24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.

The glaring intellectuality in Confusion is not only a theme, but much more of a setting – everything takes place within profound thought and dense analyses of drama and literature – takes place through Roland’s fever-pitched stream of consciousness. Stefan Zweig emphasizes both Roland’s developed intellect and anxiety (both directly correlated to his professor) through melodramatic diction such as:

I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer. Without knowing that I was moving, hypnotically attracted by a force stronger than curiosity, and with the dragging footsteps of a sleepwalker I made my way as if by magic into that charmed circle – suddenly without being aware of it, I was there, only a few inches from him and among all the others, who themselves were too spellbound to notice me or anything else.

This romantic approach to literature is one that every reader can and should find believable and relatable – I remember my first cherished novel and the first time I became enamored with the eloquent lecture of a professor. When in a classroom, shuffling through articulations of a piece of great literature or philosophy (in Roland’s case, the lecture regarded Goethe and Shakespeare) and so to feel the foreign vertigo of enlightenment.

However, all of that being said, this tone is consistent throughout the novella. In fact, Roland’s fervent ardor for his professor is not behaviorally unbelievable, but his stream of consciousness reveals an overdone, unbelievable anxiety that only contradicts their interaction.

I was at his door at seven o’clock precisely, and with what trepidation did I, a mere boy as I was, cross that threshold for the first time! Nothing is more passionate than a young man’s veneration, nothing more timid, more feminine than its uneasy sense of modesty.

When Roland’s diction and tone plateaus and persists with this steady, anxious tempo, it strips more credible, believable narratives. His paranoia (exceeding a more mild and authentic curiosity) in the stream of consciousness is excessive compared to, say, an equally curious, but more convincing Stephan Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. (Dedalus, too, portraying his creator through his journey, and Joyce, also a well-educated writer fortunate enough to be esteemed in his own lifetime.)

Regarding the debate of Zweig’s credibility with the written word, a very hesitant, judicial part of me found some validity in Hoffman’s review. The plot is structured well – the secret was tastefully revealed, lacking smoke and mirrors but still satiating the reader’s curiosity. The context clues are placed with strategic perspicacity. But that tone, the overdramatic, agonizing whine of a young man (who, let’s be honest, would never lay as many girls as Roland if this were, in fact, his diction) was not passion; it was stale. In fact, his anxiety throughout the book is so magnified upon, that it seems almost hyperbolic; comic. And like Russian works that I have read, tragic dramas are entirely capable of successfully providing a paranoid, manic, first person narrative that the reader is both enthralled by and continues to mourn with. I found Roland so un-relatable that mourning with him, and for his professor, was only achieved once throughout the novella.

In the last dozen pages of the book, I finally believed Roland without considering too much diplomacy. He writes: “…While below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution[.]” It is here that he contemplates not his flighty emotions, but human nature – those three Ancient Greek distinctions of love, and branches into a quasi philosophical inquiry.

And while I remain torn on a final assessment on the piece (I couldn’t help but find Roland’s experiences relatable, even if he didn’t articulate them in a relatable manner) I still encourage others to pick it up due to the controversy revolving around Zweig’s writing. I am only on one side (that being the minority, it seems) of the fence.

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachel Crawford-Fisher on Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, which is translated from the German by Anthea Bell and is available from New York Review Books.

Rachel is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Philosophy and Russian Studies. She has freelanced for hardcore punk zine Define the Meaning and for local literary organizations. She is an aspiring prose fiction writer. She prefers Russian literature and German philosophy.

Here is part of her review:

There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”

I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club, which is available from NYRB Classics.

Here is part of her review:

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, follows the meetings of a secret society of men who believe that committing words to paper has “crushed the reader’s imagination.” The men, self-labeled as “Conceivers” and known by nonsense syllables instead of their given names, meet every Saturday in a firelit room lined with empty black bookshelves to exchange works of fiction that they call “conceptions” that they are forbidden to write down. There is a sense of tension pervasive in the novel between the members of Letter Killers Club during their meetings that is reflective of the political climate of the 1920s in Soviet Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky’s works were censored in an effort to prevent anything that did not positively portray Russia from publication.

Over the course of the novella, the audience peers in at the club meetings and experiences several different conceptions as they unweave. The president of the club, Zez, is extremely dedicated to the creative process, perhaps more so than the other six conceivers in the room. Any written manuscript smuggled in must be committed to death within the flames of the fire. Furthermore, the narratives presented are often inconsistent and wrap up in a way that might even be unexpected to the storyteller themselves. When this occurs, Zez often redirects the conceiver and demands the story be retold with a different ending or be restarted altogether. This leads to stilted dynamic within the room. In order to act as a moderator within the room, the narrator is drawn into the group.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, follows the meetings of a secret society of men who believe that committing words to paper has “crushed the reader’s imagination.” The men, self-labeled as “Conceivers” and known by nonsense syllables instead of their given names, meet every Saturday in a firelit room lined with empty black bookshelves to exchange works of fiction that they call “conceptions” that they are forbidden to write down. There is a sense of tension pervasive in the novel between the members of Letter Killers Club during their meetings that is reflective of the political climate of the 1920s in Soviet Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky’s works were censored in an effort to prevent anything that did not positively portray Russia from publication.

Over the course of the novella, the audience peers in at the club meetings and experiences several different conceptions as they unweave. The president of the club, Zez, is extremely dedicated to the creative process, perhaps more so than the other six conceivers in the room. Any written manuscript smuggled in must be committed to death within the flames of the fire. Furthermore, the narratives presented are often inconsistent and wrap up in a way that might even be unexpected to the storyteller themselves. When this occurs, Zez often redirects the conceiver and demands the story be retold with a different ending or be restarted altogether. This leads to stilted dynamic within the room. In order to act as a moderator within the room, the narrator is drawn into the group:

As a temporary measure, we decided to include an outside pair of ears, an average reader brought up on letterizations: would the emptiness of our shelves prove sufficiently visible? Here Fev began to fret: ‘Darkness,” he said, ‘turns men into thieves—it’s only natural: what if this intruder, whose head we shall stuff full of our conceptions, manages to extract them and exchange them for money and fame?’ ‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Zez. ‘I know the perfect person for this. We may reveal all our themes to him, without a worry. He won’t touch one.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Because he’s all thumbs: what Fichte called a ‘pure reader’: the best match for pure conceptions.’

In their quest to come up with the perfect and most innovative conception, the conceivers often disagree with one another and the story comes to a head when one conceiver storms out of the room and does not return to another meeting—Rar, the only conceiver who showed a thread of humanity and who reached out to narrator and who disobeyed the rules of the Letter Killers Club, turns up dead. Over the course of the novella, the Con Shakespearean actor, split into two conflicting characters, journeys into the Land of Roles to find the perfect Hamlet to bring to the stage. A young bride is wed to an entire town. A medieval priest doubles as a jester. An elite ruling class uses mind-control by way of machines and biochemical ether to enslave lower classes. A Roman scribe is stranded by the River Acheron and is unable to move into the afterlife when a little girl comes across the money meant for his passage. Three men voyage to determine the true purpose of the mouth—to kiss, to eat, or to speak. However, the tales within the story do not join together into a larger narrative, which adds to its appeal: the club is not focused on the tales as much as they are focused on their purpose, which is the elimination of the written word.

In the ultimate act of betrayal against the club, the ‘pure reader’ who acted as the narrator throughout the book commits the tales presented to him within the meetings to paper. This suggests that the environment, as opposed to solely the written word, is largely responsible for crushing one’s imagination. The novel concludes with a question of how dangerous words, or the lack thereof, can be, especially in a setting as tense as Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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