16 September 10 | Chad W. Post

Running a bit behind with the news here, but the Fall 2010 issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now available online. As always, there’s a lot of great content here, including an essay on Nicholson Baker as the missing link between Updike and DFW, a piece on Helene Cixous’s So Close, and tons of interesting book reviews. Here are a few additional highlights:

Mexican writer Roberto Ransom is nicely featured in this issue. First up is the translation of ‘Lizard à la Heart,’ which is part of Desparecidos, animales y artistas, a collection that Daniel Shapiro received grants from the PEN Translation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to translate. It’s an odd, fantastical story about a woman talking talking to her pet—a lonely crocodile locked in the bathroom.

In addition, there’s an interview with Ransom conducted by John Pluecker, which includes some interesting bits about the origins of “Lizard à la Heart” (he cites V, and the experience of buying a house only to have the ex-owner show up at all hours of the night drunk and demanding his house back), and this story about Borges and Bioy Casares:

“Just last night I heard an unforgettable quip by Borges that goes more or less as follows. As an old man, master Borges turns to his lifelong friend, Bioy Casares, and says, ‘Do you remember that towards the end of that terrible year of ’45 we considered committing suicide?’ ‘Yes, in fact, I do,’ responds Bioy. ‘What I don’t remember,’ continues Borges, ‘is if we did so or not.’”

One of the big essays in this issue is a long piece by George Prochnik on Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday: An Autobiography. It’s a very interesting piece that mostly focuses on Zweig’s exile and eventual suicide. Some very interesting bits in here that make it definitely worth reading:

Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Over time, his justifications for being in Petropolis come to sound like dutiful recitations of holistic prescriptions. “Montaigne speaks with infinite sorrow of people who live the sorrows of others in imagination, and advises them to withdraw and isolate themselves,” he told Friderike. The contrast between the sight of Rio’s Carnival revelries (“_Très érotique, très érotique!_” he exclaimed to friends) and the latest news of wartime abominations gave the final prod to suicide. Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved. [. . .]

Rather than staking a claim on the “real” beauties of the past, Zweig poses the question that haunts the experience of many a nostalgic émigré to this day: what do present circumstances offer by way of compensation for loss of the invariably exaggerated fantasy of sweet home? Although “it was a delusion our fathers served, it was a wonderful and noble delusion,” Zweig wrote, “more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of today; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.” Zweig’s paean to the aesthetic intoxication that characterized the Vienna of yesterday recalls Nietzsche’s dictum, “We have art in order that we may not perish of truth.”

Unfortunately, the only Zweig I’ve read is The Post-Office Girl, which I really enjoyed, and which made me want to read more—a desire that’s been stoked by this piece.

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Quarterly Conversation‘s review sections is one of the highlights of each issue, and the new one doesn’t disappoint. Especially pleased to see a piece by Matt Rowe on Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life in Paper, which was translated by Edward Gauvin. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I completely agree with Matt on the Cortazar connection:

Although the stories in A Life on Paper have many precedents and parallels in American writing, from Irving to Poe to Twain, the fantastic mode has been in eclipse for a century. In recent years Ray Bradbury’s freaks and dreamers, unfairly relegated to the genre shelves, are perhaps a better match than the biting humor and socio-cultural satire of a Vonnegut, despite their surface similarities. The success of writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Mann may be sign of a renaissance, or merely the exception that proves the rule.

Other literatures don’t relegate the modern fantastic to a lesser tier. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s closest Latin American kin is not any practitioner in the overstretched category of magical realism but the inimitable Julio Cortázar; Italian readers know not only Calvino’s post-modern play but the works of his contemporaries Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi and many others. And beyond the many works of Châteaureynaud not yet in English, translator Gauvin says there is a whole school of the fantastic in French and especially Belgian letters.

This kind of tale is foreign not in its language (thanks to Edward Gauvin) but in its mere unfamiliarity. A Life on Paper is itself a talisman for preserving an endangered world.

*

Linda Lê is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while, especially The Three Fates, which is translated by Mark Polizetti and published by New Directions. Here’s a bit from Promita Chatterji’s review:

From its first lines depicting an old man, “tired, broken . . . sitting in his small blue house like King Lear in his hovel,” the novel aligns its main characters with the most canonical of literary figures. “King Lear’s” daughters turn out to be the “Three Fates” of the title: two sisters and their cousin; three women who have left their father behind while emigrating to France from Vietnam during the early 1970’s. Living a life of relative wealth and comfort, the novel’s main thread revolves around their discussions as they plan to bring him out for a visit.

But it’s Lê‘s style that sounds most intriguing to me:

While the majority of these stories are inherently fascinating and excruciatingly detailed, The Three Fates is by no means an easy read. Although it is relatively short, the novel’s overriding feature is its forceful, difficult narration. Written without chapter or paragraph breaks—and with only a few, intermittent “section” breaks—and without any dialogue or direct discourse, the novel creates a fractured, dream-like surface that glides from one perspective to another. [. . .]

The translation, by Mark Polizetti, is impressive in its ability to render the perspectival shifts and general pacing of the language. At times, the tone of sarcasm and cruelty feels a bit over the top and the nicknames can seem clunky, but overall works quite successfully to render the fragmentation and tension that characterize the novel.

*

Finally, there’s also a piece by Anne Posten on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park:

In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.

The story takes place in Frankfurt, where Sascha lives with her younger half-brother and half-sister in a housing project filled mostly with Russian immigrants like themselves. The fact that many of the characters are meant to be speaking Russian and the interactions between newly-learned German and the mother tongue provide an interesting challenge for a translator, and one that Tim Mohr dealt with smoothly. His pop-culture background is also very well suited to the diction of a teenager, and the switches between colloquialism and precocious articulateness are navigated with ease.

Yep—another book for the “to read” pile . . .


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