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 . . . )
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
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. . .