like eating entire jars of marshmallow Fluff. Except that even as we say this, we know it isn’t true and that nothing has changed: that the old hurts still hurt, and the Fluff is still sitting there in the cupboard, drawing us to itself like a rubbery star. All of a sudden we jump out of our chairs—Back! We want to go back! But if the past is really another country, then even the most childish of us must admit that we can no more go back “there” than we can go back to Middle Earth, or Ancient Greece, or any of the other kingdoms of the imagination. For we are not just tourists, but exiles; travelers whose visits to the old country, city, neighborhood, block, or bedroom must inevitably be suffused with the one feeling that we do not want to admit our childhood contained: loss.

Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone is a book about loss, and about the hopeless and beautiful attempt to recover what has been lost. It begins in one child’s experience and ends so far away from it that it’s impossible not to see the shift as commentary not only on the fragility of childhood, but on the very act of loving recreation that makes the first half of the book so rich. If this sounds paradoxical, well, it is. It is also in keeping with the paradoxical criticism/embrace the narrator makes a few seconds after being born in a Sarajevo hospital:

I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.

The world called Yugoslavia (over which the memory and premonition of wars past and to-come hover continuously) is terrifying, but the narrator marries himself to it—an act of bone-headed generosity that marks him as one of those ugly ducklings that we have watched grow into a writerly swan over and over again, and yet never grow tired of. Why don’t we grow tired of him? For one, because we recognize his awkward emergence as something we ourselves have gone through. Human experience may be as varied as spots on a rug, but the patterns that our minds make out of these experiences have more in common with one another than you’d expect. Knowing this, Jergovic eschews the hammy over-exaggeration of exotic detail, instead building these stories around moments whose drama might happen just as easily in Detroit, the Urals, Mars. Despite—or maybe because of—their universality, the specific meanings of said moments seem both obvious and mysterious, so that all we can do when faced with them is wait and watch as the situation gets harrier and harrier, until suddenly an invisible line is crossed and it becomes not-hairy at all. The figures that only a moment ago seemed to be physically weighed down by their individual lonelinesses float free, hanging together in space like stars in a constellation. The effect of these breakthroughs is cathartic, sure, but also heartbreaking—for example, when the narrator’s young mother climbs fully-clothed to the top of a high dive as her son and ex-husband (who can’t swim) watch:

Nice diving board, said Mom, and then went and climbed right up to the top. Fully clothed, one step at a time, she walked slowly out along the board, which was trembling and wobbling under her weight. When she got to the end she looked down and spread her arms wide as if she was going to fly away, but then she slowly let them fall. Dad looked up at her, beads of sweat lining his forehead, he opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, and he did want to say something, but he didn’t know how, or whether to say it to me or to her.

The soft ventriloquism of this scene, in which the narrator seems for a second to be not just himself, or his mother, or father, but all three of them at once, reflects a further paradox of feeling—one so ordinary that I’d bet every kid has experienced it at one time or another. The diving board represents something different to each of the three figures around, under, and on it. And yet, it somehow represents the same thing. The distance from one person to the next is both heartbreaking and reassuring, since it is a distance the three of them experience together. And then, only a few lines later, the miracle is over, Mom steps back from the edge, life goes on.

Coming to terms with this last part is one of the aspects in which language helps the young narrator of Mama Leone do. He is aware of it painfully, curiously—the way other kids become aware of their tongues. This maladjustment brings with it certain benefits. As anyone who has tried to make himself understood in a foreign country will tell you, one of the underrated benefits of language learning is the understanding it gives of one’s native tongues. In a similar way, the developmentally bilingual voice of Mama Leone dabbles in adulthood without really being fluent in it. The particular sound of this flailing can be lyrical, funny, bizarre, naïve, and even, occasionally, wise. It can begin a story by saying that “Only words cause no pain” and then three pages later describe that most mythical of beasts, a grandparent, with casual surrealism:

“When he sweats, I can imagine a whole crowd of people building houses on his face, sitting in the dark and sweating like him; on Grandpa’s face lives another little grandpa, who also sits in the dark, lights a cigarette, rivers run down his face too, and next to them live even smaller people and even smaller grandpas, and they too sit in the dark, in blue and brown light, next to their grandsons, who on their faces see crowds of even smaller people and even smaller grandpas.”

As adults, we can call such Chagallian acrobatics beautiful; but Jergovic is careful to reminds us how pragmatic its wordplay is to the narrator himself. Grandpas are scary; so, like Perseus facing Medusa, the child makes an image, a mirror, replacing the vertiginous Grandpaface with a sort of linguistic Lego village, whose busy cuteness effaces its original’s freakish physicality while still not banishing it completely. The not banishing is especially important—for while words may be powerful tools for domestication, they are also spells, and require familiars. The house demon—that onetime staple of family life—must stay chained to the stove, or else it will wander off to make mischief elsewhere. Better, then, to create a grandpa who is still scary, strange, ugly—and all the more grandpa for it.

Compared to magic like this, the second half of Mama Leone, in which the narrative “I” is abandoned for a shifting third person that takes up a series of “unrelated” characters, is a bit of a letdown—but if anything, this is a testament to Jergovic’s honesty as a chronicler. Not just of childhood, but of memory—specifically, of the bittersweet memory of people who have left (or been thrown out of, or fled) their homes behind them. Sometimes these homes are actual countries, but more often they are states of mind: times before guilt, before heartbreak, before love, times in which everything seemed simpler because we thought it was. Losing is something that can happen to anyone, Mama Leone reminds us, which is one of the things that differentiates it from a book like Speak, Memory. For all its beauty, Nabokov’s tutor-and-truttle idyll emits a hagiographic reek, as if its ultimate meaning as experience was the exclusivity of its author’s suffering, and our necessary “we” before it. Jergovic avoids such grandiosity by breaking his hero’s childhood into shards—each of which nonetheless carries a tiny reflection of its source. We were all children once. Maybe we always will be: after all, if disappointment is all it takes to be an adult, then every one of us is born into it with our first breath.

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