4 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Pushkin Press.

In case you’ve forgotten, Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he’s also a regular reviewer for Three Percent and runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and Twitter-publicly apologized for ruining Murakami for me. He’s a good guy.

Have we mentioned how much we LOVE Pushkin Press’s covers I mean good hot damn.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

For the rest of the review, go here.

4 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

Perhaps it was folly, for then I would be living somewhere safe and quiet now, and my beloved child with me, but—why should I not tell you?—I did not want to tie myself down; I wanted to be free for you at any time. In my inmost heart, the depths of my unconscious nature, my old childhood dream that one day you might yet summon me to you, if only for any hour lived on. And for the possibility of that one hour I rejected all else, so that I would be free to answer your first call. What else had my whole life been since I grew past childhood but waiting, waiting to know your will?

On a couple of occasions, he does summon her, and she submits, but things do not turn out the way she always dreamed they would be.

“A Story Told in Twilight” is another story about submissive love that goes unnoticed in the dark—figuratively and literally. A young man, who is staying with some friends in Scotland, is visited one evening by a vision in white, a mysterious girl whose identity is obscured by the twilight. The girl kisses him, and he falls in love. After she visits him again the next night, he is determined to discover her identity. Based on a single clue, he believes that she is Margot, the oldest of his three cousins. Even though Margot never shows any affection toward him, he wants her to reveal herself as the mysterious girl. When she doesn’t, he begins to feel tormented and causes harm to himself and the one who truly loves him.

No harm is caused in the third story, “The Debt Paid Late”; in fact, that story can be seen as the perfect counterpoint to “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Like the first story, “The Debt Paid Late” is narrated by a woman writing a letter; however, this time, she is married to a doctor and telling her story to a longtime friend. This story begins at the end of a stressful year of taking care of her daughter’s children, who all had scarlet fever, and arranging her mother-in-law’s funeral. Feeling that she’s worn out, her husband recommends that she spend a few weeks in a sanitarium. Instead, she decides to stay at an inn in an isolated village in the mountains. On her first night there, however, she encounters a former stage actor from her past. This encounter triggers memories from her days as a naïve girl who believed that she was in love with him; as a result, she made herself vulnerable to danger. These memories make her realize that she is obligated to help the actor now that he is in a low point in his life.

Memories of the past are also evoked in the last story, “Forgotten Dreams,” which is the shortest story in the collection. During his visit to a seaside villa, a man reunites with a woman he once loved and reproaches her for marrying “that indolent financier with his mind always bent on making money.” He tries to remind her of the “independent idealist” she once was. However, she tries to convince him—and herself—that no one really understood her as a girl, and her husband has really made her dreams come true.

What makes these stories great is Zweig’s brilliance in capturing the complicated feelings of the characters as they dwell on the lost loves of the past. As they look back, they realize that they didn’t understand the risks that came with submitting themselves to love. While describing these risks, their thoughts and words are sometimes imbued with joy, sometimes with sadness. It’s tricky to keep these emotions balanced, especially within the confines of a short story, yet Zweig manages to do just that. As a result, he is able to shed light on what the unknown woman called the “love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark.”

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Carlos Gamerro’s An Open Secret, which is translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett and available from Pushkin Press.

Aleksandra Fazlipour is the student I introduced last week who just completed a semester long independent study on writing reviews. After this, I think we only have 4 more reviews of hers to run . . .

I actually met Carlos Gamerro when I was in Buenos Aires on an (AWESOME) editorial trip a few years back. He’s an incredibly interesting guy and writer, and actually contributed to Three Percent. His novel The Islands is coming out from And Other Stories this month.

Here’s the opening of Aleksandra’s review:

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

Click here to read the full review.

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

[The Superintendent] thought people’s natural reaction to an imminent crime would be to stop it, or report it. His need to lie paradoxically reveals his faith in people. It never entered his head that the perfect crime is precisely the one committed in the sight over everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices. His premise was correct—in a two-bit town like this you can’t waste a prominent inhabitant without everyone knowing: because it only takes one person to find out for everybody to know. He mistakenly concluded that, in the face of such vigilance, impunity wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t, as certain distorters of public opinion repeat ad nauseam, because the policemen of his generation had notions of morality, honesty or honour that were later lost; no, it was simply narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness—a eureka moment, a Copernican revolution, the Superintendent was simply too old for it. All he needed to arrive at the right solution was a leap, a flip of the imagination that stood logic on its head and set the clockwork going—the realization that you can hold your tongue while talking out loud, that town gossip can work the other way round. That silence also travels by word of mouth.

The prose itself is difficult to wade through: a majority of the text is written as extended quotations from Fefe’s interviews, with punctuation stylistically omitted. Overall, this makes the panic and tension palpable for the reader, almost as if characters are speaking directly at them. It is easy for the audience to become immersed in the story line and submerged in a sense of confusion while attempting to piece together the loosely intertwined narratives. As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that the stories presented in the interviews are secondary to the tone itself—the novel itself is primarily composed of many unique voices interweaving into a sociological record of the town during a desperate time. Each person’s character is created largely out of their dialogue, and the bulk of the story itself is presented as a series of soliloquies. Truth is interspersed with contradiction and lies, and everyone is motivated by their own self-interest throughout Fefe’s interviews, either trying to hide their own involvement in Ezcurra’s murder or simply trying to lay blame on individuals they personally hold grudges against. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the self-serving attitudes individuals would have displayed twenty years prior, when faced with the possibility of saving Dario Ezcurra from his impending death.

The discovery that Dario Ezcurra’s mother Delia falls victim to a similar fate, quite likely because there were complaints that she was bothering the townspeople with her inquiries, makes the sense of horror evident in the panicked dialogues of the novel come to a head, and fuels the revelation that Fefe is Ezcurra’s illegitimate son. This explains Fefe’s investment in a story that beforehand simply appeared to be significant for the sake of childhood nostalgia, because he did not seem deeply concerned with writing the book itself.

And yet, for the sake of the book’s plot, this fact about Fefe being Ezcurra’s son in and of itself is not the most striking part. It is the change in human behavior as evident by a difference in tones of the dialogues of the characters that is observable after the revelation that is significant: people who were complicit in the murders of Fefe’s father and grandmother now offer their condolences, altering their behaviors to fit their audience. The murders themselves, in light of Argentina’s Dirty War, are not unique. What is new and significant is the idea that the responsibility for the murders, in this case and perhaps in many others, does not rest simply with the authorities and the government. Ordinary people are to blame, both by their silence and their choice of words when they spoke out. Perhaps history might have unfolded differently if people had listened to a left-wing journalist pointing out the injustices befalling the community. This book is more than just the story of a man documenting the life and death of the father he never truly knew—it is a sociological record commenting on the behaviors of people under the pressure of not only other people but under their own personal bias against one another.

31 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section, is a piece by summer intern Adam Witzel on Olivier Adam’s Cliffs, which came out from Pushkin Press a couple years back.

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.

Click here to read the full review.

30 July 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

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.

....
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