This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:
In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.
Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:
From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.
Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:
Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.
What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.
For anyone who’s not a subscriber to the Open Letter newsletter, here’s this week’s entry. (You can sign up by entering your e-mail into the box on the upper right hand side of the Open Letter homepage.)
This week’s Open Letter update is pretty simple and straightforward. To celebrate the release of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, we’re giving away ten copies of the finished book to our newsletter subscribers, Three Percent readers, and members for our Facebook group.
You can register for the giveaway by simply e-mailing me at email@example.com with “Pilch” in the subject line and your name and complete mailing address in the body of the e-mail.
The Mighty Angel is a wonderful book about an alcoholic Polish writer named Jerzy who goes in and out of the alco ward over and over, always feeling that some woman will help him clean up his life, but always ending up back at The Mighty Angel in no time. It’s a touching novel, but also one infused with a great sense of humor (i.e., chapter 4the one about plagiarizing alcoholic autobiographies), much like Pilch’s other books. (We’re currently considering another title of his for publication: A Thousand Peaceful Cities, which features Mr. Trabaone of the most brilliant unhinged characters I’ve come across in some time.)
To whet your appetite, attached below is a small sample (a longer, different excerpt is available online).
Chapter 12: All the Washing Machines in the World
The eternally postponed notion of repairing my old washing machine or buying a new one eventually perished of its own accord, to a large extent independently of my foibles. In my life I’ve drunk away a vast amount of money, I’ve spent a fortune on vodka, but the reprehensible moment of drinking away a sum set aside for the repair of my washing machine has never occurred. I make this confession not with pride in my heart but with a sense of abasement. For the fact that I never drank away a sum of money set aside for the repair of my washing machine arises from the fact that I never set aside any sum of money for the repair of my washing machine in the first place. Before I ever managed to set aside a particular sum for the repair of the washing machine, I drank it away along with all the other sums of money not yet set aside for any special purpose. I drank away the money before I’d had time to set it aside for something else; therefore I can say, seemingly contradicting myself (yet only seemingly, for in the former case there was only a small quantifier, while in this case there is a large one), I can say then that in fact I did drink away the money for the repair of the washing machine. I drank away the money for a whole series of repairs, I drank away the money for all possible repairs. What am I saying, repairs? I drank away the money for an entire new washing machine, I drank away a whole series of new washing machines, I drank away a thousand new washing machines, I drank away a million new automatic washing machines, I drank away a billion state-of-the-art washing machines. I drank away all the washing machines in the world.
What kind of soul does a man have when he knows he has drunk away all the washing machines in the world? My answer is this: He has a winged soul, and his mind spins like the rotating drum in the final stages of the spin cycle. When you sense upon your heart the burden of a thousand drunk-away washing machines, it is unbearable. But when you lift your tormented gaze and see flocks of white-winged washing machines soaring across the watery heavens like squadrons of papal helicopters, you understand that you have been given more than others. You have been given an uncommon gift, and if you manage to survive, if you do not perish beforehand, you can begin a voyage in search of all the lost washing machines, and evenyes indeedin search of all lost objects in general.
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?
As officially announced at Bacacay, (the official blog of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York) Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel has been selected as the September title for the European Book Club.
It’s an honor to have one of our titles selected for this program, especially since this is the first time the Polish Cultural Institute is participating. (And it’s super-cool that the book club discussion will be taking place in the Solas Bar . . . )
If you’re not familiar with the European Book Club, here’s a nice write-up that Bill posted at Bacacay:
Founded in 2008, the European Book Club is a collaboration between a handful of New York-city based European cultural institute: the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Czech Center, the French Institute Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, the Polish Cultural Institute, and the Instituto Cervantes. Each month, a different participating institute hosts a book club meeting, which is then “mirrored” at the Brooklyn Public Library later the same month—a measure just introduced due to the overwhelming popularity of the Book Club last year and the fact that so many people had to be turned away. So, for instance, Jachým Topol’s classic City Sister Silver will be discussed tonight at the Czech Center, and the mirror session will take place tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Next month, Muriel Barbery’s acclaimed novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog will be hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française on April 13, and reproduced in Brooklyn on April 21. We’ll be holding our session in September at Solas Bar (appropriately enough), in the same second storey room of this fine East Village establishment where the St. Mark’s Bookshop reading series takes place. If you’ll be in New York then, make sure to check back here or at http://www.europeanbookclub.org sometime around the middle of August for information on how to sign up. Registration for the French session next month is already open.
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be unveiling the Open Letter Spring 2009 list. (All posts about this list can be found here.) This “unveiling” kicked off last week with a bit about Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, and next up is our April 2009 title, The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch.
A novel about an alcoholic novelist who goes in and out of rehab (eighteen times!) doesn’t immediately sound like the funniest novel out there. Yet, Pilch’s The Mighty Angel is a hysterical, and occasionally sobering book. The title comes from the liquor store the protagonist flees to the second he’s out of rehab, and that sort of endless cycle—hit bottom, enter rehab, recover, feel great, feel so great you need a drink, drink heavily, hit bottom—is at the center of this book.
In Jerzy’s (the protagonist, not the author) case, there’s an added bit to his cycle—the reliance on some pretty young woman to take care of him and make everything better. His belief that love can fix his life is tragic and kind of touching, and is one of the reasons why the ending is so ambiguous . . .
This still doesn’t sound that funny, but trust me, Jerzy’s (the character) imagination and wild stories about the people in rehab—Don Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Hero of Socialist Labor—are wonderful. As is this excerpt about the potential plagiarism of an alcoholic’s “rock bottom confession.” Pilch reminds me a bit of Tadeusz Konwicki, especially The Polish Complex.
Early in his career, Jerzy Pilch was considered one of Poland’s greatest up-and-coming writers, and was even referred to by Czeslaw Milosz as the “hope of young Polish prose.” Now almost sixty, he’s a very established figure, and one of the great contemporary Polish writers. He’s been nominated for the prestigious NIKE Award on six occasions (including this past year), and won in 2001 for The Mighty Angel.
It’s also worth noting that this book was recommended and translated by Bill Johnston, one of the greatest Polish translators working today (actually, he may be one of the greatest Polish translators ever), who also translated Pilch’s His Current Woman, which was published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
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. . .