This won’t be available in the States until next spring, but Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is already getting some great press in the UK, such as this piece in the London Review of Books by Marina Warner:
Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is the latest, most inventive and most substantial volume in Canongate’s series of revisioned myths. [. . .]
During the Soviet era, as Ugrešić has said, the use of traditional material gave writers freedom because it appeared to conform to the populist and nationalist policies of the state. (Lenin had claimed that folktales could be used as the basis for ‘beautiful studies about the hopes and longings of our people’.) An authentic proletarian background, supposed naivety and a child audience could also provide a cloak for subversive thoughts and political criticism; fabulist metaphors were hard to censor. Platonov’s fables, such as the story ‘Among Animals and Plants’ and the novella Soul, use the apparent innocence of the folktale form to indict the conditions of existence in Soviet Russia (though he didn’t escape censure). The same stratagems were used by Miroslav Holub in Czechoslovakia and Danilo Kis in Yugoslavia.
Ugrešić has been circling this territory for a while. In her new book, the tradition of upside-down, modernist myth-making or ironical fable has freed her tongue. Skittish at times, affectionately comic, and lavish with improbable and ingenious fairy-tale plotting, her handling of the genre is deft and light. In Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Ugrešić is in much higher spirits than in her recent collection of essays, Nobody’s Home (2007), or her withering attack on the book trade, Thank You for Not Reading (2003), or her ironic and prophetic fictions, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998) and The Ministry of Pain (2005).
Baba Yaga is the true Witch of the North, the supreme scare figure of the Russian nursery, a monstrous old hag who haunts children and eats them. She doesn’t exactly appear in character here, but she hovers off stage, and directs the action. Old women are Ugrešić’s heroines and old womanhood her theme. This new book is a hybrid work, a comic fable in three parts, combining autobiography, travel, memoir, fable, satire and essay. It begins with an elegy about her own mother’s decline into dementia; hoping to reawaken her mother’s memories, Ugrešić makes a pilgrimage to Sofia, her mother’s hometown, seeing herself as a bedel (the double who rich men used to pay to go to Mecca or fight in the army in their stead). But when she returns with photographs and anecdotes, her mother doesn’t recognise present-day Sofia. This is Ugrešić’s territory: the impossibility of belonging, the ineluctability of loss and the desirability, even so, of remaining apart.
I just found out last week that the Harvard Book Store selected The Conqueror by Jan Kjaerstad as part of its Select Seventy program. As implied by the name, this program consists of seventy books selected by booksellers and buyers—all of which are sold at a 20% discount for the month.
Seeing any of our books on a “staff recommends” table gets me really excited, but this particular program gave me an idea . . . Since Three Percent is very much in favor of the continued survival of independent bookstores, each month we’re going to pick one and link to its online ordering system for all of the titles we feature/review on the site. And as the instigator of the idea, this month we’re going to focus on the Harvard Book Store.
And continuing with Open Letter titles for a second, we’ve gotten a lot of great coverage for our books recently, including a very positive reviews of Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis in both the Harvard Crimson and Literary License.
From the Harvard Crimson:
This ambitious endeavor is admirably achieved. Gavelis’ writing is a paragon of surrealist creativity and an intensely interesting read, filled with effortlessly intelligent prose and a wryly macabre voice.
And from Literary License:
Vilnius Poker is dense with ideas, literary allusions, historic events, mythological references, symbolism, and linguistic and philosophical theories. It invites and rewards careful study. Elizabeth Novickas’s nimble translation delivers the stylistic diversity that must have been intended by Gavelis. Just as beautiful and brutal elements coexist in the narrative, the prose is alternately poetic and crude.
Also, one of the best reviews of Fonseca’s The Taker and Other Stories recently came out in the London Review of Books. Daniel Soar’s review is incredibly thoughtful and complete, dealing with the violence in Fonseca’s stories in a very intelligent fashion. Here’s a short quote:
In Brazil, which since the 1970s has seen more urban violence than any other country in the world, no writer has dealt with the subject more plainly than Rubem Fonseca. In 1976 his bestselling short story collection Feliz Ano Novo (“Happy New Year”) was censored by a court acting for the military government. Five of the stories were banned, and the ban on the title story wasn’t revoked until 1989. [. . .]
The judges in the censorship case argued that the story might lead the average Brazilian astray. That would be a wholly ludicrous statement if applied to a piece of fiction written, say, in France, but “Feliz Ano novo” is precisely about what it claims is the average Brazilian; and it’s this claim that’s subversive, not the violence.
And just so it’s clear, all three of these books are currently in stock at the Harvard Book Store, and can be ordered online . . .
The Bolano love just doesn’t stop . . . This week it’s Ben Kunkel in the London Review of Books on The Savage Detectives, Last Evenings on Earth, and Amulet.
Bolaño’s desperado image is a large part of his appeal. His revolutionary politics and the personal risk they entailed, the movement he founded, his poverty, exile and addiction, his death in his prime: the combination of these elements is foreign to the increasingly professionalised career of the contemporary writer. Bolaño’s dishevelled, wandering characters are, more profoundly than they are left-wing, anti-bourgeois, which is to say disdainful of comfort, security and success: an attitude more than a politics, but the attitude is deeply felt. Even to write ‘marvellously well’, Bolaño declared, was not enough; ‘the quality of the writing’ depended on the author’s understanding ‘that literature is basically a dangerous calling’.
And obviously, this means the new LRB is out, with some of its contents available online.
The July 5th issue of the London Review of Books is now out, with some of the contents available online.
Looks to have some interesting articles, including Frank Kermode on A. E. Housman, a review of DeLillo’s Falling Man by Mark Greif, and a piece on Jonathan Lethem by Evan Hughes.
Also of interest on the LRB website is Terry Eagleton’s review of Mikhail Bakhtin: The Word in the World by Graham Pechey.
It’s an interesting piece not only because Bakhtin is always interesting (and his theories seem as fresh and relevant as ever), but because it made me really want to read Ken Hirschkop’s Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy. It’s a special kind of book review that can totally turn you off to one book (partially because Pechey can “wax mildly parsonical in tone” which sounds dreadful) and on to another about the same topic.
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. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .