Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by the intersections Quignard unearths between the mind and the world of sound. And that topic is just that: sound. How all manner of sounds constitute music, how some predate music and how our perception of sound—our history with it—affects our appreciation of music.
The nonfiction book is divided into what Quignard terms 10 treatises, but it often reads like a collection of connected fragments from the author’s journal. Entries are separated by a small bullet point, and the book feels in sections like a prose poem, or really, at times a riddle. As The New Yorker has noted, Quignard. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of a million other colourless men before him, Flaubert uses italics to lift the expression up from the page in order to highlight the character’s paucity of creative expression. Here, Flaubert acknowledges, is a very boring man. And thus: Emma begins to dream of a life better lived.
Jovanka Živanović’s novella, Fragile Travelers, also contains a dreamer. Her name is Emilija, or Ema, which is surely not a coincidence. In her waking life she is a high-school teacher. In her dreams she is much more: philosophical, introspective, able to fly, carrying a serpent baby in her womb. Dream things. And. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary Snyder’s translations in the late ’70s. This new edition from New Directions Publishing includes an addition Weinberger wrote this past year, covering more recent efforts by sinologists in the twenty-first century in English, French, and German.
The poem in question is Wang Wei’s “Deer Park,” written sometime in the 700s CE. For reference, here is Gary Snyder’s translation, which fittingly is the last of the original 19 ways:
no one to be seen.
human sounds and echoes.
enters the dark woods;
on the green moss, above.
Weinberger makes short work of. . .
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 take a form of writing known for its discipline, its strict forms, rhymes, and meanings suggested through language and render it into a second tongue. It’s inevitable that something will be lost in the process of translation. Prose might survive such a transformation (it may even benefit from it), but poetry is wounded each time it’s translated. I don’t speak Italian, but I know for sure that I’m missing something when I read Dante in English.
Perhaps this is why so much of the poetry in translation I come across seems to fall into the free verse, avant-garde category.. . .
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 level of commitment and talent to pull that off. But I’m going to be very honest here: I’ve never thought that book was as good as the story of how it was written. No disrespect to Perec; his book is astounding, but I’ll likely remember the craft long after I’ve forgotten the story.
The Subsidiary could have easily become a book where the form is more impressive than the content. The author, Matías Celedón, composed the book using a set of office stamps purchased at a library sale in Santiago, Chile. The stamps allow for moveable type, though. . .
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 customary ethical tangles and astute mulling over human behavior. At its most fluid, the reader drifts through the familiar density and detours in something like an intrigued torpor.
The focal point is the uneasy marriage of Eduardo Muriel and Beatriz Noguera. Juan de Vere, the narrator, is looking back on the period when, in his first job as an assistant to Eduardo, a well-known film director, he lived in the former maid’s quarters of the couple’s apartment. He was drawn to them, they relied on him, and this configuration made him a privileged voyeur. Provoked by rambling conversations with. . .
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 the first person by Kogito Choko, a septuagenarian writer with published works including The Silent Cry and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. If those titles sound familiar to you, it’s because those actually are real-life titles by Oe, The Day He Himself in particular being a part of the collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.
As a matter of fact, Death by Water is in many ways a direct response to The Day He Himself, and few pages go by without it being mentioned. The reason? Death by Water is essentially the story of. . .
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 Cardinal family, and left me wishing I could stay for more. With its elegiac prose and sensitively developed characters, the novel is an original, emotionally potent, and heartbreakingly real exploration of the forces that bind and break families.
In addition to Saucier’s nuanced portrayal of a unique family dynamic, the inventiveness of her various characters and settings kept me constantly intrigued. The Cardinals are a fierce and feral clan of twenty-one siblings who grew up together in Norco, a now desolate and poverty-stricken mining town in Quebec. Norco was built on the short-lived prosperity of a zinc mine discovered. . .
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 assumption should be disproved.
If it turns out we know just a fragment of the world.
Constant motion, collapsing buildings and meticulous work in stone. The unfamiliar as a wall we must forever scrabble to remove in order to find our humanity there and perhaps even love someone.
The first of Josefine Klougart’s award-winning novels to be translated into english, One of Us Is Sleeping (Én af os sover) is a dolorous, yet beautifully composed work of failed love, loss, and lament. The star of Klougart’s book is her gorgeous, evocative imagery and emotional acuity. With grief. . .
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 of a trashy popular novel. The writing is straightforward, not overly literary, and yet by the end you realize all of Despentes’s complex feminist points have not only been made, but have found their way into your mind, have changed something about the way you think. This is her genius.
Despentes doesn’t merely explore what it’s like to be a woman in the world. Some of her books are about what it’s like to be anyone in a world that keeps people unequal, whether they be men or women, rich or poor. They’re about how everyone is affected, and. . .