22 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P. T. Smith on Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, and published by Seagull Books.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those leftovers of the war simmer to a boil, is World War II. Little Grey Lies is a war novel without war, and about the inevitability of the next. War is a filter over the book, it is life in the inescapable aftermath of war, not the destruction, not the loss of life and property, but instead the constant memory, the subconscious, ongoing afflictions. In that space, it is the intricacies of personal connections, of secrets and the desire to out them, that become the conflicts.

Max, the character we spend the most time with, is a journalist and the book is both the narrative of his discovery of the story, and the story itself. In the first pages, he witnesses a procession of veterans, in memory of the Battle of Mons, England’s first encounter with the Germans during World War I. It is from this battle that the novel finds its birth: a myth of angels as archers protecting the defeated, yet heroic troops becomes a necessary faith for some, and even those who don’t believe are awed by the legend.

At the front of the procession is Colonel William Strether, who becomes the focus of Max’s London investigation. Strether is a respected man, utterly in control with every precise movement of his body. Working as a maître d’ he plays the room like a puppeteer: “he didn’t take their order but dictated it to a server standing behind him, commented on the menu, assembled the meal while making the client feel he was doing it himself.” Strether is a true Fascist believer, a powerful leader of men, even if “he rarely spoke in public, took no defined position, he waited for when he was alone with the leaders.” He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to lead his men, to train them toward order. It’s all part of his hiding a lie—one that is again a violence, though now against himself—and part of the inevitable path to the next war.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

22 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those leftovers of the war simmer to a boil, is World War II. Little Grey Lies is a war novel without war, and about the inevitability of the next. War is a filter over the book, it is life in the inescapable aftermath of war, not the destruction, not the loss of life and property, but instead the constant memory, the subconscious, ongoing afflictions. In that space, it is the intricacies of personal connections, of secrets and the desire to out them, that become the conflicts.

Max, the character we spend the most time with, is a journalist and the book is both the narrative of his discovery of the story, and the story itself. In the first pages, he witnesses a procession of veterans, in memory of the Battle of Mons, England’s first encounter with the Germans during World War I. It is from this battle that the novel finds its birth: a myth of angels as archers protecting the defeated, yet heroic troops becomes a necessary faith for some, and even those who don’t believe are awed by the legend.

At the front of the procession is Colonel William Strether, who becomes the focus of Max’s London investigation. Strether is a respected man, utterly in control with every precise movement of his body. Working as a maître d’ he plays the room like a puppeteer: “he didn’t take their order but dictated it to a server standing behind him, commented on the menu, assembled the meal while making the client feel he was doing it himself.” Strether is a true Fascist believer, a powerful leader of men, even if “he rarely spoke in public, took no defined position, he waited for when he was alone with the leaders.” He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to lead his men, to train them toward order. It’s all part of his hiding a lie—one that is again a violence, though now against himself—and part of the inevitable path to the next war.

Max and his friend Lena also want to control their lives, Lena through her love affairs with men, Max by uncovering what has been hidden. This ever-present desire for order and control is the post-war condition. It is not just individuals composing their lives. We see the rise of fascism, recognize that the fearful need to control, birthed by war, creates the next.

Max and Lena meet with Strether as Max tries to get the Colonel to reveal his past. Overlapping this, Lena meets with her young lover, breaks up with him, and monitors his new affair. These are characters who are careful with their stories, shaping their identities, their lives. Max may claim to be a journalist seeking facts, but he wants to break a person apart, then tell that person’s next tale—all the while side-stepping his own past. They are held together by these efforts, as an English lord puts it late on in the book: “To reinvent life out of a lie.”

The unveiling of Strether to Max occurs disjointedly, as Strether is almost as intent on avoiding his past as Max is on bringing it to light. This meandering is one of the simple ways that Kaddour creates deep characters in this short novel. By moving around, purposely glimpsing at moments, each glimpse can be direct and revealing in an instant. Movements and character commentary shoot out of their own lies into poignantly relatable truths, which, when the novel’s greatest lie is revealed, become more intricate.

Even though Kaddour creates a character complex enough to fight with herself while having insights into others, the weakest part of the novel is the time spent with Lena. In her interactions with Max and Strether she is interesting; her perspective into them is sharp. Without her these conversations wouldn’t be as full, and her presence, her relationship with Strether, should be returned to when Stether’s past is understood. But the early-on section of her love affair peters out, and by the end of the novel is forgotten, feeling like filler.

Against that, though, is the way this skill of insight lets us open up to a character introduced midway through the novel, without explanation. The immediate supposition, given that we are read Glady’s story just after being introduced to Strether’s wife, is soon shattered. From there, we follow Glady because we know some truths must sit at the end of this tale, and because Kaddour is able to make us care enough along the way, to make Glady a complex character with motivations combatting against themselves.

For this review, the full complexities of Little Grey Lies must be passed over. The most interesting life it has to offer would be so much less so if a reader knows the answers going into the tale. As it goes, there is enough to make it an entertaining read, but without its final twist — and thankfully, it does not twist and then immediately end, but follows the path to explore a little further—Kaddour’s effort wouldn’t offer much more than the familiar. With a lie at its core, however, we are given a new way to look at how people find ways to make it through life.

6 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Tiffany Nichols on Patrick Roth’s Starlite Terrace, from Seagull Books.

Tiffany also reviews literature in translation for the San Francisco and Sacramento Book Reviews and runs the mouthwatering food porn and book-geeking Tumblr blog tiffany ist. Here’s the beginning of her review:

Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.

Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.

The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.

Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.

The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.

“The Man at Noah’s Window” concerns Rex, a regular at Noah’s Deli near the apartment complex, who is trying to find substance in his life based on a myth that his father’s hands were used as a stand-in for Gary Cooper’s in High Noon. However, when Rex passes away and the narrator views the film searching for a hand double, he finds no evidence that one was ever used.

“Solar Eclipse” focuses on a father, Moss, who contemplates hiring a hit on his runaway wife, only to be preempted when the hit man is killed at the planned rendezvous point the day before they were to exchange funds.

“Rider on the Storm,” the most disturbing, focuses on Gary, who attempts to track down his lost love after obtaining a gun, only to throw himself into a fire at an L.A. party.

“The Woman in the Sea of Stars” provides murky closure to the collection. June, a collector of wedding gowns who never remarried, randomly reconnects with a relative of her estranged grandfather the day before her 70th birthday. June calls an impromptu celebration that quickly turns macabre when she throws the ashes of her estranged grandfather into the swimming pool of the apartment complex then dives into the water beneath the ashes.

The atmosphere of the novel does have that German Expressionist, early Hollywood noir feel. It is enhanced by Roth’s fleeting references to the German art community that migrated to Hollywood to develop early noir cinema in the 20s and 30s. He also relies heavily on noir film elements such as flashbacks, an unidentified narrator, and characters who are living undesired lives and fulfilling predetermined destinies to progress through the chain of stories.

However, the references to old Hollywood may start to wear on the reader. Therefore, when navigating through this work, brush up on your Hollywood history as it is heavily relied upon and used almost like an additional character in the work. These references are almost to the point of nostalgic reminiscing, leading one to believe that the author has a minor obsession or past with old Hollywood. The references are so plentiful that they might come off as a crutch or some form of intellectual pretension to readers who are not attuned to this time period in L.A:

They say Marilyn1 gazed longingly out her third-floor window every night, that orphanage window on ElCentro, looking across at the illuminated ball. The RJO ball, I mean, the globe over by the corner of Gower and Melrose. It’s still there. In those days, the RKO ball was always lit up at light. Little Marilyn hitched her dream to that ball as she looked out her window, into the light—her dream of being a movie star. Like Jean Harlow.

. . .

I remembered that cemetery on whose sloes D.W. Griffith had shot the Civil War scenes in his silent Birth of a Nation, and realized that, from there, you could see clear across to Burbank. And in the mid-fifties, down below along Pass Avenue, just a stone’s throw from where today the Ventura Freeway cuts through, was the Columbia Rand, with Hadleyville, the town in High Noon, in which Rex’s father was supposed to have served as Cooper’s hand double.

Despite the reliance on esoteric references to the Hollywood of yore and the slow crawling prose (imagine coastal fog slowly rolling over the Hollywood Hills from Santa Monica), the reader will be drawn in either for the all-American allure of all things Hollywood and L.A., despite being a novice of the subject, or by Roth’s ability to slowly and deliberately build a monotonously complex community in such a brief collection of short stories. The reader’s payoff in completing the book is the appreciation for their own relationships, preventing them from being removed and isolated from society like the characters in Starlite Terrace.

1 This is Marilyn as in Marilyn Monroe.

26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from P. T. Smith on Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was, from Seagull Books.

This book was another one several of our reviewers jumped at, and yet another strong and insanely fascinating sounding piece of German literature, and German literature in translation. That, and Inka Parei has a pretty rad sounding name, and some intriguing titles to boot (The Shadow-Boxing Woman, to name another).

Here’s some of Patrick’s review:

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this . . .

At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either. As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this. Until coming across it in the text, the title is vague, but beautiful, then:

The night seemed endless. The old man felt wide awake. He tried to understand what darkness was, how merciless and absolute it was—nothing could chase it away. You could only ever light up tiny parts of a darkness like that, every light source ridiculous in comparison to the sun. Lamps, even very strong ones, had a light that was limited, its end foreseeable with the naked eye.

This shedding of light onto little spots of darkness is the aim of the novel, even while aware of the impossibility of full light, even finding time to dwell in the dark and find beauty. It goes beyond aesthetics, ideas, or any cultural examination, and instead is the core of the novel; indeed it is the plot. This trick, turning usual extraneous-to-the-plot elements into plot, is exciting, original, and makes a compelling read (I planned to put the book down after sixty pages and go to bed, then promised I would stop at ninety, before finally just finishing it in one read). At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either.

As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same: “Too little sleep was like a blanket that was too thin or too short, something you could not help tugging at, in a constantly restless and alert state” or the menace behind “the absence of sound in all the lifeless things that cities consist of, the silence of the mortar, the walls and rail, the aluminum casings, the silence of wood and hewn stones.” This world the old man is walking through, it can leave people behind, it can pass over accomplishment and sin—unless someone moves against the silence.

The old man is not obviously that someone. His time is spent in silence, watching his neighbors, half-heartedly contemplating his past while avoiding any participation in his present outside of the watching. His re-entry to both is sparked by the first watched neighbor he has contact with, known only as “the stranger.” The stranger, a recent arrival in the next-door apartment, becomes the central point for the old man’s thoughts, and the center of his actions, along with the actions of the others in the neighborhood. The old man is compelled to know the stranger, to find out more, yet also to keep him no more than a stranger; he is both scared for and scared of. Here is where I can struggle with giving too much away, ruining the few “events.” The blank slate that is the stranger allows him to exist with more than one identity, an identity from the Baader-Meinhof Germany of the novel’s present, given to him by threatening neighbors and by the old man himself, and the unnamed victims of Germany’s past—as “He’s one of them. I have to save him,” passes through the old man’s thoughts.

A struggle between the often separate realities of intellectual, rational understanding of experience, and of immediate physical experience is often played out at the same time as the past vs. present dynamic, one that dominates the old man in simple ways like a reflection on a childhood memory of spinning around and watching objects around dissolve, all while knowing that was only in his eyes and in paralyzing ways, describing the stranger’s eyes, “as though they affected his sight, but he knew that was an illusion. In reality it was him, looking at the stranger, who was distracted by eyes like that, plunged into confusion and overlooking other things.” It at times becomes a fight for sanity, a fight to be able to exist rationally, yet accept one’s experiences, and for the old man, experiences are not always something he wants to accept. He has a home that was gifted to him by an unknown man except for a last name, and all the men he remembers with the name have as guilty a past as he does, as German men of his age did.

Early on, the old man, seeing a scratch he made in paint as he unlocked a door is “unsettled. . . . that he could see across the layers of different coats of paint as if looking back across decades, down to the surface.” Looking at a simple scratch, at such a benign physical marker of the past is too much for him, and during this, the world around him is fogged and scattered, but as he watches more, hears more, tries to act and respond to current events, more and more memories come to him, and more clearly. The physicality of his present as he searches the basement, trying to find out what his neighbors are up to and how the stranger is involved, bring the clearest narrative of his past in the military, culminating in a cold reality that had been until now in that darkness.

This is not to say that What Darkness Was pulls itself into a formal, structured narrative. At the end we are not left with answers, and there is much in the novel that is as unclear to the old man as it is to us, though we are made to wonder if we haven’t lit our lamp bright enough, pushed it into the right corners, or maybe are simply a little too American and don’t know 1977 Germany well enough. Or must some things remain in the darkness and all we can do is bring out the most important things, and not, either intentionally or passively, keep the most dangerous things in the dark, for they will dim the present as well.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Rachael Daum on Dark Company: A Novel in Ten Rainy Nights by Gert Loschütz, from Seagull Books.

Rachael (with an “A-E”, thankyouverymuch) I believe it’s been mentioned before, is a former intern-student of Open Letter, and a great friend to and advocate for literature in translation. She won out in the mad grab to get her hands on this book to review: Seagull has been putting out some really exceptional stuff lately (or per usual, I should say), and several of our regular reviewers were pining for Dark Company. And I don’t blame them—it looks like a pretty rad read . . .

Here’s the beginning of Rachael’s review:

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

For the rest of the review and more darkness and rain, go here.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

There are few constants in the novel, rain, again, being one, and the vanishing of characters being the other. Early on, Thomas admits to a boyish wonder of Henry Hudson, “the explorer I admired above all others for the way he had disappeared. The way he sailed off at dawn (and never returned) spoke to me of true modesty and greatness.” This ominously becomes a veritable tattoo of the novel In almost every single chapter, we are introduced to a person—a colleague in the German Navy, a former lover, a nameless woman working on an angel statue in a workshop—who disappears. The natures of their disappearances are all different: Daniel, a fellow sailor in the British Navy, vanishes after the appearance of an African sailor who joins and introduces voodoo magic to the ship; Katharina, a young woman Thomas shared a night and a tattoo with, seems to melt away with her blood on the pavement after being attacked by some guard dogs, only to appear later in England; her Doppelgänger vanishes with a promise on her lips after chasing after somebody who, in a Marquez-like twist, has Thomas’s face. Thomas’s grandfather, continually referenced to but never seen in the novel, has a theory about vanished people:

He believed that all those who had vanished had not really vanished at all but were all gathered somewhere, in designated places. If I have understood correctly what he was saying, they travel in a particular kind of train which carries them across the length and breadth of Europe, unceasingly: that is to say, they never leave the train. . . . Since these trains are not listed on any timetable and never stop—or stop only in very remote, hidden places—it is difficult to detect them.

It is, then, this baleful continual movement of the train that pushes the narrative along like the rivers and eventual floods of rain do. Thomas—and thus the reader—learns to expect, and accept, their inevitability.

There does seem to be a striking passivity in Thomas’s acceptance of how the narrative plays out, which is baffling. That is, Thomas is content merely to let things happen to him. He repeatedly follows people into the darkness, once even as far as being led to the meeting of a religious cult in which he is apparently “The Promised One.” Thomas yearns to “go back, back to the rivers, the docks, the warehouses where a man could lose himself walking round, not back to my flat by the river but to a boat, and so what if my license had expired . . .” He never helps himself, and in his yearning eventually ends up a worker on a train. As a former skipper, he deals in transit, and never seems to get anywhere himself. His timeline is all but impossible to figure out—was he struck from his position as a skipper because he may have killed a woman? did he meet the woman who resembled Katharina after his work on the train? when did he have the affair with the married woman? when did he meet his possible son? is this the titular dark company?—and this question of time and madness is what sweeps the reader along as surely as Thomas is pushed forward by his work on the boats and on the train, and his life aboard a bus (a sad parody of Noah’s ark) that takes him away from his flooded house. It becomes apparent that Thomas does not trust the reader and indeed keeps things from her, allowing for gross jumps in logic (one moment he is waiting in a bar till “zero hours forty,” and then he admits that “this was the place and I had to wait. If she had come at eleven, we could have sailed at twelve,” with no previous mention to waiting for anyone. Perhaps, the readers reflect drily, he doesn’t trust us with his secret). He eventually references his omissions, finally admitting to them and their fatality: “Add one more fault to my list of omissions. . . . Everything that I have failed to do leaps out at me from the dark, my failures lurk in the driving rain, in the whistling sound overhead.”

It is impossible to read this book and not notice the beautiful translation from German into English by Willcocks. The text reads absolutely effortlessly in translation, with glittering descriptions of Thomas’s surroundings that are timed to an English pace and sound-set perfectly: “Instead [there was] fog, silence and the smell that so often accompanies fog, a smell of fire, a burning smell, a hint of smouldering trees and smoke creeping over the ground at knee height . . .” It is, however, Willcocks’s poetic employ of generally difficult English words that is worth our attention and applause. For example (emphasis mine), Thomas’s “world outside . . . dissolve[s] into a fuzzy stroboscopic fog of impressions,” and Katharina’s dogs, “two deep-chested, powerful beasts . . . stopped at her command (a word? a signal?) and eyed us, obediently, yes, but truculent too, truculent in their obedience.” Willcocks has weighed the very sounds of the words he applied to the English text, resulting in a sensuous, sonorous prose. Ultimately, in the translation itself as in the text, this is a book for a reader looking for a thematic and highly, wonderfully literary challenge, and though the reader is left with gaping questions apathetically unanswered, it can’t be denied that it was worth buckling in for the ride and getting caught up in the flow of the flood with Thomas and the debris of his life.

1 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Kite by Dominique Eddé, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and published by Seagull Books

This recommendation Rick Simonson, legendary bookseller at the “Elliott Bay Book Company.”:http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

Translator Ros Schwartz and Seagull Books have given English-language readers a brilliant, searing look at the layers of a very contemporary relationship in this translation of Dominque Eddé’s Kite. Going back and forth in time and in place—from Beirut to Paris, to Cairo and London—this book is both a powerful exploration of love and of the shifts in intellectual culture at a tumultuous time in the Arab and western worlds. Ros Schwartz deftly traces the shifts and changes in setting and narrative through Edde’s wonderfully dense and shifting prose.

But a novel from the Calcutta-based Seagull Books might still seem like a darkhorse in this race and this is only the second time a book of theirs has appeared on the BTBA long list, though they’ve been publishing translations for thirty years and they rank with New Directions and Dalkey Archive in the numbers of new translations they publish every year. They’re also gaining a lot of traction with indie booksellers—I’ve seen new staff recommendations for their books appear here at Elliott Bay, and all down the west coast at City Lights, Green Apple and Skylight Books. And with good reason: Kite contains a richly rewarding depiction of a character—one who reads, who writes!—going blind that is, by itself, worth the price of the book.

*

Chad here. To add a special bit of something to Rick’s write-up, here’s a really fun bit of the interview Seagull Books founder Naveen Kishore gave in Shelf Awareness:

Shelf Awareness: What do you love about books in translation?

Naveen Kishore: The “edginess” of literature different from mine. The “getting-under-the-skin” quality. The sense of dislocation and being “torn asunder.” And the intuitive recognition of humor across cultures!

SA: What do you think is the future of the printed book?

NK: Healthy. More beautifully crafted than ever before. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

22 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._

My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin and published by Seagull Books

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

Urs Widmer, woefully underappreciated in the English-speaking world, is one of Switzerland’s most prominent and prolific writers. And My Father’s Book is one of Widmer’s very best. A fictionalized biography of his own father, Walter Widmer, this novel is by turns heart-wrenching and laugh-out loud funny. Heady, intellectual passages alternate with slap-stick comedy in this exploration of how much we can know even those closest to us.

The narrator’s father, Karl Widmer, is an unworldly, intellectually voracious man whose fiery temper is balanced by his essential good nature and extreme absent-mindedness. He lives primarily through the great works of French literature he translates—Stendhal, Flaubert, Rabelais, Balzac, and Diderot, whom he treasures above all others—and dies in his fifties of a heart ailment exacerbated by a life of chain-smoking. Karl is an inveterate idealist who venerates the Encyclopédistes and the rationalism of the dix-huitième. He becomes a Communist for a time, but is too impolitic for the Party. What he loves, he loves ardently. He only occasionally registers the fact that his beloved wife’s tendency to withdraw is a sign of unhappiness, and always too late.

According to tradition in Karl’s remote ancestral mountain village, on his twelfth birthday he was given a book for him to record each day’s events throughout his life. On the day after his father dies, the narrator learns to his horror that his mother had already disposed of Karl’s book along with mountains of manuscripts and unpaid bills. The narrator, who had only glanced through it the night before, resolves to rewrite his father’s book, now in the readers’ hands. Widmer not only recalls the events and circumstances of Karl’s life, he is able to render a sense of the man’s internal life by quoting imagined passages from the imaginary book.

As the Germans advance through Europe, Karl, until now unfit for service, is called up along “with a few other oldish men with weak hearts” to protect Basel from the Wehrmacht. In the barracks at night Karl dutifully makes his daily entries in which mundane events alternate with vivid meditations on things literary.

19.5.40 Letter from Clara,’ my father wrote, once he’d saved the quill from the hobnailed boots of a comrade racing to the toilet. ‘Kitchen duty for insubordination (the corporal asked me—it was to do with the dismantled gunlock I wasn’t able to put together again—whether I thought he was stupid and I said yes). The Germans still aren’t here yet. General mobilization nonetheless. —In the ancien régime, ladies vaginae could speak too. Not just their mouths. Often the gentlemen would sit with their countesses and ducal lovers, having tea, and chatting to one another about an especially good bon mot of Madame de Pompadour or the Pope’s last bull, while, simultaneously, from beneath their skirts—many-layered mountains of material—came a chattering and sniggering, the sense of which they didn’t quite catch. At any rate, there was almost constant chat from down there. The many different materials muffled the voices, but people sometimes thought they would hear their names, without knowing what the braying laughter beneath all the other skirts was all about. —The light! The light of the dix-huitième, you don’t get light like that nowadays.

My Father’s Book is a boisterous, expansive novel, an encapsulation of twentieth century Swiss life through an idiosyncratic and highly concentrating prism. This sense of breadth comes not only from the contrast of Karl’s engagement in politics and his ludicrous stint as a soldier with his wife’s extreme introversion, but also from his appetite for life and the arts, which Widmer evokes beautifully. The sheer artistry of the writing in this novel alone would be deserving of the Best Translated Book Award, but in addition Donal McLaughlin’s translation is pitch-perfect, capturing the various registers and tonalities of Widmer’s prose and, most difficult of all, the many shades of his humor.

3 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m pretty bummed about this one. And my secret hope of hopes is that Mo Yan’s Pow! didn’t make the list because everyone is so enamored with Sandalwood Death, which we officially decided to make eligible for the 2014 BTBA.

I reviewed this novel a couple months back, and will be using it in my “Translation & World Literature” class later this spring as part of our six-title “Best Translated Book” class rumble. And I personally think it could win.

Anyway, here’s a bit of my review:

Pow! consists of a story within a story: in the present, Xiaotong is relating to a monk his life story, while witnessing a host of very surreal events—a meat celebration gone awry and ending with bunches of dead ostriches, a man boning 41 women in a row, etc.—with the goal of confessing in order to become a monk. By contrast, the story he tells of growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, where his dad runs away with the town floozy, and the village leader teaches everyone to maximize profits by pumping their meat full of water and formaldehyde, is much more realistic . . . sort of.

I don’t want to spoil too much for readers, but the core plot of Pow! is a rather tragic and disturbing story involving Xiaotong’s parents and their relationship to village leader, Lao Lan. Told in a straightforward, realistic fashion, it would resemble a soap opera, filled with eating contests, battling egos, poverty, sex, and death. Oh, and meat.

The brilliance of this novel—and the reason it deserves comparisons to so many great authors—is the way in which this tragic story is filtered through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. (Granted, Xiaotong is a 20-something when he’s telling the monk his life story, but his mind has never really progressed, and his myth-making is more like a pre-teen than a fully-formed adult.) As a result, the story gets pulled and twisted out of shape, and what is “real” becomes a lot less certain—especially when Xiaotong keeps insisting on his story’s veracity:

“Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot ‘Powboys,’ but every word in what I’m telling you is the unvarnished truth.”

Uh-huh.

It’s not like an unreliable narrator is anything new in literature, and post-Nabokov, it’s almost second-nature as a reader to try and see through to what a narrator isn’t saying to really get what’s going on. But I really like the way in which these two narratives—one which centers around the construction of a “Meat God” statue (presumably made in honor of Xiaotong) and functions in a sort of timeless, surreal zone; one that centers around Xiaotong’s adventures and war with Lao Lan, and is filled with boasts and impossible feats (a 12-year-old eating 5lbs of meat, the firing of 41 mortar shells) transforming Xiaotong’s life into something much grander than it really is.

It’s not like Mo Yan needs more recognition after winning the Nobel Prize, but I would like him to get some recognition as a literary writer instead of as a Chinese writer simply because the first puts the emphasis on his wild narrative stylings and the latter makes his works and position as a writer all about politics. And that sucks.

22 February 13 | N. J. Furl |

This week, Chad talks with special guest George Carroll about the enchanted lives of literary sales reps, Seagull Books, the Seagull School of Publishing, László Krasznahorkai’s forthcoming books, and . . . the UEFA Champions League.

Read More...

27 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote (after a very long travel experience, so forgive me) about Mo Yan’s Pow!, which is coming out from Seagull in Howard Goldblatt’s translation.

Here’s the opening:

The first book by recent Nobel Laureate, Mo Yan, to come out in English translation, Pow! is guaranteed to get a lot of attention, especially considering the recent hubbub about his relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, to censorship, to the plight of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo. A lot of reviewers will scrutinize Pow! and its relationship to governmental power—on the one hand, doing what village leader Lao Lan wants really improves one’s status, on the other, it leads directly to tragedy—and will likely focus on the relationship between this novel, first published in China in 2012, and his earlier work.

Since I don’t feel qualified to comment on any of that—other than to say censorship is bad, but stances falling in gray areas are intellectually intriguing to me, and that I hope to read more of his works in the not-too-distant future—I’m going to try and focus on the book’s structure and its inherent trickiness, beginning with what made me really want to read this particular Mo Yan book—the jacket copy.

This might seem like a digression, but bear with me. First off, here’s a bit from the copy for The Garlic Ballads, one of Mo Yan’s most admired works:

“Banned in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, this epic novel by one of China’s leading writers portrays a people driven to smash the rigid confines of their ancient traditions. [. . .] The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government encourages them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as easy as they believed. [. . .] The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love and the struggle to maintain that love int he face of overwhelming obstacles.”

OK, fine. Sounds like it’ll be pretty social-realist, anti-government, rural, and commonplace. Now, check Pow!:

“A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But through this tale of sharp hatchets, bat water, and a rusty Second World War-mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz, or Jakov Lind, Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.”

Jakov Lind?! Comic?! That’s not what I would’ve guessed given the copy found on The Garlic Ballads (or any of his other previous works). Obviously, if I’m going to choose a work to start with, it’ll be the one name-checking Gombrowicz and an Open Letter author . . . That said, opening Pow!, I still expected to encounter a much more conventional novel than, say, Ferdydurke.

Click here to read the full thing.

27 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first book by recent Nobel Laureate, Mo Yan, to come out in English translation, Pow! is guaranteed to get a lot of attention, especially considering the recent hubbub about his relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, to censorship, to the plight of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo. A lot of reviewers will scrutinize Pow! and its relationship to governmental power—on the one hand, doing what village leader Lao Lan wants really improves one’s status, on the other, it leads directly to tragedy—and will likely focus on the relationship between this novel, first published in China in 2012, and his earlier work.

Since I don’t feel qualified to comment on any of that—other than to say censorship is bad, but stances falling in gray areas are intellectually intriguing to me, and that I hope to read more of his works in the not-too-distant future—I’m going to try and focus on the book’s structure and its inherent trickiness, beginning with what made me really want to read this particular Mo Yan book—the jacket copy.

This might seem like a digression, but bear with me. First off, here’s a bit from the copy for The Garlic Ballads, one of Mo Yan’s most admired works:

Banned in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, this epic novel by one of China’s leading writers portrays a people driven to smash the rigid confines of their ancient traditions. [. . .] The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government encourages them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as easy as they believed. [. . .] The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love and the struggle to maintain that love int he face of overwhelming obstacles.

OK, fine. Sounds like it’ll be pretty social-realist, anti-government, rural, and commonplace. Now, check Pow!:

A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But through this tale of sharp hatchets, bat water, and a rusty Second World War-mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz, or Jakov Lind, Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.

Jakov Lind?! Comic?! That’s not what I would’ve guessed given the copy found on The Garlic Ballads (or any of his other previous works). Obviously, if I’m going to choose a work to start with, it’ll be the one name-checking Gombrowicz and an Open Letter author . . . That said, opening Pow!, I still expected to encounter a much more conventional novel than, say, Ferdydurke.

On the one hand, that’s sort of true . . . Pow! consists of a story within a story: in the present, Xiaotong is relating to a monk his life story, while witnessing a host of very surreal events—a meat celebration gone awry and ending with bunches of dead ostriches, a man boning 41 women in a row, etc.—with the goal of confessing in order to become a monk. By contrast, the story he tells of growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, where his dad runs away with the town floozy, and the village leader teaches everyone to maximize profits by pumping their meat full of water and formaldehyde, is much more realistic . . . sort of.

I don’t want to spoil too much for readers, but the core plot of Pow! is a rather tragic and disturbing story involving Xiaotong’s parents and their relationship to village leader, Lao Lan. Told in a straightforward, realistic fashion, it would resemble a soap opera, filled with eating contests, battling egos, poverty, sex, and death. Oh, and meat.

The brilliance of this novel—and the reason it deserves comparisons to so many great authors—is the way in which this tragic story is filtered through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. (Granted, Xiaotong is a 20-something when he’s telling the monk his life story, but his mind has never really progressed, and his myth-making is more like a pre-teen than a fully-formed adult.) As a result, the story gets pulled and twisted out of shape, and what is “real” becomes a lot less certain—especially when Xiaotong keeps insisting on his story’s veracity:

Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot ‘Powboys,’ but every word in what I’m telling you is the unvarnished truth.

Uh-huh.

It’s not like an unreliable narrator is anything new in literature, and post-Nabokov, it’s almost second-nature as a reader to try and see through to what a narrator isn’t saying to really get what’s going on. But I really like the way in which these two narratives—one which centers around the construction of a “Meat God” statue (presumably made in honor of Xiaotong) and functions in a sort of timeless, surreal zone; one that centers around Xiaotong’s adventures and war with Lao Lan, and is filled with boasts and impossible feats (a 12-year-old eating 5lbs of meat, the firing of 41 mortar shells) transforming Xiaotong’s life into something much grander than it really is.

In terms of the translation, Howard Goldblatt is one of the best. He’s translated a ton of Chinese books, including all of Mo Yan’s earlier works. The book reads remarkably well in English—it’s by turns lyrical, funny, and vulgar. (The number of “Fuck your old woman!” type statements in here is remarkable and AWESOME.)

The thing that I’m really curious about, from a translation perspective, is the number of adages and sayings in this book. They pop up on most every page,

‘People aren’t mountains, they can change . . .’ Mother’s face grew red as she struggled to hold on to her temper.

‘Except it’s easier to change the course of a river than a person’s nature.’ Mother’s cousin was intent on making things hard for her.

Sun Changsheng was the one who snapped first. ‘That’s enough!’ he growled at his wife. ‘If your mouth itches, rub it against the wall. You fart three times for every time you kowtow. Your good deeds don’t make up for your bad behaviour.” [. . .]

I’m planning on using this book in my spring class, and having my class mark down as many of these as they can find, but trust me, there are hundreds. Which interests me, because I wonder how literal they are compared to the Chinese (the one about a horse not grazing backwards is one of my favorites), or how much Goldblatt changed them to convey the same proverb quality in English.

Aside from a hundred-page section that gets bogged down in meat desiring, meat eating, and meat everything, this is a really fun and enjoyable book to read—one that raises interesting narrative questions at the very end when, quite literally, everything explodes.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the things that may have gotten buried in all the articles about Mo Yan receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature is the fact that Seagull Books is bringing out his next work in English translation—POW!, which sounds pretty wild, and has been compared to the works of Witold Gombrowicz and Javok Lind.

Today, over at First Post, there’s an essay by Bishan Samaddar about the book.

I have little knowledge of Chinese literature. Much like Salman Rushdie, who confessed on Facebook that Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum has been lying unread on his bookshelf for ages, I have not had much inclination to pick up Chinese books. Few are available in good English translations. Only when Seagull Books, the publishing house I work for, decided to bring out an English translation of Mo Yan’s new novel POW! did I dive into this phantasmagoria.

In POW! Mo Yan writes in the voice of a child. The narrator is adult, he has decided to become a Buddhist monk, but his childhood has not left him. He recounts his experience of childhood to a certain silent Wise Monk in a ruined temple; his story flows uncontrollably. ‘Verbal diarrhea’, that disgusting cliché that I have always hated, now begins to make sense. Make no mistake about it—the flow in POW! is not just verbal. Having mostly read very middle-class-friendly books, where even the most passionate sex is prettified and lifted above the dailiness of life, POW! is most disconcerting in its obsession with the physical and the vulgar. The brutal genius of Mo Yan lies not just in making you identify with characters and situations as all great literature does but also in his refusal to omit the minutest, ugliest, most embarrassing detail of any experience. The ugliness makes the experience eerily intimate:

The old woman hobbled up to me, took a piece of turnip from her mouth and stuffed it into mine. That was sort of revolting, I don’t deny it. But thoughts of how pigeons exchange food turned revulsion into intimacy. I was reminded of something that had occurred in the past. It was back when my father had gone off to the northeast and Mother and I were surviving by dealing in scrap. We were taking a break at a roadside stall. . . . A blind couple with a chubby, fair-skinned baby were eating at the stall. The baby, obviously hungry, was crying. The woman, hearing my mother’s voice, asked if she would feed the baby. So Mother took the baby from her and a hard biscuit from the man, which she chewed into pulp before feeding him mouth to mouth. . . . I swallowed the turnip the old woman had put in my mouth and suddenly felt sharp-eyed and clear-headed.

The whole essay is interesting, but here are a few more clips that grabbed my attention:

Mo Yan is fixated on orifices. Sex, urinating, defecating aside, there is endless eating. The narrator tells us that he has had an impoverished childhood, bereft of meat, in a village famous for its meat-processing plant. There is hardly anything that is not eaten in this novel—chicken, duck, sheep, goat, dog, pig, cow, horse, donkey, ostrich. [. . .]

The pitch of life depicted in POW! is all too familiar to us Indians—there is eating, and there is vomiting; love and fornication, but also peeing and farting; passionate embraces but also the foulest of abuses; and the impossibly crude sentimental longing that one feels for one’s family. We often try not to notice the most physical aspects of this life but without them that life is pathetically incomplete.

Reading POW! I realized that the crucial thing about life is its irrationality. In a world saturated with Western narratives in which everything happens for a reason, Mo Yan is freedom. His characters have motives that are totally unfounded in reason; they are led to immense violence as well as complete renunciation in a world that we would hate to see as real but, unfortunately, is entirely real. Mo Yan has none of the fanciful flights that you encounter in Gabriel Garcia Marquez; he is a dark but hilarious continuing slapstick, a bawdy and bloody Buster Keaton. His fiction pushes its way up like grain through parched soil. And it does so only because the tale needs to be told.

Definitely check out the article, and then buy the book. I hear it’s being fast-tracked and could be available as early as the end of next month.

2 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’ve raved about the beautiful Seagull Books from time to time on Three Percent, so it’s really great/interesting to see this short interview in Shelf Awareness with Seagull’s publisher, Naveen Kishore:

On your nightstand now:

A combo. IQ84 by Haruki Marukami. Dorothy Sayers’s Five Red Herrings and loads of delightful manuscripts, from Marc Auge to Dominique Edde. Oh, and Beckett’s Letters, the first two volumes. [. . .]

Book you’re an evangelist for:

Recently? Viktor Halfwit by Thomas Bernhard. And since two’s company; Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library. Three? Most of Ursula le Guin. Past? . . . Most of Conrad. [. . .]

What do you love about books in translation?

The “edginess” of literature different from mine. The “getting-under-the-skin” quality. The sense of dislocation and being “torn asunder.” And the intuitive recognition of humor across cultures!

What do you think is the future of the printed book?

Healthy. More beautifully crafted than ever before. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Seagull Books

Why This Book Should Win: Seagull produces some damn beautiful books.

Today’s post is by Hilary Plum, an editor with Interlink Publishing and co-director of Clockroot Books. Her novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets is forthcoming from FC2.

Hell and Dunkel (in German: Light and Dark) are two squatters in Berlin, young or youngish women, the only remaining residents in their wing of a “formerly elegant Jewish apartment house.” At the opening of The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Hell’s monotonous daily life is disturbed: Dunkel has disappeared. Hell sets out on a search for her missing neighbor, not out of friendship—she and Dunkel rarely speak—or even any real sense of morality, but some other more visceral drive, one which leads her and the novel through a dark picaresque in ’90s, post-Wall Berlin. Her tone deceptively flat, Parei offers an unsettlingly intimate evocation of the city. In her portrayal Berlin is both sinisterly populated and desolate, everywhere its surfaces defaced and indistinguishable from the prevailing refuse and excrement, a place in a state of ruin and troubled growth, continual becoming and decay (as the Eastern philosophy the novel toys with might put it).

“I can’t imagine a greater contrast than between Dunkel’s apartment and mine. At least bearing in mind that the layouts are exactly the same, mirrored across the axis of the stairwell,” Hell tells us, and maybe you’re starting to sense what this uncanny, masterfully structured novel is up to. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a political fable in contemporary motifs: never simple allegory, but through the story of these two women offering a profound commentary on existence in fractured and then reunited Berlin. Hell is joined on her search for Dunkel by Markus März, some kind of old consort of Dunkel’s, who has come from the suburbs in search of a father long lost to him in Germany’s division. März is a bank robber of sorts (the novel’s understatement and ambiguity make an “of sorts” always in order as one describes it), and his and Hell’s hunt for Dunkel echoes the forms of both a crime novel and a classic tale of the Wild West, two outlaws teamed up on a near-hopeless quest. Interspersed with this plotline is a series of scenes from Hell’s past, just as the Wall is coming down, when she suffered some monstrous incident of violence; in response she has turned to martial arts, as well as developing, it seems, the relentlessly precise awareness that pervades the novel, the extraordinary eye for detail that is both hypnotic and suffocating. Hell deploys her martial arts skills several times in the novel’s course, with a casual brutality befitting any cowboy; but in time specters will return to haunt her, and us.

Parei sets all this up playfully, with a wicked humor that will have you grinning at lines—which makes the poignant moments that radiate briefly from this dark landscape all the more moving. “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit“ is the old line by Feyerabend that often returns to me, especially when confronting a dream world as deftly made as this one, feeling so real to the senses and suffused with a wisdom that can’t be easily distilled. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is marvelously made, strange and commanding, its deep political insight resonating perfectly from within the novel’s architecture. How nice to give such a subtly constructed work the grand applause of a big award—so give this novel the BTBA!

3 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows, which is coming out this month from Seagull Books in Chris Turner’s translation from the French.

Brian Ligboer is a new reviewer for us. (Jeff Waxman made the introduction.) In his own words, he “is the author of a novel, Memories from Beyond the States, which is currently under consideration by a few agents. Previous reviews of mine have appeared in Pank, The Hypocrite Reader, and The Midway Review. I currently live in Chicago where I am working as a polling analyst for Obama’s reelection campaign.”

Quignard’s book sounds really interesting. Just check out the Seagull Books jacket copy:

The first book in Quignard’s Last Kingdom series, The Roving Shadows can be read as a long meditation on reading and writing that strives to situate these otherwise innocuous activities in a profound relationship to sex and death. Writing and reading can in fact be linked to our animal natures and artistic strivings, to primal forces and culturally persistent fascinations. With dexterity and inventiveness, Quignard weaves together historical anecdotes, folktales from the East and West, fragments of myth, and speculative historical reconstructions. The whole, written in a musical style not far removed from that of Couperin, whose piano composition Les Ombres errantes lends the book its title, coheres into a work of literature that reverberates in the psyche long after one has laid it down.

And here’s the opening of Brian’s review:

In 2002, Les Ombres Errantes won the Prix Goncourt—possibly the most prestigious award a French literary work can receive—despite the fact that it is not a novel. Before considering The Roving Shadows in its own right, it is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of that and its subsequent publication in English. Almost one half of the winners of the Prix Goncourt have yet to appear in English translation and in that sense, this translation by Chris Turner is truly an event.

The Roving Shadows is a remarkable work, primarily because it straddles the line between contemporary French literature, which is vastly under-read in the United States, and French critical theory, which is probably more popular outside of France than it is inside. Indeed, it is difficult to say which genre of writing it actually fits. On the one hand the book contains many examples of sensuous description and personal memoir—you know, the type of thing one expects to find in a literary work. On the other hand it also is full of thought-provoking aphorisms and historical anecdotes, favored modes of expression by the critical theorists. Quignard’s book straddles the divide between critical essay and narrative in a way that is highly idiosyncratic. Instead of segregating the work into discrete, genre-specific parts, as Nabokov did in Pale Fire or The Gift, Quignard treads freely over the border between styles, often alternating within a single paragraph.

Click here to read the entire piece.

3 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In 2002, Les Ombres Errantes won the Prix Goncourt—possibly the most prestigious award a French literary work can receive—despite the fact that it is not a novel. Before considering The Roving Shadows in its own right, it is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of that and its subsequent publication in English. Almost one half of the winners of the Prix Goncourt have yet to appear in English translation and in that sense, this translation by Chris Turner is truly an event.

The Roving Shadows is a remarkable work, primarily because it straddles the line between contemporary French literature, which is vastly under-read in the United States, and French critical theory, which is probably more popular outside of France than it is inside. Indeed, it is difficult to say which genre of writing it actually fits. On the one hand the book contains many examples of sensuous description and personal memoir—you know, the type of thing one expects to find in a literary work. On the other hand it also is full of thought-provoking aphorisms and historical anecdotes, favored modes of expression by the critical theorists. Quignard’s book straddles the divide between critical essay and narrative in a way that is highly idiosyncratic. Instead of segregating the work into discrete, genre-specific parts, as Nabokov did in Pale Fire or The Gift, Quignard treads freely over the border between styles, often alternating within a single paragraph.

I seek only thoughts that tremble. There is a flush that belongs to the interior of the soul. The sixth book of the Chin P’Ing Mei (The Plumin the Golden Vase) sees the sudden appearance of the scholar Win Pi’Ku. He isn’t yet forty.

The first sentence is personal narrative, the second is a kind of aphorism, and the third is the beginning of a historical anecdote that continues through most of the chapter. In fact, Quignard actually starts the book by roving across two different modes of writing, his poetic list-making style and his confessional one.

The crowing of the cockerel, the dawn, the barking of dogs, the gathering daylight, a man rising, nature, time, dreams, lucidity—everything is fierce.

I cannot touch the coloured covers of certain books without feeling a painful sensation rise within me.

The uniqueness of this work’s style presents a problem to the reader and the critic. Against which body of works should one judge The Roving Shadows, then, literature or critical theory? The overwhelming majority of the book’s passages are concerned with advancing the narrator’s theses about his own life and the world around him. In this sense, the book feels more like an example of post-modern philosophy than it does of literature. Unlike a work of critical theory, however, The Roving Shadows develops no useful interpretive apparatus. It also advances no support for its positions whatsoever. To fault The Roving Shadows for these two failures, however, is a bit like faulting an orange for not being an apple. There is no indication that The Roving Shadows was intended to be critical theory. The only reason for thinking that it should be critical theory is that it so forthrightly advances profound ideas, ones that challenge the way most people approach the world.

In my mind, the genre-bending literature of ideas that Quignard presents in The Roving Shadows was anticipated by the work of two enormously talented and very different writers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Françoise-René de Chateaubriand. The resemblance of Quignard’s work to Nietzsche’s is the more obvious of the two. The Dawn, for examples, present a very similar blend of unsubstantiated philosophical theses, ad-hoc personal reflection, aphorism, and poetry. Like Nietzsche’s works, The Roving Shadows succeeds in so far as it challenges the reader to question his or her own existence. And indeed, The Roving Shadows raises a host of questions about literature, about writing, about reading, and about criticism. It raises the kind of wonderment that one finds in reading critical theory, but it does so in a way that is far more accessible than your Cixous, Derrida, or Deleuze. The theses it presents can be viewed on their own terms without apparatus; its anecdotes are interesting and keep one entertained while reading, and it leaves the impression of being a “deep” book one could think about for a long time without ever making real progress at understanding.

In a more subtle way, The Roving Shadows is really a work that follows the writing prescriptions of Chateaubriand, the founder of French Romanticism. In The Genius of Christianity, Chateaubriand argued that the writers of his time were missing an enormous opportunity to tap into the imagery, the aporia, and the literary tropes suggested by Catholic theology. His works Atala and René developed a new kind of literature, one whose subject matter and stylistics were both totally unexpected and yet oddly familiar. The Roving Shadows is literature in a similar vein, it’s just that the philosophical framework from which it draws its inspiration is not Catholicism but post-Modern French philosophy. Indeed, the work is best classified as a distillation of critical theory into literary form. For this reason, it is an important work, an interesting work, and a landmark in French literary/philosophical thought.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman, which is available from Seagull Books and translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

Katy Derbyshire runs the fantastic Love German Books blog and is becoming one of Seagull’s go-to translators. (She’s done a number of books, but I can’t find a list online. Perhaps because Katy’s too modest to post her accomplishments on her website . . .)

Seagull Books is mystifyingly awesome. They seemed to come from out of nowhere and are doing amazing work. They’ve published works by Max Frisch and Thomas Bernhard and Tzevtan Todorov and Imre Kertesz and Abdourahman Waberi and Ivan Vladisclavic. They run a publishing school in India. They are helping to get the incredible Cahiers Series distributed in the U.S. And their “catalog” is the most amazing printed object I own. I can’t reproduce the incredible quality of this online, but maybe these two mediocre pictures will give you a sense.



Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not. Because Hell, whose name means light, and Dunkel, whose name means dark, appear tacitly bound together “because like her and me are ten a penny in this city.” Yet, throughout the novel, we don’t get much sense of why Hell feels they are so inextricably connected. Part of this is due to Parei’s avoidance of emotional introspection, but also a lack of detail about Hell’s life until that point, and what constitutes her life throughout the novel. We have a very vague of idea of how she has money to support herself, what her likes and dislikes are, and what her motivations are. Hell’s behavior is primal, almost dog-like; trying to find Dunkel is her only goal, as if Dunkel were her lost owner.

Then there’s Hell’s love of martial arts which allows her seriously injure people in a swift movement. We witness Hell’s sense of justice when she watches two thugs threaten the owner of the café she frequents:

I pull the knife out of the ham and hold it into the bain-marie. Then I bend over the blond man and open his windpipe, an inch-long incision just below his Adam’s apple. I turn to the landlord, still clutching his son in his arms. Behind his ear is the silver ballpoint pen. I pull it out, unscrew it, remove the cartridge and the rear part, dip the front end in hot water, bend back over the blond man and insert the point of the tube into the cut. Five seconds of fear he might die. Then at last a sucking and whistling, suck and more whistling. He’s breathing with the trembling of the tube that I’ve stuck into his throat.

For a young woman, this is an unusual show of bravery, skill and detachment. Not to mention, Hell smokes a pipe. These masculine qualities highlight Hell’s acute sense of survival amidst the decay of her surroundings as well as her own life. But, when Hell’s falls in love with a sympathetic bank robber who had a fling with Dunkel recently, it is difficult to understand why, except that it might keep her connected to Dunkel in some way.

In the end, Hell and Dunkel reunite, the two polar opposites, paralleling the reunification of Germany, to form a whole that that one half cannot exist without the other. Dunkel returns refreshed, happy and with new clothes, to rescue the fearful and downtrodden Hell. Equal parts mystery and love story, what thematically is the most prominent is that sense of rescue. All the characters in this novel either rescue or are seeking to be rescued so that someone else can do for them what they cannot. Each discovers a way to prevail against mauer im kopf (the wall in the head).

With the odd tenor of this novel, Katy Derbyshire does a valiant job in keeping with Parei’s impersonal tone and slight prose. Because the prose is so minimal, it is more important that the translator find the closest nuance and meaning. Derbyshire does this with unwavering loyalty to the Parei’s words and tone without losing any of the novel’s impact.

Overall, The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a striking novel with a post-modern approach to events in the past. In small, profound ways, Hell, Dunkel and even East Berlin rise from the ruins towards a better future. It is not sentimental, at times almost feeling apocalyptic, but it is homage to our ability to move forward with our scars of human destruction merely reminders of what we overcame.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ah, the storied Swiss Alps: snow capped mountains, fields of wild flowers, burbling streams of clean water, simple folks out doing what simple folks do in such settings. Take for example the flock of sheep accompanied by blond haired girl along a winding path. Especially of note is how she picks up a rock and wings it at errant sheep.

In this, his second novel, Frisch gives a modernist take on the heroic quest for meaning by the solitary man in nature. Balz Leuthold, 30 years old, is a sorely disappointed man. Seventeen years ago he had accompanied his older brother (himself 30, soon to be married) in these same mountains. He had vowed then not to settle for the ordinary, but instead achieve the extraordinary in . . . something.

You could still tell yourself: you’re only twenty, everything’s still possible. And how proud you are when everything was still possible! Later it was: twenty-five’s no age at all, and you like reading about people who had achieved nothing at twenty-five, which was something out of the ordinary, and those around them who did not believe that they had this or that achievement in them. True, you still didn’t know in what field your future achievements would lie, but in the meantime you wore ties and hats of a style that would never occur to a ordinary citizen, and even at times you were afraid you might be ridiculous . . . and worthless and worse than anyone else on earth, it was a painful thought but not without its comfort; at least it gave you the feeling that it made you a special person, perhaps a criminal, and it was only when you failed to achieve anything by way of misdeeds that others could not do equally well, that a new and more despairing fear set in that your extraordinary achievement might not happen.

Hipsters beware! As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun.”

As the novel unfolds Balz is revealed as not such a total failure, except in his own eyes. He has a Ph.D., is ready to take on his new job of teaching (although in that system it sounds like he will teach school-aged children), and is engaged to a woman named Barbara.

After a trek he arrives at an inn at the base of some mountains, and the reader learns he intends to climb one by a route never achieved before, the North Ridge. (The helpful afterward by Peter von Mott explains that Frisch’s contemporary readers would have recognized this as the North Wall of the Eiger Mountain which many had failed to climb yet, with upcoming tries much in the news.) Balz spends a day or two at the inn during bad weather, strikes up a relationship with Irene, a woman who has come to the inn with a married couple. He makes a practice climb on another rock face, one which we hear has been only successfully climbed by a few; clearly he is fit and experienced, not as wholly delusional as the reader might have feared from earlier descriptions. When he reaches the top of this climb he stands in the silence in an anticlimactic moment, an achievement with no self-evident meaning.

Balz sets out to climb the North Ridge. Irene follows, and turns out to be no innocent lured by the dashing young man. His fiancé Barbara arrives at the inn after their departure, gets the picture, reveals that she actually doesn’t really love Balz (nor he her). Yet she goes to the camp where Irene has stayed, and they have an agreeable conversation; at nightfall Balz has not returned and a rescue party is sent out.

Balz does return, changed. It’s safe to say he won’t feel the need to achieve the spectacular anymore, and he does have an answer of sort for his living the rest of his life. No need to reveal what forms those developments take. To me the resolution seemed satisfying, “correct.”

This novel is 100 pages and a quick read in an evening. It’s an entertaining book to see in the context of modernism in general and Frisch’s overall works specifically. As the Afterward points out, the themes in this novel are ones Frisch returned to frequently. I had read Man in the Holocene in college, and lent it out never to be returned. It’s good to find a great writer who holds up.

4 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The most recent addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Stephen Sparks of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

Stephen Sparks is currently on his second go-round as a bookseller at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, after having spent a year as a publishing fellow at Dalkey Archive. He’s in the process of finishing an MLIS program. And you may recognize him from The Book vs. The Kindle videos Green Apple made a few years ago. (And which name-checked Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker as an ass kicking Lithuanian vampire novel.)

Bernhard is a personal favorite, especially The Lime Works and Correction. Prose sounds like vintage Bernhard, what with the rants, the depressing view of life, the suffering of the main characters, etc. Here’s the opening of Stephen’s review:

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

Click here to read the full review.

4 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas Bernhard’s work can call forth a string of adjectives, one more off-putting than the last: bleak, anguished, splenetic, death-obsessed. Correction is about a scientist who kills himself after spending six years constructing a bizarre monument to his sister. The Loser focuses on a musician so lost in Glenn Gould’s shadow that silence, followed by suicide, seems the only logical choice. The Lime Works tells the story of the murder of a wheelchair-bound woman by her monomaniacal husband. And so on. Coupled with Bernhard’s uninterrupted blocks of text and digressive ranting against the loathsomeness of Austria, these morbid plots hardly offer the most welcome invitation for those who don’t habitually dress all in black or aren’t given to self-flagellation.

Fortunately, for all of its easily identifiable Bernhardian preoccupations—its suicides and murderers, its haunted characters—the previously untranslated story collection Prose provides, in miniature, both an ideal introduction and a refresher to the work of one of the singular European writers of the twentieth century.

A typical Bernhard story (both in Prose and in his novels) takes the form of a report or confession of narrator who witnesses the dissolution of another character’s mind—as Ben Marcus argues, Bernhard is less a narrative storyteller than an “architect of consciousness.” The narrator serves as a filter through which the victim1 pours his defense, which, at this remove takes on a deeply ironic aspect. By keeping the subject at arm’s length, Bernhard can create an at times unbearable tension: does the distance save the reader from identifying fully with the victim1 or does it cause us to suffer more due to the fact that Bernhard’s narrators are themselves sufferers by proxy, thus magnifying the amount of anguish a book can contain?

The sixth of seven stories in this collection, the excruciatingly ironic “The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son,” offers a prime example of this technique. The titular character, the narrator’s fellow student and roommate, is driven to desperation by being different, a dividing line drawn between him and his family:

Georg was an exception. He was the center of attention, but thanks to his worthlessness, thanks to the scandal which he represented for the whole family, always frightened and embittered by him, not least where they tried to cover it up, a horribly crooked and crippled center of attention, which they wanted out of the house at all costs. He was so greatly and in the most dreadful way deformed by nature they always had to hide him. After they had been disappointed down to the depths of their faecal and victual detestableness by the doctors’ skills and by medical science altogether, they implored in mutual perfidiousness a fatal illness for Georg, which would remove him from the world as swiftly as possible; they had been prepared to do anything, if he would just die . . .

The “scandal” Georg causes, we find, is due more to his intelligence than a mysterious deformity: being born into a merchant family, this “useless, ever deeper and deeper thinking beast” who “even wrote poems,” deviated too much from the rigid stupidity of the shopkeeping class. As in a fairy tale, Georg’s murderous family conspires to rid themselves of this nuisance. Despite his perceived monstrosity, Georg proves himself strong enough to overcome his family’s evil designs and flees to Vienna.

In a fairy tale, such an escape signals a happy resolution. In Bernhard’s stories it signals the point at which any similarity to a fairy tale falls apart. There’s no redemption in this universe. Escape is only exchange, in this case one prison, the family cellar at Innsbruck, for another: Vienna, “the most dreadful of all old cities of Europe . . . such an old and lifeless city . . . such a cemetery.” And, since Georg once again finds himself claustrophobically entombed, he commits his final, and in the eyes’ of his family, unpardonable crime.

“The Crime of an Innsbruck Shopkeeper’s Son” and five other of the stories in Prose fall into the basic pattern above: a highly subjective secondhand report on the crime of a hypersensitive character. The irony being, of course, that the perpetrators of the so-called crimes are in fact victims of grave and at times obscure injustices themselves—and justice’s blindness serves only as a convenient excuse for its idiocy. This is typical Bernhard, surprising only in its relentlessness.

In the two remaining stories—“The Cap” and “Juaregg”—Bernhard deviates from his typical distance (if not pattern) by presenting confessions without an intermediary. In “The Cap,” the narrator, suffering from a “_pathological nature_,” is so incapable of action that even the decision to go for a walk proves to be an unrelenting torment. Even more unbearable than action, however, is twilight, at which time he flees the house in terror to walk in either of two directions: toward an ugly town or toward a beautiful town. Imagine then his overwhelming consternation when he finds a cap on the road leading toward the ugly town and assumes the proper course would be to attempt to return it to its owner. But to whom does the cap belong? Is it a woodcutter’s or a butcher’s or even a farmer’s cap? And what if he puts it on? But he has no right to put it on, for he is not a farmer, a butcher, or a woodcutter. And what color is the cap?

These questions cascade over him, inordinately agitating his already fragile mental state. He wants nothing more than a life without complications, but such an eventless existence is impossible for someone in his state. Like many of Bernhard’s characters, the narrator in “The Cap” suffers so much precisely because he is not mad. He believes that by going mad he would manage to escape his anguish:

But the truth is that I want to go mad, I want to go mad, nothing I want more, than really go mad, but I fear that I am far from being able to go mad. I at last want to go mad! I don’t want to be only afraid of going mad, I at last want to go mad. Two doctors, one of whom is a highly scientific doctor, have prophesied that I shall go mad, very soon I would go mad, the two doctors prophesied, very soon, very soon; now I’ve been waiting two years for it to happen, to go mad, but I still haven’t gone mad.

This breathless, hysterical desire is merely another form of madness and bars the way to any escape. This is the fate of Bernhard’s characters: a crazed desire for insanity or suicide, both options being viewed as an end to suffering. To go on living is possible, of course, but always with the awareness that “We are at liberty to kill ourselves.”

A friend and I, both booksellers, were recently discussing a curious compulsion we feel when recommending “depressing” books: we find that we search, almost unconsciously, to find something palatable on which to focus our enthusiasm. This is natural enough in sales, I suppose, but nonetheless troubling. In the case of Bernhard, for instance, I find myself explaining that while his work is, well, almost unbearably grim, there’s comedy and pathos in it as well. This is true—Bernhard is a savagely hysterical writer—but highlighting it obscures a fundamental characteristic of his, and many of our best writers’, work: the acknowledgement that life is itself not particularly palatable. This isn’t to say life, and by extension superior works of art, aren’t graced by moments of remarkable beauty, but by focusing only on the “nice” we risk shutting ourselves off from the fullness of experience.

Bernhard offers us such a discomforting vision. In the story “Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy?” his narrator offers an opinion that “one describes best what one hates.” Our literature is much richer for this assumption.

1 Everyone in Bernhard’s fiction is a victim, whether of a bad childhood, failed ambitions, or simply of having been born: “The catastrophe,” Prince Sarau reports in Gargoyles, “begins with getting out of bed.”

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