Susan Taubes’s Divorcing (Book acquired, 14 Oct. 2020)

Susan Taubes’s forgotten semi-autobiographical novel Divorcing is being republished by NRYB.

I had never heard of Taubes until Divorcing showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters yesterday. Divorce was Taubes’s first, and only (to my knowledge) novel. It was first published in 1969 and received a mixed (and somewhat sexist) review in The New York Times by Hugh Kenner. A few days after the review was published, Taubes committed suicide by walking into the Atlantic Ocean. Her body was identified by her friend and contemporary Susan Sontag.

Here’s NYRB’s blurb for Divorcing:

Dream and reality overlap in Divorcing, a book in which divorce is not just a question of a broken marriage but names a rift that runs right through the inner and outer worlds of Sophie Blind, its brilliant but desperate protagonist. Can the rift be mended? Perhaps in the form of a novel, one that goes back from present-day New York to Sophie’s childhood in pre–World War II Budapest, that revisits the divorce between her Freudian father and her fickle mother, and finds a place for a host of further tensions and contradictions in her present life. The question that haunts Divorcing, however, is whether any novel can be fleet and bitter and true and light enough to gather up all the darkness of a given life.

Susan Taubes’s startlingly original novel was published in 1969 but largely ignored at the time; after the author’s tragic early death, it was forgotten. Its republication presents a chance to discover a splintered, glancing, caustic, and lyrical work by a dazzlingly intense and inventive writer.

Here’s a note on Taubes from one of Sontag’s 1965 journal entries. Sontag’s son edited the journals collected in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, and provides the note that Sontag identified Taubes’s body:

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (Book acquired, 19 Sept. 2020)

NRYB has a forthcoming collection of Nikolai Leskov stories (novellas, really) called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The collection features new translations from Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, and William Edgerton. NYRB’s blurb:

Nikolai Leskov is the strangest of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His work is closer to the oral traditions of narrative than that of his contemporaries, and served as the inspiration for Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin contrasts the plotty machinations of the modern novel with the strange, melancholy, but also worldly-wise yarns of an older, slower era that Leskov remained in touch with. The title story is a tale of illicit love and multiple murder that could easily find its way into a Scottish ballad and did go on to become the most popular of Dmitri Shostakovich’s operas. The other stories, all but one newly translated, present the most focused and finely rendered collection of this indispensable writer currently available in English.

The collection includes six novellas: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Sealed Angel, The Enchanted Wanderer, The Steel Flea, The Unmercenary Engineers, and The Innocent Prudentius.

I read a few of these stories some years back in a Borzoi collection of Leskov stories called The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories; those translations were by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and included some much shorter tales).

I also highly highly recommend Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch’s 2016 film adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (Book acquired, 18 Sept. 2020)

I ended up reading Walker Percy’s postmodern Gothic novel Lancelot earlier this month. I’m a big fan of Southern literature—Faulkner and O’Connor, Barry Hannah and Charles Portis, etc.—but Percy has been a blind spot up until now. I got copies of Lancelot and The Second Coming when my college’s library removed a ton of books last year. They’d been in my office for months, and when I went back at the beginning of the fall semester to grab some textbooks—I’m teaching online only now—I grabbed the Percys (Percies?). I picked up Lancelot and then never really put it down. Something about its comedic grotesquerie, its insane monologuing just…clicked for me right now.

I figured I should read Percy’s first and most famous novel The Moviegoer next, so I picked up a used copy last week. I was stoked to find a 1971 Noonday edition with a cover design by Milton Glaser. I read the first fifty pages this weekend, and have enjoyed it so far, but maybe Lancelot spoiled me a bit. Percy’s first novel seems far more restrained and measured—subtler, really, although Lancelot is, to be clear, out there. While Lancelot reminded me of Barry Hannah’s zany, mean-spirited stuff, so far The Moviegoer strikes me as soaked in existentialist ennui. The main character and narrator, Binx Bolling, echoes Camus’ hero of The Stranger, Mersault so far. I do enjoy Percy’s evocation of New Orleans in the late fifties very much, but I was hoping for a little more humor. Still, I’ll stick with it.

William Melvin Kelley’s Dunfords Travels Everywhere (Book acquired, 9 Sept. 2020)

Earlier this summer, I “discovered” the long-neglected novels of William Melvin Kelley, first through an essay on postmodern fiction by Black American authors (I can’t find the essay now, but I think it was by Bernard Bell), and then in a more-widely circulated article at The New Yorker. I then read Kelley’s first novel A Different Drummer and his fourth novel, demWhat I really wanted to read though was Kelley’s final novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, which is generally described as his most postmodern and Joycean. 

Dunfords was, at that point, not in print. I had no success finding it at my local used bookshop, so I looked on Abebooks, where I discovered that the cheapest copies were going for a hundred bucks.

Fortunately, Anchor Books has reissued Dunfords Travels Everywheres—it’s out later this month. Even better, they’ve included the many pen-and-ink illustrations for the book that Kelley commissioned from his wife Aiki. These illustrations were not included in the novel’s first edition in 1970. Here is one of her illustrations:

Proper review in the works; for now, here’s publisher Anchor’s blurb:

William Melvin Kelley’s final work, a Joycean, Rabelaisian romp in which he brings back some of his most memorable characters in a novel of three intertwining stories.

Ride on out with Rab and Turt, two o’New Afriqueque’s toughfast, ruefast Texnosass Arangers, as they battle Chief Pugmichillo and ricecure Mr. Charcarl Walker-Rider. Cut in on Carlyle Bedlowe, wrecker of marriage, saver of souls.

Or just along with Chig Dunford, product of Harlem and private schools, on the circular voyage of self-discovery that takes him from Europe’s Café of One Hand to Harlem’s Jack O’Gee’s Golden Grouse Bar & Restaurant.

Beginning on an August Sunday in one of Europe’s strangest cities, Dunfords Travels Everywheres but always returns back to the same point—the “Begending”—where Mr. Charcarl’s dream becomes Chig Dunford’s reality (the “Ivy League Negro” in the world outside the Ivory Tower).

Pierre Senges takes on Kafka’s fragments in Studies of Silhouettes (Book acquired, 2 Aug. 2020)

I’ve enjoyed digging into Pierre Senges’s Studies of Silhouettes since its arrival last week. The book is forthcoming from Sublunary Editions thanks to a translation by Jacob Siefring. Here’s Siefring’s blurb, which explains Senges’s project here:

Each of the texts in this work proceed from the fragments and cryptic beginnings found scattered throughout the notebooks Max Brod took possession of after Kafka’s death. The results tend to be as variable as they are unexpected: outlines of tales, madcap soliloquies, fairy tale inversions, strange parables, comedic monologues. In some instances a single fragment of Kafka’s is reprised multiple times, yielding parallel but divergent texts. Other times, a unique fragment is driven to its logical extreme, or gives way to a dizzying cascade of ab absurdum speculation, and one marvels how the development could have been otherwise. As one might expect, all of Kafka’s familiar obsessions—the night and its terrors, the law, justice and its lack, bureaucracy, animals, et cetera—are here in force. Each passage begins in boldface to indicate the hand of the Prague lawyer, before giving way to Senges’s liberties.

I’ve been dipping in at random, between the other few books I’ve been reading, and it’s good stuff. Here’s a sample:

Read my review of Pierre Senges’s Geometry in the Dust here.

John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (Book acquired, 28 Aug. 2020)

I usually allow myself to peruse my favorite used bookstore every other Friday, poking around for weird finds and etc. I had no luck this week—nothing like a Vintage Contemporaries Barry Hannah—but they did have a copy of John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, which I’d been searching (not-too-hard) for for a few years now. The thing is much longer than I expected (I knew it was long…but it’s long…650 pages). Not sure when I’ll even get to it. It’s supposed to be a cult classic right? Here’s the blurb from my edition:

There are seven billion-plus humans crowding the surface of 21st century Earth. It is an age of intelligent computers, mass-market psychedelic drugs, politics conducted by assassination, scientists who burn incense to appease volcanoes … all the hysteria of a dangerously overcrowded world, portrayed in a dazzlingly inventive style. Employing a dazzling range of literary techniques, John Brunner has created a future world as real as this morning’s newspaper – moving, sensory, impressionistic, as jagged as the times it portrays, this book is a real mind stretcher – and yet beautifully orchestrated to give a vivid picture of the whole.

And here’s an excerpt, via Macmillan’s site:


context (1)

SCANALYZE MY NAME

Stock cue SOUND: “Presenting SCANALYZER, Engrelay Satelserv’s unique thrice-per-day study of the big big scene, the INdepth INdependent INmediate INterface between you and your world!”
Stock cue VISUAL: cliptage, splitscreen, cut in bridge-melder, Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere depthunder (today MAMP, Mid-Atlantic Mining Project), spaceover (today freefly-suiting), transiting (today Simplon Acceleratube), digging (today as every day homimage with autoshout).
Autoshout cue: “It’s happening it’s happening! SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER SCANALYZER—”
Stock cue VISUAL: cliptage, wholescreen, planet Earth turning jerk-jerk-jerk and holding meridians for GMT, EST, PCT, Pacific Conflict Zone Time.
Live cue SOUND: “And it’s six poppa-momma for the happening people keeping it straight and steady on that old Greenwich Mean Time—how mean can time get, you tell me, hm? Zee for zero, bee for base, counting down to one after ess ee eks—sorree—ess EYE eks! We know what’s happening happening HAPPENING but that piece of the big big scene is strictly up to you, Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere—or Mr. and Miss, or Miss and Miss, or Mister and Mister, take your pick, hah-hah! Counting down to one after one poppa-momma for that good old Eastern Standard tie-yum, one after ten anti-matter for the Pacific Coast, and for all of you fighting the good fight in lonely midocean one after seven anti-matter—PIPS!”
Clock cue: 5 × 1-sec. countdown pips on G in alt, minute signal on C in alt.
Plug cue: “No time like the present for things to happen in, no better way to keep time straight and steady than by the signal from General Technics’ critonium clock, so accuright it serves to judge the stars.”
Script cue VISUAL: cliptage, splitscreen, excerpts from day’s news.
Live cue SOUND: “And no better way to keep abreast—pardon—than with SCANALYZER!”
Cut autoshout cue. (If they haven’t made it by this time they’ve switched off.)
Plug cue: “SCANALYZER is the one single, the ONLY study of the news in depth that’s processed by General Technics’ famed computer Shalmaneser, who sees all, hears all, knows all save only that which YOU, Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, wish to keep to yourselves.”
Script cue: the happening world.
the happening world (1)

Continue reading “John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (Book acquired, 28 Aug. 2020)”

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence (Book acquired, 14 Aug. 2020)

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence is a collection of 27 essays that each take a single sentence as their starting point. Organized chronologically by author dates, the collection begins with Shakespeare and Donne and works its way to Anne Carson and Anne Boyer (with Eliot, Stein, Beckett, Bowen et al along the way). When it showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters last week I was intrigued, and admittedly jumped to the end to read the pieces on Carson and Boyer. In subsequent days I read the pieces on Shakespeare (Dillon takes his sentence “O, o, o, o” from Hamlet, but finds the vowels reputation throughout the playwright’s oeuvre) and Robert Smithson (in the middle of the book). I’ve decided to settle down and read in order at a leisurely pace—a chapter a day?

In the meantime, NYRB’s blurb

In Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, whom John Banville has called “a literary flâneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin,” has written a sequel of sorts to Essayism, his roaming love letter to literature. In this new book Dillon turns his attention to the oblique and complex pleasures of the sentence. A series of essays prompted by a single sentence—from Shakespeare to Janet Malcolm, John Ruskin to Joan Didion—the book explores style, voice, and language, along with the subjectivity of reading. Both an exercise in practical criticism and a set of experiments or challenges, Suppose a Sentence is a polemical and personal reflection on the art of the sentence in literature. Whether the sentence in question is a rigorous expression of a state of vulnerability, extremity, even madness, or a carefully calibrated arrangement, Dillon examines not only how it works and why but also, in the course of the book, what the sentence once was, what it is today, and what it might become tomorrow.

Blog about William Melvin Kelley’s satire Dem (book acquired 12 Aug. 2020)

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I managed to snag a cheap used copy of William Melvin Kelley’s fourth novel Dem (or, more properly, dem) yesterday. I usually just snap a pic when I do these book acquired posts, but the cover for this 1969 Collier mass-market, by Leo and Diane Dillon, was simply too good not to scan.

I read not-quite-half of dem today, and the Dillons’ cover captures Kelley’s hypercolor satire of white upper-middle-class America: the infantalized businessman, attended by a black domestic, his bored wife not-quite-off-scene; and hey—look in that mirror.

I’ll admit that the book was hard to break into for the first few moments, until a wild moment around page 20 or so, that I’m still waiting on the novel to deliver upon (or, as it seems at this point, to depart from entirely). Kelley’s style in dem is choppier, sharper, more cartoonish than his Faulknerian debut A Different Drummer and if dem skews towards absurd irony where Drummer was heroic-tragic, both novels are rooted in intense anger tempered by strange empathy.

As its subheading attests, dem is, like Drummer, a take on white people viewing black people, and over a half-century after its publication, many of the tropes Kelley employs here still ring painfully true. His “hero,” Mitchell Pierce is a lazy advertising executive, bored with his wife, a misogynist who occasionally longs to return to the “wars in Asia.” He’s also deeply, profoundly racist; structurally racist; the kind of racist who does not think of his racism as racism. At the same time, Kelley seems to extend little parcels of sympathy to Pierce, even as he reveals the dude to be a piece of shit, as if to say, What else could he end up being in this system but a piece of shit?

The novel I’m most interested in reading by Kelley is his last, 1970’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres, long out of print and hard (read: expensive on the internet) to find. It is, apparently, his most postmodern novel, his most polyglossic, and, if the stuff I’ve read on it is accurate, it represents his most profound satirical break/engagement with reality. Fortunately, it’s getting a reprint this fall. Looking forward to it.

Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem (Book acquired, 5 Aug. 2020 and read this past weekend)

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I’d been meaning to read Chester Himes for a while now (on the recommendation of Ishmael Reed, who cites Himes as a major influence), so I picked up a copy of A Rage in Harlem, the first of his Coffin Ed and Grave Digger detective stories. I was expecting hardboiled crime fiction—and sure, there are elements of it here—but Himes’ 1957 novel was far zanier and more ecstatic than I expected. A Rage in Harlem pops along with wild energy, spinning out into strange directories, donning artful disguises, always on the run. Absolutely loved it. Here’s the blurb:

For love of fine, wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson surrenders his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds—and then he steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a craps table. Luckily for him, he can turn to his savvy twin brother, Goldy, who earns a living—disguised as a Sister of Mercy—by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. With Goldy on his side, Jackson is ready for payback.

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.

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.”

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.

Charles Wright/Steve Erickson (Books acquired, 18 March 2020)

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A couple of days ago I took my daughter to the bookstore for what I imagine will be the last time for a while. She browsed the “Teen” section, which is new for both of us, and picked out a few books.

I picked up The Complete Novels of Charles Wright, which collects The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. I’m generally not a fan of omnibus editions, but I’m not sure how easy it is to get a hold of The Messenger or Absolutely Nothing (the bookstore had another copy of The Wig, which makes me think it’s in wider circulation). This Harper Perennial edition has no introduction, and I’m not crazy about the no-contrast cover, but it’s got a nice texture to it.

I also picked up Steve Erickson’s debut novel Days Between Stations, in part because Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (even though I wasn’t wild about the last novel I read because Pynchon blurbed it, Wurlitzer’s Nog), and also in part because I’m a sucker for Vintage Contemporaries editions, especially ones with covers illustrated by Rick Lovell.

Here’s Pynchon’s blurb:

 

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Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller. It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer– to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d’oeuvres.

Pynchon also blurbed Jim Dodge’s novel Stone Junction (or wrote an introduction for it rather), which I’ve been looking for unsuccessfully for a while now—not because Pynchon blurbed it (which I only found out recently), but because I’ve heard it compared to Charles Portis. I was unsuccessful again this time.

I hope I’ll be able to get out of the house soon, but in the meantime I have more than enough reading material.

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.