Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be unveiling the Open Letter Spring 2009 list. (All posts about this list can be found here.) This “unveiling” kicked off last week with a bit about Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, and next up is our April 2009 title, The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch.
A novel about an alcoholic novelist who goes in and out of rehab (eighteen times!) doesn’t immediately sound like the funniest novel out there. Yet, Pilch’s The Mighty Angel is a hysterical, and occasionally sobering book. The title comes from the liquor store the protagonist flees to the second he’s out of rehab, and that sort of endless cycle—hit bottom, enter rehab, recover, feel great, feel so great you need a drink, drink heavily, hit bottom—is at the center of this book.
In Jerzy’s (the protagonist, not the author) case, there’s an added bit to his cycle—the reliance on some pretty young woman to take care of him and make everything better. His belief that love can fix his life is tragic and kind of touching, and is one of the reasons why the ending is so ambiguous . . .
This still doesn’t sound that funny, but trust me, Jerzy’s (the character) imagination and wild stories about the people in rehab—Don Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Hero of Socialist Labor—are wonderful. As is this excerpt about the potential plagiarism of an alcoholic’s “rock bottom confession.” Pilch reminds me a bit of Tadeusz Konwicki, especially The Polish Complex.
Early in his career, Jerzy Pilch was considered one of Poland’s greatest up-and-coming writers, and was even referred to by Czeslaw Milosz as the “hope of young Polish prose.” Now almost sixty, he’s a very established figure, and one of the great contemporary Polish writers. He’s been nominated for the prestigious NIKE Award on six occasions (including this past year), and won in 2001 for The Mighty Angel.
It’s also worth noting that this book was recommended and translated by Bill Johnston, one of the greatest Polish translators working today (actually, he may be one of the greatest Polish translators ever), who also translated Pilch’s His Current Woman, which was published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .