Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated by Ina Rikle
Why This Book Should Win: Couperus is the Dutch Zola/Flaubert/Tolstoy, but pretty much no one in America reads him; this is a truly classic novel, one that was first published in 1889; probably the only “Novel of the Hague” published last year.
The best introduction you can get to Couperus and Eline Vere is the bit from the Leonard Lopate show attached below and featuring Ina Rilke and Paul Binding:
(Kind of funny that right off the bat, Rilke talks about how Eline Vere isn’t really Couperus’s best work.)
Another great entryway to Couperus—one of the Netherlands great authors—is Paul Binding’s very informative and interesting afterword. Here’s a bit:
Louis Couperus was only twenty-six when Eline Vere came out, and had previously published only unsatisfactory and derivative poems (in 1883 and 1884). Though it is a literary artefact of precocious sophistication and accomplishment, the novel is also palpably the creation of a young man whose years were a great advantage to him in its composition. For Couperus is still very much of the milieu he is re-creating, aware though he is of its limitations and faults, and he clearly was intimately familiar, as a member himself of youthful Hague society, of the very pleasures, expectations and hopes he ascribes to his large cast of characters, almost all of them his contemporaries. Their gossip and banter, their flirtations, their little tiffs and misunderstandings and reconciliations, their plans for and doubts about the nature of their future adult lives convince us (and never more so than in Ina Rilke’s spirited and linguistically sensitive English) because they are done essentially from the inside. A young man like Etienne van Erlevoort, lazy and industrious, facetious and affectionate by turns, springs to life off the pages—on which he performs no absolutely essential dramatic act—as though a relation of the author’s own, slyly observed over many years, were being presented to us. [. . .]
And a bit about the book itself:
Almost halfway through Eline Vere we find its eponymous heroine in a state of conscious happiness. Eline, whose life has hitherto centered round the entertainments of high society in The Hague, is staying at De Horze in Gelderland, the country property of the family into which she has agreed to marry. The more she sees of her betrothed, Otto van Erlevoort, the more she appreciates his kindly, virtuous character. Herself highly strung and only too frequently dissatisfied, she has found deep contentment in surrendering to the slow rhythms of the rural summer. These have enabled her to get on with members of the large Van Erlevoort family so well that they are now obviously fond of her—even Otto’s sister Frederique, who has never much cared for her. Eline is quite aware that she has significantly changed:
“During moments of solitary reflection on her new selfhood, tears welled up in her eyes in gratitude for all the goodness that she had received, and her only wish was that time would not fly, but stand still instead, so that the present would last for ever. Beyond that she desired nothing, and a sense of infinite rest and blissful, blue tranquility emanated from her being.”
Yet the God to whom she prays for this stasis does not answer her prayer, for time by its very nature cannot stand still. And moving and even sympathetic though we may find Eline’s thoughts here, we can also detect in them signs of the pernicious weakness that will destroy her. Her hopes are unrealistic, and fear plays too great a part in them; indeed, they amount to a desperate desire to have subtracted from existence anything demanding or painful. They are also self-centered; in this respect Eline’s “new selfhood” differs little, if at all, from her former one. Does her fiance have his rightful part in these wishes of hers for the future to be cancelled?
Another great rediscovery from Archipelago . . .
OK, two books left to cover, and then on Thursday we’ll be announcing the finalists for both fiction and poetry.
The third part of Jan Kjaerstad’s “Wergeland Trilogy” (The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer) was recently released in the UK (our edition comes out in September), and Paul Binding wrote a really nice overview of the book for The Independent:
The Discoverer completes the trilogy to which Norwegian writer Jan Kjaerstad’s The Seducer and The Conqueror belong: an enormously ambitious undertaking about an enormously ambitious man – and, beyond him, about ambition itself and humanity’s ambiguous need for it. The matter of all three novels – which contain overlaps, revisitings, and some mind-bending contradictions, with each account plausible – is laid out baldly in the first novel’s first chapter, “The Big Bang”. Jonas Wergeland, who “has risen to heights of fame which very few, if any, Norwegians have ever come close to attaining”, returns from the World’s Fair in Seville (1992), to his house in Grorud, the Oslo borough in which he grew up. And there, on his living-room floor, he finds his wife, Margrete Boeck, venereologist and mother of his daughter, shot dead.
Wergeland is charged with the murder, found guilty, partly through testimony from his own clergyman brother, Daniel, and receives a custodial sentence. None of the novels proceeds linearly, nor is there one consistent narrator. The Conqueror, after the first book’s tributes to his boundless imagination and sexual inventiveness, presents a far more troubled and troubling Jonas. It makes us pretty sure he must have dispatched the woman he so loved. But in The Discoverer we come – via Jonas himself and his devoted daughter, Kristin – to a different conclusion that exonerates this pre-eminent Norwegian, whose main failing may have been precisely that pre-eminence.
But have we reached the truth of the affair? Is this third book the final version? By no means, the author told me recently. Like Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, his trilogy asserts relativity. In one sense only is The Discoverer final: Kjaerstad will write no sequel. [. . .]
The voyage that The Discoverer will impel, thanks to Barbara J Haveland’s lively, fluid and at times sparkling translation, is a return one, to the beginning of the whole trilogy – a work so ample in its riches that further discoveries are inevitable.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .