I referenced this book in my earlier post about “The Conqueror galley giveaway”: but in introducing the spring Open Letter titles, it definitely deserves it’s own entry.
The Discoverer is the final volume in the “Wergeland Trilogy,” a collection of three books—The Seducer and The Conqueror being their other two—by Jan Kjaerstad that focus on the life of Jonas Wergeland and the death of his wife Margrete.
In Kjaerstad’s universe, Wergeland is an ultra-famous Norwegian TV producer who created a series called “Thinking Big” about famous figures in Norway’s history. Everything’s going really well for him (more or less) until he returns home from a trip and finds his wife dead on the floor.
The three books in the series can be read independently of each other: each title recounts stories from Jonas’s life from a different person’s perspective, weaving together small events in hopes of explaining what happened to him. The Seducer builds up to the moment that he arrives home and finds his wife dead, and The Conqueror recounts his life story in light of the fact that he admitted in court to killing Margrete.
The Discoverer opens years later, after Jonas has been released from prison. The novel is narrated by both Jonas and his daughter, who are together on a voyage down the great Sognefjord with a group of young people working on a multimedia project to encapsulate all the history and importance of the Sognefjord. Which is interesting and relevant, since taken together, the three books in this trilogy attempt to create a new way of looking at the world, of processing information.
This novel is a bit different from the others—the chapters are much longer and tend to weave together a number of stories first encountered in the earlier books. One of Kjaerstad’s great strengths is his ability to sequence stories in a particular way to create a mosaic of Jonas’s life. If The Seducer is arranged like a fugue, and The Conqueror like a spiral, The Discoverer is most like a set of concentric circles. Not that it’s necessary to pay attention to this—each part is incredibly compelling and immediately draws the reader into Jonas’s complicated, fascinating life.
It’s hard to choose a favorite of these three books, but I agree with the translator Barbara Haveland that this novel is mindblowing, and alters everything that came before . . . And it’s not surprising that it won the Nordic Prize when it was first published in Norway.
Our entire spring catalog will be online in the very, very near future, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt of The Discoverer, and you can find write-ups of four other spring titles by clicking here.
Info about the first three books from the spring 2009 Open Letter list can be found here. Today we’re covering our June title, Rupert: A Confession by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.
The premise of this book is that Rupert has been accused of a terrible crime (which isn’t revealed in full until the very end) and has to defend himself. His defense—or imagined defense—is a very lively, hilarious affair, that relies more on rhetorical tricks than facts to get him off the hook.
As a novel, Rupert is more emotionally complicated than it first appears. As you can see in the attached excerpt, Rupert has a very vibrant voice—one that draws the reader in almost immediately. Along the way though, it becomes crystal clear that Rupert is way unhinged and probably quite dangerous. Reconciling these two points of view is tricky, especially since the book is very compelling, and as the final “reveal” of the crime itself and Rupert’s relation to it starts to come clear, it’s like watching a train wreck . . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer seems like quite a character. And one of the reasons I wanted to write this today is because he’s now mired in yet another controversy.
According to the translator of this novel—Michele Hutchison, who, in addition to translating, works for the Dutch publisher De Arbeiderspers—told me that for the back cover of his Collected Poems, Ilja wanted to include a naked photo of himself. That’s all fine and good, but Ilja was on the longlist to be next year’s Poet Laureate . . . up until news of this naked photo broke. He was recently kicked out of the competition and the infamous photo has created quite a bit of media buzz.
And here I thought the Netherlands were supposed to be so liberal and open-minded . . .
A couple weeks back I started unveiling the spring/summer Open Letter list . . . and then promptly got distracted by our Best Translated Book of 2008 award.
But now I’m back . . . We announced The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind earlier, and today I’d like to write about our July 2009 title: Aracoeli by Elsa Morante.
Morante’s been getting a bit of play recently, thanks to Lily Tuck’s Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante that came out from HarperCollins earlier this year. And the attention is well deserved. Although History: A Novel has remained in print, Morante seems like an overlooked figure in twentieth-century Italian fiction. Her husband Alberto Moravia, has had a bit more success, thanks to the recent NYRB reissues of Boredom and Contempt, but a number of his books also remain out-of-print as well.
Aracoeli was Morante’s final novel and William Weaver’s English translation came out in 1985. A novel that, when first published, was regarded as a sort of departure for her—a much darker, disturbed book. According to the New York Times review: it would seem that Elsa Morante has turned against her innermost creative self and vision, her carefully nurtured private mythology, her special cult of the young and the innocent. This book reads as if she has surrendered to a blunt cynicism.”_
Personally, I think this is an incredibly well-crafted book. It has touches of Sebald in the way that the narrator—a middle-aged man who is filled with self-loathing, who works a dead-end job in publishing and is trying to recapture his mother’s past—creates a sort of landscape of memories. The date he starts his quest to “resurrect” his mother is All Saints’ Day in 1975, the same day of Pier Paolo Passolini’s murder, an interesting sidenote that many critics have pointed out. It’s a beautifully written book, and I feel that it’s cynicism is one of the reasons that it’s still quite powerful.
Lily Tuck’s bit on this novel is pretty illuminating and helps connect it with the rest of Morante’s oeuvre:
The first time I read Aracoeli, I found it almost pointlessly disturbing and shocking. On rereading it, I still found it disturbing and shocking, but I have also grown to admire it—perhaps because it is so dark and resists any attempt to classify it. In writing this novel, Morante may have knowingly sacrificed clarity and logic in order to express her vision of a chaotic world. Manuel’s bitter, self-revelatory journey into memory seems almost unjustifiably painful and unnecessary, as does Aracoeli’s transformation from virginal beauty to voracious sexual predator. Yet, at the same time, there is something almost inevitable if one regards Manuel as the last progression in a long chain of lost boys beginning wiht Arturo [Ed. Note: from Arturo’s Island an earlier work of Morante’s.] and continuing with Useppe. These are the boys who once, according to Morante, could save the world but now no longer can. The themes of maternity and identity too are rejected and abandoned, and at the novel’s end—never mind that one may not understand Aracoeli’s experience, her degradation and illness—one is left with the terrifying awareness that nothing matters any longer for the protagonist or, perhaps, for the writer as well.
Here’s an excerpt from an early part of the novel.
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be unveiling the Open Letter Spring 2009 list. (All posts about this list can be found here.) This “unveiling” kicked off last week with a bit about Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, and next up is our April 2009 title, The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch.
A novel about an alcoholic novelist who goes in and out of rehab (eighteen times!) doesn’t immediately sound like the funniest novel out there. Yet, Pilch’s The Mighty Angel is a hysterical, and occasionally sobering book. The title comes from the liquor store the protagonist flees to the second he’s out of rehab, and that sort of endless cycle—hit bottom, enter rehab, recover, feel great, feel so great you need a drink, drink heavily, hit bottom—is at the center of this book.
In Jerzy’s (the protagonist, not the author) case, there’s an added bit to his cycle—the reliance on some pretty young woman to take care of him and make everything better. His belief that love can fix his life is tragic and kind of touching, and is one of the reasons why the ending is so ambiguous . . .
This still doesn’t sound that funny, but trust me, Jerzy’s (the character) imagination and wild stories about the people in rehab—Don Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Hero of Socialist Labor—are wonderful. As is this excerpt about the potential plagiarism of an alcoholic’s “rock bottom confession.” Pilch reminds me a bit of Tadeusz Konwicki, especially The Polish Complex.
Early in his career, Jerzy Pilch was considered one of Poland’s greatest up-and-coming writers, and was even referred to by Czeslaw Milosz as the “hope of young Polish prose.” Now almost sixty, he’s a very established figure, and one of the great contemporary Polish writers. He’s been nominated for the prestigious NIKE Award on six occasions (including this past year), and won in 2001 for The Mighty Angel.
It’s also worth noting that this book was recommended and translated by Bill Johnston, one of the greatest Polish translators working today (actually, he may be one of the greatest Polish translators ever), who also translated Pilch’s His Current Woman, which was published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.
Over the next week or so, I’ll be unveiling all six of Open Letter’s spring 2009 titles. Our finished catalog will be back from the printer in the not-too-distant future, and on our website before that, but I thought it would be fun to give a bit of special attention to each of the titles.
First up is a reprint of Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, which will come out in March. (We’re also bringing out Ergo next fall, around the same time that the New York Review Books brings out Soul of Wood.)
Lind died last February, and it was the wave of fascinating obituaries that caught our editorial interest. Before picking up a single title, I was intrigued by his very strange biography. From the eulogy Anthony Rudolf gave at Lind’s funeral:
Where does the story begin? Jakov was born in 1927 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. A few months after the Anschluss in 1938, his parents sent him on a children’s transport to Holland. There he joined one of many Zionist farms or training centres across Europe, in preparation for kibbutz life in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. As we know from his fascinating and sophisticated autobiographies written in English, the tough-minded teenager, at odds with those Dutch Jews who did not resist deportation, went underground. He survived the war in Germany as a Dutch merchant seaman on a barge. He tells us that it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany “inside the lion’s mouth” rather than in Holland, where you would feel “its teeth and claws”. He even survived a physical examination when he checked into a hospital for venereal disease. “What, that too?” said the male nurse with a laugh, after inspecting the culprit.
The mutability of identity is a common theme throughout Lind’s life and work. In fact, Jakov Lind is actually a pseudonym—as Sasha Weiss details in her excellent essay, he was born Heinz Landwirth, changed his name to Jan Overbeek when he pretended to be Dutch seaman, and then became the author Jakov Lind.
In addition to his works of fiction—which are strange, brilliant books that can be a bit disturbing, but are also very funny in a sort of Beckettian way—he also wrote a “memoir trilogy” consisting of Counting My Steps, Numbers, and Crossing. And relating to his shifting identity and background, he wrote all of these in English.
Landscape in Concrete is set during World War II and features Sergeant Gauthier Bachmann, a totally unhinged German soldier who was discharged for insanity. The book opens with him wandering the forests searching for any company that will take him and let him participate in the war—as a German man it’s his duty to fight. Along the way he literally stumbles into Schnotz, a deserter and poisoner who is hiding in a hole in the woods waiting for the war to end. This excerpt features the beginning of their conversation.
The book gets darker and more odd as it develops, and as various people manipulate the hapless Bachmann. He’s very innocent at the beginning of the novel, but war can change people . . .
For more information about Lind and his works I’d also recommend checking out Joshua Cohen’s article Paying Tribute to a Living Legend, written shortly before Lind’s passing.
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