Three Books (Books acquired, 31 July 2020)

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The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Pocket Books (S&S), 1976. Cover art and design uncredited.

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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Bantam, 1969. Cover art and design uncredited.

I found a lovely copy of Donald Barthelme’s story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari! a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty sure these two guys are twin triplets with that guy. (I found Caligari under “Classic Literature” in my local favorite sweetass bookstore; found these two in “General Fiction.”) No artist credited, which is a shame. I already own a copy of The Dead Father—maybe Barthelme’s best “novel”?—but I couldn’t pass up the mass market edition. I live with myself, but. I’ve read everything in Unspeakable —think — but again, great edition. This is probably the best starting point for Barthelme, with no fewer than five perfect or near-perfect short stories: “The Indian Uprising,” “The Balloon,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” “Game,” and “See the Moon?”

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Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. English translation by William L. Grossman. Mass market paperback from Avon-Bard, 1978. Cover art and design uncredited.

I’m a huge fan of these Bard-Avon Latin American editions, and although this cover isn’t one of their weirdest, it’s not bad. I’m not sure if Grossman’s translation is the one to tackle, but I’m up for it.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Unwitting Street (Book acquired, 29 July 2020)

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Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Unwitting Street is new in English translation by Joanne Turnbull from NYRB. I loved the first collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories that I read, Memories of the Future (also translated by Joanne Turnbull) and wrote about it here, comparing  his weird fables to Kafka, Borges, and Philip K. Dick, among others. (I also really enjoyed the collection Autobiography of a Corpse (another Turnbull translation).

There are eighteen tales in Unwitting Street, most of them rather short. A few of the pieces are fragments or sketches. I read the opener this morning, “Comrade Punt,” which was a bit wacky and unexpectedly whimsical.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb for Unwitting Street, which is out in August:

When Comrade Punt does not wake up one Moscow morning—he has died—his pants dash off to work without him. The ambitious pants soon have their own office and secretary. So begins the first of eighteen superb examples of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s philosophical and phantasmagorical stories. Where the stories included in two earlier NYRB collections (Memories of the Future and Autobiography of a Corpse) are denser and darker, the creations in Unwitting Street are on the lighter side: an ancient goblet brimful of self-replenishing wine drives its owner into the drink; a hypnotist’s attempt to turn a fly into an elephant backfires; a philosopher’s free-floating thought struggles against being “enlettered” in type and entombed in a book; the soul of a politician turned chess master winds up in one of his pawns; an unsentimental parrot journeys from prewar Austria to Soviet Russia.

Manchette’s No Room at the Morgue (Book acquired, 22 July 2020)

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Jean-Patrick Manchette’s detective noir novel No Room at the Morgue (translated by Alyson Waters) is forthcoming in August from NYRB.

Their blurb:

No Room at the Morgue came out after Jean-Patrick Manchette had transformed French crime fiction with such brilliantly plotted, politically charged, unrelentingly violent tales as Nada and The Mad and the Bad. Here, inspired by his love of Dashiell Hammett, Manchette introduces Eugene Tarpon, private eye, a sometime cop who has set up shop after being kicked off the force for accidentally killing a political demonstrator. Months have passed, and Tarpon desultorily tries to keep in shape while drinking all the time. No one has shown up at the door of his office in the midst of the market district of Les Halles. Then the bell rings and a beautiful woman bursts in, her hands dripping blood. It’s Memphis Charles, her roommate’s throat has been cut, and Memphis can’t go to the police because they’ll only suspect her. Can Tarpon help?

Well, somehow he can’t help trying. Soon bodies mount, and the craziness only grows.

Oreo/Orange (Books acquired, 13 July 2020)

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I’m like 50 pages from the end of Fran Ross’s 1974  Oreo and I simply don’t understand how this novel is so erased or ignored in most discussions of postmodern classics. (It could be ignorance—mine for sure—or erasure, or sure, structural racism in publishing and literary criticism—I mean, I feel like every list that compels someone to read Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker and John Barth and Stanley Elkin and Ishmael Reed and Robert Coover should include Fran Ross, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, Fran Ross’s only novel Oreo, why is there only one novel by Fran Ross, Oreo? What I’m trying to say is: Why didn’t I read this until now? Although reading it now has felt like a gift of some kind.)

This thing—Oreo, that is—zapped me on like page three or four with this ditty–

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I mean, c’mon!

I owe Oreo a proper write-up, if I can ever muster such a thing again, which maybe I can’t.

I also picked up, almost entirely at random, Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeeps. The spine and title struck me, I saw it was a Two Dollar Radio publication, and when I fished it from the shelf, I read Steve Erickson’s blurb and just went with it. Here’s Two Dollar’s blurb:

A girl with drug-induced ESP and an eerie connection to Patty Reed (a young member of the Donner Party who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her disappeared foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People,” stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks’ “Bob” and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl.

I also found a Donald Barthelme collection with an Edward Gorey cover:

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Under the Sign of the Labyrinth (Book acquired, 7 July 2020)

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Christina Tudor-Sideri’s Under the Sign of the Labyrinth adds to Sublunary Editions‘ growing catalog of odd and engaging short volumes.

Their blurb:

There is no need to place your hand on a wound to feel it throbbing in pain. There is no need to see its root to know that a tree is dying. I am renouncing history. A film frame has lost its meaning. Vain and cruel, I have become a self that contains all negations to come, I have escaped the universe of time and space—page after page, touch after touch, train after train. I have become the idea of a sea beast moving in the deep. I have become the labyrinth. I am entombed in poetry. In the first stanza, in the last, in the blueness of thirsting ink—in the bruising of eternity. I have become alone. I am alone.”

Books acquired, 1 July 2020

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Scored a copy of William Melvin Kelley’s first novel A Different Drummer the other week, along with a copy of Steve Erickson’s novel Rubicon Beach. I was looking for the Kelley; I was looking for a print edition of Erickson’s more recent novel Zeroville (which I loved in audiobook), but there wasn’t one. Still, I can’t resist a Vintage Contemporaries edition. I’d been looking for a copy of Clarence Major’s My Amputations for a while now with no luck; I eventually broke down and bought one on Abebooks for five bucks. It turned out to be an old library copy with no dust jacket. No one ever checked it out. Check it out.

Delany/Spark/Etc. (Books acquired, 24-27 June 2020)

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Purged some shelves and brought a box of old books to my favorite spot earlier this week. I was looking for books by William Melvin Kelley and Clarence Major but no luck. I picked up yet another Muriel Spark title (I am still hungry for this flavor), and also picked up Samuel Delany’s Nova. I failed Delany’s cult novel Dhalgren, but maybe this earlier novel will work for me. Or I will work for it. Or…you know. Also: Got a bunch of art books today from a neighbor leaving the country. Good for her. (That’s my boy Coyote in the upper left.)

Rédoine Faïd’s Outlaw, a crime memoir-in-interviews (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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I finally made some time this afternoon to dip into Rédoine Faïd’s memoir-in-interviews, Outlaw: Armed and Dangerous. It’s a propulsive, fast read so far–I put away the first 60 pages in one reading. Faïd, fresh out of prison, tells his life story to journalist Jérôme Pierrat. The book is newly-translated by John Galbraith Simmons and J.G. Barque, and available from Contra Mundum Press. Their blurb:

Memoirs of celebrated criminals purvey vivid personal stories while spawning sharp questions about the cultures that produced them. In Outlaw: Author Armed & Dangerous, Rédoine Faïd, of Algerian immigrant parents, born and raised in the housing projects surrounding Paris, recounts his career as an infamous and renowned bandit. Drawing inspiration and instruction from a host of films and television series, Faïd styled himself and was known to friends and accomplices as “Doc” — after Steve McQueen in the legendary suspense thriller, The Getaway.

With self-discipline and a striking ability to learn from experience, Faïd carried off his first robberies while still a teenager. He soon graduated from petty thievery to armed robbery, targeting computer component suppliers, jewelry stores, banks, and most memorably, armored trucks. A master of disguise, with bulletproof vest and a .357 Magnum as a prop to encourage compliance, he led a crew that operated with careful planning but eschewed bloodshed and physical violence.

In imitation of Michael Mann’s Heat, Faïd and his cohorts donned hockey masks for one job, sometimes even quoting from other famous heist films during their capers. When bold plans went wrong, he reacted with fast thinking that served him well — until it didn’t, and he was arrested and imprisoned in 1998.

Outlaw was first published in France in 2009, after which Faïd was imprisoned again. Subsequently, his dramatic escapes from jail, in 2013 and 2018, made front-page news in France and around the world.

Interviewed by journalist Jérôme Pierrat, who specializes in crime and investigative reportage, Rédoine Faïd tells his own story with panache and humor, darkened by introspection and cautionary tales. His story, like that of a character out of a Jean-Pierre Melville film or Dassin’s Rififi, is not only intriguing, it is also as compelling as any high-grade thriller. Three months after his daring helicopter escape from Réau Prison in 2018, Faïd was captured again. He currently remains in jail.

Books acquired, 8 June 2020 and 13 June 2020

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My birthday was last Sunday. My favorite bookstore is closed on Sundays, so as a treat to myself I browsed it Monday afternoon. I was looking for specific titles by Nalo Hopkinson and Kit Reed (no luck), as well as another Muriel Spark. I picked up Spark’s third novel, Momento Mori and read it this week. It’s a good book, but nowhere near the sharp excellence of Loitering with Intent. I also found a first edition paperback of William H. Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck. I should’ve left it for some kid to find—I have a Meridian first edition of Omensetter’s already—but I couldn’t. I hate the collector in me.

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I also picked up Charles Wright’s novel The Messenger, despite already having an omnibus that collects all three of Wright’s novels. Couldn’t help it; the mass-market cover was too good (although James Baldwin’s name doesn’t have to be quite that big, does it?).

Early in the week I got an email containing my daughter’s summer reading directions–Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist and Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States. I treated myself to another Muriel Spark–an especially short one, about a nunnery—The Abbess of Crewe. 

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Curzio Malaparte’s Diary of a Foreigner in Paris (Book acquired 27 April 2020)

Curzio Malaparte’s Diary of a Foreigner in Paris is new from NYRB in translation from Stephen Tilley. NYRB’s blurb:

In 1947 Curzio Malaparte returned to Paris for the first time in fourteen years. In between, he had been condemned by Mussolini to five years in exile and, on release, repeatedly imprisoned. In his intervals of freedom, he had been dispatched as a journalist to the Eastern Front, and though many of his reports from the bloodlands of Poland and Ukraine were censored, his experiences there became the basis for his unclassifiable postwar masterpiece and international bestseller, Kaputt. Now, returning to the one country that had always treated him well, the one country he had always loved, he was something of a star, albeit one that shines with a dusky and disturbing light.

The journal he kept while in Paris records a range of meetings with remarkable people—Jean Cocteau and a dourly unwelcoming Albert Camus among them—and is full of Malaparte’s characteristically barbed reflections on the temper of the time. It is a perfect model of ambiguous reserve as well as humorous self-exposure. There is, for example, Malaparte’s curious custom of sitting out at night and barking along with the neighborhood dogs—dogs, after all, were his only friends when in exile. The French find it puzzling, to say the least; when it comes to Switzerland, it is grounds for prosecution!

Books acquired, 26 May 2020

I dropped by the bookstore yesterday to pick up some more books by Muriel Spark. I finished her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over the Memorial Day weekend and was hungry for more. I picked out Loitering with Intent and The Girls of Slender Means, mostly because of the covers and titles.

I read about half of The Girls of Slender Means yesterday and this morning, and it’s really good. Set primarily “Long ago in 1945,” Girls focuses on a few months in the lives of some of the titular inhabitants of the “May of Teck Club.” The narrator dips between the consciousness of a few of these “girls of good family but slender means,” but focuses primarily on Jane Wright, a would-be member of the “world of books” whose 1963 phone calls to some of the other “girls” frames the narrative proper. It’s witty stuff, occasionally vicious, and even includes some literary hoaxing! I’ll probably finish it tonight.

I also picked up John Domini’s collection of literary criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb, which I’ve been wanting to pick through for ages now. When I spied the unbroken spine, I assumed it was new, but no–just unread. I opened it up to find the price and saw that not only was the book used (half cover price), it was signed by the author. On top of that, this copy was inscribed to another author, a somewhat-famous sci-fi writer (you might have seen a recent film adaptation of one of his novels). Anyway, it was a strange find.

Melville/Ishiguro (Books acquired, 13 May 2020)

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My beloved bookstore reopened this Monday. This past Wednesday, I donned my finest mask, got into the car for the first time in a while, and drove the 1.1 miles to my beloved bookstore, which reopened this Monday. I had done curbside pickup on a few books for my kids sometime early in April, but I hadn’t been into a bookstore since the middle of March.

The staff were all wearing masks, as were the few customers in the store (with the exception of two elderly patrons). The store is a sprawling maze of stacks covering close to 25,000 (very irregular, bendy, weird) square feet (it’s not a small space), and the stacks were marked for distancing.

I managed to find all the books on my list—two dystopian teen novels for my not-quite-yet-teen daughter, novels by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman for the boy (who’s already finished both), a copy of My Brilliant Friend for my wife, who loved the filmic teevee adaptation (I gave my copy to my department head years ago, thinking she’d love it, but she never mentioned anything about it to me, and I don’t press), and two books for me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and Herman Melville’s fourth novel Redburn (which I’ve been meaning to read for awhile after reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s literary biography of Melville a few weeks ago). Edward Gorey did the Redburn cover, by the way.

Despite already being into four other novels, I started in on The Unconsoled. The novel reads like a hallucinatory series of side quests in the strangest first-person video game ever made–a novel of absurdity and art and time and memory, wherein the first-person narrator Ryder, on a mission he can never quite name or even possibly remember, constructs and deconstructs his (always-deferred) present “reality” on a moment-to-moment basis. The book is weird in the best way—it reminds me a lot of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Anna Kavan’s Ice, João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, and pretty much everything by Kafka. I imagine it will frustrate many readers with its refusal to cohere or to settle on a plot, but I’m digging it big time.

Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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I just finished the first section of Guillermo Stitch’s new novel Lake of Urine (from indie Sagging Meniscus). The beginning of the novel has made me want to read the rest of the novel. It is weird, man, which I guess you’d expect from a novel titled Lake of Urine. So far, the book seems to run on its own comic-logic, a verbal slapstick routine that shifts in voice and tone from  paragraph to paragraph. The sentences are fantastic; Stitch’s prose so far reminds me of Barry Hannah and Donald Barthelme, but also definitely its own thing. Here’s a blurb, via the author’s site:

 Once upon a time that doesn’t make a blind bit of sense, in a place that seems awfully familiar but definitely doesn’t exist, Willem Seiler’s obsession with measuring his world—with wrapping it up in his beloved string to keep the madness out—wreaks havoc on the Wakeling family.

Noranbole Wakeling lives in the scrub and toil of the pantry, in the ashes of the cold hearth…which, come to think of it, also sounds pretty familiar…She lives, too, in the shadow of her much wooed and cosseted sister, worshipped by the madman Seiler but overlooked by everyone else.

And that, it turns out, is a good thing.

As lives are lost to Seiler’s vanity, the inattention spares her. She spots her chance to break free of the fetters that tie her to Tiny Village—and bolts.

But some cords are never really cut. In her absence, the unravelling of the world she has escaped is complete. Another madness—her mother’s—reaches out to entangle her newfound Big City freedom. The unpicked quilt-work of a life in ruins threatens to ruin her own. It will be up to Noranbole to stitch it all together, into something she can call true.

The blurb doesn’t really capture the energy and humor in Lake of Urine though (let alone its utter weirdness. Here’s an excerpt; the conversation is between Emma Wakeling (mother of Urine and Noranbole) and her tenant, William Seiler:

The melts are not long off.

. . .

Yes?

Yes.

The days grow lengthier and more detailed.

I’m not, eh . . .

You have been here for nine weeks.

Yes.

You may recall the conversation we had in November, Mr Seiler, which resulted in your entering my employ.

A bit formal.

Just answer.

I do remember, yes.

Your brief which I outlined at the time was to be of assistance to me during the winter in the monitoring of my two girls, both of whom were of marriageable age and one of whom was attractive—a siren to the lads of the county.

Yes.

I haven’t asked much else of you.

No.

Apart from the sharpening of some tools. Indeed your . . . remunerations have exceeded what we originally agreed in both nature and degree. Despite your squirreling yourself away in that shed, increasingly. I am only trying to help, you know.

Yes.

A man’s fluids require frequent liberation or they will stew.

Some of the tools are really very blunt.

I have asked for this little chat Mr Seiler because I wish to express my disappointment.

Oh?

Oh? I surprise you? Really? You are surprised? For reals? You didn’t anticipate disappointment here, today?

Well . . .

You need reminding perhaps of yesterday’s unfortunate events? The toesnappingly cold trek through wolf-infested forest? The yelling and the wailing? The gnashing? The wet clouds of breath in the grief-stricken air, the frozen-teared faces of the bereaved? A quick recap?

No, I do remember.

Excellent. You would acknowledge then that as we approach the end of your tenure here one of my girls appears to be—and I recognize that there is some evidential uncertainty here—dead?

That would appear to be the case, yes, notwithstanding the as you say murky specifics.

I am to be grateful I suppose, to be appreciative of the fact that at least it isn’t my Urine who has been lost.

Eh . . .

You give no indication, Mr Seiler, that you recognize the seriousness of the . . . the precariousness of your . . . hm?

Oh, no . . . no, no I can . . . what?

Be under no illusions, Seiler. One more dead daughter and you’re fired.

That does seem fair.

Now lie still. Stop squirming!

 

Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo (Book acquired, 27 April 2020)

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A few days ago, a perhaps-not-unprecedented-yet-still-weighty crop of books arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters. Five, to be clear, which is a lot of good mail in These Uncertain Trying Unprecedented Challenging Difficult Fucked the Fucked Up Times™. At first I felt electric joy, and then I felt overwhelmed, burdened even—I’m in the middle of Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge and I’m reading this really great as-yet-unpublished novel by Adam Novy and I’m still making my merry way through the voluminous volume The Complete Gary Lutz. (And how did Tyrant, the publisher, get that name? Do they plan on assassinating Lutz to ensure their book is truly complete?) I’m also doing my job, which is a bunch of reading and writing, and trying to do the homeschool thing. Is this a complaint? It is not. I am okay.

But so well and anyway—

The five books that showed up initially were a source of joy but then caused a weird panic. I picked up Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan, btw) this afternoon because it was on top of a neat stack I’d stacked. (A big part of my day is going around and stacking things and wiping down surfaces.) I started reading, and the sentences were good. The first sentence made me want to read the next sentence, a pattern that continued. I read the first eight chapters (I love short chapters, and I love short books—books should be over 700 pages or under 200), and really dig the voice Ramos channels here. Let’s take these early paragraphs, which might could maybe perhaps be the germ of its own separate novel:

Until I was eighteen, I hoed a hard roe, earning five tostoes for twelve hours’ work. That was when I committed my first act worthy of mention. At a wake that ended up in a free-for-all, I moved in on this girl, Germana—a sarara, a blond mulatta, flirty as hell—and tweaked the stern of her ass. The kid about wet herself, she love it so much. Then she flipped and made up to João Fagundes, a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses. The upshot was that I knocked Germana around and knifed João Fagundes. Sot the police chief arrested me. I was beaten with a bullwhip, took my medicine and stewed in my own juices, rotting in jail for three years, nine months, and fifteen days, where I learned to read with Joaquim the shoemaker, who had one of those tiny Bibles, the Protestant kind.

Joaquim the shoemaker died and Germana was ruined. When I got, she’d gone downhill—had an open-door policy and the clap.

(lmao — “a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses.”)

Our narrator is a charming brute who brutally charms his way into ownership of São Bernardo, a ranch gone to seed.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb:

Paulo Honório is a sometime field hand who has kicked and clawed and schemed his way to prosperity, becoming master of the decrepit estate São Bernardo, where once upon a time he toiled. He is ruthless in his exploitation of his fellow man, but when he makes a match with a fine young woman, he is surprised to discover that this latest acquisition, as he sees it, may be somewhat harder to handle. It is in Paulo Honório’s own rough-hewn voice that the great Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos, often compared to William Faulkner, tells this gritty and dryly funny story of triumph and comeuppance, a tour de force of the writer’s art that is beautifully captured in Padma Viswanathan’s new translation.

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia (Book acquired 21 April 2020)

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A number of people whose literary taste I admire and have learned from (including this guy) have told me to read Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia. (English translation is by Frank Wynne, by the way.)

I avoided any reviews or descriptions (although a bit of chatter and stray lines have led me to believe the book has an abject grimy grittiness to it—and the back of this copy compares it to Cormac McCarthy), but trips to my beloved bookstore never yielded a copy over the past six months or so. I was looking for the Fitzcarraldo Editions edition, which was probably a mistake. Those are hard to come by in the States.

A few weeks—days? —I don’t know man, time has been weird, we all know that right? Like this virus, a post-postmodern moment, has shifted again our human relationship with time/space, revealing that the modernist schedules and movements and timelines and tics that we’d been following, perhaps even believing in, were fictions—which of course, those of us birthed in the postmodern era understood, either fully or at least intuitively—but we had to subscribe to those fictions to like, survive—but now, now, hey, now what is our relationship to time and space?—does anyone else wake up at 3am and then go back to sleep at 7am?—has anyone else ordered a book off the internet, possibly drunk, or possibly in a weird mix of sleep aids and melatonin, or possibly just a bit crazed?—these aren’t real questions—

So—

At some point in the recent past, Fitzcarraldo Editions tweeted about an ebook sale that reminded me to get Animalia. (A basic twitter search reveals that my previous paragraph is as idiotic as you no doubt took it to be, if you bothered to even read it. This happened on 30 March 2020.) Of course, I could not get the ebook in the States.

I’m not sure when exactly I ordered a copy of Animalia from an indie bookseller online. When it showed up the other day I was a bit surprised: first that I’d ordered it, second that it was an uncorrected proof. But I was happy that some idiot version of myself from the past sent me this gift, the first physical book I’ve gotten in what seems like a long time.

From an excerpt of the novel at Granta:

The genetrix, a lean, cold woman, with a ruddy neck and hands that are ever busy, affords the child scant attention. She is content merely to instruct her, to pass on the skills for those chores that are the preserve of their sex, and the child quickly learns to emulate her in her tasks, to mimic her gestures and her bearing. At five years old, she holds herself stiff and staid as a farmer’s wife, feet planted firmly on the ground, clenched fists resting on her narrow hips. She beats the laundry, churns the butter and draws water from the well or the spring without expecting affection or gratitude in return. Before Éléonore was born, the father twice impregnated the genetrix, but her menses are light, irregular, and continued to flow during the months when, in hindsight, she realizes that she was pregnant, though her belly had barely begun to swell. Although scrawny, she had a pot-belly as a child, her organs strained and bloated from parasitic infections contracted through playing in dirt and dungheaps, or eating infected meat, a condition her mother vainly attempted to treat with decoctions of garlic.

One October morning, alone in the sty, tending to the sow about to farrow, the genetrix is felled by a pain and, without even a cry, falls to her knees on the freshly scattered straw whose pale, perfumed dust is still rising in whorls. Her breaking waters drench her undergarments and her thighs. The sow, also in the throes of labour, trots in circles, making high whining sounds, her huge belly jiggling, her teats already swollen with milk, her swollen vulva dilated; and it is here, on her knees, and later on her side, that the genetrix gives birth, like a bitch, like a sow, panting, red-faced, her forehead bathed with sweat. Slipping a hand between her thighs, she feel the viscid mass tearing her apart. She buries her fingers in the fontanelle, rips out the stillborn foetus and flings it far from her. She grips the bluish umbilical cord attached to it and from her belly pulls the placenta which falls to the ground with a spongy sound. She stares at the tiny body covered in vernix caseosa, it looks like a yellowish worm, like the grey and golden larva of a potato beetle ripped from the rich soil and the roots on which it feeds. Daylight filters between loose boards, streaking the sour, dusty air, the bleak half-light that reeks of a knacker’s yard, and falls on the lifeless form lying on the straw. The genetrix gets to her feet, split in two, one hand under her skirt touching the swollen lips of her sex. She steps back, horrified, and leaves the sty, careful to latch the door, leaving to the sow the afterbirth and its fruit. For a long time she leans against the wall of the sty, motionless, gasping for breath. Bright blurred shapes float in her field of vision. Then she leaves the farm and takes the road towards Puy-Larroque, limping through a heavy drizzle that washes her face and the skirt stained brown with lochia. Without a glance at anyone, she crosses the village square. Those who see her notice the soiled skirt she is gripping in one fist, the pallid face, the lips pressed so tightly that the mouth is white as an old scar. Her brown hair has escaped her scarf and is plastered to her face and neck. She pushes open the church door and falls to her knees before the crucifix.

Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (Book acquired, 9 March 2020)

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Henri Bosco’s novel Malicroix (in English translation by Joyce Zonana) is one of NYRB’s new titles. Their blurb:

Henri Bosco, like his contemporary Jean Giono, is one of the regional masters of modern French literature, a writer who dwells above all on the grandeur, beauty, and ferocious unpredictability of the natural world. Malicroix, set in the early nineteenth century, is widely considered to be Bosco’s greatest book. Here he invests a classic coming-of-age story with a wild, mythic glamour.

A nice young man, of stolidly unimaginative, good bourgeois stock, is surprised to inherit a house on an island in the Rhône, in the famously desolate and untamed region of the Camargue. The terms of his great-uncle’s will are even more surprising: the young man must take up solitary residence in the house for a full three months before he will be permitted to take possession of it. With only a taciturn shepherd and his dog for occasional company, he finds himself surrounded by the huge and turbulent river (always threatening to flood the island and surrounding countryside) and the wind, battering at his all-too-fragile house, shrieking from on high. And there is another condition of the will, a challenging task he must perform, even as others scheme to make his house their own. Only under threat can the young man come to terms with both his strange inheritance and himself.

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone (Book acquired, sometime in February 2020)

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Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is new from NYRB in English translation by Charlotte Collins. NYRB’s blurb:

West Germany, 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Jonathan Fabrizius, a middle-aged erstwhile journalist, has a comfortable existence in Hamburg, bankrolled by his furniture-manufacturing uncle. He lives with his girlfriend Ulla in a grand, decrepit prewar house that just by chance escaped annihilation by the Allied bombers. One day Jonathan receives a package in the mail from the Santubara Company, a luxury car company, commissioning him to travel in their newest V8 model through the People’s Republic of Poland and to write about the route for a car rally. Little does the company know that their choice location is Jonathan’s birthplace, for Jonathan is a war orphan from former East Prussia, whose mother breathed her last fleeing the Russians and whose father, a Nazi soldier, was killed on the Baltic coast. At first Jonathan has no interest in the job, or in dredging up ancient family history, but as his relationship with Ulla starts to wane, the idea of a return to his birthplace, and the money to be made from the gig, becomes more appealing. What follows is a darkly comic road trip, a queasy misadventure of West German tourists in Communist Poland, and a reckoning that is by turns subtle, satiric, and genuine. Marrow and Bone is an uncomfortably funny and revelatory odyssey by one of the most talented and nuanced writers of postwar Germany.