Another month, another preview that’s late. This month caught me a bit by surprise though—how is it possible that the new academic year starts in three weeks? It just doesn’t seem right.
So in the spirit of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays, I thought I’d kick off this month’s list of books with some info and pics from the insane 176-mile bike ride I made to Niagara Falls and back.
I’ve been talking about doing this for years now, and friends were always intrigued to do it with me. You can ride all the way to Buffalo along the Erie Canal, it’s pleasant, there are a bunch of small towns along the way, our plan was to go slow, take the whole day, then get picked up and driven back to Rochester. Unfortunately, for one reason or anther, none of this ever panned out.
Last month, after going on numerous 20 and 30 and 40 mile bike rides, I felt like I had to give it a try. Ever since the crushing shittiness of this past winter—during which it seemed like no one ever left their house except to go to work and watch their tears freeze—I’ve been in a bit of a funk. Why not try and break out of this with an epically long bike ride? One that will leave me mentally and physically exhausted, with no energy to mull over the meaninglessness of everything?
I’m going to include a few anecdotes below, but surprisingly, nothing at all went wrong. I made it all 88 miles to a shitty hotel in Niagara Falls that I had found online, and then, the next day, I turned around and rode all the way back to Rochester, and I didn’t even die! (Mostly, my wrists just hurt from the constant vibrations of riding on an unpaved path for 14+ hours.)
Mentally, this was kind of brutal though. If you’ve never been to the Erie Canal, it looks basically like this:
Which is beautiful, but for seven straight hours? Over that period of time, while you’re doing one repetitive motion, pumping continuously, it becomes pretty monotonous, like pounding a Zen koan through your soul. It was like Extreme Meditation Yoga Ultimate Supreme. Sure, there are towns to break up the never-ending green, but these “towns” are pretty much all like Gasport, where the population is “just right”:
In my mind, before going on this journey, I figured every little town along the way would have a quaint little diner, complete with killer pie and coffee. This is absolutely not true. Instead, every town consists of a convenience store/video rental store/titty mag place run by likely meth heads. There is nothing quaint about buying overpriced Gatorade from toothless people.
Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience, one that I want to replicate next summer, but this time going east toward Syracuse.
That’s what I did over my summer “vacation.” Now onto the books!
Leg over Leg: Volumes 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Library of Arabic Literature)
The incredible Leg over Leg has been featured on Three Percent before and the release of the final two volumes is an event to people in the know.
Just to give you a sense of why this book is so compelling and weird, Volume 3 opens with a bit about the troubles of mankind:
Are they not enough, the troubles to which men are subject by way of misery and care, effort and wear, toil and disease, hardship and dis-ease, of deprivation and lucklessness, despair and unhappiness? Men are carried to nausea and craving, born in pain and suffereing, nursed to their mothers’ detriment, weaned to their imperilment. They crawl only to stumble, climb only to tumble, walk only to lag, labor only to flag, find themselves unemployed only by hunger’s pangs to be destroyed.
This goes on for a couple paragraphs, resolving with “In addition, some are born afflicted with (among the various defects and diseases)” which is followed by a list of defects that’s 14 pages long and includes things like: “ “sa’ar, ‘smallness of the head’,” “_qan’asah, ‘extreme shortness of the neck, as in one with a hunchback’,” and “hawas, ‘a touch of insanity.’” This is all brilliant.
Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer (Northwestern University Press)
I’m including this on here for two very different reasons: 1) I’m sure it’s an interesting book, but I’m waiting for Ben Moser’s Sontag bio to come out, and 2) as part of a special research project I’m working on for the Publishing Task Force at the Italian Trade Agency, I’ve started collecting information on nonfiction works in translation. It’s not quite ready to be shared yet, but I’m getting there. So expect more nonfiction to pop up in these monthly previews . . .
The Last Days of My Mother by Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson, translated from the Icelandic by Helga Soffia Einarsdottir (Open Letter)
Rather than explain to you why I like this book, I’ll let PW do it for me:
The setup: Hermann’s girlfriend of seven years leaves him for a French dentist, then his native Iceland’s banking system goes belly-up, and finally his 63-year-old mother, Eva, is diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. The punch line: a bitterly laugh-out-loud novel of Nordic misery. Spurred by his mother’s impending expiration date, the duo set out for the Netherlands, chasing the last-ditch hope of an unlicensed miracle drug called Ukrain offered by the Low Countries clinic. In fact, his mother’s miracle drug of choice is alcohol, not to get “drunk” but rather to be pleasantly “pompette.” The novel follows the pair’s groggy adventures as they attend a Nazi ball, smoke hash, and befriend an eclectic cross-section of Amsterdam characters. Eva has strong opinions: Milan Kundera is the most beautiful man alive, the “smartest use of an airline ticket was to buy something light that gained weight the further north you went,” and more alcohol is the “best remedy for the sad syndrome others liked to refer to as a hangover.” But Hermann accepts it all, having vowed that his abiding mission is “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” As his mother’s illness takes its inevitable course, Hermann gains a deeper appreciation for the pleasures and purpose of life. Sigurðsson’s novel successfully straddles the line between impious gallows humor and a heartfelt depiction of a son’s love for his mother.
The Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Other Press)
There’s no doubt that the international reader is always an insecure, worried reader, like some supine hysteric on a couch. I mean, I know nothing of the language in which this story called ‘Animals’ was written. Or also I do not know where precisely Porto Alegre is – where this story by Michel Laub begins. It does make, I’m just saying, a reader anxious. I have to assume that it’s Brazil. And yet also I think it’s possible in some bronco way not to care about these ethical problems and instead just attend to what’s right there.
So this story looks like a list of the animals that the novelist-narrator’s owned throughout his life, but really this list is therefore a pretext for a miniature autobiography and yet, really, to redescribe it one final time, this autobiography is a pretext for defining a life in one particular way: as a systematic process of loss. And this is moving, no question, but the thing I really love about this story is how it manages its matryoshka feat – to be at once a free floating meditation, leaping like some street cat from wall to wall, while also going deeper and deeper into a single theme.
This was one of my favorite stories in the Granta issue, so it’s exciting to see a full book of his available in English.
It’s impossible for me to reference Other Press and not mention how devastating Paul Kozlowski’s (aka PK) passing was. Moby Lives has a great piece about PK—who was going to be working for Melville House!—that gets at what an amazing person he was, and what an amazing book person. Reading the World wouldn’t have existed had it not been for PK and Karl Pohrt, and now we’ve lost both of them. They were both the best, and both played a big role in my involvement with the book world. I still recall various parts of conversations I had with both of them (one of the last times I saw PK he was giving Kaija advice on how to pitch High Tide), and when I was in Ann Arbor last week, I would’ve given anything to spend the day in Shaman Drum shooting the shit. I miss them both.
On a funnier note: Which is more embarrassing, the fact that Neymar posted a photo to Instagram of himself recovering in Ibiza with Paris Hilton (who should only be known for her spot-on cameo on The OC in which she name-checked Thomas Pynchon), or that Drake is considered the unofficial celebrity ambassador for the Toronto Raptors and got them fined for “recruiting” Kevin Durant? Sports gossip is dumb.
The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf)
As was announced a couple months ago, first editions of this will come with stickers designed by Japanese artists. Yes, stickers. So you can pretend you’re in high school, decorating your Trapper Keeper. Well, it is Murakami, the most beloved young adult author in the world, so maybe this does make sense.
In other perplexing news . . . BuzzFeed got another $50 million in venture capital funding earlier this week to help expand their list-making abilities. Whatever. That is what it is, and considering that the company is valued at $850 million, it makes sense. But this is the part that got me:
BuzzFeed will also expand its video unit, henceforth known as BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. The unit recently moved onto a 45,000-square-foot lot in Hollywood — not bad for a site sometimes stereotyped as a home for cat videos. (from CNN Money)
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures? It’s an easy joke to make, but I really do hope that their “movies” consist of nothing but cute animals and “The 29 Most Minnesotan Things Ever.”
Globetrotter by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Yale University Press)
Albahari is a stunningly good writer, and both Leeches and Gotz & Meyer are worth checking out. This one sounds like it’s going to be equally as interesting, plus, Banff!:
Narrated in a single uninterrupted paragraph, the novel takes place in the late 1990s at the Banff Art Centre in the Canadian Rockies. Three men—a painter from Saskatchewan and the narrator of the tale, a writer from Serbia, and a man whose traveling Croatian grandfather long ago jotted his name in a local museum’s guest book—become acquainted, then attached, then fatally entangled. On a climactic mountain hike that seethes with jealousy, desire, shame, and guilt, each man must engage in a final struggle. Albahari seizes his reader’s attention and never yields it in this remarkable, gripping tale.
F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the Germany by Carol Brown Janeway (Knopf)
Wow, this cover SUCKS. The original one, from Rowohlt is a million times better:
Also, congrats to Carol Brown Janeway on being the 2014 recipient of the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature From the press release:
Carol Brown Janeway has been a leading advocate for literature in translation during her long career at Alfred A. Knopf. The list of international writers she has published includes such luminaries as Patrick Süskind, José Donoso, Yukio Mishima, Elsa Morante, Ivan Klíma, Robert Musil, and Nobel laureates Imre Kertész, Heinrich Böll, and Thomas Mann. She is the translator of seminal works by Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), Thomas Bernhard (My Prizes), Ferdinand von Schirach (Crime), Sándor Márai (Embers), Margriet de Moor (The Storm), and Daniel Kehlmann (Measuring the World), among others.
“Works”: by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Jan Steyn (Dalkey Archive)
This is one of those conceptual books that’s a book of concepts. A list of 533 “works conceived of but not realized by its author,” it’s reminds one of the Oulipo, maybe of a more concrete counterpoint to Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. Leve, who died tragically young, has developed a pretty solid cult following, and like Suicide and Autoportrait, this unique book is likely to do really well.
“Moon in a Dead Eye”: by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
Moon in a Dead Eye is one of six= Garnier books that Gallic is bringing out. In a way, this reminds me of NYRB and their Simenon program—curious and prolific author who has an extensive backlist to mine and promote.
This one sounds particularly intriguing, because gypsies!
See you next month!
In addition to featuring various Icelandic tunes this week, I also want to highlight a number of works of Icelandic literature that are available in English translation. And since Halldor Laxness is Iceland’s one and only Nobel Prize winner, he seems like the perfect author to start with.
Laxness was born in 1902 and died in 1998, and wrote dozens of novels, story collection, and volumes of poetry during that time. His most well-known book is probably Independent People, a novel about Icelandic farmers in the early part of the twentieth century. But rather than focus on that particular book, I’d rather highlight Under the Glacier, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, and which is available in a pretty Vintage edition with an introduction from the late Susan Sontag.
First, check out the jacket copy:
Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a wryly provocative novel at once earthy and otherworldly. At its outset, the Bishop of Iceland dispatches a young emissary to investigate certain charges against the pastor at Sn?fells Glacier, who, among other things, appears to have given up burying the dead. But once he arrives, the emissary finds that this dereliction counts only as a mild eccentricity in a community that regards itself as the center of the world and where Creation itself is a work in progress.
What is the emissary to make, for example, of the boarded-up church? What about the mysterious building that has sprung up alongside it? Or the fact that Pastor Primus spends most of his time shoeing horses? Or that his wife, Ua (pronounced “ooh-a,” which is what men invariably sputter upon seeing her), is rumored never to have bathed, eaten, or slept? Piling improbability on top of improbability, Under the Glacier overflows with comedy both wild and deadpan as it conjures a phantasmagoria as beguiling as it is profound.
And if that isn’t compelling enough, here’s the opening of Sontag’s introduction:
The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated int he nineteenth century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose opinions and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the nineteenth century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultra-literary or bizarre. I am thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic; novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection; novels with characters who have supernatural options, like shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary geography. It seems odd to describe Gulliver’s Travels or Candide or Tristram Shandy or Jacques the Fatalist and His Master or Alice in Wonderland or Gershenzon and Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners or Kafka’s The Castle or Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Woolf’s The Waves or Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John or Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke or Calvino’s Invisible Cities or, for that matter, prono narratives simply as novels. To make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel’s main tradition, special labels are invoked.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Literature of fantasy.
Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries’ perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these categories.
The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldor Laxness’s wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.
Sontag loved a lot of books, and is quoted on a ton of them, but regardless, this is some pretty high praise. And her introduction carries on for a number of pages, explaining how Under the Glacier fits into several of these categories—“Science Fiction,” “Philosophical novel,” “Dream novel,” “Comic novel,” and “Visionary novel.” In many ways, Laxness is the one Icelandic author everyone should read, and if you’re going to start anywhere, why not start with a fairly wild 240-page novel that blew away Susan Sontag?
Just to give you a taste, here’s an extended quote from the beginning of the novel:
The bishop summoned the undersigned to his presence yesterday evening. He offered me snuff. Thanks all the same, but it makes me sneeze, I said.
Bishop: Good gracious! Well I never! In the old days all young theologians took snuff.
Undersigned: Oh, I’m not much of a theologian. Hardly more than in name, really.
Bishop: I can’t offer you coffee, I’m afraid, because madam is not at home. Even bishops’ wives don’t stay home in the evenings any more: society’s going to pieces nowadays. Well now, my boy, you seem to be a nice young fellow. I’ve had my eye on you since last year, when you wrote up the minutes of the synod for us. It was a masterpiece, the way you got all their drivel down, word for word. We’ve never had a theologian who knew shorthand before. And you also know how to handle that phonograph or whatever it’s called.
Undersigned: We call it a tape recorder. Phonograph is better.
Bishop: All this gramophone business nowadays, heavens above! Can you also do television? That’s even more fantastic! Just like the cinema—after two minutes I’m sound asleep. [. . .]
Bishop: What do you say to putting your best foot forward and going to Snaefellsjokull to conduct the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne? I pay civil service rates.
Undersigned: Don’t ask me to perform any heroic deeds. Besides, I’ve heard that heroic deeds are never performed on civil service rates. I’m not cut out for derring-do. But if I could deliver a letter for your Grace out at Glacier or something of that sort, that shouldn’t be beyond my capacities.
Bishop: I want to send you on a three-day journey or so on my behalf. I’ll be giving you a written brief for the mission. I’m going to ask you to call on the minister there, pastor Jon Primus, for me, and tell him he is to put you up. There’s something that needs investigating out there in the west.
Undersigned: What’s to be investigated, if I may ask?
Bishop: we need to investigate Christianity at Glacier. [. . .]
What I want to know, because I happen to be the office boy at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, is first of all why doesn’t the man keep the church in good repair? And why doesn’t he hold divine service? Why doesn’t he baptise the children? Why doesn’t he bury the dead? why hasn’t he drawn his stipend for ten or twenty years? Does that mean he’s perhaps a better believer than the rest of us? And what does the congregation say? On three successive visitations I have instructed the old fellow to put these matters right. The office has written him all of fifty letters. And never a word in reply, of course. But you can’t warn a man more than three times, let alone threaten him—the fourth time the threat just lulls him to sleep; after that there’s nothing for it but summary defrocking. But where are the crimes? That’s the whole point! An investigation is called for. There are some cock-and-bull stories going around just now that he has allowed a corpse to be deposited int the glacier. What corpse? It’s an absolute scandal! Kindly check it!
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .