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 shell of a tortoise. The tortoise, of course, is defenseless to Esseintes, who attaches so many gems that the creature cannot move. Eventually, their weight causes the tortoise to die, and the scene shows how the rich can use their wealth to crush the poor.
In A Dilemma, which was first serialized soon after the publication of À rebours in 1884, Huysmans once again gives us a satirical look at this cruel power. This time, however, the victim is not an animal but a poor, unmarried, pregnant woman named Sophie, the unlucky mistress of Jules—unlucky because Jules died without marrying her. . .
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 a criticism, nor the identification of a flaw is that Walker on Water is an unusual book that pushes boundaries, and the readers it would most appeal to are vastly different. This book is for those who like their stories very brief, abstracted, non-linear, without traditional character or plot, and for those to whom fabulism appeals, those who want stories to be strange and magical, something resembling, but far from, fairy tales.
When you look underneath a woman who walks on water, whose husband comes home and takes his brain out of his head, or a woman who collects her. . .
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 soliloquies in miasmic graveyards, a pregnant nun is entombed alive for her sins of the flesh. These events, and a cornucopia more like them, are all delivered to us through the eyes of the watchman Kruezgang as he makes his rounds in a nineteenth-century German town. The sixteen chapters, each comprising a separate nightwatch, and labeled as such (i.e., “Nightwatch 1. The Freethinker,” etc.), were originally published in 1804, to little public fanfare.
The Nightwatches is more gothic than Robert Smith at a Hot Topic. It’s more gothic than The Sisters of Mercy playing at Bela Lugosi’s funeral in an underground. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a pavane (a slow procession) that a princess would have danced to in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even though it’s an elegant piece of music, Ravel has claimed that the title is meaningless: According to a story that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in 1970, he told someone, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout.”
Korean novelist Park Min-Gyu was obviously inspired by Ravel’s work, but he’s not offering a strict interpretation of it. Unlike the French composer, Park writes about a time he lived in (the mid-1980s), a time when. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its effect on civilian lives. His first novel, Tram 83, is the story of Requiem, a gangster rapidly gaining power and influence in a fictional, dystopian African city and his friend, Lucien, a writer who visits him and is sucked into Requiem’s corrupt empire and the city’s outrageously extravagant, filthy-glamorous nightlife.
The title refers to Tram 83, a nightclub where wealthy tourists, gangsters, miners, and prostitutes (ranging in age from 12 to “ageless”) go every night, all night. The Tram is what holds the crumbling city together—where Requiem, his cohorts, and the city’s prostitutes peddle to wealthy tourists from around the world.. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous condition. Vasseur’s friends and acquaintances provide the material for his journal entries and they, like their respective stories, are connected only loosely—the characters through their relationships with Vasseur and his coterie; the stories in their common theme of man’s cruelty and injustice toward his fellow man.
For Vasseur the picturesque resort town in the Pyrenées does not offer the sensory calm prescribed by his doctor. Instead, when Vasseur looks out at the mountains he sees a foreboding presence, an enclosure that oppresses and suppresses, that draws to it discouragement and despair. An acquaintance tells Vasseur that landscapes are states of mind,. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and patterns on their own writing. Anne Garréta’s visionary debut novel Sphinx, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, was the first to be writer born after the group’s founding year to be inducted into the Oulipo, although not until 2000. Sphinx, originally published in 1986 in France, it is just now, almost thirty years later, being introduced to American readers by the impressive new publisher Deep Vellum.
In the past, most Oulipian works have dealt with self-imposed literary constraints such as lipograms or the strictly mathematically structured Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Garréta has upped the proverbial literary stakes and not. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series— will be confounding to those accustomed to poetry that holds its reader’s hand. These poems do not. They are elliptical and strange and offer very few concrete signifiers. They contain poems like this:
if it opens it won’t take root and only then could you touch the facelessness, it drizzles in your ear, tapping, leaf drop at the first step, it spreads its fingers on the membrane, catches its breath to defend itself and walks on, down again, down again, because death is not here, wall-zone is air-zone is an obstacle, like. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important even if it wasn’t as good as it is: an introduction to the work of a creative colossus who helped define the Japanese counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s, leaving his mark not only on fiction and poetry, but also on photography, film, TV, radio, and the theater.
As it happens, Crimson Thread is thin but lovely, a gathering of very short wisps of stories that read sometimes as cracked postmodernist fables, sometimes as bemused and irreverent prose poems à la James Tate (Terayama actually started out as a tanka poet, bent on upending that most self-consciously refined of ancient aristocratic. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when he was a young law student and aspiring writer. Readers got to meet many of the colorful characters who inhabited both the town of Palafrugell (where he was from) and the city of Barcelona (where he went to school). While Pla socialized with many of them, he preferred to spend time alone, especially along the Rambla in Barcelona. Even though Pla could be both ironic and pessimistic, he would write about humdrum moments in his life in such amazing detail that the reader couldn’t help but want to follow him along his journey.
Now, fans of that book can continue. . .