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 his mother in his childhood home, in debt, jobless, never married, overly critical of others—who somehow still manages to win our affection with his wry pathos.
The dinner of the novella’s title is at the home of the narrator’s unnamed friend (“the last friend I had”) where the narrator and his elderly mother are the only guests. The friend keeps Mama entertained during dinner with gossipy stories about the families in the town of Pringles, and the two are “perfectly in sync” with their back-and-forth name-dropping. The narrator does not participate in their exchange. He has never attempted. . .
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 and comes out from Otis Books/Seismicity Editions next week.
John Locke believed that a person is someone who is conscious of his own existence; this attribute was his personal identity and “without consciousness there is no person.”
Monsieur T. has stabbed his wife five times. He was found in the neighbor’s yard and subsequently interrogated by the police. His answers to their questions provide little or no pertinent information:
What is your name?
What’s your first name?
It doesn’t belong to me.
And your last name?
Monsieur T. is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He is unable to connect with the wife and. . .
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 a result, his characters, as well as his readers, are faced with the unexpected. Sometimes the results are quite humorous, but sometimes they are so fascinating that the reader is not sure what to think. Whatever events take place in a piece, though, the French writer, who won the Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone (also available in English from The New Press), always proves himself to be a master of the craft that seems to be enhanced by the sharp clarity brought by translator Linda Coverdale.
The pieces in The Queen’s Caprice are connected by history. That’s not to say that. . .
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 in expensive European hotels.
The woman is Therese Irxmayer, aka Lady Holly, an arms dealer with a sharp mind, a history and a great derriere. The novel’s genesis rests in her mysterious presence. Concession is a fantastic romantic-sexy-spy novel, but it is also a deeply considered psychological exploration of real-life events in colonial Shanghai. According to Xiao Bai, while he was in the early stages of researching the novel, he happened upon this line in the Shanghai Municipal Archives:
It was the White Russian Woman who first attracted Lieutenant Sarly’s attention.
This woman was Therese. Xiao continues:
That is how it all. . .
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. Even though it’s a very Russian novel that occasionally addresses problems in that country during the nineteenth century, it appeals to modern-day readers because Tolstoy’s works show that the events that have the greatest impact on our lives are not the major ones, but the ordinary, everyday ones. But unlike Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, War and Peace, Anna Karenina is much more straightforward in getting that point across.
Yet, it’s not a perfect novel. This statement may surprise those who have heard it declared not just one of the greatest, but the greatest novel ever written. For the most part, the. . .
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 forest and cloaked in mist, belongs to the past; it has been the summer home of the Brodal family for generations, and their annual descent has endowed it with the wonder and deep mythos of childhood and family identity. The structure comes to the reader as familiar—we know it from Nabokov’s childhood summers at Vyra in Speak, Memory, and from the Ramsay’s retreat in Virginia Woolf’s _To the Lighthouse_—and so the beams of Mailund are as laden with our memories as they are with that of Siri, Jenny Brodal’s daughter, now staying at the estate with her husband Jon and. . .
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 unnamed, usually voiceless, person—recollecting their life, stitching together what is remembered with the forgotten, as much as they can, from beginning to end, though not necessarily in order. Archipelago is a fitting publisher for This Life, given that two of their other books, Stone upon Stone and Treatise on Shelling Beans are masterpieces of the genre. This Life doesn’t reach the heights that those works do, but contributes its own perspective to the genre.
Sussie relates not just her life, but the history of her family, from well before the Boer Wars, then through them, and into the uncertain dates of. . .
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. . .