Although I tend to write these quite often, I somewhat hate doing the effusive “this author is so great!” thing. Not that the authors don’t deserve it, in fact, quite the opposite, but there’s something much more intellectually satisfying about writing a harsh diss. Virulent criticism, which is usually wedded in a small dislike of something that gets blown up to an extreme for a variety of reasons, such as humor, point driving, or posturing, makes you seem a lot smarter than you probably are. Noticing a flaw, or pointing out an inconsistency, or trashing an author’s otherwise stellar reputation, is impressive. You are a better reader than others because you pay attention to shortcomings and now how to contrast these with a nearly Platonic ideal of what a Great Book should be instead of simply reading for enjoyment while on the beach or in the bathroom, half-distracted by the anxieties of daily life.
By contrast, giving an author too much love—even if deserved, even if he/she is already well-respected internationally—makes you seem a bit foolish and simple, like a cheerleader or a lifelong Cubs fan.
Nevertheless, although I’ve only read two of his books—The Train Was on Time and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum—I think Heinrich Böll is one o my new favorite authors.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to read Böll. Part of it is the war thing—almost all of his books are tied to World War II, which doesn’t get me off as much as it does others. Also doesn’t help that the dude wrote approximately 762 books, making it tricky to figure out where exactly to start.
Both of which are totally shitty reasons, especially now that I’ve read a couple of books and fallen under the charm of Böll’s prose, the crafty way he puts together his stories, his compelling characters, etc.
I’m going to write a full review of The Train Was on Time in the next couple weeks, but this novel—about Andreas, a young German soldier who, while boarding a train suddenly knows for certain that the war’s coming to a close and he’s going to die . . . soon—is incredibly tight and evocative. The writing is precise, complemented by a certain charm in the authorial voice that drew me in immediately.
Another stupid reason why I didn’t read Böll before now: the previously published editions weren’t 1/10,000th as attractive as the new “Essential Heinrich Böll” series from Melville House Publishing.
I don’t think there’s another press in
America the World as good at branding themselves as Melville House.
First off, look at those covers—fucking beautiful. Simple, dreamy and geometric. Attractive. That’s something you’ll never really get with ebooks. Sure, it’s pretty simple to design a new 2” x 3” jpeg whenever you want, but there is a certain thrill that comes from collecting a set of newly reissued books from your favorite author. Not to mention, something like this helps push the books out in front of the eyes of readers again. Switching a jpg image on a website just kind of isn’t the same.
And then there’s the “Essential” part of their series. Suddenly the total number of books Böll’s written doesn’t really matter. There are eight (six pictured here, plus Irish Journal and What’s to Become of the Boy? Or, Something to Do with Books) books Melville has decided to reissue. Obviously, these are the ones worth reading. And I will. Book by book by book.
Adding introductions or afterwords to reprints is nothing new, but the line-up of people who wrote pieces for these reissues is pretty interesting. There’s William Vollmann, who is to afterwords what Harry Mathews is to book blurbs, and there’s Salman Rushdie, but there’s also Jess Crispin of Bookslut and Scott Esposito of Quarterly Conversation. Very cool, and very smart, since both of these writers are also well-known for helping promote great works of literature.
Anyway, all this is to say that I love Heinrich Böll, and you should too. (And to prove that yes, I am still alive, working on occasion, and reading. I know it’s been a slow Three Percent summer . . .)
Full reviews of all the books to come . . .
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. . .