18 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Peter Biello on The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, translated by David Moore and out last year from New York Review Books.

If you’re looking for some post-WWII-themed, summer reading with disturbing imagery that would blow Jane Yolen and her time-traveling YA hit out of the shark-infested waters (don’t ask about the sharks), this book should be on your list. The rich, blood-red cover treatment, the title, the grisly things Peter (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) mentions in his review . . . It’s enough to make you literally grimace and wonder how many episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians you can self-medicate with to make the entire world go away but still not land yourself in the camp of comatose self-loathing. Basically, if you want a visceral and historical heebie-jeebie fest, this is it.

And yes: Kardashians and WWII. You saw that combination here first, folks.

Anyway, here’s a part of Peter’s review—and enjoy the weekend!:

The Skin is Malaparte’s description of this moral plague. He writes about a character of the same name who accompanies a band of Pollyannaish American soldiers as they go about Naples acting as both conquerors and liberators. He bears witness to the variety of horrors that come at the end of a long war: starvation, slavery, casual murder, careless disposal of the dead, and the caustic nature with which the rich feed upon the poor (both literally and metaphorically), to name a few.

But these atrocities are merely a symptom of, or coexist with, the moral plague. Malaparte bemoans the easy way Neapolitans bend to the wishes of their American conquerors. “It was enough that a child should put into its mouth a candy offered to it by an American soldier, and its innocent soul would be corrupted.” The Neapolitans are too willing to trade national identity, pride, and dignity, just to get along with the new powers that be.

The Americans, for their part, approach this horrid landscape as if they weren’t at least partially responsible, and so they become the target of Malaparte’s most acidic sarcasm. The Americans of The Skin remain ignorant of Neapolitan culture. One American repeatedly speaks French to Malaparte and others, suggesting that, to him, all cultures other than his own are more or less the same. The Americans take what they can from the country they’ve razed with bombs and tanks, all the while holding themselves blameless. It rings true.

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving” quantity and degree of attention. What is also unsurprising—and slightly depressing—is the rather gossipy nature of the comment and controversy surrounding Labé’s work, both past and present. Her contemporaries, we are told, spread rumours that she was a courtesan, albeit one with discerning taste in her clientele. In recent years, one Renaissance scholar has claimed that Labé’s poetry was actually written by a group of men, and that Labé herself never even existed. The life of a female writer, it seems, comes with some interesting occupational hazards.

Regardless of what she was or wasn’t, Labé herself is proudly conscious of her femininity in her work, and Love Sonnets & Elegies offers some rewarding insights into a pioneering female mind. In her dedicatory epistle to Clémence de Bourges, Labé expresses her desire to see women “surpass or equal men not only in beauty but in learning & worthiness,” and her poetry contains nods toward a community of presumably like-minded women, whom she addresses with a charming spirit of familiarity in “Sonnet 24” (“Don’t reproach me, ladies, for having loved”) and in “Elegy I,” in which she pleads, “Join in my sorrows, / Ladies, when you read of my regrets. / Some day, I may do the same for you.” Such disarming intimacy is hard to resist.

Writing in the sixteenth century, it is inevitable that Petrarchan tropes find their way into Labé’s work from time to time. Love dominates all of her poetry, and her verse is least inspiring when it is littered with such clichés as “I live, I die: I flare up, & I drown / The colder I feel the hotter I burn” (“Sonnet 8”). Yet there is something undeniably refreshing in hearing a female voice engaging in the sort of poetic objectification usually dominated by Renaissance male writers, and Labé seems to positively relish beating them at their own game: “Sonnet 21” finds her wondering aloud, “What height places a man beyond compare? / What size? What shade of hair? What color of skin?”; elsewhere she coos to her lover in “Sonnet 11,” “How sweet your glances, how lovely your eyes / Small gardens blooming with amorous flowers.” Whenever she isn’t carefully evaluating her lover piece by piece in the best blason tradition, she is occupied with calling him out for the sort of perfidious behaviour usually decried as the preserve of sly females, as when she berates him in “Sonnet 23,” “Where are those tears once shed & now no more? / Or that Death on which you solemnly swore / You would love me for the rest of your life?” It is not often that we hear a female answering back in early modern verse, and it makes for enjoyable reading.

Yet happily for the modern reader, Labé is not a mere Renaissance novelty, for her work frequently rises above the literary constraints and conventions of her era to provide lines of genuine pathos and wit that translate well across the centuries. Her endings can be particularly strong, as when the close of “Sonnet 5” finds her confessing that, “when I’m almost completely shattered / Lying in bed as if nothing mattered / My screams shall light up the entire night,” or when “Sonnet 16” finds her chiding her lover, “You’ve doused your flame in some other sea, / Much colder than I ever claimed to be.” If Labé really is a (literally) man-made fiction, she is certainly a very convincing one—the voice in these verses is strong and distinctive, imbued with a warmth and charm that is consistently present.

Richard Sieburth’s translations are elegantly concise and direct, giving Labé’s verses a supple feel in his English renderings. Any reader with a taste for Renaissance verse will find much to enjoy in this slim volume, and even a general reader may find it well worth his or her time to make the acquaintance of the lady of Lyon.

9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”

Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more realist than the writers in this vein and, at the same time, succeeds in sublimating reality by getting much closer to its essence, by re-creating it in its essential entirety, in its immense, wondrous complexity.

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

In fact, Pla started The Gray Notebook during one of those dark moments in time. In 1918, as World War I was ending, a deadly influenza pandemic was spreading throughout the world. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of the world’s population was infected, and an estimated 50 million died from this flu.) As a result, the university Pla was attending in Barcelona closed for a time, so he had to return to his parents’ home in Palafrugell along the eastern coast of Spain. Even though he was studying law, Pla wanted to be a writer and, on his twenty-first birthday, he started composing his notebook entries.

After briefly mentioning his ancestors and some of his earliest memories, Pla starts to describe small-town life, which is filled with many colorful characters, including Roldós, the bohemian pianist at the local cinema, and Josep Bofill de Carreres (also known as Gori), the town magistrate. Gori has some pretty interesting opinions about everything, including justice, marriage, and the war. One night, in the café where Pla and his other friends get together, Gori talks about what he believes was the biggest effect of the war. “It introduced short underpants,” he says to Pla. “After centuries of wearing long underparts mankind today can finally breathe.” Gori also criticizes Pla for his love of realism and believes literature should be an escape from reality.

However, as seen in the quote mentioned earlier, the young Pla has plenty to say on that subject, too. Besides Proust, Pla also appreciates Catalan writers such as Josep Carner, who was also known as the “Prince of the Catalan Poets.” “Catalan literature today has a very attractive quality: It is a literature completely devoid of mannerism. Mannerism palls immediately. Its style is so difficult, so hard, so stiff, and so rigidly written and hedged with obstacles, that everybody writes as best he can . . . and make of it what you will!” He also defines realism as the “new rule” in literature because of the passion that inspires it.

Pla demonstrates this passion for realism even during the most humdrum moments. For example, his description of relaxing on a boat near the El Canadell beach is so vivid and realistic that a reader cannot help but be drawn into the scene.

At two o’clock, the toast-colored shadow is a foot wide and the sand the sun has just deserted is still warm. But as it gets later in the afternoon, the shadow spreads and the sand cools. . . . The light is a hazy, effervescent, dazzling white. It melds with the air, white walls, and pinkish sands to create misty vapors that glide, twist, and turn. The pale, bluish void of the sky seems to shimmer with light. The herd of foaming white horses gallops monotonously over the azure of the sea. Everything happens so quickly and spontaneously and in the red-hot frenzy the shade is so cooling that a drowsy stupor spreads through your body releasing and relaxing your entrails.

Not everything about Pla’s life is idyllic, though; this is particularly evident in the second half of the book, which covers most of 1919. By January of that year, Pla was able to return to Barcelona, although he was less than enthusiastic about getting his law degree (and returning to that city, which he describes as being “like one endless cemetery”). In fact, the entries for Barcelona present a sharp contrast to the ones for Palafrugell.

One of the reasons for this contrast is Pla finds himself surrounded by chaos at times. Even though the war is over, a general strike leads to the military occupying the city (Pla ends up doing some part-time service). He also witnesses unruly students wreaking havoc in a mineralogy and botany class. Meanwhile, Pla’s family becomes a source for other worries: His brother catches the still-lingering flu, and his father’s financial situation, which was never great to begin with, worsens.

Furthermore, Pla sometimes isolates himself from others. He calls himself a “chatterbox” but admits that he has “no talent for friendship”; after rudely interrupting a poet who is proposing a festival, he wins “another enemy.” Even when he is around friends, he leaves them to go out for strolls. “It seems I am fated to be a wanderer,” he writes. In fact, walking around Barcelona is something Pla likes to do a lot. At one point, he skips classes for four days so he could take strolls along the Rambla, one of his favorite streets in the city.

Still, Pla doesn’t spend this section of the book dwelling on the negative or living a life of solitude. For instance, Dr. Joaquim Borralleras (or Quim, as Pla calls him) eventually becomes a significant part of his social circle. (This circle also included Eugeni d’Ors and Francesc Pujols, who would both become famous in their own right.) While Quim criticizes Pla’s initial attempts at writing, he ultimately helps Pla fulfil his dream of being a writer by encouraging him to be a journalist. Pla apparently took Quim’s advice very seriously: He worked as a journalist until the 1970s, when he started preparing his complete works. (Incidentally, Quim was also the one who recommended that Pla read Proust.)

Pla’s remark that Proust composed “a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements” arguably applies to this work as well. Some readers may initially find it too rich: The multitude of characters, anecdotes, and opinions can seem overwhelming at times. However, Pla’s search through lost time is definitely one worth accompanying him on, especially as he grows as a writer and a man. Peter Bush’s translation is equally appealing, as he brilliantly retains the idiosyncrasies of these characters for English readers. (Having Pla call d’Ors “Frenchified” was a nice touch.) Overall, while Pla originally questioned the value of his notebook within its own pages, the reader who becomes enchanted by it will not only be thankful that it was preserved but will look forward to reading more from him in the near future.

9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on The Gray Notebook translated by Peter Bush, and out from New York Review Books.

This is another 600+ page book that screams to be read—Pla’s tome describes life and observations in Barcelona, entries written by his twenty-year-old self in the early 1900s. And while Pla did rework and tweak his notebook over the almost fifty years he held on to it before publishing it, this promises to be a pretty candid view of what life was like in Spain then (including during the Spanish Flu, no less), and with a youthful critique and sense of certain sense of humor. And not to be overly book-reader-cocky about essay-autobiographies, but if NYRB published it, it’s obviously going to be a good read.

So add this one to your summer lists! And now, here’s a part of Chris’s review:

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time” . . .

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

For the review in its entirety, go here.

16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is SUPER EFFING CREEPY, and is by Phillip Koyoumjian on Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, who god only knows how didn’t need therapy after translating this, and out from New York Review Books, who will be responsible for my nightmares tonight. (I love you all.)

Just from reading the intro paragraph to Phillip’s review I want to both read this book and promptly burn it to, as my grandmother would say, “Get the fusel out.”1 I’m a fan of high literary heebie-jeebies, and a fan of knowing all-things-entomology is the source of 99.9% of movies and books of things that scare the shit out of us—and HOLY HELL does this book sound awesomely horrific—but spiderbugs and evil infestations strike a conflicted cord. Ain’t no amount of Mason jars and notecards going to stop this mess… But oh, how good this book sounds.

Here’s a bit of Phillip’s review:

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

For the rest of the review, go here.

fn.1 While the definition of fusel is this, my grandmother uses it to mean “all things that are bad.” You can get the fusel (as is appropriate) out of wine, out of foods, out of yourself (by taking hot baths), but you cannot—absolutely cannot—get it out of children. That’s locked in there until they grow up.

16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne —here newly translated by Susan Bernofsky), Jeremias Gotthelf—the pseudonym of Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius—spins a morality tale of evil in a Swiss hamlet. Originally published in 1842, The Black Spider illustrates with terrifying vividness a village tormented by deadly spiders over several generations. This is more than just a story of gratuitous horror: it presents the cause of this terrible affliction and the villagers’ (periodic) deliverance from it as lessons in sin and redemption.

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

The villagers are flat and more or less archetypes (the fallen woman, the good priest, the evil lord), but character development is not essential to experiencing Gotthelf’s horrifying evocation of paranoia and fear. He deftly illustrates the terror the spiders wreak among the villagers, not least when the spider on Christine’s face unleashes its full wrath:

. . . Christine felt as if her face was bursting open and glowing coals were being birthed from it, quickening into life and swarming across her face and all her limbs, and everything within her face had sprung to life, a fiery swarming all across her body. In the lightning’s pallid glow she saw, long-legged and venomous, innumerable black spiderlings scurrying down her limbs and out into the night, and as the vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others.

This ought to serve as a warning to any arachnophobes: Gotthelf does spares no detail in his description of the hairy, spindly legs of spiders creeping up the necks of the villagers or the spiders’ beady eyes watching them in their sleep.

The Black Spider is a delightfully creepy tale of a town plagued not by some weird monster or flesh-eating plague, but by the very real (albeit not ubiquitous) venomous spider. As an admonition against sin and a call to faithfulness it may be of more interest to some than to others. However, as a horror story, it ought to terrify every reader and make him wonder if the feeling on the back of his neck are hairs standing up in fear, or tiny hairy legs crawling upward toward his head.

8 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Catherine Partin on Pierre Reverdy’s Pierre Reverdy, a collection of the poet’s works translated by various authors, edited by Mary Ann Caws, and out from New York Review Books.

Catherine is an avid reader with interests in French and Francophone literature, modernism, and critical theory, and is soon to graduate with an MA in Culture and Difference from Durham University. Here’s the beginning of her review:

To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.

Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet.

For the rest of the review, go here.

8 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.

Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet. Apart from their experimental form and use of language, two pieces drawn from this collection published in 1915, “The Intruder” and “The Spirit Goes Out,” particularly resonate with the modern sense of rupture, disorientation, and loss of an old world order, precipitated by what was then known only as the Great War. “The Intruder” begins with the intrusion of a human figure “leading behind him a caravan in chaos” into a world of silence and shadow, sparking a pandemonium heralded by “songs and shrieks” of the new:

A most ancient world was whirling through our heads and we were awaiting the moment when everything would collapse . . . the skies were grey and filled with the howls of machines that cut through our malaise. Once out in the street, we regained our century . . . But that other night, from what era did they all descend upon us, those spirits . . . ?

Similarly, in “The Spirit Goes Out,” Reverdy captures, with striking symbolism, the death of grand narratives simultaneously dealt with by many of his contemporaries. Prefiguring Paul Valéry’s 1919 philosophical essay, “La Crise de l’esprit” on the decay of Western intellectual tradition, Reverdy’s poem paints a scenario in which one might read the speaker’s turning away from lifeless ancient texts toward the piercing light of the present as a nod to Plato’s allegory of the cave,

So many books! A temple whose thick walls were built with books. And inside, where I had entered, who knows how, I don’t know where, I was suffocating. The ceilings were gray with dust. Not a sound. And all these great ideas no longer move, they sleep, or are dead . . . With my fingernail, I clawed at the partition and, bit by bit, I made a hole in the wall on the right. It was a window and the sun that tried to blind me couldn’t keep me from looking out

The poem’s final lines suggest liberation from the symbolic and a return to the real signified by the juxtaposition of darkness and light, a frequently recurring theme throughout the works selected in this volume. From burning lamps to brilliant stars, clouds of dust and pitch-black nights, these of Reverdy’s works are replete with symbols of illumination as well as elements of obscurity. While the two are often paired to create a stark contrast, many of Reverdy’s poems share characteristics of a world dulled by impenetrable clouds. “A Lot of People,” (translated by John Ashbery) offers a characteristic glimpse into this shadowy realm:

Over there is only a black hole
      Beyond the gate a laughing head
And in dust the noise died away
      Cloud
      Chiaroscuro
          Stop breathing
All the birds are dead
          The sun has burst
Blood flows
In the water where his eyes were drowning

Building upon themes of darkness and light, Reverdy’s work is replete with eyes, windows, and mirrors—symbols associated with the Lacanian concept of the gaze. Many of Reverdy’s poems examine the act of looking itself, as if describing the experience of visual perception from a detached and objective viewpoint. For the speaker in “Nothing”:

The world is erased
    At the point where I will disappear
Everything is snuffed out

There is no longer even a place
For the words I will leave

Much of Reverdy’s work is permeated by a sense of self-observation reminiscent of lucid dreaming, as if the anonymous subject in poems including “That”, “False Portal or Portrait,” and “Inner Motion” is in fact the poetic persona speaking from beyond immediate experience. The mirror figures as a prominent symbol in many poems, offering a fixed portrait of perceived reality, “the oval holding my whole countenance frozen,” or, alternatively, appearing as a gaping portal to the unknown, “[sending] back no images” while “[n]ight lurk[s] in the background.” In “Body and Soul Superimposed,” it is “that icy black abyss ruled by a threatening void and an equally threatening silence: the likelihood of every possible laceration,”—a line that perfectly captures the overwhelming tone of Reverdy’s poetry, which would arguably make for interesting examination under a psychoanalytic lens.

The poems’ recurring references to light, gaze, and mirrors—as emblematic of the confrontational encounter leading to self-recognition—reveals the readily apparent influences of Cubism upon Reverdy’s work in ways that extend beyond stylistic considerations and touch upon contemporaneous issues of philosophy. Judging by the content as well as the formal structure of his writing, Reverdy clearly contributes to and shares in the avant-garde fascination with unconscious dream-states and unknown aspects of the human mind. By exploring the surface of objects and reflected images, Reverdy undermines the illusion of a cohesive self, revealing the fracturing and fluidity of identity. Yet Reverdy also transforms the “void” or “black abyss,”—always just on the verge of experience, hidden behind the glint of a mirror or below the surface of unfathomable depths—from a threatening state of breakdown, and into a promise of unveiled reality. In “Secret,” Reverdy writes, “after the anxiety of the tightest, straightest passage, we always find an oasis of calm and repose in the whiteness of the expanse, the silence.” The ambiguity with which Reverdy’s poems refer to emptiness and lack is perhaps best expressed by “Fate Founders,” which deals with themes of absence and presence, ultimately suggestive of the trace inscribed in and by writing:

And if everything I’ve seen has deceived me of reality
If there was nothing behind the canvas
but an empty hole
What reassures me a bit is that I can always stay on
       the sidelines
Hang on
And leave a faint memory on earth
A gesture of regret
A sour expression
       What I did best

What Reverdy himself did best is amply demonstrated by the translations contained in this book, which brilliantly convey the linguistic meaning and artistic spirit of the original texts. In accordance with the Cubist goal of restructuring experience at the surface level to express or gain insights into reality from multiple perspectives, Reverdy’s poetic language is both compellingly evocative and yet nonetheless oblique. Although most of the works presented in Pierre Reverdy are treated by a single Anglophone translator, three renditions of “Live Flesh” by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lydia Davis offer brilliantly nuanced versions of the poem, each maintaining the integrity of Reverdy’s artistic vision while exposing the play of language and subtle variants in meaning that allow for slight divergences in translation. Unfortunately, “Live Flesh” is one of only a few to be featured in so many versions, and this is a shame, as it provides a fascinating example of the subjective nature of translation and interpretation of work as richly symbolic as Reverdy’s.
While the works collected in Pierre Reverdy show off the poet’s skill to its best and most characteristically modern effect, it comes as no surprise that the poems exhibited are dazzling, dreamlike, and surprisingly contemporary in feel. With these excellent translations now making Reverdy’s work accessible to an Anglophone audience, this book deserves attention from not only students and readers of French literature, but anyone with an interest in early twentieth-century avant-garde poetry.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Chute on Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, from New York Review Books.

Hannah is one of two Hannahs interning at Open Letter this summer. We’re still working on a good nickname for her—for now, depending on the situation, we (read: I) have been referring to the Hannahs as “Hannah” and “Other Hannah.” (If yet another of our interns, Reagan, was also a Hannah, things would get messy. Other Other Hannah?)

Anyway, this relatively small volume of stories by Nescio sounds pretty cool, particularly the chronology of style behind it, and falls into the category of compact volumes from NYRB that I personally can’t wait to dive into—a fairly long list that (in no particular order) includes Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do _something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

25 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.

The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. They are a bit ridiculous, especially seen from the narrator’s half-bitter, half-indulgent viewpoint, but they are sincere, delightful, and recognizably _real. The exception of course is Japi, the exasperating but fascinating “freeloader” of the collection’s first story, who is more allegory than man. He observes, he sits, he walks. He borrows money, smokes other people’s cigars, and takes his friend’s cloak when they are walking in the rain. And, when the world catches up with him and tries to pin him down into a job, he quietly and almost cheerfully steps off a bridge. A simple (even silly) story, but Nescio pulls it off with grace and warmth.

By “Little Poet,” written when Nescio was thirty-five, the narrator begins to lose his wistful nature and takes a more openly mocking stance toward his protagonist, and possibly against poetry in general. He leaves Koekebakker and his group behind, moving on to a nameless, doomed young poet, whom he pokes fun at mercilessly. One of the conduits of this fun-poking is the God of the Netherlands, who can’t seem to understand why he bothers to keep creating poets, particularly the meek, boyish breed like the Little Poet in question:

Twice the God of the Netherlands shook his venerable head and twice his long venerable muttonchops slid back and forth across his vest.
bq. It didn’t add up. There must be a mistake somewhere. A poet with no hair, that was very strange. The God of the Netherlands hadn’t cared much for poets for thirty years. You could no longer tell what to make of them. Respectable or disrespectable? Impossible to say . . .

God sighed. He’d have to talk it over with a real poet tomorrow. Maybe Potgieter . . .

Look, there goes the little poet. A handsome young man, you have to admit: thin, with a nicely shaved boyish face except for a pair of flying buttresses in front of his years, and so suntanned. He greets someone, tilting his straw hat a fraction about his close-cut hair.

Bizarre—so little hair—but it definitely was a little poet because God couldn’t figure him out, or Potgieter either. And Professor Volmer wanted nothing to do with him.

At one point, the Little Poet is walking down the street when he sees a group of women sitting outside a cafe and prays silently, “Oh God . . . what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” The narrator hedges this oh-so-scandalous thought playfully, writing in an aside: “You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my dear lady readers . . . Mercy me, perish the thought.”
In his later stories, his writing begins to take on a different character. By “Insula Dei,” written twenty-five years and two World Wars later, his tone is bitter, though not unsentimental: Nescio has become an old man who cannot understand how his life — the shining promise he saw in his youth — has blinked past him. His nostalgia is more morbid now, colored as it is by war, hunger, and age. Reminiscing with the narrator about their youth, his friend Flip laments: “Back then we died of consumption, not tuberculosis.” Nescio’s skill lies in his ability to make even this macabre thought a thing of beauty.

As the title suggests, this is, in a sense, also a “city book” after the fashion of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (New York) and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (St. Petersburg). These authors live and breathe their cities, and these works draw their readers onto the streets, into their cafes and parks and back alleys. Nescio accomplishes this with beautiful subtleness; Amsterdam is never the focus of his tales, but remains an unobtrusive but constant and compelling presence.

All in all, Nescio’s stories — often tragic but always beautiful — linger in the mind. They do not seem to have been composed; rather, they unfold with the grace of inevitability. Their melancholy weight means that they are best consumed slowly, leaving time between the stories to allow them to settle and be absorbed. At only 155 pages, this slim volume has a quiet power to match that of the most sweeping of Great Novels.

10 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachael Daum on Intizar Husain’s Basti, which is available from New York Review Books.

Each semester, Chad has students in both his Introduction to Publishing course and the World Literature in Translation course write book reviews as part of an assignment—we’ll be running these over the next weeks.

Rachael Daum (who is an accomplisher and recipient of all the things/fellowships, speaker of several languages, translator-in-training, and hails from England/Germany) was part of the internship and Intro to Publishing course this semester. Here’s a bit of her review:

The Urdu word “_basti_” refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.

The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother calling a curse on Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a further discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.

To read the rest of the review, go here.

10 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.

The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother cursing Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.

It is interesting, and then sad, to observe how the role of religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India changes throughout Zakir’s life. This conflict is a common fact of life at the beginning of the novel—it’s a point of exasperation more than it is one of violence. For example, when the rainy season comes and soaks everything, the Hindu women sing night and day for the god Krishna to come and end the rainy season. Zakir’s mother, a Muslim woman, sighs over this, saying:

“Oh, these Hindu women won’t let us get a wink of sleep tonight! And on top of it the rain keeps coming down.”
“Bi Amma, this is the Janamashtami rain!” Auntie Sharifan elaborated: “Krishan-ji’s diapers are being washed.”
“Well, by now Krishan-ji’s diapers have been washed quite enough! The water is overflowing.”

The Hindu explanations of nature in terms of gods, and their terms of respect, “-ji,” and the like, flow easily from the Muslim women’s tongues. However, after the split of India and Pakistan, and the wars that follow, these cease, and the language in the text seems less colorful for it. The vibrancy of the references to Krishna and Vishnu seem dulled when replaced with the uniform allusions to Qu’ranic verses and the disciples Ali and Muhammed.

The majority of the novel concerns itself with Zakir’s position as a professor, caught in the war in Pakistan, while the woman he loved when they were children, Sabirah, is stuck in India. He escapes the war by losing himself in memory, and these passages are some of the most beautiful, particularly when he starts keeping a diary of the events of the war. In these entries, he remembers the plague that swept his town as a child, thus associating for the reader war with plague; he also tracks the confusion that comes with war. One of the most beautiful passages is Zakir realising that home, in war, means everything and nothing as the concept becomes more confused: “I can do nothing else for this city, but I can pray, and I do pray. In my mind is a prayer for Rupnagar, and its people as well, for I can no longer imagine Rupnagar apart from this city. Rupnagar and this city have merged together inside me, and become one town.” Here, the reader sees how in the desperation that comes with war, one must cope by surrendering what one knows as home and allow it to blend, pulling it closer, for the sake of being able to hope and pray for it. Zakir defies the inevitability of the destruction of Rupnagar, by stating, “No, the bomb shouldn’t fall on that neighbourhood. The house ought to stay safe, the whole house and the room which holds in trust the tears of my first night in Pakistan.” By blending the two places he regards as home, he can keep the former in some semblance of safety and wholeness in his mind.

The story of the novel—the chronicle of a Muslim man dealing with the loss of war-torn India and Pakistan—is good on its own, and the language is occasionally very beautiful, especially when the text loses itself in the storytelling of Muslim and Hindu myths, and as Zakir loses himself in them. However, for all the times that the language is elegant, there are instances of where wording seems awkward and there is a literalness that at times is detracting from the story. In her forward, translator Frances W. Pritchett explains that she has “not ‘transcreated’ the text or smoothed out its stylistic idiosyncrasies.” Spelling this out does not necessarily make the text easier for a non-Urdu speaker to read. One example hinges on the use of formality in spoken Urdu. Pritchett explains,

“. . . traditional Urdu is notable for its love of direct address and direct discourse. Speeches often begin with a form of address—sometimes a name or kinship term, or very commonly a vocative particle of some sort; while omitting or translating most, [Pritchett has] retained a few of the more vivid . . .”

The Urdu-speaking young man is very fond of addressing his fellow as “Yar!” This word is a term of comradeship, which is all well in itself, but, for the English-speaker, it calls to mind the cry of a bloodthirsty one-eyed pirate. Thus, the pages where the address is sprinkled throughout the text is almost comical. It’s possible to become quickly disenchanted with this frequency and form of address; in one two-page span, the term “yar” was used fourteen times. Here is a small sampling:

“Yar, that man seems a very suspicious character to me.”
“You’ve said something like this before.”
“But today I’m convinced of it.”
“Why?”
“Yar, anybody who makes a show of national feeling, I’ve begun to have doubts about.”
“Oh, let’s drop the subject, yar. I’ll tell you some news.”
“Really? All right.”
“Yar, today a letter came,” he said confidentially.

While this is the most extreme example of the proximity of the placement of this form of address, it can at times be distracting to an English reader. While Urdu is a more formalized language in which these forms of address and telling of proverbs is common, English is not—though that’s not to say there is anything wrong with presenting some foreignness in the translated text, There are schools of thought in translation theory stating that it is advantageous—if not beneficial—to have the reader work a little to understand a text.

Overall, this is a beautiful book that introduces the uninformed reader to a conflict that shook a whole subcontinent. It is strewn with beautiful language and references to cultures and religions the reader may be ignorant of. The novel is one for people who are interested in leaving their comfort zones and entering into a warzone, a place that was once a home, and learning what happens to those who stay, those who struggle with change. One can enjoy the lands traversed, be pulled in by the political struggle that is reminiscent, in some ways, of what the Western reader might associate with East and West Germany. And, in doing so, we can come to understand the meaning of basti, knowing, finally, that it is an international concept.

16 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I first met Matt Rowe when he attended his first ALTA conference a few years back as an ALTA fellow. Matt’s an interesting guy with, at expense of making a fool of my memory, an interesting history, having started his career in computers, working for, among other companies, Microsoft. Then he abandoned that all (well, sort of, he’s still involved heavily in fonts) for Indiana University and the study of translation. He translates from the Italian, gave a great presentation on the “Translator as Fiction” panel (which is a great example of what is so cool about ALTA: a whole, chatty panel about the appearance of translators in fiction and how they were portrayed), and is now living out Port Townsend way batting around a book idea about puzzles (can’t say more here lest someone steal his incredible idea) and obsessing over the Oulipo. (There are many worse movements you could obsess over.)

Very recently, like over the weekend type recently, Matt took the step to make himself more visible, launching Local Character a blog that combines his interests in contemporary world fiction, typeface design and typography, voice, community, travel, cognitive science, eccentrics, oddballs, and misunderstood geniuses, and puzzles. In his own words:

Since I’m a translator, writer, and editor, my major focus will be on fiction, translation, and book publishing worldwide. A number of other excellent blogs and web journals already focus on these topics; I’ll play nicely and support them as I work to develop my own niche, but Local Character will definitely range into areas those resources don’t touch. Exactly what “Local Character” ends up meaning will depend on your encouragement, responses, and participation.

As Local Character (both company and website) develops, this blog will continue to be its center. Here I will review books (and occasional work in other media), report and comment on news and developments, and link to other sources, both web and print. Over the next few months, I’ll fill out the links and the rest of the site design, mostly silently as I figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Really looking forward to following the development of Local Character . . . and now onto the questions:

Favorite Word from Any Language: Chiaroscuro

A very literary word that’s also fun to say: kee-ahr-uh-skyoor-oh.

Best Translation You’ve Done to Date: “Inviti Superflui” by Dino Buzzati, which became “Unwanted Invitations” in my version

Unfortunately, I can’t tell if Matt’s translation of this prose poem has been published or not . . . Regardless, Buzzati is a really interesting author, and Godine recently reissued The Tartar Steppe (“Often likened to Kafka’s The Castle, The Tartar Steppe is both a scathing critique of military life and a meditation on the human thirst for glory”) and NYRB brought out Poem Strip which sounds awesome. (“Featuring the Ashen Princess, the Line Inspector, trainloads of Devils, Trudy, Valentina, and the Talking Jacket, Poem Strip — a pathbreaking graphic novel from the 1960s — is a dark and alluring investigation into mysteries of love, lust, sex, and death by Dino Buzzati, a master of the Italian avant-garde.”)

What Book Needs to Be Published in English Translation: Fata Morgana by Gianni Celati

I’m not familiar with Celati, but after reading the brief Wikipedia entry—his first book included an intro by Italo Calvino! he translated Swift, Twain, and Celine into Italian!—I’m hoping Matt has a sample he can send our way . . .

3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is an insane piece that I wrote about Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, which is translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell and available from New York Review Books.

I am aware of how crazily self-indulgent and odd this review is, but after writing about Sorokin so many times in such a short period (see this PEN roundup, and this review, and this podcast), I think my mind broke, and instead of writing a review, I ended up describing my vision of a miniseries version of the Ice Trilogy:

Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.

That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.

So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:

Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.

In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.

These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.

Click here to read the entire thing.

3 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.

That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.

So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:

Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.

In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.

These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.

Episode Two: Alexander (born at the start of episode one) is now in college. He pines after a pretty young thing, but she’s all wrapped up in Kulik, a renegade science professor who is determined to find the Tungus meteor. As a way of impressing the girl, Alexander joins up with Kulik’s latest expedition into Siberia. There are trials, tribulations, and as they grow closer to the spot where the meteor landed, Alexander falls into a fugue state resulting in his being separated from the rest of the group. Wandering around, he is drawn to a particular swampy area where he uncovers the Tungus ice meteor. He falls upon the ice, feels his heart “awaken,” finds out his true name is “Bro,” and hears an otherworldly voice explain how once upon a time there were 23,000 “Light-bearing rays” that created all the worlds of the universe. Their one mistake was creating Earth, which was filled with “disharmonious water.” Because of the water’s mirror-like qualities, the 23,000 rays of light get trapped, become humans, cause violence, fuck shit up, etc. There is a solution though! Once the hearts of all 23,000 “rays” are awoken and learn all the “heart words,” they can form a huge circle and the universe will be reborn in healthy, sublime light. It’s like hippy paradise. (See pages 77-80 for the complete new age description.)

Back in current times, Olga and Bjorn are in Guangzhou having dinner with Michael Laird, another ice hammer survivor. He explains a bit more to them about the Brotherhood of the Light and the way they use the ICE Corporation as a front to find the 23,000 who will awake and turn into light, etc., etc. When Olga asks why Michael and his fellow investigators are in Guangzhou, he explains that this is where the Brotherhood is based, where the 23,000 are going to gather and bring about the new world. They toast to the “resistance,” the Michael puts down his glass without taking a sip, and Olga and Bjorn slump to the floor. A waiter ties up Olga’s and Bjorn’s hands and carry them out of the restaurant.

Episode Three: Bro leaves the swamp with a huge chunk of the Tungus ice, in search of some guidance as to how to start this rebirthing process. He finds a girl; in his eyes, her chest glows. He bashes her with some ice (thank you very much!) and “Fer’s” heart is awoken. They embrace in a loving, still asexual way as their hearts speak to one another. In a Zen bliss that’s as creepy as it is content, they wander Siberia, discovering other chosen people, and indoctrinating them into the Brotherhood by slamming them with ice until their heart speaks their true name. During this phase of the Brotherhood, there’s a lot of “heart conversations” and weeping over the sadness of the world. There’s also a lot of hope—these people truly believe that they will bring about universal nirvana. They are sweet, totally asexual, and operate in a sort of benevolent hive-mind fashion. Their numbers grow slowly, but since Fer & Bro (when together) can see exactly who is a chosen person and who isn’t, they are extremely efficient in their operations. But then Fer dies . . .

Olga and Bjorn are now working in the “Dead Bitches Factory” where they skin dead dogs in order to make the straps for the ice hammers. There are 189 people trapped in this underground factory filled with hanging dogs and sterile jail-cell dormitories. Olga tries to rebel, yelling “Fuck you!” at one of the cameras. A bunch of Chinese men flood into the factory and tase the shit out of her. Fade to black.

Episode Four: After the passing of Fer, the Brotherhood searches for another person with her abilities. Eventually, they awaken Khram, who sort of has the gift of being able to identify other “rays of light,” but not really. So the Brotherhood starts kidnapping and bashing all sorts of blond-haired, blue-eyed people in search of new members and the heartmate that would enhance Khram’s abilities. Bro dies and it’s up to her to lead the Brotherhood on the path toward 23,000. Their numbers increase steadily through random attempts, but it’s slow going through Soviet times when they face persecution from a few sides. Nevertheless, when people’s hearts are awoken, the Brotherhood takes care of them physically and financially, and they all have a chance to do some naked (non-sexual) heart-bonding. And based on the looks on their faces, this is some good stuff.

A really old man invites Olga to sit with him during lunch. She’s still a bit discombobulated from the post-outburst beatdown, but she senses that this man knows more than he’s letting on. The guy—Ernst Wolf—ends up explaining that his father is one of the main leaders of the Brotherhood. Ernst ended up down here after he was bashed at age 17 and it was determined that he was an “empty shell,” and not one of the rays of light. He tells Olga about a time he saw his father and 22 others in a small circle, unmoving, speaking with their hearts, etc. Ernst trying to disrupt the hippy heart speak by hitting his father with a red-hot poker, but his dad didn’t even flinch, even as his skin burned. Ernst believes in the Great Transformation of the 23,000. But he also thinks this could be very bad shit. As he’s carted off to be killed (sub-plot: Ernst has cancer, no one who is sick can remain in the factory, etc.), he slips Olga a note and a key to a possible way out.

Episode ends with an infomercial for the ICE Machine—a high-tech flak jacket complete with an “ice chamber” over the middle that, once you put this on and plug it in, bashes you in the chest until your heart wakes up and you hallucinate a circle of happy people. According to the infomercial, this device will fix all the world’s problems—violence, depression, anxiety, pain—thanks to the special qualities of the Tungus ice. This is obviously an extremely quick way for the Brotherhood to find their 23,000, and a perfect front for all their questionable activities . . .

Episode Five: Opens with a young, possibly mentally challenged boy waking up and searching for his mom. She’s mysteriously disappeared, so he tries to get his own breakfast. As he falls from the stove while reaching for the cupboard, a man catches him. They talk for a minute, and the man reassures the boy that his mom is visiting her sister, that she sent the man to bring the boy there. Everything seems sweet and on the up-and-up. The boy asks what’s in the man’s suitcase: “Nothing,” he says with a laugh, as he gasses the boy and stuffs him into the suitcase.

We find out through conversations among the leader of the ICE Corporation that there are only a handful of people left to find, the main one being a young boy who is pretty much the Brotherhood Jesus. This boy is en route to their headquarters where his heart will be awoken and Khram can pump some heart-knowledge into him. Once he arrives and the last few people are bashed awake, the ICE suits turn some keys in a special circular device, and around the world people are notified via cellphones and whatnot that it’s time for the Great Transformation. They all start heading to China . . .

Olga enlists Bjorn in her escape plan. They use the key to open the special passageway and make a run for the surface. Alarms go off, and after lots of running around in air vents and trying to find a way out via a secret elevator, Michael Laird captures them and tells them that he needs their help.

Episode Six: Starts right where #5 left off. Michael brings Olga and Bjorn into a room and explains the Brotherhood, the joy of becoming light, the rebirth of the world, the end to all problems, how they’re correcting the one great mistake, that this is all good shit, etc. Over the course of this conversation, Olga and Bjorn’s demeanor changes. They seem to be more at peace . . . almost happy. Michael tells them that he needs them to hold the two weaker members of the brotherhood (two children) in the circle so that all 23,000 hearts can speak the 23 heart words 23 times and the world comes to a blissful end. Won over by the simplicity of Michael’s viewpoint and the enveloping calmness that he exudes, they agree.

On a marble covered island, 23,000 naked people start joining hands. All is silent as they assume the lotus position. Everything is peaceful, calm. There is a low level buzzing. Olga and Bjorn are on opposite sides of the circle, each with a young kid on their lap, giving off the best vibes they can. The screen goes white.

Olga is the first to awaken. Everything is extremely bright. She can’t really make out much of anything at first. As her eyes adjust, she notices that everyone around her is unconscious and flat on the earth. She checks the man next to her—dead. As is the woman next to him. In fact, they’re all dead. Everyone except for Bjorn. They repeat “By God” a series of times (“By God?” “By God.” “By God!”), join hands, and walk off.

*

OK, that interpretation may be a bit self-indulgent, but the point is that there’s something fundamentally interesting about Sorokin’s trilogy. When I saw the play version of Ice in New York last month, I was struck by just how adaptable this material is—a testament to the fact that Sorokin has tapped into something.

(I don’t think I did this justice, but there’s a great tension among the innocent beliefs of the Brotherhood, the sort of latent human desire to witness the end of the world and for this experience to be rapturous, and the hyperviolent and invasive way in which the Brotherhood finds its members.)

That said, this trilogy is loaded with flaws and shortcomings. I mentioned this in my review of Day of the Oprichnik, but Sorokin’s use of italics is baffling and all over the place. For the most part, the prose itself is utilitarian to the point of awkwardness (“Later I dreamed about that lard. Dreamed I grabbed hold of it, but it was like the oat pudding they boil up for wakes—it slipped between my fingers!”), with the exception of three more “experimental” set-pieces, which, due to their brevity and uselessness in advancing the story, seem unnecessary and out-of-place. There’s a ton of repetition in these books, especially when someone’s heart is awoken—there must be two dozen near identical descriptions of how people are hit with an ice hammer until their heart speaks its name, then there’s the pressing of bare chests, the weeping, etc. Finally, the fixedly chronological telling of events can get rather boring, especially since the reader can see the end goal from a very early point and has to wade through all those repetitions to find out what happens . . .

This tension—between the compelling core of the trilogy and the less than amazing way in which it’s related—is what makes the Ice Trilogy so frustrating as an artistic object. It’s powerful stuff, but, at the risk of ending this epically long review with a crappy metaphor, the greatness of this book is like ice buried in the permafrost—chisel that all away and you’d have a very pretty object.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the New York Review of Books Blog, you can find Who Would Dare?, an essay from Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming collection Between Parentheses. (Which Jeremy Garber reviewed for us.)

After that, after I stole that book and read it, I went from being a prudent reader to being a voracious reader and from being a book thief to being a book hijacker. I wanted to read everything, which in my innocence was the same as wanting to uncover or trying to uncover the hidden workings of chance that had induced Camus’s character to accept his hideous fate. Despite what might have been predicted, my career as a book hijacker was long and fruitful, but one day I was caught. Luckily, it wasn’t at the Glass Bookstore but at the Cellar Bookstore, which is—or was—across from the Alameda, on Avenida Juárez, and which, as its name indicates, was a big cellar where the latest books from Buenos Aires and Barcelona sat piled in gleaming stacks. My arrest was ignominious. It was as if the bookstore samurais had put a price on my head. They threatened to have me thrown out of the country, to give me a beating in the cellar of the Cellar Bookstore, which to me sounded like a discussion among neo-philosophers about the destruction of destruction, and in the end, after lengthy deliberations, they let me go, though not before confiscating all the books I had on me, among them The Fall, none of which I’d stolen there.

Soon afterwards I left for Chile. If in Mexico I might have bumped into Rulfo and Arreola, in Chile the same was true of Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, but I think the only writer I saw was Rodrigo Lira, walking fast on a night that smelled of tear gas. Then came the coup and after that I spent my time visiting the bookstores of Santiago as a cheap way of staving off boredom and madness. Unlike the Mexican bookstores, the bookstores of Santiago had no clerks and were run by a single person, almost always the owner. There I bought Nicanor Parra’s Obra gruesa [Complete Works] and the Artefactos, and books by Enrique Lihn and Jorge Teillier that I would soon lose and that were essential reading for me; although essential isn’t the word: those books helped me breathe. But breathe isn’t the right word either.

What I remember best about my visits to those bookstores are the eyes of the booksellers, which sometimes looked like the eyes of a hanged man and sometimes were veiled by a kind of film of sleep, which I now know was something else. I don’t remember ever seeing lonelier bookstores. I didn’t steal any books in Santiago. They were cheap and I bought them. At the last bookstore I visited, as I was going through a row of old French novels, the bookseller, a tall, thin man of about forty, suddenly asked whether I thought it was right for an author to recommend his own works to a man who’s been sentenced to death.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, which was translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and officially comes out from NYRB Classics next Tuesday. (Or in NCAA time: The day of the “first” round of the tournament, which for once, could be cool. And yes, I know telling time by a sporting tournament is a sign of some sort of disorder . . . )

NYRB has been slowly issuing Tove Jansson’s ‘adult’ books over the past few years, starting with The Summer Book followed by The True Deceiver, which made the 2011 BTBA fiction longlist. (Click here for the special write-up.)

I’ve been meaning to find time to read Jansson’s books for a while now, and every review we post makes me more and more interested. Maybe after basketball . . . But seriously, she sounds fascinating, especially as one of the few Swedish-speaking Finns who have made their way into English . . .

Larissa is one of our top reviewers generally—but not always—writing about Scandinavian lit. She’s a great writer, and this review is no exception:

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Click here to read the full review.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

19 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’ve been a huge fan of NYRB for years. I think I even have copies of the first twelve/thirteen books in those very unfortunately designed covers. Every season I drool when their catalog arrives. I’ve been planning a post for weeks entitled “Albert Cossery is Effing Awesome,” which is due in part to NYRB’s publication of The Jokers. (And to give props where props are due, the post is also indebted to New Directions for publishing A Splendid Conspiracy. And to GoodReads for hooking me up knowledge-wise.) I love visiting Edwin Frank and Sara Kramer, and Edwin’s monthly missive about one of their new titles is by far the most erudite and learned of all publisher newsletters. NYRB is definitely one of the best presses publishing today.

The only this that sucks is that, thanks to their Random House distribution agreement, their catalog lists titles that aren’t coming out for another year. (These titles aren’t even on the NYRB website yet.) This is anguish-making . . . yet, the new list is pretty phenomenal, so as an interlude in my ongoing series of forthcoming fall translations, here’s a list of titles not coming out until spring/summer 2011.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated from the French by Louise Varese. (June 14, 2011)

Originally published in English in the ’50s, this has been out-of-print forever, and sounds like a great addition to the ongoing Simenon renaissance that NYRB has been undertaking the past few years. By the time this comes out, I think NYRB will have reissued 11 Simenon novels, including Dirty Snow, Red Lights, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and The Engagement. (Back some time ago, Mark Binelli and I co-hosted a Words Without Borders reading group on The Engagement. a That was a lot of fun, especially since we disagreed about the book—I thought it was pretty cool, Mark found the writing pretty annoying. Anyway.) This novel is about Charles Alavoine—an upstanding, bourgeois citizen haunted by a sense of loneliness—and his meeting with Martine, a “young woman helplessly adrift in the world” who both awakens Alavoine and “sets the stage for his tragic disintegration.”

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. (April 12, 2011)

Another excellent reprint. I read this years ago and absolutely loved it. The novel is a monologue from an aged man who tells a group of sunbathing women about his lovers, scandals, adventures. “As the book tumbles restlessly forward, and the comic tone takes on darker shadings, we realize we are listening to a man talking as much out of desperation as from exuberance.” All of Hrabal’s books are worth checking out, especially I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, and Closely Watched Trains. But this is really one of the best, and I’m glad that eight months from now it will finally be available again.

The Doll by Boleslaw Prus, translated from the Polish by David Welsh. (February 8, 2011)

I feel like this is a book that’s been recommended to me over and over again . . . And finally, come next February, I’ll finally have a chance to read it. From the catalog copy: “The Doll is a classic of Polish literature, a novel that takes in the whole nineteenth century and looks ahead to modern questions of empire, revolution, anti-Semitism, and socialism. [. . .] The rich cast includes the old clerk Rzecki, nostalgic for the revolutions of 1848; the young scientist Ochocki, dreaming of flying machines; the deranged adn manipulative Baroness Krzeszowska; the angelic widow Stawska; the wise dowager duchess; and many more.”

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. (February 8, 2011)

This is an interesting publishing story and situation. Back some years ago, there was a great article about Vladimir Sorokin in either the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. (Thinking it’s the former, but my memory . . . blah.) Anyway, his work sounded really interesting and super-offensive. For example, his novel Blue Lard includes a gay sex scene involving clones of Khrushchev and Stalin. In fact, his work was so offensive that the Pro-Putin Youth dumped copies in a fake toilet bowl. (I can’t believe that I can’t find a picture of this on the Internet. Events like this are why YouTube exists!) Anyway, NYRB scooped up rights to a few of his books, including Ice, which came out in hardcover back in 2007ish. Ice got mixed reviews (memory serves, again, disclaimer), wasn’t quite as crazy/funny at The Queue (also available from NYRB, and which I would whole-heartedly recommend), etc. Now NYRB is bringing out The Ice Trilogy, of which, Ice is the middle volume. “Bro, the first section of Sorokin’s chef d’oeuvre, relates the mysterious emergence of the brotherhood in the aftermath of a massive meteroite striking Siberia (a historical occurrence known as the Tungus event.)” (I’m personally fascinated by the Tungus event.) “23,000 bring the trilogy to a wildly suspenseful close. All 23,000 members of the brotherhood have at last been brought together and they are preparing to stage the global destruction that will return them to their origins in pure light.” I read Ice when it came out, and although I didn’t love it, I found myself compelled, reading it in just a couple sittings, sucked in for inexplicable reasons. Very curious to see how it reads surrounded by the other two parts . . . .

UPDATE: Special thanks to Lisa Hayden Espenschade for this link to a story (in Russian) about the whole Sorokin controversy. And for these photos:





(Nate and E.J. go away for a day, and I start posting toilet pictures. Suppose it could be worse . . . )

16 February 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Today marks the third anniversary of Jakov Lind’s death. It was the occasion of his death that first brought Lind to our attention—I’m pretty sure I first read about him on Ready, Steady, Book, where Mark posted a link to his obituary. I did a little investigating, and I discovered that his books had fallen out of print, but at the time I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. However, when we started Open Letter there was no question that we would be bringing some of Lind’s work back into print. From the first pages of Landscape in Concrete you know that you’re reading something special, and Ergo is no different. My only disappointment was that New York Review Books beat us to Soul of Wood.

Joshua Cohen is one of the writers who memorialized Lind (accidentally memorialized, as it turned out), and he was kind enough to agree to write an introduction to our edition of Landscape. We thought it would be appropriate to remember Lind today by posting that introduction, to give everyone who reads this blog a chance to discover this incredible novelist and extraordinary man:

*

“Jakov Lind” was a pseudonym for a man without a name. According to the rolls of a host of long-since defunct regimes, “Lind” was once known as Jakov Chaklan, Palestinian Jew (this was back when you could be one of those), and before that he was Jan Gerrit Overbeek, Dutch bargehand, which was the Nazi-era identity of Heinz Landwirth, Viennese. The author of Landscape in Concrete—and also of the stories of Soul of Wood, the novel Ergo, two other novels, another collection of stories, an Israeli travelogue, three memoirs, numerous stage and radio plays, and occasional poetry—might have been all of these people, and he might have been none. This is not meant “deconstructively,” however, or in a spirit of relativism. What’s being asserted here, at the beginning, is trauma. Is not knowing what to call one’s self. Is not having a private name for one’s self.

Landwirth was born in 1927, the year of the first trans-Atlantic telephone call, the year that television was first publicly demonstrated. Lindbergh flew to Paris; Trotsky was ousted from the Communist Party. This was not long after the collapse of the monarchy—the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dissolution, through the first of the wars, from a relatively unified official culture, German-speaking, German-writing, into a smattering of countries impoverished with insular nationalisms. The author’s closest affinities lay here, with the ideal Habsburgs in their tubercular, war-wounded death throes; his childhood ailment is the Proustian languor, the mourning of a past that’s always near, strangely distant, unlived and yet, lost: “If I’m sick I vomit broken china and golden frames,” he writes in the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy. “What, if not handmade in the nineteenth century, is my Middle European soul?”

Read More...

27 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

Since today is the day Apple revolutionizes the future of book publishing and saves us all releases their new overly-slick device, and with Lost only six days and a handful of hours away, it seems like the perfect day to write about a fantastical story collection that includes a lengthy piece on time travel.

This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? (The last one is actually serious . . . Can anyone give me a phonetic? Marian? Anyone?)

To be completely honest, I was only able to read a few stories from this before it was selected to the longlist. But after finishing it last night, I’m extremely glad that it made the cut and that I had the chance to fall into Krzhizhanovsky’s meta-fictional, Borgesian sort of world.

According to the bio info in the book, it sounds like Sigizmund lived a pretty interesting life . . . Born in 1887, he died in 1950 and it wasn’t until 1989 that a collection of his fictions could be published. The censors killed the first few possible publications since his writings didn’t portray the new Soviet state “in a positive light” and then WWII got in the way.

Although the pieces are quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.

The book opens with a surreal story named “Quadraturin” after a strange substance that you can apply to the walls, floor, and ceiling of your apartment to make it bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until the vastness of the apartment is much more problematic than its original confined nature.

“The Bookmark” further evidences Krzhizhanovsky’s obsession with the impossible or surreal—this story includes a bit with a guy telling a story about how the Eiffel Tower just gets up and walks away—but also introduces a metafictional element that really caught my imagination and runs through a number of the other stories:

“You see,” the sharp-featured man burst out. “It hooked you. How? You haven’t read it?” he glanced back over his shoulder. “No? Well then. The idea: to debunk all the bunk of which life is made. The plot: a writer, at work on a novel, discovers a character missing. The character has slipped out from under his pen. Work comes to a halt. One day, the writer happens to look in on a literary reading and is stunned to find himself face-to-face with his character. The character tries to run out the door. But the writer—I think this is how it goes—grabs him by the shoulder and elbow, like this, and says: ‘Listen, just between us, you’re not a person, you’re a . . . ‘ They end by agreeing not to spoil things for each other anymore and to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their common cause: the novel. The author introduces his character to an individual essential to the plot’s development. This individual then introduces the character to a charming woman with whom he falls head over heels in love. The remaining chapters of this novel withing a novel quickly begin to go awry and askew, like lines typed on a sheet that has popped out from under the bar. The author, upon receiving no new material from his love-besotted character, insists he break with the woman. The character tries to dodge, to play for time. At his wits’ end, the author demands (this over the telephone) immediate submission to his pen or else . . . But the character simply hangs up. The End.”

Granted, this sort of meta-twist might have been ballsy in 1927, but in today’s meta-infested world, fictional games like this are only as interesting as the uniqueness of the ideas they convey. Like this lengthy speech that the eccentric idea-man Saul Straight gives in “Someone Else’s Theme” when talking to a book critic:

“Didn’t one of your confrers, the most outspoken of them, I’m thinking of Hennequin, wasn’t he so incautious as to admit that ‘a work of fiction affects only those whom it portrays’? Open La Critique scientifique: that’s literally what it says. But a work of fiction recounts the life of its characters. If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give him the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence’s door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us—about this there can be no doubt—to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hid his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn’t make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I’m not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes ‘I’ to ‘we’ (‘As we wrote in our article’—‘We are glad to report’): all this is perfectly natural and explainable—a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular. At any rate, the characters populating books, like us, the people populating our planet, are either believers or atheists. Clearly. What I’m trying to say,” Straight wen on excitedly (the critic couldn’t get a word in), “is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we’d all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author’s existence—they’re the book’s atheists. They don’t wish to be invented by some inventor and so take revenge the only way they know how: by trying to prove that it’s not the author who invents the characters, it’s the characters who invent the author. You’ll say I stole that from Feuerbach: I don’t deny the critic’s erudition, I only deny his existence.”

These kind of cerebral games can be traced throughout the stories in this book, but rather than go on and on, I’d rather point out that the title story (or more of a novella), “Memories of the Future” is absolutely brilliant. And reading it when I did, it played right into my current Lost obsession. Basically it’s the story of a young boy who decides he wants to make a “timecutter” so that he can skip ahead into the future . . . or go into the past. He’s a Faraday-like character, and his ideas about the “shape of time” and the idea of making time “dance in a circle” are great, but so is this bit about time and essence (last long quote, I promise):

A quarter of an hour after the first aphorism an outside observer might have acquainted himself with the theory of time’s cuts as set forth in the batting eyes of the lady from across the river.

As applied to love, the theory went like this: memory, “unrolling its long scroll,” may, like a reel of film, be edited. One may cut bits out of both time and the reel and dispense with the longueurs. Thus if one were to make cuts between a woman’s first meetign with her first lover and her first meeting with her second, her third, and so on, that is, if one were to leave what was purest, most sincere, and deeply embedded in memory, the film reel onto which we had transposed this series of spliced-together first meetings would show us the woman—with the speed of a roulette ball skipping from number to number—whirling from embrace to embrace and aging before our eyes. To a lawyer, of course, this would recall the article in the Criminal Code dealing with mass violence. Try editing the superfluous out of anything at all, leaving only what is essential, and you’ll see that it won’t be to your . . .

Overall, and simply put, this book kicks ass and if you like anything above, run out and buy it immediately.

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.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, which came out from New York Review Books last fall. NYRB has also published Sorokin’s Ice, and have plans to do a few of his other titles as well. That, plus FSG’s publication of A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik might lead to a Sorokin moment . . . One that doesn’t involve his books being flushed down a mock toilet. . . .

Margarita Shalina from St. Mark’s Bookshop wrote this review, which opens:

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. It is a postmodern snapshot of a surreal bygone era destined for collapse, cursed to the privations of the economic crash of the 1990s where a system of ration cards will be implemented, only to be reborn from the ash like a bright red phoenix of pseudo-capitalism caged by a land of murdered journalists, a market flooded by counterfeit Chinese goods.

However, that is the present. The past of The Queue is oddly innocent as Russia is seemingly cursed to forever lose and regain its innocence much like Prometheus and his liver. Why is it innocent? Because it has never been clear to anyone what the citizens of the Soviet Union actually thought of the Soviet Union. Somewhere along the line, the citizens understood what they had lost but they all still agreed that by forfeiting their basic rights, they would be taken care of. With conformity came the security of jobs, healthcare, homes, education, maybe even a Volga. Now, in the aftermath of collapse, sentimentality is wide spread, surfacing among the generations that vividly remember the oddities of the Soviet Union, akin to some mass hysteria or Stockholm Syndrome acting itself out as we love our torturer but only after he has left the room. [For the rest, click here.

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Each act of transgression, no matter how nominal or extreme expands the margins of ongoing discourse. Sorokin specializes in such acts. The Queue, his first novel, was originally published in the mid 1980s by French publisher Syntaxe. . .

Read More...

22 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. (Austria, New York Review Books)

The Post-Office Girl is the second NYRB title on the fiction longlist (the other being Unforgiving Years) and the third Zweig title that they’ve published. The other two are Beware of Pity, which was the only novel Zweig published during his lifetime, and a new translation of Chess Story, which was sent to his publisher just before Zweig committed suicide.

Before the rise of Nazism, Zweig was an incredibly popular writer well known both for his novels and for his biographies. But as a Austrian Jew, he fled Austria for London, then lived in the United States and Brazil. It was in Petropolis that he and his wife committed joint suicide, stating “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

Edwin Frank’s monthly erudite letter about a recent NYRB book is by far my favorite publisher newsletter, and the month he wrote about The Post-Office Girl was no exception. (If you’re interested in receiving the NYRB newsletter, you can sign up here.)

Thanks to translator Joel Rotenberg, The Post-Office Girl is at last available in English. It’s no less striking than Beware of Pity and Chess Story, the two other Zweigs we’ve published, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s a book that should change how people think about Stefan Zweig.

The Post-Office Girl is fastpaced and hardboiled—as if Zweig, normally the most mannerly of writers, had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Christine, a nice girl from a poor provincial family who gets a taste of the good life only to have it snatched away; and of Ferdinand, an unemployed World War I veteran and ex-POW with whom she then links up. It’s a story, you could say, of two essentially respectable middle-class souls who wake up to find themselves miscast as outcasts, but what it’s really about, beyond economic and psychological collapse, is social death. Set during the period of devastating hyper-inflation that followed Austria’s defeat in 1918, Zweig’s novel depicts a country grotesquely divided between the rich and poor, so much so that it has effectively reverted to a state of nature. Christine and Ferdinand and Austria have been hollowed out (even if the country is still decked out in the pomp, circumstance, and pointless bureaucratic regulations of its bygone imperial heyday). They exist in a Hobbesian state of terminal desperation from which—the discovery arrives with mounting horror and excitement—the only hope of escape or redemption lies in violence.

What’s especially interesting about this publication is that the book never came out during Zweig’s life. It was written during the 30s, appeared to be finished, but was left untitled and wasn’t published until 1982. There’s no clear reason why he didn’t publish this during his lifetime. (although Edwin has a hunch)

The first part of the book really does read like a fairy tale, as poor, diligent Christine is whisked away to spend some time with her very wealthy aunt and uncle. A sort of Cinderella story in which Christine gets to see a side of life she wasn’t even aware of, as when she first arrives to her room at the hotel:

The boy opens a door in the middle of the corrido, flourishes his cap, and steps aside. This must be her room. Christine goes in. But on the threshold she stops short, as though she were in the wrong place. Because with all the will in the world, the postal official from Klein-Reifling, accustomed to shabby surroundings, can’t just flick a switch are really believe that this room is for her, this extravagantly scaled, exquisitely bright, colorfully wallpapered room, with open French doors like crystalline floodgates, the light cascading through.

But like all fairy tales, the clock strikes midnight and she has to go back home. As Jeff Waxman explains in his review, this is when the book changes dramatically:

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

Posthumous publishing decisions are always open to criticism (see The Nation review, or any of the comments about the decision to publish 2666 in one volume instead of five separate books), but nevertheless, this is a great book, quite different from his other works, and definitely worth reading.

8 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman. (France1, New York Review Books)

This is one of two NYRB titles on the fiction longlist (the other being Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl) and one of the two Serge books NYRB has published (the other being The Case of Comrade Tulayev).

Serge lead a very interesting and difficult life (see footnote1 below), and didn’t always have an easy time publishing his books. In fact, as noted in Greeman’s intro (more on that in a second), when the Nazis took over Paris all of Serge’s books were withdrawn from publication because they were considered “subversive.”

Unforgiving Years was finished in 1946—one year before Serge passed away—but wasn’t published until 1971, and wasn’t translated into English until 2008. It’s a very ambitious and wide-ranging book, and the comparison in the jacket copy to “an immense mural or the movements of a symphony” is very appropriate. Richard Greeman’s very informative and well-written introduction does a great job of describing the set-up of the novel:

Unforgiving Years is divided into four sections, four symphonic “movements,” each of which evokes its distinctive time and place through its tone and atmosphere. The first movement, entitled “The Secret Agent,” expresses the sinister unreality of a Paris indifferent to the approach of war in a chill minor key. The second, “The Flame Beneath the Snow,” is discordant, heroic, and secret like one of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies. It portrays a frozen, starving Leningrad during the “thousand days” of the Nazi siege. The third movement, “Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs,” imagines the final days of Berlin under Allied bombardment in mode of Wagnerian Gotterdammerung, while the final movement, “Journey’s End,” is a tragic requiem set in the stark, volcanic Mexican selva where death and life repeat their endless cycle.

Against this panorama of planetary catastrophe, Serge poses his collective protagonist: a quartet of loyal, idealistic Soviet secret agents, veteran revolutionary fighters from the Russian Civil War period (1918-1921), now disillusioned. Operating in Europe where Hitler is triumphing and war looming, their faith in the Party is shaken by the Moscow Trials and the Stalinist totalitarian nightmare developing back in Russia. Caught in this “labyrinth of madness,” torn between a heroic sense of duty and the recognition of a historical impasse, doomed to be eliminated by the GPU apparatus if the gestapo doesn’t get them first, they search for an escape from a “world without possible escape” while trying to make sense of history and of their individual lives.

(I wish I could post the entire intro—it’s worth the price of admission, so to speak.)

This is a remarkable book—a perfect example of the type of literature we’d like to bring attention to via this award. It’s a “classic” novel in the best sense of the word, and the diversity in tone and character of the four parts (and the action-packed ending) are what makes this such a strong novel.

1 (I love using footnotes.) Like with Horacio Castellanos Moya, Serge’s background is a bit complex. From NYRB’s author bio:

Victor Serge (1890-1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Czarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living “by chance” in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving for Russia to join the Revolution. Arriving in 1919, after a year in a French concentration camp, Serge joined the Bolsheviks and worked in the press services of the Communist International in Petrograd, Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and jailed in 1928. Released and living in Leningrad, he managed to publish three novels (_Men in Prison_, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history of Year One of the Russian Revolution. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and machinations in Spain which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947.

5 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

NYRB’s monthly Letter from the Editor is by far my favorite publisher newsletter. Edwin Frank is one of the most well-read, articulate editors in the country, and with such great material to write about, his pieces are always incredibly interesting.

(You can sign up to receive these here and you can sign up to receive them here.)

The most recent letter is about Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, recently retranslated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, and published with an intro from Umberto Eco. As Edwin explains, this ain’t exactly the same Pinocchio as found in the Disney movie. Even from line one—which I think is one of the best openings I’ve read in a while—expectations are subverted:

Once upon a time there was. . . .

“A King!” my little readers will say at once.

No children, you’re wrong. Once upon a time there was a block of wood.

Edwin goes on to describe how interesting, odd, and complex (in comparison to the Disney version) the book’s opening really is:

The scene that follows is not only unsettling but positively spooky. A carpenter is using his hatchet to trim that piece of wood into a table leg—when, out of nowhere, a not so still small voice cries out: “You’re hurting me!” Pinocchio (who thus oddly exists before he comes into existence) stuns and terrifies the carpenter, known, because of his red and presumably alcoholic nose, as Master Cherry. Master Cherry wonders whether he isn’t just hearing things, and for a moment we wonder too. Throughout the book, a book in which “being real” is a question of paramount importance, Collodi leads us to doubt the reality at hand. Perhaps all this is nothing more than a drunken carpenter’s imaginings? Who knows? But what it is unquestionably is the beginning of a story, and once started the story will have its way. [. . .]

Pinocchio is a book of deep intelligence and pure inspiration, a beautiful work that seems, like its hero, almost to have willed itself into existence. (Collodi, though an accomplished man, never accomplished anything remotely equivalent, and in Pinocchio he amusingly depicts a gang of boys bombarding each other with his books).

When I first heard NYRB was reprinting Pinocchio I was a bit suspicious, but now I can’t wait to get a copy . . .

21 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the eighteenth (almost 3/4 of the way to the end) Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Unforgiving Years“http://readingtheworld.org/nyrb.html is the second book New York Review Books has published, the first being a reprint of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Richard Greeman translated this, and wrote a very interesting preface that begins:

Unforgiving Years is at once the most bitter, the most cerebral, and the most poetic of Victor Serge’s seven novels. It was first published in France in 1971—twenty-five years after the author’s death—and has never appeared before in English. The setting is World War II, and Serge pushes realism to the modernist limits of hallucination, presenting extravagant, terrifying, poetic visions of men and women prowling the debris of a self-destructing mechanical civilization.

The novel is broken up into four section or “symphonic ‘movements’” each of which is quite distinct in terms of time and place. The first takes place in Paris, where D has just broken with the Communist Party and is expecting retribution. The second is in Leningrad, where D helps defend the city. Part Three is set in Germany, and the final section takes place in Mexico.

Edwin Frank wrote a nice piece about Serge for the NYRB newsletter a while back, closing with a few lines that convinced me that I had to read this book:

The book has an epic scope—it is a picture of a planet in convulsion—without foregoing the detail of everyday life or a sense of the moment. It is a spy story and a war story and (several) love stories, gripping and terrifying, passionate and thoughtful, while the men and women in it—they include secret agents, true believers, philosophers, artists, and assassins—are at once larger than life and powerfully alive.

27 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In their usual classy-as-hell manner, New York Review Books delivered a real gem last month in the 2008 Reading the World selection THE POST-OFFICE GIRL, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Joel Rotenberg. Zweig’s posthumously published book is bitter, brutal, and everything I love about post-war literature while still retaining some of the sweet softness of, say, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book is aptly billed as one which “lays bare the private life of capitalism”—it also exposes the meaninglessness and triviality of life and class while remaining firmly realistic.

The title character is Christine Hoeflehner, a mere shade of postal official in a province outside Vienna who, in her miserable innocence, knows neither pleasure nor joy. Until, of course, she does. Ms. Hoeflehner is a survivor of the first World War, but only in the sense that she is still living. The Great War took the family business and, in fact, much of the family. She is old before her time and her mother an invalid and her charge. As for many, misery became the constant. Zweig writes:

The war has in fact ended. But poverty has not. It has only ducked beneath the barrage of ordinances, crawled foxily behind the paper ramparts of war loans and banknotes with their ink still wet. Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry, and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war. An entire winter of denominations and zeroes snows down from the sky…every thousand melts in your hand.

Imagine taking a young woman from that bleak picture, a woman who has always worked and never known luxury or rest and whisking her away to a palace—The Palace Hotel—it’s like something from a fairy tale. For Christine Hoeflehner, the fairy tale came true. Her wealthy aunt and uncle lavish her with all kinds of lovely foods and clothes. There and then, her name changes. She becomes Fräulein Christiane von Boolen, a glamorous doppelganger to her former self, a sort of gaudy butterfly entranced by the life of society and by the attentions of young men unscarred by the great tragedies of life. Zweig writes:

But how could she think, when would she think? She has no time to herself. No sooner does she appear in the lounge than someone from the merry band is there to drag her along somewhere—on a drive or a photo excursion, to play games, chat, dance; there’s always a shout of welcome, and then it’s bedlam. The pageant of idle busyness goes on all day. There’s no end of games played, things to smoke, nibble on, laugh at, and she falls into the whirl without resistance when any of the young fellows shouts for Fräulein von Boolen…

Perhaps it is odd that I mentioned that children’s classic, A LITTLE PRINCESS. No, it’s not odd—in Ms. Hoeflehner there is such a simple appreciation of luxury goods, an intimate affection for all the pleasures of wealth. She is childlike in the way she takes in pleasure, perhaps selfish, but blamelessly so. For all his criticism of the wealthy, it must be noted that Zweig doesn’t condemn wealth or luxury. His characters love comfort as we all love comfort and who, honestly, can deny its charms? As before, this “lays bare the private life of capitalism,” it doesn’t attack it, but reveal it. The novel doesn’t make moral claims; Zweig doesn’t judge the way people live their lives, merely contrasts them, makes glaringly obvious the inequalities—without assigning blame.

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

When one reads a book of this range, it is impossible not to stare hard at the author who crafted these words, who built—or rebuilt—this world of extremes, of pleasure and deprivation. There’s a disturbing autobiographical element. Even for someone only vaguely aware of Zweig’s life, his personal history seems obscenely connected to his characters, as though he had already lived out several possible lives through his books. Toward the end of World War II, having achieved safety in Brazil, Zweig and his wife killed themselves— out of despair for European civilization. His suicide was the suicide of Europe, his death was the death of humanism. Zweig was a well-known pacifist and an adored writer. His forfeit was a recognition of his failed hope and we can mourn him, but not too long or too strong. Such a man as Zweig was too sincere to invent anything as improbable as a happy ending. His characters chose life, almost arbitrarily, and after all, there isn’t that much difference.

THE POST-OFFICE GIRL
by Stefan Zweig
Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
New York Review Books
257 pgs, $14.00

15 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s post, here’s the second round-up of this year’s twenty-five Reading the World titles.

Since The Post-Office Girl was reviewed in today’s NY Sun by Eric Ormsby it seems like the perfect book to feature next.

Stefan Zweig was born in 1881 into a wealthy and privileged Viennese Jewish family. He went to the best universities; he traveled widely. A member of that fabulous generation of Viennese intellectuals and artists, which included Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Arthur Schnitzler, Zweig became a best-selling author, producing biographies (of Erasmus, Dickens, Casanova, and others), plays and poems, essays, short stories, and a dozen novels (his “Beware of Pity” and the brilliant novella “Chess Story,” also translated by Mr. Rotenberg, have already appeared from NYRB Classics). He settled in Salzburg but was forced to emigrate in 1934 after the Nazi rise to power. He went first to London, then to New York, finally taking refuge in Petrópolis, just outside of Rio de Janeiro. It was as though he could not run far enough or fast enough. Thomas Mann declared proudly from exile, “Where I am, there is Germany.” As a Jew driven from his homeland, Zweig could never assume so grandiose a stance: The Austria he had so brilliantly personified no longer existed except in memory, and from that there was no escape.

This particular novel was published posthumously and centers around Christine, a young woman working at a post-office who is suddenly swept up into the world of wealth and glamor . . . at least for a short period of time.

We’re going to be posting a long review of this in the near future, but I’ll leave off here with one of my favorite “X meets Y” comparisons from the all-time master of master of this construction:

Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde in Zweig’s haunting and hard-as-nails novel [. . .]

5 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

According to the Moscow News, the Russian PEN Center recently sent a letter to the Moscow’s prosecutor’s office, “asking for a thorough investigation of a road accident involving well-known Russian author Vladimir Sorokin earlier this month.”

This does sound really suspicious:

According to press reports, Sorokin was riding his scooter on an empty highway outside Moscow in plain daylight and was knocked off the road by a truck, which didn’t stop after the accident. Sorokin suffered some injuries, including a broken collar bone, and was taken to hospital where he underwent a surgery.

Sorokin’s been a controversial figure in Russian letters for years now. His novel Blue Lard—which includes a hot dictator-on-dictator sex scene starring clones Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev—got him charged with pornography and basically pissed of much of Russia.

Moving Together, which says it has the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, held a demonstration against literature they allege degrades traditional Russian society and tore up 6,700 books, including some of Sorokin’s, in front of TV cameras. [. . .]

The protesters threw books by Sorokin and Karl Marx into an oversized cardboard toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, which is considered the benchmark for high Russian culture and has also commissioned a libretto from Sorokin. (From CNN’s coverage back in 2002.)

The idea of an “oversized cardboard toilet” for eliminating books does crack me up, although the fact that this actually happened is deeply disturbing.

Reader’s International published an English version of The Queue years ago, and more recently, NYRB published Ice.

His new novel sounds interesting as well:

Incidentally, Sorokin’s most recent novel, last year’s Den oprichnika (A Day of an Oprichnik), which had a much sharper political edge than his previous books, satirizing the federal security service (FSB) by making a comparison with the Oprichnina, a notorious organization that terrorized the country’s population under Czar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, did not cause any controversy or have a substantial public resonance. However, it could have upset many people, not exactly those in FSB.

5 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of the New York Review of Books is out, with a couple of the articles available online, including Luc Sante’s piece on Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines.

The original French title of Félix Fénéon’s book, Nouvelles en trois lignes, can mean either “the news in three lines” or “novellas in three lines.” It was the title under which Fénéon, an art critic among other things, published 1,220 news items in 1906 in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin.

I can’t imagine how an entire book of these reads, but here are a couple incredible examples:

“To die like Joan of Arc!” cried Terborgh, from the top of a pyre made of his furniture. The firemen of Saint-Ouen stifled his ambition.

Mme Fournier, M. Vouin, M. Septeuil, of Sucy, Tripleval, Septeuil, hanged themselves: neurasthenia, cancer, unemployment.

11 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The September 27th issue of the New York Review of Books is now online, and has some interesting articles, including a piece by Christian Caryl on Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice.

Over at the Literary Saloon they point out that this issue—the “Fall Books Preview”—is surprisingly lacking in fiction coverage.

But we couldn’t help but notice that the fiction coverage is . . . limited. Three titles — one of which is a New York Review Books title (Sorokin’s Ice), and another of which is . . . the latest Harry Potter. Meanwhile, four films are discussed (including a Harry Potter . . .).

The lack of fiction coverage doesn’t stop there though. Actually, looks like The New Republic is featuring even less than that:

  • In the current issue: four reviews, with the review of two Loeb Classics volume of Hesiod about as close to fiction as it gets

  • The 27 August issue, which admirably reviews the recent complete Zbigniew Herbert collection, as well as . . . Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, but no fiction

  • The 6 August issue: four reviews, no fiction

  • The 23 July issue: four reviews, no fiction

Just what book culture needs—another review of The Diana Chronicles.

30 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

At least in terms of output, Georges Simenon is a Herculean writer. He makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker, having written over 400 novels and short story collections in his lifetime. And if that weren’t enough, he added to his mythic stature through fun games like this:

In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter . . .

Which sounds intense . . . The story gets even better though when you find out that it never took place.

The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done.

(Both quotes are from Luc Sante’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Bookforum.)

With so many books, it’s very difficult to figure out where to start—even if you just consider the eight titles put out by New York Review Books. To be honest, I picked up The Engagement solely because it was a Reading the World book this year, and I’m going to lead a discussion on it for Words Without Borders this September. That said, I ended up absolutely mesmerized by this subversive little book.

The Engagement starts with an immediate reversal of a typical crime reader’s expectations—instead of starting with a crime, or the set-up for a crime, the book opens in the aftermath of a murder with a very tense interaction between the solitary Mr. Hire and his concierge, who is a bit frightened of him. It’s only after this portrait of a creepy, suspicious, bloody man is damningly established that we hear about the dead prostitute.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers here—not that it really matters who killed the prostitute, since catching the murder is of secondary importance to all the characters in this book. The police don’t really care—one of them would much rather spend his time trying to get with the attractive, busty woman in need of help—and neither does Simenon. He seems much more intent on creating interesting, bleak, troubling characters, all corrupt and unlikable, than pulling his reader’s along via plot twists and forensic discoveries.

In his afterword, John Gray has an interesting comment about this novel in relation to the typical crime book:

As has often been noted, the traditional detective novel is a morality tale in which any doubt we may have about the reality of order in the world is finally dispelled. Noir fiction arouse as a reaction against this kind of consoling narrative with its promise that wrongdoing is sure to be found out and punished. But much noir fiction is also a tribute to justice. Society and human life as a whole may prove systematically unfair; but the very fact that humanity rages against this predicament shows that deep in human nature there is a rejection of injustice that may be defeated but cannot be destroyed.

Morality and justice have no place in Simenon’s novel. As the plot unfolds, the real focus becomes the psychological plight of Mr. Hire, who is trapped in an impossible life and situation. Suspected of murder and fully aware that he is constantly being tailed, he tries to convince the beautiful, damaged blonde (the one he watches undress through her window every night) to run away with him and start a new life. The reader knows that things won’t end well, that redemption, hope, justice, and just illusions in this world, and after finishing the book, the catastrophic conclusion seems inevitable and destined from the start.

Part of the reason why this novel works so well is the understated nature of Simenon’s writing. The book has an existential flavor, drawing the reader in and leaveing him or her to fill in the gaps in order to understand and decipher the desires and workings of Mr. Hire’s mind.

Anna Moschovakis did a fantastic job rendering this book in English. The only real complaint I have is that Mr. Hire’s “cash reserve” switches from 80,000 francs to 8,000 francs, which seems like a bit of a difference. Simenon may well have written better books, and if you’re a fan of CSI you might not be satisfied, but overall, this is a tight, cinematic novel that lags only occasionally, and is definitely worth reading.

The Engagement
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
New York Review Books
135 pp., $12.95 (pb)

24 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

Thanks to Michael Orthofer for finding this article about Moravia’s centenary and his, um, declining appeal.

in recent years the Roman novelist seems to have lost his claim to the title of most important Italian story-teller of the late 20th century, which had been attributed to him for almost 50 years. What is the reason for Moravia’s decline in the pantheon of contemporary Italian literature? Il VELINO put that question to a number of literary experts.

As Orthofer points out, the results of this survey are as inconclusive as can be expected, but I like the little cultural jabs that come through in some of these statements, like:

“That richly deserved fame that he won while he was alive is inevitably going to fade away. [. . .] I greatly doubt whether Moravia can be a model again, because his intellectual approach, I believe, is one that is unlikely to return to fashion.”

“Moravia’s fiction is an oeuvre containing a basic, radical pessimism. This negative aspect makes it more difficult for people to absorb it today.”

Intellectual, negative writers (a la Celine, a la Bernhard) apparently don’t last. Great.

Moravia wrote a ton of books, and a number are available in English, including Contempt and Boredom, and the recently translated Conjugal Love, which Other Press brought out, and which was part of Reading the World this year.

23 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

One of the first books Open Letter considered reprinting was G. V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr until we realized that NYRB (which is becoming my theme of the day) was reprinting it.

It won’t be available until October, but there’s an interesting post from Sara on A Different Stripe about this manic, “Shandean” book that’s been praised by the likes of Salman Rushdie.

23 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

The new NYRB catalog just arrived and, as usual, is filled with interesting books.

Although it’s not a translation, I’m really looking forward to reading British author Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. The author of the plays Rope and Gaslight, Hamilton also wrote Hangover Square a great drunken, schizo book that Europa Editions smartly reprinted a few years back.

Also included in this catalog are new translations of Guy de Maupassant’s Afloat and Alien Hearts, along with the first-ever translation of Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl. There’s also a reprint of The Widow, the ninth Simenon book to be published by NYRB.

....
The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

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Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

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Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

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Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

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The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

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Mr. Gwyn
Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .

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Bombay Stories
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Reviewed by Will Eells

I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .

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