Sarah Gerard is a writer and a bookseller at McNally Jackson Books. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
I’m only going to talk about one book in this first BTBA blog post. Okay, maybe two. Okay, maybe three. But first, the one: Christa Wolf’s City of Angels (FSG). Oh my God (as it were). This book. This book, you guys.
Not that I’m surprised. Admittedly, I’ve only read one of Wolf’s other books, Cassandra, a retelling of the Fall of Troy in the first-person from the point of view of Cassandra, the cursed soothsayer. It’s completely devastating and oh-so-complex, grappling with issues of patriarchy and violence, and language and…well, anyway. Highly recommended, but that should go without saying because Wolf, I’ve come to realize, is (was, R.I.P.) a complete genius.
I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but City of Angels is by far the most rewarding. I’m halfway through and the marginal notes are getting a bit out of hand. Wolf’s ability to create layers of meaning in a peripatetic structure across three, sometimes four, different time periods is astounding. Set in Los Angeles around the time of Clinton’s first election, she manages weave in the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the LA. riots, architectural and anatomic metaphors, particle physics, Communism, Capitalism, Buddhism, Greek mythology and so much more in order to investigate the further themes of loss, grief, surveillance, secrecy, self-examination and identity, translation, documentation, etc. I could go on. I really could. And she does this with utmost grace and fluidity.
Speaking of translation, Damion Searls has done a knockout job here. The prose is lovely but invisible in the reading, which is exactly what it should be. Wolf often hints at subtle connections between events by ordering them back-to-back, but never (never, this would be a sin to her, I think) states the connections overtly. Searls knows, though. He’s on it, and he’s done his job deftly. Systems of meaning rise to the surface like bubbles in a glass. So refreshing.
My favorite part of this book so far is the connection Wolf draws between political bureaucracy and architecture, using anatomical language to describe states of sickness or health as they occur in a population living under a functional or dysfunctional government, and the way architecture changes under those systems, directing bodies. The Berlin Wall is probably the biggest example of this. Again, Searls has handled this beautifully.
Wolf’s use of pronouns (I & you, most particularly) is also absolutely brilliant and I applaud Searls’s very elegant handling of them, but I would need a lot more room if I were going to talk about that in-depth. One blog post is not enough. I suggest you just go out and buy the book already.
But hey, there are other books, right? Firefly by Severo Sarduy – this is definitely another longlist contender for me. The book is a bildungsroman following the namesake young man through a series of sad and hilarious encounters with quasi-fabulist doctors and officials, the owner of an orphanage, and a young woman whose fate is bittersweet to say the least. Sarduy’s language is colorful and shapely, and his ability to frame tragedy in a humorous context is definitely one of his many strengths. Likewise, Mark Fried’s ability to relate Sarduy’s complex meanings in a way that remains childlike and playful is very impressive, and makes reading Firefly at once a fun and intellectually stimulating experience.
The last book I’ll mention is maybe not (or maybe is, we’ll see) a longlist contender for me, but I really think it merits attention because its story is so interesting and because (who knew?) Ursula K. Le Guin translated it. Squaring the Circle by Gheorghe Săsărman (Aqueduct Press) is “a book of brief descriptions of imaginary cities.” Sound familiar? It’s basically the Romanian Invisible Cities, and was published roughly around the same time, although the introduction to this edition suggests that Calvino and Săsărman were unaware of each others’ work. Calvino’s enjoyed greater success largely because Săsărman’s book was banned while Calvino’s had wide distribution. If I can speak honestly here, I actually have no preference for one over the other – I was completely enraptured by Squaring the Circle and would only, maybe, not suggest it for the longlist because I have mixed feelings about the translation. Maybe I’ll write more about this in a later post. In the meantime, I must say that, in spite of these mixed feelings, I really loved this book and think you should, too.
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. . .