A couple weeks ago, J. Peder Zane asked me to contribute to his Top Ten Books project featuring top ten lists from a bunch of famous writers. I was going to do an all translations list, but ended up just listing ten of my favorite books since 1950. (And I’ll admit right now that this list is unstable. Within five minutes of sending it, I thought of 2-3 books I wished I would’ve included.)
I’m very honored to have been included in this, but what’s really cool are the brief summaries that Peder’s been posting about some of the books I mentioned.
First off, here’s one on Antonio Lobo Antunes’s Act of the Damned that includes a nice summary of the book:
Winner of the Portuguese Writers’ Association Grand Prize for Fiction, Act of the Damned is set during the tumultuous year of 1975. As the socialist revolution closes in, a once-wealthy Portuguese family is accused of “economic sabotage.” They must escape across the border to Spain, then on to Brazil – but the family is bankrupt, financially and spiritually. The patriarch, Diogo, lies dying, while his rapacious offspring rifle through his belongings, searching for his will. He remembers with bitterness and resignation his foolish marriage to his brother’s beautiful mistress, who left him with a mongoloid daughter and a simpleminded son, who at sixty is running toy trains past his father’s deathbed with the solemn self-importance of a five-year-old.
And then there’s this one on Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which includes a brilliant appreciation by Arthur Phillips:
The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction – the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building – blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.
“Life’s” hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .
Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.
Published in 1978, “Life” is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks.
(So definitely going to reread this sometime this summer.)
What’s also cool is this contest to win a free copy of Life:
The good people at David R. Godine will send two lucky Top Ten readers copies of “Life: A User’s Manual.” Here how it works. Construct a Top Ten List suggested by Perec’s novel – e.g. Top Ten Books About Paris, Top Ten Books About Painting, Top Ten Books About Apartment Living, Top Ten Books By Modern French Authors, etc. Email your list to jpederzane [at] jpederzane [dot] com by July 22. We will choose two winners (from people we don’t know) – and publish the best lists on the blog.
(Somehow today became a day of list making. But wait! I have something really fun coming in a minute . . . )
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. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .