13 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Nigel Beale on Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete. Usually we don’t run reviews of our own books (which initially seemed like a good idea, but sort of doesn’t make sense, since Open Letter books are as interesting as a lot of the titles we do review, and we are trying to cover the world of international literature as broadly as possible), but hell, it’s The Year of Jakov Lind. (And I’m still working on my review of Bolano’s The Skating Rink.)

Nigel Beale is a freelance writer/broadcaster who specializes in literary journalism. His articles and reviews have appeared in, among other places, The Washington Post, The (Manchester) Guardian, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Bookseller, BorderCrossings and Canadian Art magazines. In his role as host of The Biblio File radio program he has interviewed many of the world’s most admired authors; plus publishers, booksellers, editors, book collectors, librarians, conservators, illustrators, and others connected with the book. (We’ve posted about a few of his interviews, including the one I did, this recent one with Ha Jin, and the hysterical one with John Metcalf. )

Here’s the opening of his review of Lind’s creepyfunny WWII novel:

We meet a familiar angst-ridden Russian early in the pages of Jacov Lind’s novel Landscape in Concrete: Dostoevsky’s Underground man surfaces in the guise of Gauthier Bachmann to here tread the desolate earth of the Ardennes during WW ll. No longer confined by inertia to his wretched little room, this protagonist is on the road—a bleak, inhuman, carnage scarred road—blindly journeying in search of meaning and identity. It’s as if the contents of a diseased mind have spilled out into the real world.

And indeed, after witnessing unbelievably shocking scenes, it is hard to regain a grasp on real, ordinary life. Such is Bachmann’s lot. A sergeant in the German army, he has, as the book begins, just fought in a battle at Voroshenko and seen his entire regiment slaughtered , sunk in a quagmire of blood and mud.

Throughout the book, Lind then dips us, episodically, into the hell of Bachmann’s post-traumatic existence and his logical/illogical flight back to what he knows. Against “human” nature he wants willfully to expose himself again to the horror of war; in this sense perhaps he is ill: unwilling or incapable of caring; unable to hope. He has seen friends and countrymen blown to bits; what reason is there to live? He is filled with uncertainty too: about what constitutes a “man,” whether or not he is one, whether he is diseased, dead or alive, real or make-believe. Returning to the simple order that the army offers is perhaps all he has to hang on to, because good, honest, stable “normal” life and relationships aren’t found in the world he now inhabits.

Voroshenko renders Bachmann “unfit for duty.” Despite this, he journeys throughout the Ardennes in quest of a fighting unit he can once again join; to which he can “belong.” Neither “spiteful nor kind, rascal nor honest man, hero nor insect,” Bachmann stoically sinks into depravity, abdicating responsibility for his actions, numbly stumbling around, Lear-like, encountering and succumbing to the wishes of evil, indecent characters, willing to do anything to fill the void.

Bachmann, unlike the Underground Man, acts. But he acts in the wrong way. No one, Victor Frankl tells us, in Man’s Search for Meaning, has the right to do wrong. Bachmann does wrong. He acts indecently.

Click here for the full review.

13 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We meet a familiar angst-ridden Russian early in the pages of Jakov Lind’s novel Landscape in Concrete: Dostoevsky’s Underground man surfaces in the guise of Gauthier Bachmann to here tread the desolate earth of the Ardennes during WW ll. No longer confined by inertia to his wretched little room, this protagonist is on the road—a bleak, inhuman, carnage scarred road—blindly journeying in search of meaning and identity. It’s as if the contents of a diseased mind have spilled out into the real world.

And indeed, after witnessing unbelievably shocking scenes, it is hard to regain a grasp on real, ordinary life. Such is Bachmann’s lot. A sergeant in the German army, he has, as the book begins, just fought in a battle at Voroshenko and seen his entire regiment slaughtered, sunk in a quagmire of blood and mud.

Throughout the book, Lind then dips us, episodically, into the hell of Bachmann’s post-traumatic existence and his logical/illogical flight back to what he knows. Against “human” nature he wants willfully to expose himself again to the horror of war; in this sense perhaps he is ill: unwilling or incapable of caring; unable to hope. He has seen friends and countrymen blown to bits; what reason is there to live? He is filled with uncertainty too: about what constitutes a “man,” whether or not he is one, whether he is diseased, dead or alive, real or make-believe. Returning to the simple order that the army offers is perhaps all he has to hang on to, because good, honest, stable “normal” life and relationships aren’t found in the world he now inhabits.

Voroshenko renders Bachmann “unfit for duty.” Despite this, he journeys throughout the Ardennes in quest of a fighting unit he can once again join; to which he can “belong.” Neither “spiteful nor kind, rascal nor honest man, hero nor insect,” Bachmann stoically sinks into depravity, abdicating responsibility for his actions, numbly stumbling around, Lear-like, encountering and succumbing to the wishes of evil, indecent characters, willing to do anything to fill the void.

Bachmann, unlike the Underground Man, acts. But he acts in the wrong way. No one, Victor Frankl tells us, in Man’s Search for Meaning, has the right to do wrong. Bachmann does wrong. He acts indecently.

The first person he meets is a mole of a man, Xaver Schnotz, who has deserted his nearby unit after poisoning a kitchen worker to death with “piptol.” Here, exampling Lind’s blunt descriptive powers, is how it works:

“Your eyes crawl out of their sockets like snails and they can’t get back in. (He tittered.) Your tongue gets stiff and hard as shoe leather, black leather, and your nostrils contract so tight you couldn’t stick a needle in, they close up as if there’s never been any holes, your ears hang down like dry leaves, and your hands cramp up like this, they turn into claws (he demonstrated, tittering again), and then, very very slowly, you suffocate. That’s piptol, friend.”

Starving, Bachmann and Schnotz engage in a frantic, hilarious fight over who gets to eat the liver of a freshly bagged chicken. The next day Bachmann turns Schnotz back into the authorities in hopes of securing a commission for himself. Commander Von Goritz tests Bachmann by ordering him to execute a saboteur who looks “strikingly like Schnotz.” Bachmann obeys, and, despite guilt, justifies his actions, Nuremburg-style, by telling himself that he is just following orders. His warped enterprise, the gaining of purpose through re-enrollment in the army, trumps any humane instincts he may have once owned. Whenever behavior doesn’t align with belief, self-hatred will follow, and illness is sure to be near; as Dostoevsky put it: can those who enjoy the feeling of their own degradation possibly have a spark of respect for themselves?

The grizzly slide into depravity continues as Bachmann is later ordered to kill Baron Elshoved and members of his family:

Cut him open, came Halftan’s placid voice. With his left hand Bachmann held the back of Thor’s neck and with his right cut him open from throat to abdomen. He had to step aside quickly, for the blood gushed like a spring when the stone is taken away. A man is full of blood, the way a balloon is full of air. It was always fun to burst balloons, it made a bang, it was exciting. A man doesn’t make any bang. Thor wheezed and collapsed. The knife had gone through part of his windpipe. Bachmann let him down slowly with his left hand. Woudn’t want the poor kid to fall on his head.

Here is the written equivalent it seems of Francis Bacon’s raw, Godless depiction of man as no more than blood, guts, and intestines in his painting Three Studies for a Crucifixion.

Bachmann is calm after the abattoir. But he has no monopoly on depravity. Others in fact descend deeper into the pit, showing us “the plague called man.” The remaining daughter Gudrin, for example, steps forward, unafraid, expressing pleasure at her family’s slaughter . . . “That’s what I’ve always longed for . . .” and a willingness to be taken. Though Halftan had thought of it often, of taking her by cajolery, by force, “now that there’s nothing more to fear, neither parents nor brothers, now that I could kill her, I don’t want her any more.”

The nadir is reached at the end of the book, as Bachmann, after an air-raid shatters a blissful togetherness with his girlfriend, ravishes her. “Behind closed eyelids he saw the brown Cyclopses of her breasts, he slid over the bloated white body, grazed the reddish weeds that grew out of the hollow, and dwelt at length on the fattened turkey backs of her haunches.”

Landscape in Concrete is filled with appropriately harsh, disturbing passages like these. At times the similes don’t quite work, “Bachmann was heavy and shapeless, like the clouds that covered the fields . . .” but for the most part they do, and there are passages in this book which affect, as Kafka tells us important work should, “like a disaster, that grieves us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.”

Read and be affected by it, but as an antidote, remember that life is not what happens to us—but rather, how we choose to respond.

12 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In just under a year, three Jakov Lind books will be reissued (the Open Letter edition of Landscape in Concrete is available now, with NYRB’s edition of Soul of Wood coming out later this fall and our reprint of Ergo releasing in January), and to celebrate this rediscovery, Jeff Waxman wrote an interesting piece for the Quarterly Conversation:

Lind is not only a major post-Holocaust writer; he is also a modernist of extraordinary talent and vision. His writing shows an intriguing, Beckettian dissolution of reason, and it owes a clear debt to the absurdists, whose themes of obsession and the perversion of reality closely resemble Lind’s work. Born in Vienna a decade before the Anschluss, Lind also owes something also to the Austro-Jewish literary tradition exemplified by Stefan Zweig—there’s a humanist regard that colors his work and tinges his cynicism with a smirking regret. This sort of weeping giddiness characterizes all of Lind’s writing, from his excellent dramatic efforts like The Silver Foxes Are Dead to his short stories and his extraordinary dark novels. [. . .]

Reading Lind, it becomes clear that he—like so many of his fellow Jews—never recovered from the Shoah that he somehow missed; his books are stuffed with the madness of that time, of hiding in plain sight, of those dark circumstances. Somewhere in life’s meaninglessness, through LSD and hashish and stunningly good humor, Lind tried to find some structure, something beneath the insanity to cling to and make real. He found logic, because logic exists even divorced from reason. It’s from this bizarre worldview, from this confusion of ideas, that Lind wrote some of his best work. [. . .]

In a time when Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is seeing a revival in an inspired new translation by Breon Mitchell, and when other lost post-Holocaust literature is reemerging (for example, the recently published, gorgeous Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada), there is no better time for the reading public to reengage with this scarred, deeply alone survivor of tumultuous times. A writer who blended the deranged freedom of the 1960s and the death of reason in the 1940s into an extraordinary understanding of humanity in all its hopeful and idealistic depravity, Jakov Lind wrote the kind of books that are not to be missed.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although the fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble had her doubts about 2009 being the “Year of Jakov Lind,” this year really does represent the best chance this overlooked, peculiar Austrian writer has of being rediscovered. Over the course of the next few months, three Lind titles will be reissued: Landscape in Concrete (available now), Ergo (also from Open Letter), and Soul of Wood (from NYRB).

We’ve been joking around the office for some time about creating a “Peculiar Dudes” t-shirt, since we seem to have so many of them on our list—Macedonio Fernandez, Ilf & Petrov, Ricardas Gavelis . . . But Lind’s biography might be the most bizarre of them all.

He was born Heinz Jakov Landwirth in Vienna in 1927 and was sent to Holland as part of the Kindertransport in 1939. To survive WWII, he assumed a pseudonym, pretended to be a Dutch merchant, and spent the war in Nazi Germany, working on barges and transporting messages . . . Post-War, he assumed the name “Jakov Lind” and started writing novels—strange, compelling, unique novels, such as Landscape in Concrete.

We just sent our Fall/Winter catalog to the printer, and I’ll preview Ergo and the other forthcoming titles over the next few weeks, but the main impetus for this post is the wonderful review by Karen Vanuska that Open Letters Monthly ran of Landscape in their new issue:

While Gunter Grass and Ursula Hegi chose dwarfs to tell their stories of Germany during World War II, Lind chose a giant for Landscape in Concrete – this is six-foot-two, three hundred pound Gauthier Bachmann. And in fate’s typical twist (or perhaps it’s just a case of Lind channeling that inner trickster of his), Bachmann is a giant with a miniature mind.

Bachmann is much more eloquent than other enfeebled narrators like Faulkner’s oft-cited Benjy; he’s not mentally retarded, though he shares the naiveté of the brain damaged. He is instead a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; his brain is trying to protect him by keeping at bay the human degradation and mutilation he’s witnessed as a sergeant in the German army. The battle at Voroshenko, where Bachmann’s entire unit literally drowned in mud, especially haunts him [. . .]

Twisted humor is the engine that drives this plot. Additionally, Lind’s portrayal of Bachman is so accomplished that the reader does not feel tempted to laugh at Bachmann, only the crazy and sad things his does. Instead of throwing the characters into Voroshenko-type battles, as you’d expect in World War II novels, Lind makes the violence quite personal. Everyone has axes to grind that have little to do with the politics of wartime Germany and everything to do with vendettas. [. . .]

Yet a strain of raucous humor runs through Landscape in Concrete, sparing readers from drowning in the muck of war, affected by the story, but not consumed by it – an excellent vantage to ponder and reflect.

The whole review is worth checking out—as is the intro to our edition, this pdf excerpt, this overview piece by Sasha Weiss, and his forthcoming two titles.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Thursday was “Open Letter Day” at the Harvard Crimson, as the university daily newspaper covered three new Open Letter books: The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. (Typically, these links would be to our Indie Bookstore of the Month, but Shaman Drum’s online catalog doesn’t have listings for these three titles . . . )

Will Fletcher’s review of The Mighty Angel really captures the humor and horror of this book:

he modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, The Mighty Angel.

It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “. . . therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”

And Jenny Lee’s praise of Landscape in Concrete is spot-on:

The dreamlike quality of the novel emanates from Lind’s ability to create sparse but symbolic landscapes and to fill them with characters whose simple exteriors incapsulate deeper historical echoes. Of course, the enchanting essence of the story is much more akin to that of the original Grimm stories than their doe-eyed Disney counterparts (it revolves around shocking wartime occurrences) but Lind’s gift for eccentric descriptions of characters and events transforms the more gruesome and explicit scenes into something strangely pallatable. Lind’s descriptions endow the starved, inhuman, and ruthless characters of the war with unreal qualities that make the whole narrative easier to digest.

Unfortunately, you can’t always go three-for-three, and in this case, it was Death in Spring that fell a bit short of Keshava Guha’s expectations:

While reading Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda’s final work, it is easy to forget how unlikely the publication of the book is. In Francisco Franco’s anti-Catalan Spain, Rodoreda faced not only suppression and exile but the extinction of her native language. Under Franco, Catalan’s very existence was threatened, banned outright in the public sphere and severely curtailed in the private sphere. In this context, while translations of Spanish language novels achieved worldwide fame and renown in the 1970s and 1980s, Catalan writers remained obscure, even after Franco’s death in 1975, when the ban on Catalan was lifted. With her translation of Death in Spring, Martha Tennent hopes to begin to redress this historic injustice.

How deeply unfortunate, then, that the novel itself cannot live up to the promise of a hidden classic. A brief work of only 150 pages, told in dense four-page episodes, Death in Spring creates a world at once strange and familiar: a nameless town characterized by brutal, gratuitous violence and the prevalence of the bizarre, narrated through an unusual set of eyes—those of a teenage boy. Rodoreda’s narrator is a remarkably dispassionate protagonist, remarking in turns on the macabre and the surreal with unflinching ambivalence.

Nevertheless, here’s one more instance of how the Harvard Crimson is one of the absolute best college newspapers out there. Good taste aside, how many other college papers review three literary titles in one day?

20 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next week or so, I’ll be unveiling all six of Open Letter’s spring 2009 titles. Our finished catalog will be back from the printer in the not-too-distant future, and on our website before that, but I thought it would be fun to give a bit of special attention to each of the titles.

First up is a reprint of Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, which will come out in March. (We’re also bringing out Ergo next fall, around the same time that the New York Review Books brings out Soul of Wood.)

Lind died last February, and it was the wave of fascinating obituaries that caught our editorial interest. Before picking up a single title, I was intrigued by his very strange biography. From the eulogy Anthony Rudolf gave at Lind’s funeral:

Where does the story begin? Jakov was born in 1927 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. A few months after the Anschluss in 1938, his parents sent him on a children’s transport to Holland. There he joined one of many Zionist farms or training centres across Europe, in preparation for kibbutz life in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. As we know from his fascinating and sophisticated autobiographies written in English, the tough-minded teenager, at odds with those Dutch Jews who did not resist deportation, went underground. He survived the war in Germany as a Dutch merchant seaman on a barge. He tells us that it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany “inside the lion’s mouth” rather than in Holland, where you would feel “its teeth and claws”. He even survived a physical examination when he checked into a hospital for venereal disease. “What, that too?” said the male nurse with a laugh, after inspecting the culprit.

The mutability of identity is a common theme throughout Lind’s life and work. In fact, Jakov Lind is actually a pseudonym—as Sasha Weiss details in her excellent essay, he was born Heinz Landwirth, changed his name to Jan Overbeek when he pretended to be Dutch seaman, and then became the author Jakov Lind.

In addition to his works of fiction—which are strange, brilliant books that can be a bit disturbing, but are also very funny in a sort of Beckettian way—he also wrote a “memoir trilogy” consisting of Counting My Steps, Numbers, and Crossing. And relating to his shifting identity and background, he wrote all of these in English.

Landscape in Concrete is set during World War II and features Sergeant Gauthier Bachmann, a totally unhinged German soldier who was discharged for insanity. The book opens with him wandering the forests searching for any company that will take him and let him participate in the war—as a German man it’s his duty to fight. Along the way he literally stumbles into Schnotz, a deserter and poisoner who is hiding in a hole in the woods waiting for the war to end. This excerpt features the beginning of their conversation.

The book gets darker and more odd as it develops, and as various people manipulate the hapless Bachmann. He’s very innocent at the beginning of the novel, but war can change people . . .

For more information about Lind and his works I’d also recommend checking out Joshua Cohen’s article Paying Tribute to a Living Legend, written shortly before Lind’s passing.

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