Following on yesterday’s post, here’s the second round-up of this year’s twenty-five Reading the World titles.
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 [. . .]
It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of the New York Sun “Arts+” section and most of the reviewers who write for it. (Especially Ben Lytal, who, in my opinion, has the sweetest gig in all book reviewing.) Since the Sun has yet to penetrate the Rochester market, we usually resort to reading this online. As I was leaving my hotel yesterday, a businessman left behind his copy, giving me a chance to experience in print just how fantastic this section is.
The lead review yesterday was Adam Kirsch’s piece on Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy. I’m a huge fan of McCarthy’s Remainder and have been interested in reading this new book for a while.
(Besides, since the source text for this book—The Adventures of Tintin—is a translation, I love it unequivocally, not because it’s good or interesting, but solely because it came from another culture and therefore will prevent war.)
One of the things that appeals to me about this review is how intelligent and unapologetic it is discussing McCarthy’s section on Barthes, basing the whole review on Guy Debord’s notion of “detournement,” and, most importantly, not proclaiming this book to be either good or bad, but something more complicated.
The word belongs in quotation marks because these are not the kind of interpretive claims that can be judged true or false. Nor, however, are they the kind of licensed speculation that enriches our experience of a text, even while remaining undecidable — as, for instance, with Edmund Wilson’s claim that the ghosts in James’s “The Turn of the Screw” are just projections of the nurse’s repressed sexuality. Mr. McCarthy’s analyses are, rather, arabesques, sketched over the surface of Hergé’s cartoon — or, if you like, graffiti meant to obscure and deface it.
I am not entirely sure that Mr. McCarthy himself does not want us to see them in the second sense. After all, as he writes, Hergé’s work “betrays in its massive self-reflexiveness a desire to be taken seriously, to be seen to be considering the highly conceptual issues in contemporary art with which its author is clearly au fait, alongside a desire to mock the highness of the establishment that never accepted him as highbrow, to expose its pretentiousness, its fraudulence.” If Mr. McCarthy is out to vindicate Hergé, then Tintin and the Secret of Literature might best be read in this double spirit, as a brilliant and audacious hoax.
But what’s really interesting is that right beneath this review is a piece by translator Anthea Bell (a translator! writing a review!) on Asterix.
In French, Tintin easily predates Asterix; in English by only about 10 years, the time it took for an English-language publisher to venture on a translation of the first pun-packed, wisecracking adventure of the proto-French Gauls as they defy Julius Caesar and his conquering legions, maintaining a provincial but proud Gallic outpost in what is now northwest France. The series was thought just too French to be transplanted. But quintessentially French as it is, the appeal of Asterixian humor has turned out to be pan-European.
There’s no current Asterix book to tie this to, and aside from having translated Asterix a few years ago, no necessary reason that Anthea Bell would be writing about it in the daily newspaper. And in my opinion, that’s fantastic.
And beyond the book reviews, the “sports section”—which is also part of “Arts+”—is less gossipy and more thoughtful than most. (In particular, the breakdown of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is very well-done.)
I have my doubts about the rest of the paper, but there are only a handful of arts sections in the world that can compete with this one.
Probably a better way to design the navigation for this, but as of now it’s sortable by book title and author, along with review title and reviewer.
Hopefully this will help clue more people into the fact that the Sun has the most cosmopolitan book review section of any paper in the U.S. (For proof, just look at the books reviewed by Benjamin Ivry and Ben Lytal.)
Benjamin Ivry has a very interesting piece in today’s New York Sun on the new translation of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil:
“Growth of the Soil,” one of these later works, tells of a peasant, Isak, and his harelipped wife Inger, who strangles her infant daughter after she is born with her own harelip. Their life is narrated with Olympian disdain, but occasionally a kind of grudging admiration peeps through the irony: “Two lonely people, ill-favored and all too lusty, but a boon to each other, to the animals, and to the earth!” Hamsun juxtaposes scornful comments about Isak’s “dense naiveté” with sibylline observations like “The years pass quickly, do they? Yes, for the one who is growing old.” “Growth of the Soil” is as gloomy as anything written by the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, and yet a posturing preface to the new edition by the American poet Brad Leithauser bizarrely likens “Growth of the Soil” to “Robinson Crusoe,” because both books supposedly extol “husbandry.”
I completely agree with the Literary Saloon, the New York Sun is very impressive in its books coverage. Really. I don’t know who reads it, but if you’re interested in reviews of interesting fiction, the Sun is one of the best places to look.
I feel like I’m pretty knowledgeable about international authors, but I have to admit that I’ve never heard of Swedish author Klas Östergren, whose latest novel is reviewed in today’s New York Sun:
Klas Östergren is hailed as one of Sweden’s most important living writers. Swedish critics have compared his writing to that of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, whose influences are clearly felt in Mr. Östergren’s fourth novel, Gentlemen (MacAdam/Cage, 375 pages, $25), an elegantly written work of metafiction.
The book sounds really interesting—the story of three artists during the years of 1948 to 1978. Sounds funny, light, and kind of wild, until things take a slightly darker turn.
It is not until three-fifths through the novel that the brothers’ ideals collide with reality, and the book, hitherto an episodic, plotless account, is plunged into its most sustained and gripping action. For about 50 pages, Gentlemen becomes a political thriller as Leo unravels a dark secret in Sweden’s history involving the Third Reich. Although he endeavors to bring the story to light, the powers that be stymie him, driving him first to a mental institution, and then to the bottle.
Thankfully, Ben Lytal of the New York Sun somewhat rectified the situation.
The book sounds pretty interesting in and of itself—according to Melville House, it’s “the first [Iranian novel] ever written in the everyday language of the Iranian people”—but what caught my eye was that the Association of American Publishers’ Freedom to Publish Committee “joined in launching this book to support the publication of voices censored by the State Department’s ban of books from the ‘Axis of Evil.’ “
As always, Melville House deserves praise for the political edge to their publishing mission, and I hope this sentiment catches on. More publishers out there should be out there discovering and promoting great books from “our” ideological enemies.
What is it with the books coverage in the NY Sun? Totally makes the daily Times look like a provincial rag . . .
Anyway, Benjamin Ivry has a review of Victor Segalen’s Steles, a collection of prose poems just out from Wesleyan University Press in today’s Sun.
I personally don’t know much about Segalen, except that his novel Rene Leys was recommended to me on several occasions. And was reissued not too long ago by the ubiquitous (at least on this blog) New York Review Books.
But back to the real matter—how is it that the Sun has such a kick-ass book review section? I’ve never actually seen anyone reading this on the subway . . . Anyone? Anyone?
(I may be repeating myself, but seriously, Ben gets to review the cream of the crop . . . )
The book sounds interesting, but also seems to be one of those mishmash books of essays and discarded fiction that is interesting in part, but isn’t worth reading all 400-pages. . . . I’m really looking forward to the new novel that’s on its way. I believe it’s part of a trilogy that FSG will be publishing. Supposedly it’s on the scale of The Book of Memories, which I’ve heard FSG (or Picador, I forget) is reissuing this soon.
Ben Lytal—who is blessed with constantly getting only the best books to review—has a piece in the New York Sun about two Latin American authors from New Directions: Jorge Luis Borges and Enrique Vila-Matas.
The article is mostly about the recent reissue of Labyrinths complete with new preface by William Gibson, which is a fantastic thing for the world. There’s no one like Borges, and as Lytal points out, his influence spans generations and genres.
“The Garden of the Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” “The Aleph,” some of the best stories of the twentieth century . . .
It’s surprising to see Lytal say that Vila-Matas is his least favorite ND Latin American author, but I think he means this as praise for ND as a whole. Bolano, Aira, Borges, are pretty good company to keep, and tough to compete with.
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .