16 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Things are a bit rough for Chad the morning after the Open Letter gala, but he powers through and talks about this new phase of Rodoreda’s stories. He and Brian break down some of the more challenging of her stories, including “Noctural” and “The Bath,” and talk about what does and doesn’t work in creating an authentic voice, and how to behave on airplanes.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



14 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you listen to either of our podcasts, you probably know that I’ve been traveling a whole lot this fall. Spain, Poland, Minneapolis (twice!), and Brazil. All of these trips have been fantastic, and you can expect some posts about Poland and Brazil in the near future, but in the meantime, I wanted to tell you about my final trip of a fall: a two-day jaunt to Toronto to participate in two panels at the Toronto Public Library.

First up:

Granta on Canada

Thursday, November 16 at 7pm
Toronto Reference Library
Bram & Bluma Appel Salon
789 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON

UK-based Granta Magazine launches their first ever Canada edition, upending the ways we imagine land, reconciliation, truth and belonging. A discussion with Catherine Leroux and Madeleine Thien, hosted by publisher of Open Letter Books, Chad Post. Featuring readings by some of Granta 141’s contributors including Dionne Brand, Falen Johnson and Anakana Schofield.

This is going to be great. I read the issue already, and am really excited to talk with Leroux and Thien about their editorial vision, the array of pieces included, multicultural Canada, and more. (Especially cool that the authors of three of my favorite pieces from the issue will be reading . . .)

I’ll write something more specific about the issue later, but for now, you might want to check out the contributions that are available for free onlind: Margaret Atwood’s The Martians Claim Canada, Larry Tremblay’s The Book Tree, and Nadim Roberts’s Mangilauk’s Highway. Also, you should definitely check out the introduction, which points to a lot of the larger issues at play.

And if you happen to be in Toronto, come see us!

*


Landing that Dream Deal: A Writer’s How-To

Friday, November 17 at 7pm
Toronto Reference Library
Atrium
789 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON

To commemorate 150 years of US/Canada relations, three literary and publishing insiders, a publisher, agent and a writer and festival organizer, talk about recent developments in the US and Canadian markets for getting your work published. How can Canadian writers find agents that help get deals in the US? How should writers identify a public for their work? What role do literary and book festivals play in putting a writer’s work on the radar of publishers in the US and Canada? With Jael Richardson (writer and Director of FOLD), Sam Hiyate (President of The Rights Factory) and hosted by Chad Post (publisher of Open Letter Books).

This should also be fun! More nuts and bolts than the Granta event, but I’m really curious to talk about this top with Richardson and Hiyate. I suspect that this is going to end up being like a Three Percent podcast, but live, and with guests.

Again, if you’re in the Toronto area, come to the library on Thursday and Friday for these two great events!

14 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I go it alone and talk about six Rodoreda stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train.” On that podcast, we bumble around talking about “Nocturnal,” so I thought I’d try and rectify that here.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



This week, I’m going to try something different. Rather than talk about some general themes, or how to break apart Rodoreda’s stories by tracing particular motifs, I’m going to, in basically real time, try and figure out the first story in this collection that absolutely baffled me—“Nocturnal.”

We already recorded this week’s podcast, on which we talked a bit about this story, but I don’t think that we really got into it enough, or solved it, whatever that actually means. Although in retrospect, maybe “solved” is the right term. This is a strange story that seems to have some hidden layers of meaning, some larger significance that isn’t exactly clear on first read. So here I am. Going back through it line-by-line, trying to puzzle this out. (And probably failing and saying dumb shit along the way, but at least let’s hope that it’s somewhat entertaining shit.)

I can’t figure out when exactly “Nocturnal” was written, but given that it was part of Vint-i-dos contes (1957), and features German soldiers and a French setting, it likely draws from Rodoreda’s experiences living outside of Paris in 1939, but was probably written a few years later, when she’s living in Switzerland and starting to publish again. I’m not sure that this means anything, except that perhaps, given our familiarity with World War II, we, as readers, are tempted to read into this a degree of realism that might not actually be present.

Let’s go back to the beginning though—the Germans will come when they come.

A plaintive moan filled the room. It continued for a while before suddenly dying, as if it had passed through the walls. It sounded like a whimper from a wounded animal that had not yet lost any blood or energy. The dense silence again invaded everything. A moment later a body moved beneath the sheets as if, rather than a moan, the mysterious echo of a moan had awoken him from a deep sleep. The meowing of a cat on the stairs rose in tone and volume, becoming sharp and urgent. Another moan silenced the cat. A shadow jumped out of the bed, followed by an arpeggio of springs. The sound of bare feet on the floor, two or three coughs, a switch being flipped, and the room was flooded with light.

Just your normal, cheery Rodoreda story! As we find out in the next paragraph, the moan coming from the body under the sheets is from a pregnant woman who is going into labor, but, also, doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

A tired voice rose from beneath the sheets: “First put some water on to boil, then go knock on the druggist’s door and ask if he’ll let you phone the doctor.” She looks so pale, the man thought to himself. He had never seen her so pale, with such sunken eyes. On the stairs the cat resumed, his meows filled with desire.

What’s up with this cat? It’s initially meowing in a “sharp and urgent” manner and now meows “filled with desire.” Is this some sort of signal? An animalistic representation of the birthing process? A random detail to add veracity to the setting? (I assume France is mostly feral cats and Amélie, but I might be wrong about that.)



Right here, while trying to follow his wife’s instructions, our protagonist (a former geography teacher living in exile from Barcelona) thinks his go-to phrase for the first time: Order, order, order. This is somewhat explained a page later when we find out that he’s working on a book called The Terrible Consequences of Truth (which would make a good title for this collection):

The original title of the book was The Terrible Consequences of the Desire to be Truthful. But then he had decided on the other. Truth as the dissolution of all human relations. Truth as the negation of all authentic values. Salvation achieved through systematic deception, applied with a radical spirit, could be transformed into truth. Man could become truthful by means of a lie, in a way that was more real than sincerity. These somewhat confusing ideas nevertheless possessed a coherence: “Order, order, order.” His rather verbose study had led to another, entitled “Toward Freedom by Means of Dissimulation.” I simulate ergo I am free. This was the point of departure for his thesis. “Order, order, order.”

On one simple level, this could be taken as a radical defense of fiction as a whole. The truth, great, that will ruin everything. But a system of simulations and lies? That’s more freeing and, in the end, closer to the truth. How this idea—planted here, at the beginning of the story—plays out is yet to be seen. But this tension between order and simulation will surely be important.

One other early note: The writer’s wife is having her fourth child. At a more advanced age. The situation of the other three also feels like a clue to unpacking this story:

It was almost as if the three children in his life were holding him back. One in Madrid, a member of Franco’s Falange party; another a left-wing exile in Mexico; the third—a daughter—in Reggio, seduced by an Italian officer. My interior contradictions expressed in the flesh, he often thought. The last child now eighteen and the fourth about to be born.

So, a fascist, a leftist, and one married to an officer (all walk into a bar?). Which represent his “interior contradictions”? Trying to tie these two ideas together: His children are all creating narratives for politics and life that are based in lies, with the intention of creating order, order, order. Maybe.

To try and save his wife, the writer leaves the unlit house (“To save electricity the light hadn’t been turned on since the war began.”) and stumbles into a drunk sleeping in the hallway (“This wasn’t the first night that a drunk had slept on the hard floor in the entrance hall; it was a common occurrence in this working-class neighborhood.”). Once he gets outside, we have our first appearance of the German soldiers and the brothel down the way.

The street was dark. On the other side, seven or eight houses further up, a red light attracted his attention. A stealthy shadow was visible as it crossed beneath the light and disappeared into the doorway. “A German?” For the last few nights, groups of two or three German soldiers had walked down the street, their boots resonating on the pavement, attracted by the light despite the sign on the door that read “Verboten.”



This bit clarifies, for certain, that we’re in World War II, that the city is occupied by German soldiers, and that, like Chekhov’s gun, the house with the red light will play a significant role in our story. And then we get those cats again:

At the top of the stairs two cats started a furious fight. They hissed and growled furiously, no doubt all tooth-and-claw and arched backs. Suddenly, one of the cats, mad with fury, its eyes lit, brushed against his legs and crossed the street. It frightened him.

Brian pointed this out on the podcast, but the repetition of “furious/furiously/fury” is curious. So the cat was meowing “urgently,” then “filled with desire,” and is now “furious.” Still not sure what to make of this, except that it doesn’t bode well.

The druggist was close by. He heard the sound of steps and ducked back inside his building, closing the door slightly for fear that his light-colored pajamas would give him away. For an instant he saw the outline of a coat beneath the red light. Then it disappeared. He thought he heard a scream and returned to reality. He had to move, had to knock. Cautiously he went out, as the cat slipped back inside between his legs, fast as a curse.

Definitely does not bode well. These few lines are a great example of what Rodoreda does so well. By combining a bunch of elements (druggist, pajamas giving him away, solider, red light, scream, cat) in such a rapid fashion, she provides the reader with a clear sense of the character’s inner state. And leaves you unsettled. Nothing good is going to happen tonight. And it’s probably that damn cat’s fault.

Anyway, he knocks on the door, but the phone’s been out since morning (another Rodoreda theme is highlighting all the things disrupted by war, such as phones, running water, etc.), so he heads back to his room, unsure of what to do. On the way, he passes the “fuming cat.” (Is the cat a representative of his inner state? Urgent when his wife goes into labor, excited by having a child, furious when he sees the shit world they’re giving birth into, fuming when his attempt to get help is thwarted?)

Back in his room, some neighbors have gathered, and are trying to help out his wife, who looks “terribly pale.” Given the news that the phone is out, they come up with a plan—one that we’ve been leading to all along:

The group of women deliberated in a low voice. The lady from downstairs found a solution, “As far as I know there’s only one other telephone in the neighborhood.” “Whose?” asked the woman from next door. “The one at Number Fourteen.” “Number Fourteen” was the name all the neighbors in the building used for the house with the red light. “Hurry!” “You have to change your clothes.” “Only the trousers.” A spasm of pain rocked the bed. She’s so pale, so pale. Almost without realizing, he found himself behind the folding screen, thinking: Order, order. An energetic hand passed him the clothes he needed. Once again: stairs, dark, obstacle, splendid night.

The next paragraph initially seems a bit unnecessary. All we’re really doing is moving the man from his wife’s bedside to the whorehouse. But in this section, we get a really sharp summary of who this man is, and what his history is prior to entering the house with the red light.

He starts by confessing that he’s never been to a place like that, but that he’s heard tales from the “bolder lads.” This leads to a moment of self-pity about his autonomy in life.

He had lived a lot through the lives of others. Too much. Sometimes this surrogacy produced in him a certain sadness that was pasty, cosmic, rough-hewn. No one cares about me. If I have a problem, I’ll have to solve it by myself. I’m like an abandoned soul in a wasteland. Life had passed him by, just beyond his reach. Like a river, he had captured the sounds, the commotion, had recognized the dangers, but he had remained on the shore. When he had thrown himself into the stream, inexpert as he was, it was to follow others. Simply a matter of contagion, as if he had caught typhoid fever. The current had dragged him to France, where he had been discarded like a dead branch. He had married young so he could work calmly, feel himself strong through his child, so he wouldn’t lose himself completely.

This parallels his “order, order, order” mantra. He’s a follower who stands on the side. Who does what is necessary to “work calmly” and avoid “losing himself completely.” This is reinforced in the next couple lines in which he confesses that years ago a woman nearly led him to sin.

A more experienced girl could have really derailed him, but this one, with all her charm, had only managed to trouble his spirit for a few months and prompt a spate of sleepless nights, a brief interruption of his moral serenity. The experience had left him with a tremendous attraction to crime novels and blue blouses.

That last line is perfect.

So we have a man who, for all his writings about lies and the terrible consequences of the truth, is pretty fucking moral. Especially for a Rodoreda character. Never cheated on his wife, never went to a whorehouse, is out in the middle of the night ducking behind corners to avoid German soldiers, all to help his wife. Order, order, order. And a cat.



And then, he enters the house with the red light. Shit is about to get weird. Although initially, everything is rather subdued, almost anticlimactic. (Well, except for the military march he can hear coming from one of the rooms.)

He found himself in a narrow hall with doors on either side. The military march was coming from the second door on the right. A whiff of perfume distracted him. “Lilac,” he thought. Had it not been for the music, the house would have seemed deserted, like a house recently abandoned in a village filled with the threat of an enemy. He continued along the hall till at the end he reached a comfortable sitting room. Over the sofa, in a gilded frame, presided the portrait of a gentleman. Quite Proustian, with a wing collar, gardenia in his buttonhole, romantic mustache. The gentleman was staring pensively at the door. He must be the founder. There were no shiny, golden pillows or lace curtains with pink bows, no trace of the diabolical chiaroscuro that he had always imagined. All together it had a rather grave air, a bit like the waiting room of an austere, provincial lung specialist.

That’s not so bad! One other note: I think these are our first flower references. The lilac perfume and the gardenia in the buttonhole. The fact that the perfume is “distracting” puts it closer to the idea of sin, whereas the gardenia points to importance, given that he assumes the man in the picture is the founder of the whorehouse. (“Proustian” feels like some sort of foreshadowing.)

After failing to flag down a passing woman to find a phone, the music changes and a German soldier appears before him with some booze.

He stood up. A stout German soldier in shirtsleeves, with gray hair and a tanned face, stopped in front of him. He was carrying a bottle of cognac under his arm and an empty champagne glass in his hand. He clicked his heels. He clearly had some difficulty keeping his balance. For a moment they stood without moving. The soldier looked at him with gentle eyes. A secret flow of sympathy seemed to emerge from deep within the soldier’s intense gaze, almost like a balmy breeze. With a resolute gesture, the soldier had him sit down and filled the glass.

A few toasts and another phone failure later, our protagonist is reaching a sort of moral crossroads:

He realized he had to make a decision, that it was urgent to find a phone, make the call, wake up the doctor, beg, intimidate. A gentle warmth had settled in his cheeks and began spreading insidiously through his body. It must have slipped into the obscure region of his will, changing some delicate mechanism within him. He felt a slight tingling in his legs and arms, a deep sense of well-being in his heart. With a brisk gesture he emptied another glass. How many years had it been since he had tasted cognac? Six? Seven?

You know what he’s not doing here? Repeating “order, order, order.” Everything has gone sideways. The German soldier with the great booze (cognac during wartime!) is tempting him into another life. One of alcohol, prostitutes, a sense of “well-being in his heart.” This is not good.

The soldier opened his round eyes, nodded his head in agreement and refilled the glass. He raised it to his lips, but a violent hiccup stopped him. Order, ooooorder. A string of hiccups followed.

Spoke too soon! His phrase is back, but, well, disordered. Again, not good. Not good at all for our man who used to stand on the side, living life through others and never really diving into the river.

They returned to their drinking with looks of complicity. The soldier asked, “Franzose?” He hesitated before responding, “Barcelona.” “Spanier?” “Oui.” They burst out laughing at the same time. “Rotspanier?” “Yes.” They laughed louder and resumed drinking.

So, this “Rotspanier” thing. Initially, I just thought that was a slam, like “rotten Spaniard?,” which works, but it may also be “Red Spaniard,” referring more specifically to the actions of the radical left in Spain who, after the military coup in 1936, wrecked shit all over, especially targeting landowners, Catholic priests, etc. The fact that he replies “yes,” is disconcerting.

Another soldier entered the room. He was barefoot; they hadn’t heard him. The seated soldier cried out, “Spanier,” and passed the bottle to the newcomer. The painting showed two gentlemen with gardenias in their buttonholes and wing collars. The frame slowly split in two, but then the figures reassembled, as if brought together by a stubborn desire for unity.

This painting showing two gentlemen confused me unnecessarily the first time I read it. He’s drunk. He’s seeing double. He’s trying to keep it together, but failing.

After a few more soldiers enter the room, they all start singing:

Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden,
einen bessern find’st du nit [. . .]

Eine Kugel kam geflogen
gilt es mir, oder gilt es dir?

This is “The Good Comrade,” a German Armed Forces song that’s been around since the 1800s and, according to Wikipedia, isn’t affiliated with a particular faction and has been translated into dozens of languages. It’s about a comrade who dies in battle, and the two section that are used here are “I once had a comrade / you will find none better” and “a bullet came flying / is it meant for me or is it for you?”

From there, our protagonist gets more and more wasted:

The painting now held three gentlemen, or four. All with gardenias in their buttonholes. Occasionally one was superimposed on the other, perhaps filled with the hurried wish to share confidences, but then they separated in a disorderly fashion, surrounded by gold. At one point it was possible to make out six or seven of them. A whirlwind.

And then starts reciting part of Dante’s Inferno, which can be translated as:

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To’ explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue.

This seems to be the crux of the story. Instead of maintaining order, getting the doctor, helping his wife and being at the birth of his child, he’s tempted by the dissolution of the German soldiers and cognac. Suddenly nothing can stop him from exploring all of life, including man’s evil. He is in the damn river, vaguely remembering his wife at all. (“A bouquet for the pregnant senyora, shut in her room! Carpe diem.”)

And then the police arrive.

A bottle flew through the air. Order, or . . . der. The gendarme beside him dragged one of the soldiers toward the hall. He ran after the gendarme and grabbed him by the belt. “Cochon! Vous cochon!” “Was?” A heavy blow from the gendarme’s fist sent him crashing against the wall. He was alone, helpless, seated on the floor, the whole side of his face in pain.

Does he really grab the gendarme and call him a pig? That’s a bad idea. But to be honest, the French goes a bit crazy here . . . at least if you’re relying on Google Translate to make sense of everything.

His whole body was aflame. The air must be coming from the clouds, from the stars. He vomited. “Voyons,” shouted a woman who looked ruffled, her nose bleeding. “Bande d’acrobates!”

“Band of acrobats”? What is that all about?

He passed the door to his building, without seeing her. At the corner they loaded him onto a truck. With a tremendous din, everything disappeared forever, down the street, enveloped by silence and the night.

And that’s the end. The end of everything?

*




After all of that, I feel like I have a better handle on the plot of this story, and see immediately where I went wrong (by missing the multiplying people in the portrait as his drunkenness), but I’m still not sure of the why of this story.

If it’s supposed to be a more moral story—a man obsessed with order who is tempted by the dark side, dives headlong into the “river of life” and things go very wrong—it’s not overly powerful or convincing. Other stories of Rodoreda’s about men making bad choices work better, in part because his decision to start drinking just passes by and is immediately followed by insanely destructive consequences.

But maybe there’s something in that idea of why he takes the first drink. The fact that it’s a German soldier and he’s living in exile, in danger, puts him in a situation in which his autonomy is compromised. This does circle back to the earlier comment about his children representing his internal contradictions through their attachment to various political parties. Maybe the moral of this story isn’t “seizing the day can fuck you,” but “don’t get involved in politics.” Is that the lie that becomes the truth? That can set man free? But maybe freedom is just a slippery slope ending in a truck driving down the road, never to return.

The way this progresses is a bit dreamlike as well. “Nocturnal” as a title sort of hints in that direction, as does the almost carnivalesque nature of the German soldiers, the wine, the champagne and it’s gold bubbles, even the arrival of the police.

And although this is close third-person and not a first-person narration, it is one of the few stories that’s tight in on a male protagonist. That’s another reason why it intrigued me initially, and I wonder if this wasn’t an experiment in trying to depict the moral dangers men can face.

In the end, I’m not sure how well this story works. It’s a strange piece that shifts from domesticity to something weirder, and doesn’t really do justice in capturing the writer’s character. It’s maybe most interesting in the way that it evades creating a simplistic moral choice—“should I help my wife or screw around in the brothel?”—by constructing a night that feels out of control, in which everything cascades in a way that’s not entirely terrifying, but ends in the worst possible way.

I’m curious what others have to say about this—regular readers and professors. But really, the question that still nags at me: what happened to the cat?

9 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore and the Best Translated Book Award committee joins Chad and Brian to talk about the next seven stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s collection. Although they touch on a number of them, a lot of time is spent focusing on “Carnival” and the literary antecedents to Rodoreda.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Mark Haber to learn more about contemporary literature and bookselling.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



8 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After discussing the incredibly long Dublin Literary Prize longlist, Chad and Tom discuss Polish Reportage, Stanislaw Lem’s book covers, ordering books for Riffraff, and a serial killer.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to all of the new Polish Lem covers. And the one for His Master’s Voice.

This week’s music is Turning by Beaches.

One other note: The next season of the Two Month Review kicked off on Thursday, October 26th with an episode introducing Mercè Rodoreda and the two books of hers that will be featured this season: Selected Stories and Death in Spring. Both are avaialble for 20% off by using the code 2MONTH at checkout. The full schedule of episodes is available here.

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. Also, if there are articles you’d like us to read and analyze (or just make fun of), send those along as well.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!

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6 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We talked (and joked) about this on the podcast we recorded this morning, but the International Dublin Literary Award longlist was announced earlier today. A mere 150 titles (?!), this is a daunting array of books. It’s always a bit overwhelming, and the website always leaves a bit to be desired, but we are proud to have one book on the list: One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.



This is one of FOURTY-EIGHT translations on the longlist—a pretty impressive number! I’m not going to list all of them here—that would be insane—but you can read this press release if you want more info.

Also, it only makes sense for an “international” award to have a third of their longlist be works in translation. Now let’s see if one of these wins . . . Speaking of, the shortlist will be announced in April 2018, and the winner in June. That gives you eight months to read every one of these books (doable!) and test your opinions against the six judges.

6 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the next seven stories in Selected Stories by Mercè Rodoreda (with special guest Mark Haber!): “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” and “Friday, June 8.” On Thursday’s podcast, we’ll get into more specifics about some of these stories, but in advance, you can get some initial insights below, especially about “Carnival.”

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week, I spent a lot of time on “The Mirror,” which was my favorite story of the six we read for that podcast. This week, I want to focus exclusively on what makes “Carnival”—now one of my favorite stories ever—work so well.

Before getting into the more structural mapping of motifs in this story, and how it links back to everything discussed before, I want to take a second to just talk about the emotional power of this piece.

In brief, “Carnival” is the story of a young boy and a young woman who meet coincidentally outside of a Carnival party. The boy is awkward, poor, has bad skin, is very alone, and is wearing a tailor’s costume that initially baffles the young woman. By contrast, she is lovely, more cosmopolitan (she tells him she’s leaving Barcelona for Paris in a couple of days, and then from there to Nice), more worldly (she initially claims to be having an affair with the host of the party), more vibrant. A sort of proto-manic pixie dream girl.

Stuck in the light rain, unable to get a taxi, they decide to walk home together. A number of things happen along the way: she convinces him to scale a fence and steal her some flowers, he falls for her quirky charm and beauty, they’re accosted by two thieves, they share secrets, they hold hands. We’ll discuss the sort of twist to all of this in more detail below, but on the surface, knowing these details, most readers would assume that this is a stereotypical story of young, burgeoning love. A love that’s initiated by a coincidence; a love that grows quickly over the course of a near magical night together.

That’s not what this story is, and that’s not what happens.

Although all of those cues are there, the story undercuts itself at the end, reversing in the most powerful of fashions, including these absolutely heartbreaking lines:

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


I don’t know why, exactly, but this story was like a punch to my soul. It’s heartbreaking how the hope of that night, a night that is filled with such charm and promise, is just another moment that will be washed away by time and disinterest.

There’s more to what makes this story so emotionally charged, but we’ll get to that at the very end . . . For now, I just want to say that I read this just before falling asleep and having an absolutely terrible dream that was clearly related to “Carnival.” This story lodged in my subconscious, and thinking about it days later, I’m still overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness and nostalgia. To me, this is a viscerally emotional story, one which serves as a blueprint for how Rodoreda’s different motifs and techniques can come together to create something incredibly powerful.

*


Last year, I read (and then wrote about) Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading. This book is a collection of the inconoclastic literary critic’s essays, ranging from his core concept of “distant reading” (looking at larger literary trends instead of closely reading a single text) to ways in which you can incorporate quantitative analysis into literary criticism. One essay from here, “The End of the Beginning,” keeps coming to mind as I try and think about how to summarize and analyze Rodoreda’s stories as a whole.

Feel free to read that earlier article for a longer description of and response to Moretti’s ideas, but in short, in this piece he describes a graduate seminar he taught in which he and his students analyze a huge range of detective stories written around the same time as some of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. Their analysis started from selecting a “unit of analysis”—in this case the presence or absence of “clues”—and then seeing how that unit was treated in the various stories under consideration. Out of this they created a sort of tree-like diagram built from subdivision after subdivision. In other words, they separated all the stories into those with clues and those without. Then separated out the ones with clues that were “necessary,” then those that were both necessary and “visible,” and so on and forth. What they found in the end was that all of the stories that fit these categories were written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and that these were some of his most popular and well-liked pieces. One hypothesis as to why Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are still read today, whereas his contemporaries really aren’t, is that he stumbled onto this way of presenting “clues” that greatly appealed to readers. Then ideas of market acceleration and all of that set in, but that’s a subject for an entirely different article. (Actually, it’s the subject of the article referenced above.)

Anyway, I’m not about to choose a single “unit of analysis” and create a map of Rodoreda’s stories and those of her contemporaries, but I do think there is something to the way in which certain “units” in her writing are found over and again in her most lasting, important stories.

*


In last week’s Two Month Review post, I identified a few of these motifs. Namely, the presence of “tropisms,” of garden imagery representing the state of a romantic relationship, shifts in the time of the narration, and fragments reflecting the character’s inner state. All of these elements were found in “The Mirror,” and all are found within “Carnival” . . . along with one more that I think will add something crucial to our evaluation of the rest of the stories in this collection.

Garden Imagery

In the stories we discussed last week, flowers, or garden imagery in general, tended to draw characters to a more primeval time, often pointing toward the healthiness of a relationship, or the desire for some sort of human connection. These images function differently in different stories, but some sort of wildlife is present in all of Rodoreda’s best stories.

One of the key scenes in “Carnival” is when the girl asks the boy to get her some gardenias. He hops a fence, steals some flowers, gets barked at by a dog, and ends up ripping his costume. In a bit of foreshadowing, they then have this conversation:

“I still haven’t looked at the gardenias, or thanked you.”

She gently removed a flower from the handkerchief, but as she was about to smell it, she said with a surprise, “What kind of flowers did you pick?”

“The ones by the tree.”

“These aren’t gardenias. They have no scent at all.”

She glanced at the unfamiliar flower with an obvious expression of disappointment.

“Don’t give it another thought. If you don’t like them, toss them away.”

Without realizing, he’d used the familiar “tu.” He liked her, standing there absorbed in thought.


And then they try and figure out what the non-gardenias are:

“[. . .] What if they were begonias?”

“They’re smaller. I mean larger. I mean gardenias are smaller.”

“Maybe they’re stunted begonias.”

“They’re probably camellias.” Both had started playing the game.

“Camellias? No, I’d recognize a camellia anywhere. These, I can assure you, are mysterious flowers. Flowers that bloom on the night of Carnival.”


No need to point out that there are other things that can bloom on the night of Carnival, but I still will.

And what happens to those flowers? This is the bit that ties this story most directly back into last week’s accounting of various Rodoreda motifs.

She bit her lips. She felt bad that she’d lost the flowers. She would have kept one in a book till it was dry as paper, had lost its perfume—it wasn’t even a gardenia—and when she stumbled across it in the future, it would have always evoked the color of night, the sound of the wind, her eighteen years, the years she felt she had lost as soon as she had gained them.


There’s this great thing in Rodoreda where future memories, soon-to-be nostalgia, is created in the present moment on the page. I love that. As an old, this hits home a lot more now than it did when I first read these pieces.

Tropisms

These moments are sprinkled throughout the story, so I’ll just choose a couple examples here to show that these same inner emotional states are present in “Carnival.”

“[. . .] You know, perhaps it’s only when you’re young that you wish so desperately that now would last, that nothing we have would ever end. We wish it even more when what we have now seems the best thing possible.”


Or:

“I don’t see a thing.”

“That means you’ll have a long life,” she said with a touch of disdain. “People who see seven colors die the following day. Today I’ve seen five. Wait, let me try again, see if it changes.”

The boy felt depressed, as if having a long life was a true sign of mediocrity. The girl held her breath, still submerged in her experiment.


There are others, but to get on with it, here’s a segue to the next point:

“Why are you so worried?”

He couldn’t stand the silence any longer and began speaking with a serious voice.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry.”


Dissonance Between Reality and Desire

This is the “unit of analysis” or “motif” or whatever you’d like to call it that I’d like to add to the list above. It’s present in “The Mirror” in the way that the narrator thinks back on her night with Roger and contrasts that with her actual marriage. This disconnect is doubled up on by the conversation with the doctor about sweets, and the denial of that conversation later on in the story. But it’s here in “Carnival” that she really plays this to great emotional heights.

If you haven’t read this story yet and don’t want to lose any of its punch, close this tab, grab your copy of Selected Stories, and come back in a half-hour.

Okay.

Let’s start with the young girl. Here’s her initial explanation for why she’s leaving the party.

“The owner of the house,” the girl began explaining, “is . . . I guess I should confess—after all, we’re friends. He’s my lover. He’s the one I’m going to Paris with. He has to go on business, so we have an opportunity. His wife was at the dance. She’s rarely at home, travels all the time. Since she was there, I decided to leave. The situation was really tense, especially for me of course. I left without saying good-bye to anyone, and now I’m guessing he’s searching for me all through the house and garden. But if he wanted me to stay, why didn’t he lock his wife up in the dark room. For one night . . . I don’t want to give the impression she’s nasty. She’s very nice, dresses really well, knows how to be welcoming. I’d say she’s una gran senyora, a real lady. But I have the feeling that when she climbs in bed, covers her face with cream . . . He doesn’t love her any more; he likes me. As we danced he told me, ‘You’re the most charming girl at the party; you’re like a flower.’ And a little while later he said, ‘I’ll love you eternally’ or something like that.”


She also pauses for a moment along their walk because of a health issue:

“Nothing, my heart. I was just dizzy all of a sudden.”

He looked at her in alarm, not knowing what to say, whether he should hold her, let her go. She sighed deeply and ran her hand across her forehead.

“I’m all right now, it’s starting to pass. I have a weak heart. It must be the kind of life I lead.”

“What does your family say about it?”

“It doesn’t seem to worry them.”

“You should lead a healthier life. Fresh air, exercise, get to bed early.”

“I know the story: lots of fish and vegetables.”

“No,” he responded, a bit disconcerted. “That’s not what I mean. I mean to love more honestly.”

“And die of boredom. No thanks. I decided long ago the kind of life I wanted. I plan only to pick the flowers, as my concierge would put it,” she said, lowering her voice and shooting him a quick, amused look.


Let’s turn to the boy’s backstory for a second. After telling her that he’s dressed as Louis XV’s tailor, and immediately before she has her heart spell, he gives her a bit of info about his life and dreams.

“When I finish my studies, I’ll travel. I want to know the world. I’ll leave without a penny in my pocket. Maybe I’ll get myself hired as a stoker. Poets here all tend to die in bed surrounded by family, and the newspaper prints their dying words, describing the force of their last breath, the whole bit. I want to die alone, with my boots on, face down, an arrow in my back.”


Given how long this already is, I’m going to skip over the scene where they’re mugged, where the boy tries to stand up for himself and is immediately brushed aside, where the young girl momentarily goes off with the two muggers in a semi-flirtatious manner, but this is where the dream of the night—of having a lover who is taking you to Paris, of being a young poet who will live a life of adventure, of a night that will mysteriously bloom into something life-changing—all of it, comes crashing down.

Back to an earlier quote, but this time using the whole thing.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.”

She was filled with a deep sadness. It was as if a secret reserve of anguish had melted in the bottom of his chest, risen to his throat, and turned yet again into pain. [. . .]

He must think I’ll always laugh at him when I remember this night, those men, laughing at him always, till the end of time.


And, while we’re at it, let’s pour on the sadness and suffering:

“Me too. I’d been saving my money for three months so I could rent this costume, not even catching the tram, and I live in Gràcia but work on Carrer de la Princesa. When my father was alive we had everything we needed. One day he went to bed feeling very ill and never got up. What little we had disappeared with his illness and the funeral. It was really hard for me. I had to give up everything I enjoyed, all my plans. Everything. We were really alone, and I was the oldest child. I had to make a real show of pretense, so as not to add to my mother’s grief. It’s kind of ridiculous that I’m explaining all this, complaining. It shows a poor spirit. My life would make a great dime novel. Here I’d been saving for three months, thinking I’d have fun with my friends, but as soon as I saw myself in this costume, I was embarrassed. I did go out with my friends, but they were all with their girlfriends; and after we’d been in the park up on Tibidabo for a while, they disappeared without my realizing. I walked for a long time, I sat for a while on a bench by the funicular . . . but that’s not true. It’s painful to tell the truth. I went up Tibidabo because a friend of mine works in a restaurant there, and he told me to stop by and see him. He gave me the pastries we ate. I sat on the park bench, thinking how terribly boring life was, and gazed at the night, the lights of the city below me, till I was tired.”


Even within this confession there’s that little moment where he explains why he was up at Tibidabo and then immediately admits that that reason is a lie! This is that dissonance between inner desires and outer reality that really ramps up the emotion in Rodoreda’s early stories. And in case you thought the boy was the only one spinning tales . . .

“You know what? It’s not true that I have a lover. I’ve never loved anyone. All my brother’s friends that liked me a little, I found them . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It’s difficult to say the things the way we think them or feel them. I mean, all the boys who have liked me up till now left me indifferent. It’s probably that I don’t like young men and older men scare me a bit. Sometimes I’m convinced that I’m suffering from some strange illness, because I feel good all alone in my room, with my books, my thoughts. I know my thoughts aren’t particularly lofty; I’m not trying to sound grand. I don’t really know why I ran way from the party. I went with my brother and his fiancée. I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t like that my brother’s engaged. We were best friends. No brother and sister ever got along better. Nor is it true that I have a heart condition. Sometimes I can feel it beating fast and it’s because . . . I’ll never find a substitute for my brother, someone who can be what my brother was to me.”

He felt a sadness rising from deep within him. He’d have given his life to be able to replace her brother. [. . .]

She sighed deeply, affected by the insidious magic of the hour and the night. “I won’t marry for love or merely to serve my own interest. Or maybe I’ll marry for both these reasons. I’ll have an orderly house filled with jars and jars of marmalade and summer preserves made for winter and large wardrobes with neatly folded clothes. If I have children, they’ll have what I’ve had: heat in winter and the broad sea in summer.”


How it All Ends

You can find those other elements mentioned above in this story. Slight shifts in perspective and time that add complexity to the story, moments in which fragmentary prose reflects the inner thoughts of the characters, etc. They’re all there. In fact, I’d argue that these motifs are there in all of her great stories, and this is a great story.

Having come all that way though, through Moretti and various “units” that combine to make a larger, more powerful whole, let’s end where we began, at the end of this journey, where things just . . . end.

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


That’s not exactly the end, there are a couple more beats, but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy for yourself.

2 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Chad and Brian dive into the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories and call up Quim Monzó, arguably the most important contemporary Catalan author, to talk about the precision and emotionality in her work. They also talk about Catalan literature as a whole, A Thousand Morons, Catalan independence, and much more. An incredibly fun and funny episode, this one really lays the groundwork for approaching Rodoreda’s stories.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Quim Monzó to learn more about his writings and the case for Catalan independence.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.

30 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories : “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness.” Which is only the first 50 pages, yet is as emotionally intense as almost any set of stories you can name. To give you a bit more insight into these stories, and to get you prepared for Thursday’s podcast, I’m going to summarize a few things I noticed in rereading these, and dig in a bit more into my favorite story of the bunch.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



1) I Want to Reread Nathalie Sarraute.

I think I’ve brought her up on both of our podcasts—and inevitably will a dozen more times—but the first author who comes to mind when reading these early stories has to be Nathalie Sarraute.

Frequently grouped in with Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Pinget, Simon, and the rest of the “Nouveau Roman,” Sarraute was one of the most interesting French writers of the mid-twentieth century. And although she was instrumental in paving the way for this group’s relationship to the possibilities for the novel, her work isn’t as staunchly cerebral as the rest of these writers. Not that her books aren’t incredibly intelligent and experimental in style and form, but the first handful—Tropisms, Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau, and The Planetarium—revolve around the idea of depicting “tropisms,” a imprecise feeling or set of feelings that arise within a given person or character in response to the outside environment. Here—The Guardian does a better job of explaining this:

The term “tropism” she had taken from biology, where it names the reactive, almost imperceptible movements that living organisms make, towards or away from whatever impinges on them. Sarraute’s are tropisms with a human face, the buried, never quite conscious to-ings and fro-ings of the psyche that accompany all social contact, which she turns pitilessly yet very gracefully into words as she delves into the unspoken and quite often unspeakable root-system of polite conversation. Politeness is shown cruelly up in Sarraute, as the mask for aggression on the part of some and for a corresponding anxiety on the part of others. She is the unforgiving zoologist of our dissembling species, as observed in the habitat she shared with it, of “civilised” Paris.

Or, in her own words, tropisms are “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” And from an interview in the Paris Review

I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we en- closed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That’s what I tried to do in Tropisms.

I’m in Poland, sans my copy of Tropisms, but I think this example from a Full Stop review of Saurrate’s short book can link this idea with Rodoreda:

“Well, then! How are you?” He would dare to do that. “Well, then! How do you feel?” he would dare to say that to her – and then he would wait. She should speak, make a move, show her real self, let it come out, let it finally explode – that wouldn’t frighten him. But he would never have the strength to do this. So he was obliged to check it as long as possible, to keep it from coming out, from spurting from her, curb it in her, at any cost, no matter what.

So, turning to Rodoreda’s stories, here’s a bit from “Blood”:

But then I started to agonize. If I hadn’t seen them together, maybe the strange change in me would never have happened. I began to feel like I was a nuisance to my husband; something was different, and without wanting to, I started to distance myself from him. [. . .] Obsessions of mine, I know. Because you see, when a woman stops being a woman, her head fills with obsessions.

From “Summer”:

His wife turned over. She was small and weak. She had been very sick three or four years ago and looked the worse for it. She tired easily and coughed all winter. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious. All of a sudden, she sighed. A brief sigh, just enough to show she was alive. He was filled with grief. Yes, a deep grief, without really knowing why.

One last one, from “Guinea Fowls”:

Quimet started sobbing uncontrollably. He wept loudly, his mouth open, his eyes all wrinkled from being closed so tight.

“What’s the matter? Did someone hit you? What is it?”

He shook his head after each question, but couldn’t stop crying. All his grief, all his pent-up pain, came pouring out. When the trauma began to pass, his chest still shaking from the last of his sobs, he announced, as if he had suddenly grown older:

“I’m terribly sad.”



2) No Surprise She Wrote a Novel Called Garden By the Sea

I have no grand statements about how to interpret all the garden imagery in these stories, but I just want to draw attention to it now, since it might be interesting to track across both this collection and Death in Spring.

“Blood” opens with the narrator talking about how her husband used to plant dahlias in a particular basket, and the climax of this story involves her husband playing a trick on her (or just has a vivid dream) in which there’s a woman sneaking around their garden. And, tying this back into the first observation, the story ends with this paragraph:

“Dahlias have never grown in this basket again. Sometimes, when the weeds grow high, I pull them up, and move the earth around so it won’t look bad, and if I see dahlias at the florist, a kind of dizziness sweeps over me and I feel like vomiting. Forgive me.”

Things are a bit more complicated in “Summer,” although flowers once again draw the characters into the past, this time also symbolizing some primal desires and the vitality of life (or lack thereof). This story is narrated by the husband, who goes into a bit of a revery on his balcony after getting into a bit of a debate with his wife about their son’s safety:

The scent of flowers reached him from the gardens below. He could see them all from the balcony. The palm tree at the Codinas’ spread its dusty fans in the thick air. The darkest tree of all was a medlar, old and tall, with a smooth, knotless trunk and leaves so stiff they looked like cardboard. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck. A mosquito buzzed furiously around him. What if by magic he suddenly found himself in the woods . . . If he could only spend the night in the woods . . . Life, after all . . . This is the only good thing there is in life. Just this. The night. A girl. Just this. And even then it’s so terrible, as if you were suffering or dying. For a girl like that you could do anything. “Carme, Carme.” Why does a beautiful girl always have an ugly girlfriend?

And then, after his son gets back home, right before he’s overcome by “grief” looking at his recently-ill wife, he thinks, “He knew both of them were thinking about the unwatered carnations.”

Near the opening of “Guinea Fowls,” Quimet, the young boy who will end the story “terribly sad” after helping slaughter some poultry, has a chance to take a different path:

The garbage was piled up in front of him, at the edge of the sidewalk. As he munched calmly on the bread, he poked through the pile and discovered a bouquet of wilted flowers, a dark, still fresh carnation, cabbage and lettuce leaves, leek stems, and a few squashed tomatoes full of shiny white seeds. He was tempted to pick up the seeds and put them in the empty matchbox in his pocket; he could plant them in a flowerpot and put it on the balcony. But he was feeling lazy after the sleepless night.

I’ll write more about “The Mirror” later, but in the present of this story, the narrator’s daughter-in-law and grandson are working in the garden. More unsettling though—if we link gardens up with interior life, healthy relationships, etc.—we get this passage about the narrator:

She wanted to be alone, to rest. Her room was her world, filled with secrets, with pictures of people that not even her son or daughter-in-law knew. As she entered, the mirror on the wardrobe reflected the mysterious-looking green garden, barely visible behind the slats on the partially lowered blinds, a dreamlike landscape.

“Happiness” includes another example of the link between a garden (or nature generally) and a more serene, positive relationship:

Quick, quick, she thought. If only the clock could be turned back, back to a previous moment. Back to the little house last year by the sea. The sky, water, palm trees, the fiery red of the sun reflected at sunset on the glass of the balcony. Blooming jasmine gripping the balcony. And the clouds, the waves, the wind that furiously blew the windows closed . . . It was all in her heart.



3) The Complexing of Form

This post is already thesis length, so I’ll try and keep this section to just a couple of paragraphs. Mostly, I just want to point out that, for anyone who’s read War, So Much War or Death in Spring, these first stories might come as a bit of a shock. They’re so direct! So straightforward! A different side of Rodoreda.

And this is all true. These early pieces are working within an aesthetic that’s not as baroque or symbolic as her later works. They’re still absolutely amazing in their precision, emotional power, and depiction of her character’s inner lives. But in terms of form and structure, we’re going to see an immense amount of growth over the next two months.

That growth is even evident in these first six stories. We talk about “Blood” a bit on the podcast this week, so I won’t say too much here, but this framing device seems acts as a sort of unlocking mechanism, a simple way for Rodoreda to give herself permission to tell this story of a marriage failing and a woman leaving. In “Threaded Needle,” internal fantasies start to appear, fantasies that run counter to what is portrayed in “real life” and add a lot of emotional dimensions to these characters. The same thing is seen in “Happiness,” when the narrator goes through a whole internal journey in which she dreams of leaving her husband, and imagines what her life would be like if she went through with it. Finally, “Summer” has a nice interlude about the woods (see above) that’s one of the earliest examples of how Rodoreda juxtaposes unexplained images that are both fragmentary and open to interpretation. This will definitely show up later, and is one of the most incredible ways in which she complicates her texts and transforms them from simple stories into something more universal and multifaceted.

The story where these techniques really come together (at least in this artificial grouping of six pieces) is in “The Mirror”—my personal favorite of this bunch.



“The Mirror”

This is the story in which Rodoreda levels up. The primary elements of what makes this story work so well—melodrama related to a bad marriage, internal feelings straining to be expressive, events from the past couched in slightly obscure ways—can be found in the other stories as well, just not quite as compressed.

This is the same passage I mention on the (forthcoming) podcast, but it’s also a great place to start:

Beneath the lilac-filled vases lay purple stars; lots of tiny flowers had fallen. Roger was getting dressed. His initials, R.G., were embroidered on the left side of his shirt. I too needed to get dressed, but I lingered, afraid that the most insignificant gesture would shatter that mirror of sad, fragile happiness. As if my dismay could make the afternoon last for years and years. When we went down to the street, we stopped beneath a streetlight and shook hands, as if we were simply friends, and said good-bye. Yet coming down the stairs, we had stopped to kiss on each step. When I was alone again, I thought, “We’ll never see each other again as we have today.” I looked around for something to call my own: the light from the streetlamp, the purple sky, a window with a light. Then I started walking. And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.

So many great things about this paragraph! Tying this into all that came above, we have “lilac-filled vases” that are shedding their flowers. We have the “mirror of sad, fragile happiness” that’s ready to shatter. We have the honest, depressing thought that comes as soon as she’s alone. But most notably to me, we have a series of fragments that punctuate the real plot of this story and drive home the narrator’s sadness tinged with anger. “And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.” Just typing that leaves me with a sense of longing and nostalgia for what could’ve been.

I don’t want to spoil this story completely for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but it works through two plots running in parallel. In the present, the narrator goes to the doctor who gives her some advice about treating her diabetes by avoiding sweets. She then buys a bag of cookies and goes to her son’s house, where she lies about seeing the doctor and watches her grandson dig up the garden. There is a simmering contempt there, especially toward her son. (I’ll leave the why for you to figure out.)

Then there’s the story of the past, of two men, a too-brief romance, a tormented marriage, and a death. This too I’ll let you find out about as you read, but I want to end with one other example of the reason why I think her writing took a leap with this story. This muddled representation of the narrator’s internal life works so well because it’s slightly confusing to process, yet reeks of emotion.

“Why won’t you dance with me?”

Jaume Mas, her husband, had entered her life in that manner: timidly, as she gazed at Roger, remembering that afternoon. She was filled with the terrible wish to scream. Jaume had entered her life too late, but it was at the precise moment when she was losing her bearings. Are you tired? She was gazing at her fan, the mother-of-pearl ribs, the silk tassel. She had had a mauve dress with a lilac posy at the waist made for her. She had it made with Roger’s words in mind. We’ve begun to love each other beneath the sign of the lilacs. You could see clumps of lilacs in the park, and branches of them stood in vases around the room. On that afternoon. If Roger comes near, he’ll see the landscape on my fan, tender apple green with a peach-colored sky. But he didn’t approach. I don’t think he even saw me, and I wanted to scream.

“You don’t want to dance?”

I felt sorry for him, a sudden sadness, as if I had just been shown a condemned man.

Till next week . . .

26 October 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Jacob Rogers on I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju, published by Black Ocean.

We don’t seem to run many poetry reviews of late on Three Percent (something I’d sorely like to have change!!), but I’m very happy to have a review up for a book from Black Ocean—a press that’s been around for as long as Open Letter has (if not longer—I spoke with publisher Janaka Stucky at last year’s AWP in D.C., but don’t remember all the details because, well, AWP), but has only fairly recently started to publish in translation (again, I could be wrong, but again, AWP-brain). Their covers are great, and they’re cool people, and based on Jacob’s review, I’m happy they’ve joined the community of publishers publishing in translation!

Here’s the beginning of Jacob’s review:

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the forms of plays, all of which make use of what could most simply be termed an overriding sense of “synesthesia.” Throughout the collection, Kyung Ju mixes up sensorial language, whether that which we use to describe our bodies, or the world around us. What results is a fascinating defamiliarization and confusion of the way we use language to describe our lives, what we feel and experience, in a fever-dreamlike onslaught of vivid, visceral images.

Not simply interesting for their absurdity, these moments of confusion are also so well-rendered that they still feel somehow realistic and tangible. Jake Levine’s skillful translation of the collection must have been monstrously difficult, as it’s bursting at the seams with wordplay, assonance, consonance, and rhyme, with sumptuous, gorgeous language as fascinating for its absurdity as for its clarity. On top of the sensory confusion, Kyung Ju also weaves in a mix-up of the way we describe various forms of art: tactile or olfactory words for music, auditory words for painting, and so on.


For the rest of the review, go here.

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

Read More >

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof
The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by Cesar Aira
Reviewed by Will Eells

Aira continues to surprise and delight in his latest release from New Directions, which collects two novellas: the first, The Little Buddhist Monk, a fairly recent work from 2005, and The Proof, an earlier work from 1989. There are a. . .

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Agnes
Agnes by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Dorian Stuber

The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on. . .

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Class
Class by Francesco Pacifico
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The thing about Class is that I don’t know what the hell to think about it, yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll begin by dispensing with the usual info that one may want to know when considering adding. . .

Read More >

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
Reviewed by Jason Newport

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the. . .

Read More >

A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

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Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

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