Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.
Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel. . .
When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond any cliché.”
Generally, I’m a suspicious reader; big claims scare me off. Having never watched a Fellini film and with only Calvino and Pavese as literary signposts, I entered the novel (guided by veteran translator Michael F. Moore) with a healthy amount of skepticism. Just a few chapters in, however, I knew that even if Genovesi hadn’t managed to overcome cliché, he had indeed created an electric book, a book that stirs, and one that you can’t help living—and living with—along the way. It’s fair to say that Genovesi’s English debut touches all the right spots and echoes back just. . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he refers to is elusive. “It was a kind of moral plague, against which it seemed that there was no defense.”
The Skin is Malaparte’s description of this moral plague. He writes about a character of the same name who accompanies a band of Pollyannaish American soldiers as they go about Naples acting as both conquerors and liberators. He bears witness to the variety of horrors that come at the end of a long war: starvation, slavery, casual murder, careless disposal of the dead, and the caustic nature with which the rich feed upon the poor (both literally and metaphorically), to name. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving” quantity and degree of attention. What is also unsurprising—and slightly depressing—is the rather gossipy nature of the comment and controversy surrounding Labé’s work, both past and present. Her contemporaries, we are told, spread rumours that she was a courtesan, albeit one with discerning taste in her clientele. In recent years, one Renaissance scholar has claimed that Labé’s poetry was actually written by a group of men, and that Labé herself never even existed. The life of a female writer, it seems, comes with some interesting occupational hazards.
Regardless of what she was or wasn’t, Labé herself is proudly conscious of her. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.
The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.
Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of José Ovejero’s Nothing Ever Happens lies in its five protagonists (the chapters are titled with the names of the characters; almost everyone gets two chapters to his or her name). Carmela, an excessively independent woman, and her husband Nico, a too gentle man respectively, lead a quiet and comfortable life of middle-class marriage, full of almost imperceptible silences. But the secret of Olivia, their Ecuadorian immigrant housekeeper, could bring down the appearance of normality. Especially with the potential involvement of Claudio, a gifted boy of convoluted ideas who has fun in revealing what is hidden.
As we enter into Nothing Ever. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is paid to these books. Put out by presses more focused on quality than profit, it is a definition of quality as challenging literature, beautiful prose, new directions for the novel—and that’s all wonderful. But sometimes, other quality is overlooked. We know that Scandinavian crime novels can be counted on to make it into translation, but horror, science fiction, fantasy, comedy? They seem to be more rare, and for someone who reads as all over the map as possible (both the map of nations and the metaphorical map of literature types), it can be disappointing. Then comes along something like The. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means not just to write, but to create representations of ourselves. Is narrative a story, or a portrait, or both? It is a question Baricco delightfully plays with, with intriguing results that can be quite sensual.
In the title novella, a writer, Jasper Gwyn, after publishing only three novels publicly announces in the Guardian that he is never going to write another book. The reason? It “no longer suited him.” His publisher and friend try to no avail to have him change his mind. Gwyn is unwilling to go back on what he’s said and refuses to write another book. However, he. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really only remember the barest details of Gandhi’s life and deeds. I can say, in the humblest of humblebrags, that I did read Intizar Husain’s Basti, a book I certainly might not have if not for its inclusion on the “2013 Best Translated Book Award longlist”:http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6532. That book, more than anything, made me somewhat—an emphatically underlined, italicized, all-caps, incorrectly-used quotation marked “SOMEWHAT”—more educated of the events surrounding India and Pakistan’s violent schism in the 1940s.
But perhaps you are on equally unfamiliar terrain. Or perhaps not: maybe you were one of the many who read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which would. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”
Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more. . .