Africa 39, a compilation of new African writing, and Franzen’s Kraus Project (Books acquired, 3.04.2015)

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Got these as desk copies (as opposed to review copies) a few weeks ago. I’ve been picking through Africa 39 more or less at random, in between stretches of Gravity’s Rainbow. Hit or miss so far, as these affairs so often are. Here’s Margaret Busby, one of the panelists who helped compile the book (from The Guardian):

Africa39 is not an exercise constrained by labels, fashion and preconceived rules about genres, nor by what constitutes African writing. Twenty countries are represented by work created in a variety of African and European languages – Kiswahili, Igbo and Lingala as well as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Understandably, with the continuing debate about the validity of the “African writer” category, there are those who feel uncomfortable about participating in this venture (indeed, some have chosen to opt out).

Speaking of Gravity’s Rainbow (sort of), it shows up in Jonathan Franzen’s “translation” of Karl Kraus’s essays. I shouldn’t put translation in those suspicious quotation marks; he does translate—but the book he really wants to write is a memoir in footnotes. Maybe you read the excerpt Harper’s published a few years ago?

Michael Hoffman’s long review at NYRB is good. From that piece:

In the same hands done differently, The Kraus Project could have made an entertainment, an intellectual comedy, a bildungsroman about a clever and ambitious young man on a Fulbright in Germany for a couple of years in the early 1980s. The loneliness of abroad would have come into it, separation from a difficult unbookish family in the Midwest and a bookish difficult fiancée at Columbia; the poststructuralist intellectual fashions of the time; a little local color to evoke the bizarrely wonderful extraterritorial and microideological West Berlin of the cold war; what it felt like to be an American in Germany at the time of the Cruises and Pershings and the SS-20s (what price Germany then, not Austria, as what Kraus called a laboratory for destroying the world?); the overbearing influence of the one novel our hero packed in his suitcase full of French theory—it was Gravity’s Rainbow—and the dual terror exerted on him by Pynchon on the one hand and Harold Bloom on the other.

Such a book would somehow have delivered us to the improbable but finally inescapable conclusion that our young American could find no more apt or fruitful literary father for himself than “the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus.” The old curmudgeon took care to express his nolo in advance thus: “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.” As it happened, he also disdained fiction: not an ideal adopted father.

This rich web of circumstance is all present here (Franzen seems to remember everything, or at least to have kept records of everything), but it is packed away in the garrulous and seedy autobiographical footnotes, often going over many pages. Probably the main life of the book is in these. But there is something earnest and faithful and inflexible in Franzen that won’t let him turn away and ironize his former self—“my feeling [is] that I’m still the same person I was at twenty-two.”

… The entire unstable ensemble has something of the rackety allure of the Bremen Town Musicians, or, if you prefer, a new supergroup: the assiduous, dependable Paul Reitter holding things together on bass, the restrained Daniel Kehlmann good for the occasional off-beat tambourine flick (“But Heine is still wonderful, too”), and Franzen riffing and wailing away on free-form lead and clamorous vocals. The Kraus Project really is one of a kind—a strange, space-bending, Cubist, not un-simpatico book.

3 thoughts on “Africa 39, a compilation of new African writing, and Franzen’s Kraus Project (Books acquired, 3.04.2015)”

  1. I’d be curious to read of your updates on the Africa 39 anthology beyond “hit or miss so far.” Also, what does Soyinka have to say about it in the preface, in a nutshell? Thanks.

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