4 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The most recent addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Stephen Sparks of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

Stephen Sparks is currently on his second go-round as a bookseller at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, after having spent a year as a publishing fellow at Dalkey Archive. He’s in the process of finishing an MLIS program. And you may recognize him from The Book vs. The Kindle videos Green Apple made a few years ago. (And which name-checked Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker as an ass kicking Lithuanian vampire novel.)

Bernhard is a personal favorite, especially The Lime Works and Correction. Prose sounds like vintage Bernhard, what with the rants, the depressing view of life, the suffering of the main characters, etc. Here’s the opening of Stephen’s review:

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

Click here to read the full review.

4 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

A typical Bernhard story (both in Prose and in his novels) takes the form of a report or confession of narrator who witnesses the dissolution of another character’s mind—as Ben Marcus argues, Bernhard is less a narrative storyteller than an “architect of consciousness.” The narrator serves as a filter through which the victim1 pours his defense, which, at this remove takes on a deeply ironic aspect. By keeping the subject at arm’s length, Bernhard can create an at times unbearable tension: does the distance save the reader from identifying fully with the victim1 or does it cause us to suffer more due to the fact that Bernhard’s narrators are themselves sufferers by proxy, thus magnifying the amount of anguish a book can contain?

The sixth of seven stories in this collection, the excruciatingly ironic “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son,” offers a prime example of this technique. The titular character, the narrator’s fellow student and roommate, is driven to desperation by being different, a dividing line drawn between him and his family:

Georg was an exception. He was the center of attention, but thanks to his worthlessness, thanks to the scandal which he represented for the whole family, always frightened and embittered by him, not least where they tried to cover it up, a horribly crooked and crippled center of attention, which they wanted out of the house at all costs. He was so greatly and in the most dreadful way deformed by nature they always had to hide him. After they had been disappointed down to the depths of their faecal and victual detestableness by the doctors’ skills and by medical science altogether, they implored in mutual perfidiousness a fatal illness for Georg, which would remove him from the world as swiftly as possible; they had been prepared to do anything, if he would just die . . .

The “scandal” Georg causes, we find, is due more to his intelligence than a mysterious deformity: being born into a merchant family, this “useless, ever deeper and deeper thinking beast” who “even wrote poems,” deviated too much from the rigid stupidity of the shopkeeping class. As in a fairy tale, Georg’s murderous family conspires to rid themselves of this nuisance. Despite his perceived monstrosity, Georg proves himself strong enough to overcome his family’s evil designs and flees to Vienna.

In a fairy tale, such an escape signals a happy resolution. In Bernhard’s stories it signals the point at which any similarity to a fairy tale falls apart. There’s no redemption in this universe. Escape is only exchange, in this case one prison, the family cellar at Innsbruck, for another: Vienna, “the most dreadful of all old cities of Europe . . . such an old and lifeless city . . . such a cemetery.” And, since Georg once again finds himself claustrophobically entombed, he commits his final, and in the eyes’ of his family, unpardonable crime.

“The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” and five other of the stories in Prose fall into the basic pattern above: a highly subjective secondhand report on the crime of a hypersensitive character. The irony being, of course, that the perpetrators of the so-called crimes are in fact victims of grave and at times obscure injustices themselves—and justice’s blindness serves only as a convenient excuse for its idiocy. This is typical Bernhard, surprising only in its relentlessness.

In the two remaining stories—“The Cap” and “Juaregg”—Bernhard deviates from his typical distance (if not pattern) by presenting confessions without an intermediary. In “The Cap,” the narrator, suffering from a “_pathological nature_,” is so incapable of action that even the decision to go for a walk proves to be an unrelenting torment. Even more unbearable than action, however, is twilight, at which time he flees the house in terror to walk in either of two directions: toward an ugly town or toward a beautiful town. Imagine then his overwhelming consternation when he finds a cap on the road leading toward the ugly town and assumes the proper course would be to attempt to return it to its owner. But to whom does the cap belong? Is it a woodcutter’s or a butcher’s or even a farmer’s cap? And what if he puts it on? But he has no right to put it on, for he is not a farmer, a butcher, or a woodcutter. And what color is the cap?

These questions cascade over him, inordinately agitating his already fragile mental state. He wants nothing more than a life without complications, but such an eventless existence is impossible for someone in his state. Like many of Bernhard’s characters, the narrator in “The Cap” suffers so much precisely because he is not mad. He believes that by going mad he would manage to escape his anguish:

But the truth is that I want to go mad, I want to go mad, nothing I want more, than really go mad, but I fear that I am far from being able to go mad. I at last want to go mad! I don’t want to be only afraid of going mad, I at last want to go mad. Two doctors, one of whom is a highly scientific doctor, have prophesied that I shall go mad, very soon I would go mad, the two doctors prophesied, very soon, very soon; now I’ve been waiting two years for it to happen, to go mad, but I still haven’t gone mad.

This breathless, hysterical desire is merely another form of madness and bars the way to any escape. This is the fate of Bernhard’s characters: a crazed desire for insanity or suicide, both options being viewed as an end to suffering. To go on living is possible, of course, but always with the awareness that “We are at liberty to kill ourselves.”

A friend and I, both booksellers, were recently discussing a curious compulsion we feel when recommending “depressing” books: we find that we search, almost unconsciously, to find something palatable on which to focus our enthusiasm. This is natural enough in sales, I suppose, but nonetheless troubling. In the case of Bernhard, for instance, I find myself explaining that while his work is, well, almost unbearably grim, there’s comedy and pathos in it as well. This is true—Bernhard is a savagely hysterical writer—but highlighting it obscures a fundamental characteristic of his, and many of our best writers’, work: the acknowledgement that life is itself not particularly palatable. This isn’t to say life, and by extension superior works of art, aren’t graced by moments of remarkable beauty, but by focusing only on the “nice” we risk shutting ourselves off from the fullness of experience.

Bernhard offers us such a discomforting vision. In the story “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” his narrator offers an opinion that “one describes best what one hates.” Our literature is much richer for this assumption.

1 Everyone in Bernhard’s fiction is a victim, whether of a bad childhood, failed ambitions, or simply of having been born: “The catastrophe,” Prince Sarau reports in Gargoyles, “begins with getting out of bed.”

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Herta Müller’s The Passport, which was translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and rapidly reprinted by Serpent’s Tail last fall when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Monica Carter is one of our top reviewers and a great champion of world literature. She’s on the fiction committee for the Best Translated Book Award, works at Skylight Books in L.A., and runs the always fascinating Salonica web site.

Here’s the opening of her review:

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

“In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.”

Click here to read the full review.

And that’s it! Have a great weekend—see you back here on Tuesday!

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.

This is the typical eerie passage from Müller. As her terse and poetic style provides a haunting rhythm and distance, the dour reality of town life coupled with the characters’ desires to become part of the West sets an ominous tone the builds as the novel progresses. Nature itself is portrayed as a character, and its different elements make repeated appearances that are both fanciful and surreal:

“The owls have no peace, and the water has no peace,” says Windisch. “If it dies, another owl will come to the village. A stupid young owl that doesn’t know anything. It will sit on anyone’s roof.”

The night watchman looks up at the moon. “The young people will die again,” he says. Windisch sees that the air just in front of him belongs to the night watchman. His voice manages a tired sentence “Then it will be like war again,” he says.

Throughout the novel, Windisch is a sad and anxious character. A miller without money or much else searches to obtain passports from a local for himself and his family. Unable to achieve this, he endures a bleak existence not only without respect from his wife, but also resigned to her bouts of vitriol. Their freedom rests on their daughter’s sexual favors with the village militiaman and priest. This knowledge, as horrific as it is, seems like the only way out of their plodding existence that is surrounded by death and time.

Müller allows the reader no sense of redemption, constructing the same hopelessness created by a totalitarian government. Our Windisch rides through the town on his bicycle and through his eyes, everyday objects morph into phantoms that disturbs the reader. Müller is a master of a direct and breviloquent prose that heightens the harsh realities of Windisch’s life and the lives of all those imprisoned by Communist rule in Romania. Perhaps not her best work, but a startling novella that limns a world of heartbreak and obsession and the tragedy of desperation it can create.

23 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn, which is translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Serpent’s Tail.

Ozdamar was born in Turkey and moved to Berlin because of her interest in German theater. She’s the author of several plays and was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from her first novel.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University. She’s also working on a review of Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe . . . .

Here’s an excerpt from her review of The Bridge of the Golden Horn:

“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”

Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”

Click here to read the full review.

23 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”

Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”

While Ozdamar’s lyrical writing technique contains shades of Postmodernists who have especially favored a stream of consciousness style (such as Joyce and Woolf), her writing is wholly her own:

Berlin had been like a street to me. As a child I had stayed in the street until midnight, in Berlin, I had found my street again. From Berlin I had returned to my parents’ house, but now it was like a hotel, I wanted to go back on the street again. On the ship the men took the newspapers down from their faces and looked at me. Every evening a shipful of people would come to see me on the stage as an actress. The men would fall in love with me. I suddenly realized that I was very curious about what these men who would fall in love with me would look like. I wanted to die onstage like Moliere, in the middle of the set. I saw myself onstage, other actors carried me in their arms, I bled from my mouth, died and left behind no children who had to weep after my death. The ship was just in the middle between Asian and European Istanbul. The actress came out of my body, she pushed a man and child in front of her and threw them into the Sea of Marmara. Then she came back and entered me again. When the ship reached the Asian side, I knew that I never ever wanted to get married. I could hardly wait to get home. Before I got on the bus, I called my mother. ‘I don’t want to marry, I want to go to drama school.’

In addition to being the author of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar has also written plays, and is a trained actress. With this experience, Ozdamar has clearly gained a masterful understanding of the nuances of language, and sheutilizes literary devices found in playwriting to push the novel’s plot towards its conclusion, a technique that works brilliantly throughout the entire novel.

At its core, though, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a modern-day fairy tale. While few would consider 1966 “long ago”, or Istanbul and Berlin “a far away land” (in the traditional fairy-tale sense; both are pretty far away from where I sit in Phoenix), the novel contains a colorful cast of characters, heartbreaking and hilarious events, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood, and all of this takes place in a dramatically shifting modern world – a densely wooded forest of life, iconic of a fairy tale. In his introduction, John Berger states, “perhaps story-tellers have always been listened to because they fill a lack.” Luckily for readers, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s profound, illuminating, and ultimately lovely novel, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a powerful story that can fill in for whatever may be lacking.

....
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