Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
All posts in this series can be found here. And today’s entry is from THA REALIST Edmund Wilson 3 on Michal Ajvaz.
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland
Country: Czech Republic
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Why It Should Win: Nabokov + Borges + Swift = Ajvaz; Dalkey Archive is one of the premiere publishers of translations; praised by the Hipster Book Club; much better than Ajvaz’s The Other City
“The Book You All Must Choose to Win BTBA 2010, Unless You Are All Pompous Egoists Like That Ass Nabokov”
by THA REALIST Edmund Wilson 3
You know, the Kingdom wasn’t such a bad place until that pompous ass Nabokov got up here. I had a nice run of about five years, just me and the deity talking over those really interesting questions of language and reality, the relationship between them, how this all pertains to novels. Wittgenstein would drop by from time to time. It was nice. But the inevitable had to happen sooner or later, that old émigré son of a bitch had to die sometime. So Mr. Genius of all Geniuses finally kicks himself over, and here he comes floating up on butterfly wings—I mean, puh-leeze, butterfly wings? where’d those even come from?—and let me tell you, for any of you who think the deity is full of Him/Herself, you should have seen it when Nabokov floated on up to the Kingdom of God . . . “oh, gee Mr. Nabokov, tell me how you channeled Pushkin for that—excuse the pun—god-like translation. Tell me again how unconventional you were when you wrote Lolita . . .”
It was enough to make me sick, if sickness had any meaning up here, although I have to admit, it was plenty fun watching the old man get all in a lather over that “idiot son” of his (his words, not mine) claiming to have spoken with his ghost. He was in such a rage, and impotent to do a thing! Guess real life isn’t like “The Vane Sisters,” is it Nabby! Heh, heh, heh . . . You should have seen him the day T.O.O.L.—that’s what he calls it, tool that he is—the day T.O.O.L. was published. You’d have thought the fallen angel had returned there was so much commotion. I have to give it to him, the Kingdom really shook that day.
But anyway, I digress. I bring up Nabokov—pompous ass that he is—only to introduce The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, the book that hack Nabokov would have written if he had any real talent, instead of just ego. It takes little butterfly-boy’s favorite conceit—that whole bit about language being reality and vice versa—but he transports it to an island world Nabokov couldn’t have dreamed up if he wrote ten Pale Fires. He populates this island with a civilization that makes Zembla look like the little podunk backwater it is—I mean, he describes it in detail for a good 150 pages, half the book, and I was riveted the whole damn time! Waterfalls inside of houses! Walls made of water! Telling time via smell! It was all so truly creative, and the best thing was that every one of these beautiful details doubled as a metaphor for the way language mediates reality. Oh, and no kiddy porn in the whole book. Imagine that.
The plot of the book is that years ago a European took a trip to this island, and now he’s making a sort of ethnological study of it from what he remembers. At the center of their society is this Book that they hand around and all write in—like a pen and paper Wikipedia. And then after the narrator is done describing the society that gave rise to this incredible Book, then Ajvaz indulges in the Borgesian conceit (he hates Nabokov too, by the way), the Borgesian conceit of a book within a book that tunnels down into itself nearly down to infinity. The book as reductio ad absurdum—brilliant! And we read this book alongside the narrator—which is a great book in and of itself, despite (or because of) it’s near-infinite nature—and this book-within-a-book-within-a-book comes to reflect on the whole society the narrator has just spent the previous 150 pages describing in such staggering detail. It’s all so brilliant. You can just turn to a page at random, and I bet you there will be a line or a sentence or a paragraph there that you could muse about for the rest of the day.
Really, if you extracted all the genuine talent in Nabokov (minus that cancerous lump of an ego) and tossed in a liberal dash of Borges and a touch of Swiftian satire, well, there you would have Michal Ajvaz. The book is surely the most staggering translation to be published in 2010.
Absinthe 14 arrived in yesterday’s mail, and is loaded with interesting authors and pieces, including:
Myśliwski’s grand epic in the rural tradition—a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive. Wise and impetuous, plain-spoken and compassionate Szymek, recalls his youth in their village, his time as a guerrilla soldier, as a wedding official, barber, policeman, lover, drinker, and caretaker for his invalid brother. Filled with interwoven stories and voices, by turns hilarious and moving, Szymek’s narrative exudes the profound wisdom of one who has suffered, yet who loves life to the very core.
They select some man, sufficiently experiment with him and only then identify him as the object of the experiment. They slip him hidden meanings of his multisense expressions which, for them, are univocal. They let him deal with it for years. What they tie in a knot through definition in a moment, he is forced to spend years untying through conscientious interpretation. In the meantime, their definitions are petrified solid. His interpretations appear, as if they were made of butter and deliberately throw them on his head, so that they could laugh at these babbles.
For those who wish to gain a closer knowledge of the peculiarities of the Balkan mindset, a reading of this text, which has the value of an emblem of national identity, is, I might say, obligatory. Of course, we are dealing with a “Balkanism” that has been filtered through the work of Huysmans and Edgar Allen Poe, captured in a hypnotic narrative whose density of meanings has led literary theorist Matei Calinescu to compare it with Borges’ El Aleph. It is an unusual narrative, whose effects are those of an addictive literary drug.
There’s also a piece by Thomas E. Kennedy called “A Visit to Hunger 120 Years Later,” and book reviews of The Other City by Mchal Ajvaz (reviewed by Jeff Waxman) and When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree by Jean-Pierre Rosnay (reviewed by John Taylor).
As mentioned above, the Absinthe site for issue 14 is still coming together, but you can order the issue by clicking here.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .