Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.
The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.
The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge.
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Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.
The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.
The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge:
I’m thirty-one and my life is just beginning. I don’t have a childhood, and from now on, any childhood will do. My mother is dead and everyone I cared about is gone. Life has wiped me clean like the empty table at which Claire and I are sitting and at which Chloé has pulled up a chair, a sweet smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
It is his daughter Chloé for whom Olivier decides to restart his life, and he may relive his childhood vicariously through her while trying to avoid conferring the same travails he experienced onto her.
The novel could be read as Olivier’s final thoughts on his life to date as he falls through the darkness towards the uncompromising rocks, paralleling his mother’s passing. Or it could simply be his rationalization to move on. Nonetheless, his narrative traces memories of his night-walking, earth-consuming mother, his years of escapist sex, drug and alcohol abuse, the mutual disgust he and his brother Antione feel for their oppressive and absent father, his independent years in Paris, and the death of two close friends. Throughout, the ghost of Olivier’s mother continuously appears, demonstrating the extreme degree to which her death preoccupies him. Depressing? Yes, but it is frosted with a rectifying layer of uncertain hope.
Adam’s mastery of the language (and Sue Rose’s deft and thoughtful translation) is what makes Cliffs so engaging. It reads like the music of Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, and/or Leonard Cohen sounds. (In the novel, Olivier recalls listening to all three). Olivier’s narrative voice takes the form of a mix between the unvarnished Cohen and Drake, while the complexity and subtle emotional intensity of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” mark the tale of his mother’s suicide. To gather a sense of the novel as a whole, one considers Drake’s “Pink Moon:” short, sweet, melodic, melancholic and, after the first spin, leaves the listener bursting with the sense of unperceived meaning, and wishing to go again.
At the end of the book a summarizing “I’m thirty-one…” reprise reveals much of the tone:
I’m thirty-one and it doesn’t matter. I know how heavy the dead are. And I know about bad luck. I know about loss and devastation, the taste of blood, the wasted years and those that trickle through your fingers. I know how deep the sand is, I’ve experienced its resistance, its soft, ambiguous material. I know that nothing is dependable, that everything unravels, cracks and shatters, that everything withers and everything dies. Life damages the living and no one ever puts the pieces back together or picks them up.
Ultimately, the sea is not just a place for death, it also takes hold of some of its more common connotations: cleansing and reflection. Cliffs is spectacular from top to bottom.
In the world of Hungarian literature, of Kertész and Krúdy, of Konrád and Krasznahorkai, how can a writer stand out? Attila Bartis answers that question with his foul masterwork, Tranquility. First published in 2001 and in English for the first time this month, Bartis’s Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.
Set in post-communist Budapest, this novel is the life of Andor Weér, a writer. Weér is a continually conflicted character and bears comparison to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Zuckerman, particularly so in his disturbing relationships with women, especially his mother. Rebeka Weér is a living corpse, a reclusive actress who, though she hasn’t seen a stage in decades, has yet to give up her overwrought theatricality. The home they share—which her son frequently refers to as a crypt—is cluttered with stolen stage furniture, “the armchair had one belonged to Lady Macbeth, the bed to Laura Lenbach, and the chest of drawers to Anna Karenina.” In flashbacks, Ms. Weér is a singularly self-absorbed woman, sexually liberated and unfeeling toward her children. When her daughter, a gifted concert violinist, leaves communist Hungary to pursue her career elsewhere, Rebeka Weér’s reaction is macabre and cold:
She opened the coffin with her foot and threw in Judit’s letters. Then all of the sheet music from Paganini to Stravinsky, then the music stand, the strings and the resin. From the birth certificate and the left-behind clothes to Judit’s coffee mug, she threw everything into the coffin . . . anything with the slightest hint at Judit Weér’s existence would go into the coffin.
And as if the ceremonial killing of her daughter were not enough, she buried her also, then:
. . . she purchased ten blank death notices and . . . continued to copy from the telephone book the mailing address of the Ministry, because she was sending death notices not only to my sister, but to the theatre’s party secretary.
Tranquility is a book that never considers its reader—a fact I find gratifying. In fact, the novel is so thoroughly immersed in the troubled mind of Andor Weér that we lose sight of Attila Bartis completely. Weér is so wholly developed, so completely bared to the reader, as to seem more real than his author. Weér seems to have written this novel himself; these are his thoughts and memories and not merely thoughts and memories ascribed to him by some mysterious author. The style of the text, the tendency to run as a stream of consciousness and to occasionally blur together phrases like, “wherehaveyoubeenson” and “Idon’tknowmyself,” makes it all the more internal, personal to the character.
Much can be said of Weér and his peculiar development. The novel’s form, however, is what makes it truly exceptional, and what makes it real. Time is utterly fluid; events from Weér’s are presented to the reader without chronology becoming at all confusing; this is some very artful time-play and well worth the price of admission. Through this device, Weér’s miserable life is relived for our benefit, from his early experiences with sex through the torture of life with his addled mother.
As his mother ages. the phrase “wherehaveyoubeenson” is a frequent one; Weér’s mother has grown old and weird, Weér writes:
That for fifteen years I’ve been getting the vitamins, the Valerian drops, lipsticks, nail polish and hair dyes for my mother and for fifteen years she’s been sitting in the flickering gray light of the TV or standing in the blind spots of her mirror. Considered in this way, she’s been dead for years. An ordinary corpse, its stench concealed by the smell of mint tea and its skin rubbed human-colored with vanishing-cream.
This Hitchcockian corpse-mother haunts Weér, but adds a predictable stability to his life through times of change.
Really, many aspects of this novel reflect the uncertainty that came of living in flux, through the waxing and waning of communist rule. As in the quote above, Weér’s mother fearfully (and vindictively), buried her daughter alive. Hungarians are overheard to say things like “We’ll have to pay the bill one day for our new freedom” and Weér himself noticed that, “. . . everybody was talking politics then too. Some people wanted neutrality with lots of banks, as in Switzerland . . .” Somehow communism always seems to lead to oppressive bureaucracy, to a Kafkaesque state, to absurdity. For a reasonable person, this can be crushing. For literature, however, it is an unbelievable godsend. An encounter with the police brought an incredible exchange that stands out as one of the most powerfully disturbing in a book of already extraordinary power.
Much of this power comes from the remarkable depth of depravity in this novel. The grotesque realism provides a daring contrast to the self-indulgent introspection of Weér, but no respite from the overwhelming darkness. My sense of good taste doesn’t prevent me from mentioning Andor Weér’s early dalliance with incest, but certain passages did cause me to blush uncomfortably; I won’t quote them. This book approaches sexuality like a war and the acts described are damaging and painful, to both the narrator and to the reader. This is powerful writing intent on exposing human sexuality as it exposes so many private things.
More than anything else, that sense of exposure captures the central purpose of this book; nothing is sacrosanct: not religion, not government, not life, love, or motherhood. Bartis and Weér, Weér and Bartis; they touch everything normal and leave nightmarish fingerprints and filthy smears across it all. Their artistry, though, is thrilling and this book is an extraordinary achievement. But for me, one question remains: in all of this obscenity and blood and emotional turmoil, where can one find any tranquility?
Every so often, a tiny corner of the world, little seen and little heard in recent times by the rest of the globe, produces an artist whose voice speaks out to all of us, whose work displays such competence and quality as demands immediate attention. Lyonel Trouillot of Haiti is a novelist of such caliber. He is also a poet and essayist, and in 2004 his book Street of Lost Footsteps was a finalist for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize (trans. Linda Coverdale).
Coverdale now brings us Trouillot’s 2002 novel, Children of Heroes, a small but powerful showcase of Trouillot’s diverse talent. The author’s uses of style, voice, and plot structure cohere to form a little book that is much more than the space between its covers. A captivating work of art, the book reads as a miniature epic, a tragic journey, and poignant love story.
The novel takes place in Haiti, where an abusive husband and father is murdered by his two children. It follows their subsequent journey through their overcrowded city evading capture, and their final surrender after three days. While it is narrated in the first person by the younger of the children, Colin, the main figure of the story is truly Mariéla, his older sister, for she is the object of all of his affection; he loves and idolizes her. It is in this respect a tragic romance story as well.
The construction of the narrative is inventive and carefully assembled. The events documented spiral out from the murder itself, tracing what happens after it chronologically while simultaneously doubling back further and further into the past before the murder, and occasionally leaping ahead into the future beyond the three days that could be considered the novel’s real time-span. There are several techniques Trouillot uses to make you feel disoriented as you read, and this is foremost among them. This disorientation reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not to say that the book is confusing: in reading it, I never felt lost or confused, except in the first few pages, where a bombardment of narrative and character information is a bit overwhelming at first:
It must have been noon when we began to run. We could have put up with the smell for a lot longer, but when Mariéla saw the mailman coming, a guy who never failed to have a drink with Corazón and reminisce about the legendary greats of boxing, she dumped our savings out of their jar and, warning me not to lose them, slipped the coins into my pocket, then told me to run without stopping until I was out of the slum.
The relevant information identifying these characters comes gradually, settling the picture and further elaborating it as the novel grows and fleshes out.
The second technique of disorientation is use of chapters unbroken by paragraphs: that is, the text itself is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, but there are no paragraph breaks within them. All dialogue is embedded without demarcation, which is less confusing than one would expect, and at times—particularly in the question game scene—incredibly powerful and effective:
Are they going to lock us up? I mean in a prison or a reformatory? I don’t know. Yes, probably. And will we be locked up together? I don’t know. But we’ll always be together. And Joséphine, what will she think? Maybe she won’t see things the way others will, since she’s all alone now? Joséphine, she won’t think anything, she’ll just stick with suffering and let God think for her.
This lack of identifiers allows you to ascribe these questions and answers to any combination of Colin or Mariéla; the narrative present (having never actually occurred, they could be Colin’s addition in recounting the events long afterward) or the narrative past (having actually occurred at the time of the events and recounted verbatim); and actual conversation or introspection.
In refraining from the use of paragraphs, Trouillot strikes a fine balance between rambling and concision. This is the most immediately tangible device of many he uses, the result of which is a small but densely packed narrative, a miniature epic which does not belabor any point, never drags, and is finely orchestrated to travel in two directions at once while these directions remain parallel: one backward, and one forward, in time from the sparking event of the murder.
Finally, Trouillot tells you a great deal simply by the careful development of a very specific narrative voice. The voice is far more mature than the narrator’s character, suggesting either a great passage of time between the events and the narration (the past tense is used throughout); a blending between the character narrator and an outside narrative voice; or both. In a more minute instance, the chapter in which the aftermath of the murder is related to Colin and Mariéla by Colin’s friend Marcel is delivered with greater maturity, omniscience, and immediacy of reflection than expected from the young Marcel:
The mailman had arrived early, because he enjoyed having a little glass with Corazón even though it was against regulations. . . . Such a good-looking man, A little violent, true, but you can’t choose your temperament, and he didn’t deserve to end up like this. It was in the mailman’s interest to appear shaken by his discovery: people expecting letters were pissed off at him for pitching the mailbag into the pond.
Again this suggests a blending with, or perhaps filtering through, an outside (or significantly later, i.e. more mature) narrator.
Children of Heroes is a small epic, a moving journey, a little treasure-trove of captivating and inventive storytelling. Author Lyonel Trouillot has used every tool at his disposal to demonstrate an enormous talent. This is a book to be widely read and enjoyed, and this is an author who deserves greater attention and praise.
Ignazio Rando had been a model employee at the Land Registry Office of Ferrara for 37 years, 5 months and 4 days – a few months short of his pensionable age – when one day he climbs onto the table and walks out, leaving his colleagues and the public staring in open-mouthed amazement.
The theme of Dario Franceschini’s second novel is the nature of madness, an exploration of that subtle line that divides normality from what we regard as mental aberration. Like the skin that separates our pulsing body fluids from the air around us, or the transparent surface of the water in a flooded church – the only straight line in a building filled with collapsing columns and refracted arches. Or again, the straight line of the tables that Ignazio walked across in mid morning on an otherwise normal day. Until that morning, Ignazio’s madness – possibly a genetic trait since his brother had died in a lunatic asylum – was confined to his dreams, which were filled with colour, sensuality and violence, in contrast with a lifetime’s drudgery spent filling the yellowing files with his beautiful copperplate handwriting.
Franceschini’s novel maintains an extraordinarily creative dichotomy between the tragic lyricism of events seen through Ignazio’s eyes during the rest of that day, and the reaction of his colleagues, Ragioniere Garbioni and the Registrar himself, Conservatore Ansaldi. These are two stereotypes of Italian officialdom, consumed by petty concerns and squalid ambitions. Garbioni is the self-appointed representative who undertakes to report Ignazio’s behaviour to the Registrar, and is then asked to investigate the matter further. His main concern, apart from missing lunch at home and his afternoon nap, is how to report the incident to his wife and colleagues and how best to turn it to his own advantage. The Registrar is a thoroughly odious individual, enjoying power without lifting a finger to earn it. He knows how to press flesh at the appropriate moments and can work the “system” to his advantage. Later that afternoon, while waiting to interview Garbioni, Ansaldi flaunts the regulations by lighting a cigarette in his office, with disastrous consequences. However, using threats and influence, he succeeds in shifting the blame for the ensuing catastrophe onto the innocent shoulders of his ex-employee. The black humour that results from the behaviour of both these men highlights the magical qualities of Ignazio’s last hours.
Dreams are a rich vein for literary exploration and Franceschini deserves credit for mining it in all its technicolour and fantastic detail. His style and imagery have a poetic quality that is truly captivating. Two of the most memorable images conjured up in Ignazio’s dreams are the iridescent clouds of imagination escaping from the dissected brain of a corpse undergoing autopsy; and the brilliant green lawn surrounded by fiery terracotta walls where Ignazio realises that just by “standing upright, one’s head is already in the sky”.
Like a tightrope walker for whom a moment’s loss of concentration can be fatal, Ignazio has held his schizophrenia in check for years, dividing his existence between the monotony and sepia tones of his everyday life and the technicoloured brilliance of his dreams. When Ragioniere Garbioni’s bluffs his way into Ignazio’s flat, the shutters in the ordered part are tightly closed, shrouding it in gloomy secrecy. Only when he discovers the hidden door leading into the “dream room” is he overwhelmed by sunlight and chaos, suggesting that Ignazio’s schizophrenia is a sense more real than the half-light of the normal world. However, the book offers no neat conclusions. Readers are left wondering about Ignazio’s love for Lisa/Laura, the muse whom he abandoned but who continues to travel with him in dreams. It is to her that he turns in his last moments, having already lived this moment again and again in his dreams. Ignazio’s passage from the nightmarish turn of the afternoon’s events to the paradise that awaits him is as innocent and unblemished as his madness.
Franceschini is a lawyer and member of parliament, deputy-secretary for the Partito Democratico, a key ally in Walter Veltroni’s Margherita coalition at the last general election. It is tempting to read his latest book as an allegory of Italian society and politics, but this may be too simplistic. However, in questioning our definition of madness, Franceschini makes a valiant attempt to redefine the straight line between creativity and bureaucracy, dream and reality, normality and madness, decency and corruption, and in doing so creates some memorable images and characters.
La Follia Improvvisa di Ignazio Rando
by Dario Franceschini
154 pgs., €13.00
Dario Franceschini’s first novel, Nelle vene quell’acqua d’argento (2006), was awarded the Premier Roman 2007 in Chambéry, France, and in Italy the Premio Opera Prima Città di Penne and Premio Bacchelli. The novel has just been published in France by Gallimard under the title Dans les veines ce fleuve d’argent (May 2008). For Italian reviews of both novels, see the Bompiani website.
Lucinda Byatt translates from Italian into English and reviews books for Scotland on Sunday and other publications.
The life of the Perec family (the family name was originally Peretz) was one of removals. The Perecs moved from one city to another in Poland before leaving Poland for France. Georges was born in France in 1936 and against the background of troubled times the exact details of his early life are lost. His father was one of the few French soldiers to die in the course of the German invasion. His mother was taken up by the authorities and sent to Auschwitz where she was one of the multitude that was to die in the death camps. The remainder of the family successfully eluded the round up of the Jews and Georges’s Aunt Esther and her husband Paul took Georges into their protection. The death of his parents and the necessity of concealing his Jewish background created psychological problems that were reflected in his work as a writer.
He completed his formal education without his achieving the academic cushion that traditionally supported French writers. As early as his eighteenth year he had chosen writing as his vocation, but his will was not equal to his determination and he drifted for a long period during which his pursuits were trivial and his sufferings from bouts of depression were frequent. During this trying time he was called up to serve in the military. He was a parachutist and this, curiously, had a liberating effect. He began at twenty-three to write his third “first” novel. Like its predecessors it had, despite its merits, insuperable faults and was never published. Perec reused pieces of it in his later works.
In 1960 the German government paid reparation money to victims of the Nazis. He and his lover Paulette Petras used the money to buy an apartment. Although they had no financial resources after this purchase, they were able to live in relative security and comfort. He was the center of a wide circle of friends and his reputation as a writer – even though an unpublished one – was secure.
He worked for a time as a consumer researcher, a quasi-discipline imported from the United States. The research involved the definition of men and women through their actual or desired possessions and employed impersonal interviewing techniques. Both the concept and the method contributed to many elements in Life: A User’s Manual.
A further workplace influence was his job as information retrieval specialist with medical research institution. He held this position from 1960 to 1979. The ability to find unexpectedly pertinent relations became an important element in his writing. The computer displaced him from this job and he had to his credit ingenious systems that the computer also rendered useless.
Although Jewish he had no interest in a Jewish heritage. Aunt Esther and Uncle Paul were assimilationists. He had never digested his grief over the senseless deaths of his parents, especially the death of his mother. In a way he worked through these problems in a series of articles that he wrote for Partisans in 1962. In this year he began the creation of his first published work. This was Things: A Story of the Sixties. It was a short book but he labored over it for three years. His publisher printed a small number of Things as a favor to Perec, but the book succeeded by word-of-mouth and won the Renaudot Prize, a prize that traditionally recognized outstanding new writers. Perec was twenty-nine. He had only fifteen years left to live.
His next book, A Man Asleep, was less well received. Despite public apathy this was a gritty study of abulia and the death of the spirit. The protagonist of A Man Asleep will reappear as the student Grégoire Simpson in Life.
Perec received an invitationin 1967 to join OuLiPo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle, or, Workshop for Potential Literature), an organization of men interested in literature and mathematics. This group had developed the theory that all literature should be subject to some restraint. The group shunned publicity and invited few to join it. It would include eventually the new members Jacques Roubaud, Harry Matthews, and Italo Calvino. The most prestigious of the founding members was Raymond Queneau. It would be to the memory of Queneau, who died in 1976, that Life would be dedicated.
Contact with OuLiPo and its aims acted as a powerful influence and Perec’s first oulipian book was the book known in English as A Void. The constraint that he used was to avoid the letter ‘e.’ A Void is modeled on the murder mysteries of which he was a fan and the cause of the deaths one by one of Anton Vowl and his friends is the result of some lack in the universe, that lack being the want of the letter ‘e.’ Thus the restraint is not simply mechanical but an intrinsic part of the narrative.
W, or The Memories of Childhood was an attempt to reconstruct an emotional equivalent of Perec’s own early experience and to restore to life the fantasies with which as a child he consoled himself. It’s a powerful book. In it Perec revives Gaspard Winckler, a name that occurs in his early unpublished work as well as in his first published book, Things. The Gaspard Winckler of Life will be already dead before the story begins, but his influence – that of a figure not unlike Perec capable of trickery, a master puzzle maker – pervades the book.
Perec, always ready to succumb to a hostile world, had great difficulty writing W, especially since in 1970 his long time companion Paulette left him. He felt suicidal and submitted to analysis. By 1972 he was ready to begin the book that proved to be his masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual and one of the acknowledged great books of the twentieth century. This work used several constraints instead of just one. Ready to begin, but typically deflected from the book by other commitments, he did not begin Life until 1976.
Besides the books already mentioned, Perec around 1980 wrote ‘The Winter Journey,’ a perfect story, a mysterious and tantalizing puzzle. It is difficult to find and its publishing history is almost as much an enigma as the story itself. There was also a posthumously published novel, 53 Days, edited by his OuLiPo friends Harry Matthews and Jacques Roubaud.
Perec died in 1982 of cancer. He was forty-six years old.
There is a famous photo of Perec by Anne de Brunhoff. In it, a man with bushy hair leans forward to engage directly with the spectator. He has a satyr’s wispy beard, but the eyes are haunting. They are the eyes of Hermes the Thief, Baron Samedi, Raven, Coyote, the eyes of an ingenious trickster.
A cartoon by Saul Steinberg was one of Perec’s inspirations for Life. The cartoon showed at the left the façade of an apartment. The rest of the cartoon showed the forward wall stripped away and this permits us to observe the men and women as they move about the clutter of their possessions.
Perec elaborated on this. Instead of the half dozen or so apartments shown by Steinberg, he composed a square grid of 100 squares. The result ranged from a top floor of servant rooms or former servant rooms to the boiler and storage rooms in the basement. From left to right were apartments, the elevator shaft and the steps with more apartments to the right of the steps. Perec concerned himself with the past as well as with the present occupants. Many of the new occupants have enlarged their living space so that when Perec visits a square – and he only visits each square once – he will relate the events of the current or the past occupant or he will describe the furnishings of the room. Some of the paintings involve short narratives to explain their content.
The apartment dwellers are not necessarily involved with each other and this prevents a unification of many of the stories that sit by themselves with their own intrinsic fascinations. Life is thus a collection of tales – and especially of tales within tales. Despite the persistently urban setting, Life is in the oldest of literary traditions, that of the storyteller.
But an involved triangular relationship unites some of the characters: Percival Bartlebooth, Serge Valène, and Gaspard Winckler.
Percival Bartlebooth provides the widest number of connections. A wealthy eccentric, he has created an occupation for his otherwise idle life. He became a resident of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier to be near Serge Valène, a painter. Bartlebooth, without any special talent as an artist, has set himself the goal of learning to paint in watercolors. He studies with Valène for ten years and emerges form this instruction as a competent painter. He and Smautf, his servant, travel over the world from port to port. He will paint 500 paintings. As each painting is completed he returns it to Gaspard Winkler, another occupant of the apartment building. Winckler turns each painting into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces. After Bartlebooth assembles the puzzle, the pieces are so meticulously rejoined that it is indistinguishable from the original painting. Bartlebooth (or his agent when he becomes to old to travel) returns with it to the scene where it was painted. He then washes the paper clean so that nothing is left except a blank sheet of watercolor paper.
Bartlebooth is the complete oulipian. He only differs in that he has followed the path of his creative constraints to their logical conclusion.
A character named Gaspard Winckler appeared in early books by Perec. Although he was never the same person, he had always something about him that made everyone uneasy. He was a person of either simple mystery or downright villainy. In Life he is more complex but at last he has his revenge. (He has died, by the way, before the story opens.) Bartlebooth dies while he is completing a puzzle. He dies with the last puzzle piece in his hand. It is shaped like the letter ‘w,’ but the space to be filled has the shape of the letter ‘x.’
Although the activities of Bartlebooth bring major coherence to Life, Serge Valène is its presiding spirit. (Whenever Perec uses “he” without explanation, Valène is meant.) He plans a great painting that will depict the major – and many minor – events, past and present, of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. There is a list of the selected scenes, 179 of them. (Perec describes all of them with the same number of letters so some of the events are described very cryptically.) But we learn at the last that the most that Valène has done on this grandiose project is a few charcoal marks on his canvas. He dies one week after Bartlebooth.
In general the other occupants are scarcely less eccentric than Bartlebooth. Some of them are frauds, such as the faddish painter Hutting or the conniving wheeler-dealer Rorschach. Some of them are monsters of miserliness and others are criminals. They all make ridiculous or dramatic entrances. They all prove to be good copy, and the apparently haphazard presentations of them by Perec do not in the least detract from the fascinations that they have to offer. Perec lavishes special care on the parts of the apartment that are more impersonal such as the stairs or the boiler room.
The shape of the book may a little puzzle, but so far all that I have described is transparent, accessible without special effort. The constraint in A Void was obvious, but in Life Perec used several constraints and they function discreetly with the minimum of surface disturbance. The movement from square to square uses the knight’s move from chess. This move is one square forward and one square to the diagonal. With it Perec was able to move through the entire grid of 100 squares without repetition. When he arrives at a different room of Rorschach’s apartment, for example, he can select which type of narrative he will use. He can revisit the same apartment as many as six times.
Perec also uses the constraint of quotations. It is safe to assert that he had a formula for this and that quotations from the same kind of authors are distributed by pattern. But the degree to which the book consists of quotations has not been determined and some have held without any real proof that Life consists greatly of quotations. Perec’s quotations from Joyce and Borges are obvious enough, but he also quotes Agatha Christie whose essentially bland style make quotations from her difficult to spot. David Bellos, translator of Life and author of the major book on Perec, has written an article on the mechanism of Perec’s system of quotation. It is fearsome to contemplate.
Life allows readers to detect puzzles – Perec for years created difficult crossword puzzles for a Paris paper – and to spend time and effort on the examination of all the machinery that makes the book run. This is a gratifying activity, but the book is as it appears on the surface, a masterful assembly of lunatic scholars and assorted eccentrics as they pursue slightly or very demented goals. There is humor and humanity in all this and every detail is richly rewarding, the kind of book rewarding enough to forever leave the reader breathless and gratified.
Life A User’s Manual
By Georges Perec
Translated by David Bellos
Reviewed by Bob Williams
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
Ortega y Gasset wrote of those who had stepped onto the stage of history and did not belong there. Vertical invaders he called them. Those who had come up from below. Cowboy capitalists and tinhorn dictators who elbowed the nobility, church and founding fathers aside. In Peter Pistanek’s version, the peasant from the countryside, traditionally a slow-witted man of many virtues who slyly outwits city slickers (the revenge of the countryside against the metropolis), becomes Racz, a tsunami, who wipes out everything in his path. The nastiest rat in the shithouse1. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine writ large. Pistanek blasts away images of Slovaks plowing fields, eating goulash, playing accordions, going to church as First World images, tour bus vistas.
Racz has come to Bratislava to make money so that he can be a suitable suitor for the woman from his village he loves. He gets work as the stoker in the Hotel Ambassador, one of the most prestigious hotels in Bratislava, and in his single-mindedness soon discovers that he can take advantage of his position. People will pay to have the heat on and, in short, Racz learns that he who puts the heat on can control things. He rises quickly from stoker in the Ambassador to its owner and much else. Those who oppose him (small-time money changers, former secret police, professional classes) knuckle under while those whose dreams have foundered in the new world order have to make do or become, like academics, increasingly irrelevant.
“They all believe that they’re better than they seem at first sight,” a Swede, Hurensson, who has come to Bratislava for the sex trade, notes. “The young hustler and unlicensed taxi driver thinks he is an artist. [He becomes a money-changer and pornographer.] The blonde whore never fails to stress that she was originally a ballet dancer. The stooped porter with spidery bony fingers who takes your bags turns out to have been at one time a lecturer at the evening university, now closed, of Marxism-Leninism. He was a philosopher, or so he says. Whatever they do now is only temporary, done out of necessity. The cafe waitress is miserable; no doubt, she originally planned to be an actress. She finds it degrading to serve Hurensson coffee….They could have given the world some of the most brilliant artists, ballet dancers, and scientists – at least that’s what they claim. Why didn’t they – that’s the question?”
“You are nothing unless you have everything,” Greil Marcus writes. “Both Thatcher and Reagan promised everything to anyone with the grace to leave the damned behind,” he adds. If you are not from the First World, however, your everything can never be more than parody (the Eastern Europe syndrome). Racz learns how to use a knife and fork, how to dress, read and go to the opera. He marries a college girl interested in art (she takes him to museums) and lives in a villa with the folks on the hill. He has put his village behind him. It is, if you will, how civilization assimilates those who have risen in its ranks, but to those already there, Racz is still a vertical invader who does not belong. Racz remains Racz.
Just after Racz’s arrival in Bratislava, a woman suffers a nervous breakdown at a tram stop in front of the Hotel Ambassador and begins to strip. “The crowd consists of people all as exhausted, nervous and unhappy as she. Their psychology, however, can cope better with the morning heat. ....Whistles, sarcasms and disparaging comments are heard….The passengers at the tram stop stay excited long after the police car leaves. The extraordinary situation has brought them together, just as a calamity to be overcome brings people together….The latest people have no idea what’s just happened. For them the woman’s high-heel shoe discarded near the rubbish bin has a different symbolic value. The plot’s been lost.” The plot has not been lost. The heat is on Slovakia. The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors2. Breakdown threatens.
The title of Pistanek’s novel (in English in the Slovak edition) refers to Boney M’s hit of 1978. Pistanek himself has been a drummer in a rock band and attended the Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts but did not finish. Only from below, Pistanek suggests, can we see what blinds us, using the language of discredited forms, not those of “the supplicative voice, legitimating power” (The term is Marcus’s). Joyce’s shout in the street. A voice, sound.
1 said of John Travolta in the film, The General’s Daughter.
2 The title of a work by Marcel Duchamps.
The Rivers of Babylon
By Peter Pišťanek
Translated by Peter Petro.
Garnett Press: London, 2007.
259 pgs, £12.99
One need not be a world traveler or international spy to enjoy Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal, but the allure and intrigue of both take center stage in this cleverly crafted antinovel-cum-travelogue. French novelist and journalist Olivier Rolin chooses another “Olivier Rolin” to play the starring role in this collection of global capers that are disjointedly linked through a series of detailed hotel room descriptions.
Most of the 43 chapters include a thorough recounting of the interior of Rolin’s current lodging. He takes the reader on a remarkably unusual tour of rather ordinary hotel rooms around the world, describing mundane details of accommodations ranging from a Double Tree in Tallahassee, Florida to a Novotel in Cotonou, West Africa. He approximates the dimensions of each room and describes furniture, lighting fixtures, fabric patterns and wallpaper motifs. Recounting shapes of pillows (like “gigantic ravioli”) and wall colors (“denture pink” or “oxblood red”), he continues his seemingly absurd yet captivating narrative right down to the exact positioning and design of the luggage rack.
Although the repetition may tempt readers to skim some details, each of Rolin’s settings is curious enough to hold interest. And his creative use of mirrors and windows proves particularly revealing, providing insight about the state of his own character and offering up views of landscapes that lie beyond the tiresome litany of measurements and upholstery patterns. He often segues from reciting banal room details to carrying on with his latest scheme-in-progress, as in Lausanne, where he describes the phone in Room 1212 at the Hotel d’Angleterre, as it “happens to be ringing to let me know that my clients are waiting for me in the lobby.”
So just what exactly is this international man of mystery up to? Brawls, murder, sex, street riots, ransoms, smuggled caviar and the “explosive-fake-nougat trade” all play a role. There are embassy meetings, secret missions, ridiculous shenanigans and, to be fair, noble efforts like “preserving world peace (temporarily).” Rolin wheels and deals with frequency among a worldwide network of cohorts and exotic women. And, of course, one woman and one hotel room stand apart from the rest. Rolin cannot describe (and remembers very little) about Room 211 at the Hotel Crystal in Nancy, France— except for a box of macaroons—possibly a present from his one true love, Mélanie Melbourne?
This is only one of many unanswered questions. We learn at the outset of the novel that Rolin is actually missing. His stories, discovered in a briefcase that turns up in Paris, made their way into the hands of an “editor” who has pieced together Rolin’s peculiar travel journal. Notes about his hotel rooms and ensuing misadventures are scribbled on travel ephemera of every kind — hotel stationary, transit maps, airline menus, an assortment of postcards, pages torn from literary works and from a Lonely Planet guidebook (with a long footnote hypothesizing why this might be.)
We also learn that Georges Perec has inspired Rolin. While describing Room 102 of Augerge Saint-Pierre in Mont-Saint Michel, Rolin sits (in a bamboo chair) and says he will not leave until he finishes reading a book by Perec:
“So, it is my intention to write the book that Perec refers to in Species of Spaces: ‘…to make an inventory, as exhaustive and as accurate as possible, of “All the Places Where I Have Slept.”’ Yet, as far as I know, Perec never finished the work as planned. So, I’m going to do it for him: not out of arrogance, but rather out of a kind of respect bordering (perhaps) on devotion. When it comes to the authors I love, I can’t bear the idea that they left a project incomplete.”
Yet that is exactly what Rolin does in Hotel Crystal. His experimental fiction is engaging and humorous, but too fragmented and unresolved to be fulfilling. Flipping back and forth between chapters, I found myself trying to piece together his puzzling movements, wanting to plot his multi-continent hotel jaunts on a map, and surprisingly, wishing I could participate in his international escapades. I imagined Rolin’s book as an adult version of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series—complete with fantasies, bad guys, rooms of mirrors and games of chance—in which I could play a part, and see at least one story through to the end.
Rolin’s assemblage of far-flung travel tales is imaginative and refreshing in its approach, but I remain unsatisfied. And throughout the book, he dares to tease about additional tales he has to share! “But that’s another story.” Somehow enticing in its lack of resolution, Hotel Crystal is, however, a book I will read again, foolishly (perhaps) still hoping to solve something in the end.
By Olivier Rolin
Translated by Jane Kuntz
Dalkey Archive Press
190 pgs, $12.95
At the outset, I didn’t particularly care for this book. Yet, as a work of fiction, The Have-Nots bears no great deficiencies and has, in fact, a certain charm to it. In spite of this, or, perhaps, because of it, I can’t love this book. Perhaps my heart is too small to embrace the multitude of characters, or perhaps my distaste for post-9/11 literature is too great. This is such a novel of our time. The Have-Nots is a not a book about people who are lacking, but people who have too much—too much pain, too many memories, too much angst and ambiguity. They feel too much and dwell too much in each other. What they have not is any real awareness of the poverty of their respective existences. My distaste for this book is an entirely personal reaction to a fairly good, maybe even great, novel.
It is a very German work. The Holocaust plays a sort of bizarre Jiminy Cricket role in post World War II German consciousness. It’s ever-present now, framing and informing German literature. In this novel, Hacker plays with a narrative clockwork that I first encountered in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In the four—really many more than that—simultaneous stories, dozens of lives perform work on the others; each story acts as a cog, turning the others in a gloriously complex movement that anyone could appreciate. Like Anderson’s characters, Hacker’s characters are grotesque, spiritually and emotionally deformed and, for all of that, beautiful. Hacker hasn’t Anderson’s or Joyce’s ability to define individual characters, but her grasp of this intricate form is extraordinary. Perhaps I’m reaching too much into my own recent activities, but this book is like the television show Lost.
Seriously, I think it is. Bear with me.
The Have-Nots follows the interwoven stories of dozens of characters in two countries: Jakob and Isabelle, Jim and Mae, Dave and Sara, and Andras and Magda. The beauty of these stories is that each exists and continues without the reader’s attention. To begin to describe the interconnectedness of it all would either be futile or take an incredibly long time. In either case, I won’t. Central to the novel are Jakob and Isabelle, a German couple who move to England where Jakob is to take a position made vacant by the death of a colleague in the attack on the World Trade Center. Isabelle, his new wife, is an illustrator. These bourgeoisie are the most significant characters, yet the haziest—they’re constantly lost in the world around them, swallowed by a book that attempts to encapsulate so many different lives that those at the center are lost in the drama of those at the edges and their hopeless stories full of violence, crime, abuse, drugs, and just about every other misfortune these characters could quietly experience. Sound like any award-winning television show in particular? Yessir, it sounds like Lost.
The world—even just the Western World—has always seemed enormous, with nations separated by geography, but especially by language. Hacker collapses this too-large world and brings Germany and England and New York within painful millimeters of each other. Perhaps in literature in translation, in books like Ms. Hacker’s, we all have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with cousins lost since Babel, with writers telling our stories in other languages. We were lost, but we’re now found through the shared emotion and shared events of novels like this one. In all of its beauty and complexity, Hacker’s book, which I still cannot love, has brought me to the realization that we’re all closer than I thought; uncomfortably close. Just like Lost.
This is also novel about class, but also about motion and interconnectedness and simultaneity and contrast. Nothing remains in stasis. Our characters occupy very different worlds and yet they exist side-by-side, largely anonymously, but in perfect symphony. This book’s triumph and its failure is in its unwavering pursuit of truth.
by Katharina Hacker
Translated from the German by Helen Atkins
341 pages, $14.95
The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.
I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.
The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.
Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.
As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his ‘everyman’ life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the ‘slice of life’ feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future.
The Waitress Was New
by Dominique Fabre
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
117 pages, $15.00
Lars Saabye Christensen’s last novel to be translated into English, The Half Brother, won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2002 (the year after one of my favorite novelists, Jan Kjaerstad), and was shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The epic family saga, which runs to some 700 pages, was met with almost universal critical praise. It is one of those books that sits on my shelf and makes me feel guilty that I haven’t read it yet. So, I was particularly excited to get a chance to review The Model, the latest of Christensen’s novels to be translated into English.
According to Christensen, The Model has been viewed as a departure for him:
[He] reports that Norwegian critics have commented on the difference between the new novel and its predecessors. Here, he never names the city it is set in, whereas his other fiction very much belongs to Oslo.
Unfortunately, I think the novel is something of a failed experiment.
The Model is the story of Peter Wihl, a 49-year-old painter whose best years as an artist are behind him. He leads a more or less standard bourgeois life, with a wife, Helene, and a 6-year-old daughter named Kaia. As the story opens, Peter is working on a new set of paintings, which he hopes will recapture the promise that his most famous, and first, exhibition had shown over 20 years ago. However, Peter isn’t able to find his inspiration, and shortly thereafter he begins to experience mysterious blackouts, which he attempts to keep secret, not wishing to worry his family or his long-time friend Ben—who also exhibits Peter’s work at his gallery and anxiously awaits some progress on this new set of paintings.
Peter isn’t able to maintain his secret for long, however, and he soon discovers that he is suffering from a degenerative—and, to Peter’s horror, genetic—eye disease, which will render him blind in six months. Although his doctor informs him that there is no cure, he will still be able to live an otherwise normal, healthy and long life. Desperate to finish his paintings, and to escape the quickly approaching darkness, Peter turns to a long-forgotten schoolmate who suddenly reappears during this difficult time, the ophthalmic surgeon, and all around shady character, Thomas Hammer.
Thomas promises Peter that he can perform an operation which will save his eyesight, but he refuses to provide any details about the operation. At first reluctant, his ever increasing desperation leads Peter to agree to the procedure, and in so doing he risks his life, and his relationships with his wife, child, and best friend for the sake of his art.
As I said above, I was looking forward to reading this novel a great deal. Everything I read about The Half Brother led me to expect a strong and interesting plot, a full range of thoughtfully-drawn characters and a happy surfeit of style. Unfortunately, The Model doesn’t have any of these things.
The characters aren’t drawn by Christensen in sufficient depth to convince the reader that they will behave in any way that wouldn’t serve the plot. Thomas Hammer, the shady ophthalmic surgeon, acts shady—at one point Christensen goes completely off the rails, dragging Peter and Thomas through an absolutely inexplicable ‘school reunion’ scene, simply to convince us that Thomas is a disreputable guy. The loyal Ben acts loyal and does little else (except go through a non sequitur romance that disappears as randomly as it appears, leaving hardly a ripple on the surface of the story). Peter’s wife Helene, who is also supposed to be a successful artist, appears in the novel only to bicker with Peter.
And it’s because of these essentially one-note, unchanging characters, including Peter, that the plot seems so uninteresting. If I found Peter to be a compelling character, perhaps it would be easier to accept the mawkish, conventional plot—famous painter struggling, painter suffering mysterious illness, painter going blind any day now!, painter trying to paint his 6-year-old daughter (really?), painter making a deal with the devil to get his eyesight back, and so on—to accept the otherwise uninteresting supporting cast, and easier to find a way to some sympathy for these people.
There is nothing subtle about this novel, nothing which suggests that the characters in the novel are dynamic, changing, or complex human beings, nothing in the writing to draw you into the story, and nothing in the story which reaches beyond its own, very narrow, parameters to the world outside.
If you’d like to read Christensen, I’d steer clear of The Model and check into The Half Brother, or wait for his next novel to be translated.
Lars Saabye Christensen
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Félix Ventura, an albino, is an antique book dealer and a ‘seller of pasts,’ or genealogist as he tells strangers, who fabricates impressive genealogies for those Luandans who feel that their social station demands a more elevated (or more politically correct, given the bloody and recent revolutionary past of Angola) family history. As Félix says:
“I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature,” he told me conspiratorially. “I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality.”
Félix’s closest friend (well, really more of a silent interlocutor), and the narrator of the story, is a gecko who lives in his house. The gecko-narrator is a reincarnated human being, who, in addition to telling Félix’s story, provides details of his former life, and, in short chapters, the details of his dreams.
One day, Félix is approached by a photojournalist and war photographer who asks Félix to not only create a past for him, but to create a new identity for him as well. Somewhat reluctantly, Félix creates the identity ‘José Buchmann’, providing the newly dubbed Buchmann with a passport, driver’s license, several photographs of his parents and a detailed family story.
Despite Félix’s admonitions, Buchmann travels to his ‘ancestral home’, seeking evidence of the truth of the fictions that Félix has created. Things begin to take a darker turn when Buchmann comes back with that evidence.
The Book of Chameleons is not the kind of book that can be completely absorbed in a single reading, and Agualusa packs an impressive amount of narrative depth in the short volume. It’s a novel about writing that manages to not be distractingly metafictional, and it’s also a reflection on what the past means in a country that has been repeatedly wounded by war. That he is able to treat these ordinarily difficult subjects with such a deft touch, and so entertainingly, is a credit to his abilities as a writer.
My enthusiasm for The Book of Chameleons is tempered somewhat by the ending. The hazy, pleasingly bewildering atmosphere that Agualusa generates in the first three quarters of the book, which could have sustained me for a long time, is squandered a bit by an ending that happens too quickly, and perhaps too perfectly.
However, I think José Eduardo Agualusa is definitely a writer worth following, especially in light of his excellent Creole, and I’m hopeful that Arcadia, and Daniel Hahn, will continue to bring his books to an English speaking audience.
The Book of Chameleons
José Eduardo Agualusa
translated by Daniel Hahn
Who is Eduardo Torres? That’s the question Augusto Monterroso asks in his novel Lo demás es silencio, a detailed depiction of a small town intellectual’s life—his childhood, courtship, working maturity, and retirement—filled with typical Monterrosian wit, charm, and innovation. Although there is no beginning, middle, or end to the story, the scenes from the life of Eduardo Torres blend together seamlessly to create for the reader a wide-ranging view into the life of this man. More of an in-depth character study than an actual story, the novel is nevertheless engaging and flows neatly from one part to the next.
Written in a manner utterly distinct from that of a typical biography, Monterroso makes use of a range of literary categories to build his character. A brother’s memories shed light on his upbringing. An old love letter, found and recorded by his young secretary, gives a glimpse into his adolescence. An interview with his wife tells of their day-to-day relations and routines. A friend recounts Torres’ interactions with the populace of his village. Essays by Torres, as well as responses to and critiques of these essays, also appear, providing the reader with a more intellectual portrait of the man, supplemented by a collection of quotations and aphorisms Torres is noted for coining. The crowning section of the book is an addendum, commenting on the “biography” itself, also written in Eduardo Torres’s voice. What is most amazing about this fictional construction is not the variation of literary styles but rather the change in tone that complements each separate narrator. Monterroso writes as if he really was compiling a biography from numerous sources, yet at the same time manages to convey a sense of unity in his characterization of Eduardo Torres.
To the discerning reader, Monterroso is a witty author, writing a book that is perfectly matched with his style. The subtle commentary he weaves in about his own writing is couched so that at first glance it seems to be that one of his characters is remarking on something entirely unrelated, and yet upon review becomes what it really is. There are several instances throughout the book that are deserving of a second glance and thus a hearty laugh. Monterroso’s style makes Lo demás es silencio more than just a character study. It is instead an utterly enjoyable and entertaining read, perfectly suited to a summer afternoon.
Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) was a Guatemalan author considered to be one of the central figures in the “Boom” movement. Almost all of his books are collections of short pieces, including the story “The Dinosaur,” considered to be one of the shortest stories ever, and reproduced below as translated by Edith Grossman:
“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”
Lo demás es silencio (La vida y la obra de Eduardo Torres)
by Augusto Monterroso
The Conqueror is the second novel in a trilogy concerning Jonas Wergeland, a famed Norwegian documentary producer who, for reasons left unexplained at the end of the previous novel, The Seducer, has murdered his wife and, after a whirlwind of media attention and a trial in which he refuses to defend himself, sits in jail.
Told in short, seemingly unordered, chapters, The Conqueror is in the dark side of the rosy story of Wergeland’s life and rise to fame that was presented in The Seducer. While both novels are told in a similar style—with a narrative that jumps from place to place and from time to time indifferently, daring the reader to keep up, while maintaining a nearly unbelievable story-telling momentum and straightforwardness—The Conqueror, for its darkness, is something of a departure from the previous novel.
Gone is the hagiographic feel imposed by the unknown narrator of The Seducer, to be replaced by a more malign, and more mysterious, narrator. Appearing on the doorstep of a professor who has been hired to produce the definitive work on Jonas Wergeland’s life, this stranger has access to stories from Jonas’ life that throw a different light on Jonas’ murder. While at the end of The Seducer we feel that we know little about Jonas’ motivation for murder, the narrator in The Conqueror systematically tells us stories that make Jonas’ action seem more and more of a piece with his character.
He almost jumped out of his skin when the power saw started up. It sounded hellish in the darkness, as if the ghost of the Blücher itself had risen again from the deep. Jonas had already cut the lanyards of the shroud on the one side, and it won’t take him long to fell the mast, he knows what to do, cuts into the wood between the mast step and the fife rail; stands there in a cloud of exhaust fumes, watching the saw blade slice through the mast. No sign of Gabriel, although by the racket you would have thought someone was driving a motorbike around the deck. Jonas watched the mast slowly topple over…
Jonas was in the dinghy and some distance away from the boat by the time he saw a white figure come stumbling through the hatchway and heard this person grunting into the darkness, asking whether the Hell’s Angels were on the go or what. It was Gabriel — Gabriel in anachronistic long-johns and long-sleeved undershirt, eccentric to the bone, you might say.
‘You bastard,’ Jonas hisses. ‘You fucking bastard. I should have sunk her, but you don’t get off that easy.’
Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland, The Conqueror weaves together an incredible amount of small detail, and continues the addictive narrative begun in The Seducer, both drawing the reader further into Jonas Wergeland’s, and Norway’s, world and doing more than most novels in attempting to investigate the mysteries that make up a life.
by Jan Kjaerstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
Gabriel Josipovici is an extremely prolific European author who has written fiction, non-fiction, literary criticism, and plays. The son of Jewish-Egyptian parents, Josipovici was born in France and his background is as colorful as his bibliography. He now lives in England, where most of his novels take place. Long-considered an “experimental” novelist, his recent novels relate very complicated and intricate storylines in unique and interesting ways that stimulate and challenge readers without becoming over-bearing or unreadable. His latest, Only Joking, was written after he had finished the complex Goldberg: Variations. In order to take a break from that more serious narrative, and in an attempt to cope with the “severe mental anguish” that plagued him at the time, Josipovici found comfort in the lively, punchy storyline of Only Joking.
This novel reads like a foreign game of Clue, with all of its well-drawn characters intricately linked through a web of deception, blackmail, and double-crossings. There’s the Baron, an aging man whose large fortune inspires the story’s conflict; his wife, Elspeth, a nervy woman who wants to stay rich; Alphonse, the smooth circus clown turned private investigator who seems to spend half the story trying to placate his anxious customers; and Isabelle, the blunt art student who charms and takes advantage every man she meets. Each character has their own secrets: Alphonse has a hidden stash of money within an accordion, Isabelle’s real name is Natasha, and the Baron seems to know, more or less, everything the other characters are up to. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the voice of each character resonates distinctly: there is the formal voice of the Baron, Natasha’s adolescent phrases like “no probs,” and Alphonse’s overuse of the reassuring word “really.” This is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel, and a testament to Josipovici’s artistry.
For the careful reader, Only Joking is a fun, comedic read despite the stealing, guns, and plans of murder that constitute its plot. The book is ironic and entertaining, and although it’s incredibly readable on a surface level, it requires an active reader capable of piecing together the story, which is meted out bit by bit in short fragments of encounters and conversations. The unpredictability, humor, and quirky style make Only Joking a book well worth reading, along with the other titles in Josipovici’s extensive backlist.
by Gabriel Josipovici
Inventive, playful, and moving, Vila-Matas’s second book to be translated into English is an amazing accomplishment, expanding the idea of what qualifies as a “novel” while also serving as a sort of manifesto for literature. The book’s main theme is laid out in its opening paragraph, which is a somewhat veiled reference to Vila-Matas’s earlier book Bartleby & Co.: “At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.” On a trip to Nantes to visit his son Montano, the narrator starts obsessing about his own “literature-sickness,” which he eventually terms Montano’s Malady. Unable to think about anything but literature and his sense that modern man is killing literature, the narrator does anything he can to uncover a “cure,” eventually finding relief by having sex with his wife at the end of part one. This is where the book really starts to get interesting . . . The second part of the book invalidates all that came before, explaining that it was a false-diary, a new novella by the author, who is a famous Spanish writer. This second part—a “dictionary” of authors who wrote famous diaries—gives way to a lecture the narrator give in Budapest on the diary as literature.
Throughout these formal and stylistic changes the basic points of the author’s story remain—his trip to Nantes, to Buenos Aires, his friend/rival Tongoy (who looks like a vampire), and his strained relationship with his wife. As with Bartelby & Co., underlying the narrator’s erudition and literature-obsession is a well of loneliness, a void that reading and writing tries to fill. And in the case of this novel, the narrator’s obsession and search for a cure to his “malady” is spawned by the growing sense that literature itself is on its deathbed, under attack by “cretins, lousy, dead writers cum civil servants.” These are “people who copy what has been done before and lack any literary (though not financial) ambition,” constituting a “plague even more pernicious than the plague of publishing directors working away enthusiastically against the literary.”
The thing that saves this book from becoming a screed against people who watch too much TV and laugh at dumb jokes is the voice of Vila-Matas’s narrator. Warm, funny, self-effacing, obsessed, and a tad paranoid, the reader is sucked into his world after only a couple of pages, quickly growing to sympathize with this curious figure. Similar to Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, this title will live on for years as a high-water mark of literary creativity.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
235 pp., $14.95 (pb)
It’s difficult figuring out where to start though. . . Simenon was ten times more prolific than Joyce Carol Oates is, writing more than 400 books during his lifetime, including 34 in just 1929. Of course, most are pulp, but according to Sante, there are 117 roman durs (hard novels).
Sounds like he was quite a character as well: “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.” (Although this never actually happened, I love the image of swarms of people clamoring to see someone write.)
Simenon’s The Engagement is a Reading the World title and is translated by the amazing Anna Moschovakis, so I’ll probably start there . . .
As he implies in the opening sentence—“I never had much luck with women”—the protagonist/narrator of Vila-Matas’s first book to be translated into English is a loner. Twenty-five years ago he was a writer, having written a book about the possibility of love, but at the start of this novel, he’s working in an office leading a rather dismal existence. His time in the office doesn’t last too long though, as he takes a vacation (which becomes permanent when he’s fired) to obsess about his book chronicling the “writers of the No.” His book—the same as the one you’re reading—is constructed from a series of footnotes detailing the Bartlebys of literature. The writers who decided to quit writing (like Felipe Alfau), those who quit because they went mad (Robert Walser), and those who incorporated the Bartleby ideal into their writing (Robert Musil). As the narrator catalogs these instances of Bartleby-ness in an obsessive, all-consuming fashion, telling their stories, relating entertaining, funny anecdotes, his story starts to creep in. A “writer of the No” himself, the narrator’s story fits right in among the encyclopedia he creates about other “No” writers. Suddenly, emerging from the entertaining and interesting catalog of writers and their stories, the reader gets a sense of the narrator’s overwhelming isolation. He only has one friend, one who claims that literature ended with Robert Musil, then Felisberto Hernandez. But he also has his book and the characters that inhabit it. It’s often said that literature is a solitary enterprise (both reading and writing it), but immersed in literature, one is surrounded by compatriots.
Bartleby & Co.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
192 pp., $14.95 (pb)
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
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Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
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Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .