Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
Things Look Different in the Light and Other Stories – Merdardo Fraile, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Spain
For most of us, Things Look Different in the Light arrived late in the game. My own copy wasn’t delivered until after I’d already sent in my longlist picks. But I’m grateful that it’s on the longlist now, because this collection of stories has turned out to be so delightful.
In a year of many excellent short stories — and many Spanish-speaking male writers — Medardo Fraile holds his own. Ali Smith writes in her introduction that “generosity runs through Fraile’s writing like electricity, or like light and flowers do, but always in the knowledge that flowers wilt and light is a matter of darkness.” Light is indeed a key word in Fraile’s work. Most of his stories describe entirely ordinary events — a man attends a party, two women grow old, a sign painter makes a mistake — but Fraile casts a light that makes them suddenly surprising, touching, or insightful.
One of my favorite stories is “Child’s Play,” in which two ageing sisters try to ward off the approach of blindness and death by filling their apartment with light. They gradually extend their chandelier until it takes up almost the entire living room, its arms touching the walls and nearly reaching the floor. “In the evening,” Fraile writes, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light.
Fraile’s writing is often like this: filled with strings of marvelous metaphors, gentle humor, and light. He’s sympathetic to his characters, even or especially when they’re faintly ridiculous, and this generosity protects his stories from falling into sentimentality.
Fraile’s light touch does not, however, preclude him from addressing serious or sorrowful themes. In the story “Reparation,” a couple is robbed of their fortune while travelling by train. A few years later, the wife dies, and her grieving husband decides to become a beggar, living on charity until he has received reparations for his loss. “What one person robs another person begs,” he reasons. “Wherever there are thieves there must be beggars.”
Fraile died quite recently, in 2013. Though he was recognized throughout his life as one of Spain’s greatest writers, Things Look Different in the Light is his first publication in English. Anglophone readers too often have to wait for wonderful books; I’m glad we no longer have to wait for Fraile. Margaret Jull Costa has outdone herself with this beautiful translation; the Best Translated Book Award prize would be fitting recognition of her work, as well of the many hours of reading pleasure this book has brought me and others.
A few of Juan Marse’s books are available in the UK, but all the U.S. versions appear to be out of print. Which is a shame—based on the report below, The Fallen sounds spectacular:
Official Censorship Report of 1973 on Si te dicen que cai (The Fallen)
Author: Juan Marse
Title: Si te dicen que cai [The Fallen]
Does it attack the Dogman? YES. Pages 277-27
Franco’s Regime or its institutions? YES. Pages 252-274-291-309
The Catholic Church or its ministers? YES. Pages 17-21-75-155-178-202
The morals? YES. Pages 177-178-225-292-304-305-335
Those who collaborate with or have collaborated with the regime? YES.
REPORT AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS:
We consider this novel to be simply impossible to sanction. We have marked insults to the yoke and arrows [Falangist symbols], which are referred to as “the black spider” on pages 17-21-75-155-178-202-252-274-291-309. Scenes of torture by the Civil Guard or by Falangists on pages 177-178-225-292-304-305-335. Inadmissible allusions to the Civil Guard on pages 277-278. Obscenities and pornographic scenes on pages 19-21-25-26-27-28-29. Political scenes on 29-80 and grave irreverence on 107.
But even once all that is taken out, the novel is still pure garbage. It is the story of some boys in the period after the Civil War who live in deplorable conditions, they end up becoming Commie gunmen, stick-up artists, and then dying . . . all that mixed with whores, faggots, people of ill repute . . . Perhaps it is very realistic but it gives a very distorted, almost calumnious image of post-war Spain. Even if we just blacked out every reference to jerking off and hand-job whores in the movie theaters we’d be left with less than half the novel.
Therefore, we recommend its REJECTION
Madrid, October 20th, 1973
Reader No, 6
The specific reference to “hand-job whores in the movie theaters” is classic—and makes a perfect blurb for the book . . . (Thanks to the Gloria and the Carmen Balcells Agency for letting us run this.)
Spanish author Rafael Chirbes has recently been awarded Spain’s National Critic’s Prize for his novel Crematorio, which, according to Ángel Basanto of El Mundo, “takes on shady business dealings perpetrated by the outrageous capitalism of recent years with bravery and clarity, and delves into the intimate and painful paradoxes and contradictions of contemporary human beings.”
José María Pozuelo Yvancos of ABC describes Chirbes as “an author who has been on the verge of receiving the award many times and who should have received it before, for a body of work that is, above all, outstandingly coherent and honest. Through his writing Chirbes has created a narrative frieze that tells the complete story of an epoch of Spanish history…in Crematorio the themes that have been constant in his work resurface: particularly an investigation of moral degradation, always served with a measured, careful and highly rhythmical prose.”
Chirbes is also the author of Mimoun, Los disparos del cazador, La buena letra, La larga marcha, La caída de Madrid, and Los viejos amigos.
Inventive, playful, and moving, Vila-Matas’s second book to be translated into English is an amazing accomplishment, expanding the idea of what qualifies as a “novel” while also serving as a sort of manifesto for literature. The book’s main theme is laid out in its opening paragraph, which is a somewhat veiled reference to Vila-Matas’s earlier book Bartleby & Co.: “At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.” On a trip to Nantes to visit his son Montano, the narrator starts obsessing about his own “literature-sickness,” which he eventually terms Montano’s Malady. Unable to think about anything but literature and his sense that modern man is killing literature, the narrator does anything he can to uncover a “cure,” eventually finding relief by having sex with his wife at the end of part one. This is where the book really starts to get interesting . . . The second part of the book invalidates all that came before, explaining that it was a false-diary, a new novella by the author, who is a famous Spanish writer. This second part—a “dictionary” of authors who wrote famous diaries—gives way to a lecture the narrator give in Budapest on the diary as literature.
Throughout these formal and stylistic changes the basic points of the author’s story remain—his trip to Nantes, to Buenos Aires, his friend/rival Tongoy (who looks like a vampire), and his strained relationship with his wife. As with Bartelby & Co., underlying the narrator’s erudition and literature-obsession is a well of loneliness, a void that reading and writing tries to fill. And in the case of this novel, the narrator’s obsession and search for a cure to his “malady” is spawned by the growing sense that literature itself is on its deathbed, under attack by “cretins, lousy, dead writers cum civil servants.” These are “people who copy what has been done before and lack any literary (though not financial) ambition,” constituting a “plague even more pernicious than the plague of publishing directors working away enthusiastically against the literary.”
The thing that saves this book from becoming a screed against people who watch too much TV and laugh at dumb jokes is the voice of Vila-Matas’s narrator. Warm, funny, self-effacing, obsessed, and a tad paranoid, the reader is sucked into his world after only a couple of pages, quickly growing to sympathize with this curious figure. Similar to Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, this title will live on for years as a high-water mark of literary creativity.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
235 pp., $14.95 (pb)
As he implies in the opening sentence—“I never had much luck with women”—the protagonist/narrator of Vila-Matas’s first book to be translated into English is a loner. Twenty-five years ago he was a writer, having written a book about the possibility of love, but at the start of this novel, he’s working in an office leading a rather dismal existence. His time in the office doesn’t last too long though, as he takes a vacation (which becomes permanent when he’s fired) to obsess about his book chronicling the “writers of the No.” His book—the same as the one you’re reading—is constructed from a series of footnotes detailing the Bartlebys of literature. The writers who decided to quit writing (like Felipe Alfau), those who quit because they went mad (Robert Walser), and those who incorporated the Bartleby ideal into their writing (Robert Musil). As the narrator catalogs these instances of Bartleby-ness in an obsessive, all-consuming fashion, telling their stories, relating entertaining, funny anecdotes, his story starts to creep in. A “writer of the No” himself, the narrator’s story fits right in among the encyclopedia he creates about other “No” writers. Suddenly, emerging from the entertaining and interesting catalog of writers and their stories, the reader gets a sense of the narrator’s overwhelming isolation. He only has one friend, one who claims that literature ended with Robert Musil, then Felisberto Hernandez. But he also has his book and the characters that inhabit it. It’s often said that literature is a solitary enterprise (both reading and writing it), but immersed in literature, one is surrounded by compatriots.
Bartleby & Co.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
192 pp., $14.95 (pb)
I’m a big fan of Vila-Matas—as can probably be deduced from the reviews of his books that we just posted—and am thrilled to have the chance to see him read with Paul Auster next Thursday at the Cervantes Institute in New York.
The event is free and open to the public, so anyone interested in great, fun literature should definitely check this out.
The Cervantes Institute is at 211-215 East 49th St., and the event starts at 7pm.
And I can’t recommend Vila-Matas enough. He’s one of those rare authors who is incredibly literary and erudite, without being the least bit boring. His books are incredibly funny and informative, and the narrators are very memorable, relating their anger and isolation is a way that’s warm, funny, and very compelling.
The closest comparison I can think of in terms of style is Marcel Benabou, whose Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is another of the most inventive novels of the past twenty years.
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