Books I Will (Make Every Reasonable Attempt to) Read in 2011

If you’re looking for a comprehensive “Books to Look Forward to in 2011” kind of list, The Millions has you covered. This post is not about books that are coming out in 2011, although some books mentioned here will come out in 2011. This post is really just about books I’d like to/plan to read in 2011 (it’s also kind of a dare to myself).

First up, I will finish the books I’m reading/listening to now. This means Adam Levin’s The Instructions (reading; McSweeney’s) and Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (listening; Iambik Audio). I’m on page 342 of The Instructions; there are 1030 pages; a calculator tells me that that is 33.2%. It’s easy reading, often entertaining, but it’s hard to see, even a third of the way in, how Levin can justify taking up this much space. Oh, what is it about? Okay, this kid Gurion Maccabee may or may not be the Messiah. In the meantime, he rules the special ed program at his suburban Chicago school, writes scripture, and gets in lots of fights. The best parts of the book (so far, anyway) are Gurion’s comments on Torah (I would’ve written “the Torah,” but this book seems to suggest that the definite article is pretty Gentile).

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart has been enjoyable, sardonic — funny but sad — and I’m coming up to the end soon. Basically, a trinity of scientists who helped invent the atom bomb (Robert Oppenheimer is the famous one) come back from the dead (sort of) to . . . I don’t know yet. It’s unclear. To hang out with a quiet librarian and her gardener husband as their marriage slowly dissolves? To lead our nation to world wide peace? To take part in a movable circus of weirdos and End Times prophets? Not sure. Full review forthcoming.

I already wrote about one of the Tintin collections I picked up late last year; I will read the other three collections (and likely hunt down more). I’ll also read (hopefully; that is, hopefully it will come out) the next installment in Charles Burns’s X’ed Out trilogy.

Also on the proverbial plate, non-illustratedwise, is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, the story of a clown in post-Reich Germany who can smell through the phone (I think there’s more to it than that). Melville House is actually releasing several new editions of Böll’s novels this year, and they have a pretty excellent track record with the Germans, what with Hans Fallada and all, so hey, why not.

On the I-will-read-everything-Sam-Lipsyte-writes front, Picador is putting out a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve (perhaps in concordance with The Ask coming out in paperback?). I will read The Subject Steve.

Books I bought this year and didn’t read but will make every reasonable attempt to read this year—

William Gaddis’s JR was, I think anyway, the last book I picked up in 2010. It’s really long, seems to be written entirely as a dialog, and hey, I read 2/3rds of The Recognitions and then didn’t even finish it (yet?) which is kinda remarkable/totally lazy. Maybe I should just finish The Recognitions. I just feel like “I get it already.” Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Loved the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, even though it was really silly. Stay tuned, folks.

I read the first two stories in Barry Hannah’s Airships and then a few galleys bombed my doorstep and then I got distracted, but these things have Spring Break written all over them, so, yes, look for the Airships report in the future (or be a hipster douchebag and write in to tell me how awesome you already know Hannah is now that he’s dead blah blah blah).

I remember that I bought Renata Adler’s Speed Boat the same day I bought Airships (because, y’know, the titles). I read the first 30 or so pages and then read them again and then read them again a week or so ago. Kind of dumbfounding stuff. It’s been hovering around the coffee table, the nightstand; it’s been jammed in briefcases, wedged in coat pockets. What is it? What is she doing?

After slowing down my consumption in 2010, I’m ready to feed the addiction again in 2011: Bolaño, Bolaño, Bolaño. I need to read Amulet; I’ll also read The Insufferable Gaucho and probably something else.

And:

The Pale King

But everyone’s buzzing about that already, right?

Ethical Realism (and Grim Decadence) in Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves

On the heels of last year’s hugely successful first-time-in-English publication of Every Man Dies Alone, the good folks at Melville House have issued another of Hans Fallada’s epic novels, Wolf Among Wolves. Set during Germany’s 1923 economic collapse, Wolf centers on Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier and itinerant gambler languishing in the corruption of Weimar Berlin.The beginning of the novel focuses on a single summer day in Berlin; Fallada’s naturalist, realist eye paradoxically puts all the minutiae of this world under a microscope even as it expands to capture a holistic vision of life in morally-decadent, post-war Germany. The effect is both devastating and enlightening. It is epic realism, the condensation of the everyday existence of an alien world. Another paradox–behind Fallada’s omniscient, steady, neutral narrative, so plain and descriptive and frank, there lies another voice, a moral, ethical voice that prompts Pagel to transcend the wolf-eat-wolf world. Indeed, Fallada presents a vision of moral cooperation in a world dominated by self-interest. Here’s a passage describing some of Berlin’s heady post-war decadence:

But the girls were the worst. They strolled about calling, whispering, taking people’s arms, running alongside men, laughing. Some girls exposed their bodies in a way that was revolting. A market of flesh–white flesh bloated with drink, and lean dark flesh which seemed to have been burned up by spirits. But worst of all were the entirely shameless, the almost sexless: the morphine addicts with their contracted pupils, the cocaine sniffers with their white noses, and the cocaine addicts with high-pitched voices and irrepressibly twitching faces. They wriggled, they jiggled their flesh in low-cut or cunningly-slashed blouses, and when they made room for you or went round a corner they picked up their skirts (which, even so, didn’t reach their knees), exhibiting between stockings and drawers a strip of pale flesh and a green or pink garter. They exchanged remarks about passing men, bawled obscenities to each other across the street, and their greedy eyes searched among the slowly drifting crowd for foreigners who might be expected to have foreign currency in their pockets.

Melville House’s edition of Wolf Among Wolves is the first unabridged English translation ever–scholars Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs have restored  passages originally omitted in Philip Owens’s contemporaneous translation.In his insightful afterward, Carstensen addresses why certain passages were not included in Owens’s original translation, pointing out that most omitted passages showed an inclination toward fairy-tale or mythic structures, aesthetics that “contradict the claim to naturalistic representation” one expects in Fallada’s work. By preserving the occasional “almost surreal mode of perception” omitted in the original, Carstensen argues that:

In short, the fully reconstructed text, with its enhanced inconsistency, provides the reader with insight into a literary aesthetics that is unique among the novels of German modernism: Fallada combines realist prose and ethical concerns with a narrative technique that renders ambiguous what is supposedly a semi-documentary representation, shaped by his very own experiences in the country.

We’re eating up Wolf Among Wolves right now, and will have a full review in time); for now, we recommend you pick it up for some good summer reading.

Biblioklept Interviews Melville House’s Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson, along with wife Valerie Merians, heads Melville House Publishing, an independent book house putting out some of the best stuff on the market today. They also have a bookstore in Brooklyn that regularly hosts all kinds of neat literary-type events. Melville House is the outgrowth of Johnson’s literary blog MobyLives, an insightful source of reportage on the literary world today. In 2007, the Association of American Publishers awarded Melville House the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing and in 2009 The Village Voice declared Melville House “The Best Small Press of the Year.” I talked to Johnson by phone last week and he answered my questions with patience and humor. We discussed how Johnson finds the marvelous books he publishes, translation, novellas, and upcoming releases from Melville House. After the interview he was kind enough to ask me about my own blog and offer me some encouraging words. Just a few days after our talk it was announced that one of Melville House’s recent publications, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven had won the 2010 Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

Biblioklept: I want to begin by congratulating Melville House on Hans Fallada’s novel, Every Man Dies Alone. It’s done really well both critically and commercially. The book is something of a “recovered classic,” published just last year for the first time in English. Can you tell us a little bit about how Melville House came to publish the book?

Dennis Johnson: Well, it was a search it’s a real saga about hunting down that book. I’m always interested in finding material from that part of the world and that time of history because I think a good deal of very good literature was lost between the two wars. And it’s just writing that I like a lot. So a friend of mine, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg had family that came through that part of the world at that time and I asked her if she had any recommendations and she told me I should look into Hans Fallada, who I’d never heard of. So I tracked down a couple of his titles that had been translated–because he was a bestselling writer here in the 1930s–and it took a while but I found some of those books which had been out of print for a long time and I really loved them. And then, von Furstenberg told me that his best one had never been translated. That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it. And, at that point, once we’d discovered it, it was pretty easy sailing. But tracking down his stuff that had been translated and finding out more about him was really kind of a fun bit of detective work.

B: Did Michael Hoffman translate it specifically for Melville House?

DJ: Yeah, he did. We hired him to do it.

B: Is that normally how you go about with these works–like Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan or Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack? Hiring a translator?

DJ: Well, there’s a couple of things you can do. You can find the translator, or you can reprint things that have been translated already, if you think it’s already a good translation–that’s a less expensive way to do a translated book. So for example, with the Fallada, I bought some old translations of his other books and published them simultaneously with the new translation of Every Man. There was, you know, there was no old translation to buy. But two of his other books, two great books, one called The Drinker and one called Little Man, What Now? I thought were pretty well translated so we just bought those old translations. They were out of print, they were available [for publication].

B: It seems like a lot of the books you guys put out are–I don’t know how to put it–recovered classics or cult books or just books that English-reading audiences just aren’t necessarily exposed to. Is that purposeful with Melville House?

DJ: I think we have a fairly mixed list. The names you were citing a minute ago . . . Balestrini, he’s only been translated once, I think, thirty or forty years ago. But he’s a very prominent writer in Italy. And it wasn’t exactly a “discovery,” it was just someone that we thought American audiences should know about. Imre Kertész on the other hand is extremely famous, he’s a Nobel Prize winner and he’s published by Knopf. We were thrilled when he wanted to come to Melville House. So, you know, some of these writers are here, some are not. We publish some well known writers, some very obscure writers. We try to mix it up. You know, there’ s no rule, just good literature.

B: Can you talk a little bit about the Contemporary Art of the Novella series? How did it come about?

DJ: Well, we originally had a series called just the Art of the Novella. It’s classics, many of them translated, classics from around the world, lots of European classics, and some of those are new translations that we did it, some are old translations that we reprinted. And that series did really, really well and people really seemed to love it so we decided that we would do a contemporary version of that series and try to mix it up the same way. And so the new series has new discoveries in it, some old reprints, things from around the world, we’re expanding beyond Europe and Russia, we’ve got a native Japanese author named Banana Yoshimoto in it coming out, we’ve got African writers, South American writers . . . It’s been off to a very good launch. I think we’ve done about fourteen or fifteen books in that series so far and it’s going really well. You know, it’s very hard to publish translation in the United States. It doesn’t . . . it doesn’t sell. It’s hard to keep it in store for a long time. And it’s expensive to do translated books because you have to pay your translator. In the Contemporary series we often use new translations because it’s new work that’s never been translated before and that can get very expensive because you’ve got two authors, you know, you have to pay the author, the translator, and that’s why a lot of people are cutting back on doing translations. But we wanted to keep doing translations and we had to figure out a way to keep doing it and one idea we had was, if we had this series of short novels . . . well, one, they’re just cheaper to do, they cost less to buy from another publisher, they cost less to make because they’re less paper and they cost less to translate because they’re shorter. And you know, you pay by how long. So, it suddenly became a more economical way for us to publish translated books. The booksellers, they like the Contemporary series. They get the whole series and they keep it in the store. So, for example, we’re about to do a deal with a new book store in Fort Greene called Greenlight where they would do a whole wall of these books. Other stores do a spin-rack of these books. And they just keep them. And what usually happens with new books is you just get a few weeks in the bookstore and if it doesn’t sell they return it. And so we would get really creamed on the translated work because it wouldn’t have very long in the store and it’s hard to get publicity for them and then they just didn’t have enough time to sell. But, if they’re taking the whole series and keeping them on display, forever, well, then these books have a real chance of surviving. So there were a lot of good reasons for us to do a Contemporary series. And in the end, the reason was that it allowed us to keep doing really good, serious, translated work.

B: What do you think about “rock star” writers like Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño whose English translations sell very well? Does that help the prospects of translated books at all?

DJ: Well, every year there are one or two books that are translated that do very well. But they’re the exception to the rule. At any given point in the year, you look at the New York Times bestseller list for fiction, there’s almost never a translated book on it. Or if there is, it’s some, you know, Scandinavian murder mystery or something. It’s very rare it’s a serious work of literature. So I would say those writers are the exception to the rule. But it’s certainly does help those of us selling translated fiction to be able to point to those things. It encourages booksellers to give us a chance.

B: Can you tell us a little bit about upcoming titles and authors you’re excited about?

DJ: Well, we’re doing another Fallada–

B: Wolf Among Wolves, right?

DJ: We’re doing Wolf among Wolves in May. And we’re doing the paperback for Every Man Dies Alone at the end of this month, as a matter of fact. So those are two that I’m really excited about. We have some really great nonfiction coming out. We just published a book about North Korea called The Cleanest Race. It’s about understanding North Korea through its propaganda. It’s got a lot of really wild art showing the propaganda posters and movie stills and things. And then we’ve got some novels coming out, one from a young British writer named Lee Rourke. It’s the first novel. It’s called The Canal and I think it’s one of the very best novels we’ve ever published. It’s generating a lot of excitement. We’re doing another one with Kertész next year, which is a big novel called Fiasco. He wrote a trilogy years ago about his experience in the camps. What was he, fifteen or something, when he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, working in a Nazi factory trying to turn coal into gasoline? And he wrote a novel called Fatelessness about that and another one called Kaddish for an Unborn Child. And Knopf published Kaddish and Fatelessness but they never published Fiasco. So we’re really excited about that.

B: Something I enjoy about MobyLives is your perspective as a publisher covering real news about book selling.

DJ: Thanks. It’s a labor of love. If you look at the historic arc of the website, you can see that we became more informed by being a publisher. I wasn’t a publisher when I started it and it was much more general-interest reader kind of thing. I try to get help. I try to make the staff here participate, I think it makes it a little more wide-ranging.

B: So, have you ever stolen a book?

DJ: Sure, yeah. I used to steal a lot of books from my brother. I remember stealing Gore Vidal’s Burr. My big brother’s a lot older than me and he left the house when I was a kid and I remember stealing a lot of his books. So Burr yeah, a novel Vidal wrote about Aaron Burr. Fantastic book. I still have it. He hasn’t asked for it back. I don’t think he knows.

Cormac McCarthy’s Issues of Life and Death, Hans Fallada’s Complex Resistance, and Jonathan Lethem’s Bloodless Prose

In a 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy famously said that he only cares for writers who  “deal with issues of life and death.” He disses Proust and Henry James, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” Because he has granted so few interviews–and come off so guarded in those he has done–McCarthy’s dictum on “good writers” has perhaps become a bit inflated, elevated from one man’s opinion to a grand litmus test of literary worth. Still, I often find myself putting the books I read under the McCarthy stress-test: do they narrativize the Darwinian drama of life and death? Or are they simply bloodless spectacles of rhetoric, ephemeral social critiques, or faddish forays into solipsism? McCarthy’s targets, Proust and James, arguably do address life and death issues in their works, but when compared to McCarthy’s heroes–Melville, Faulkner, Dostoevsky–the social fictions of Proust and James seem wan, or at least too subtle and overly-coded. The two novels I’m currently working through, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, illustrate not just the poles of McCarthy’s dichotomy, but also why many readers (myself included) tend to prefer that their novels address matters of life and death.

Every Man Dies Alone, first published in German in 1947, is available for the first time ever in English, thanks to translator Michael Hoffman (if you’ve read Kafka in English, you’ve probably read Hoffman’s work) and the good folks at Melville House. Fallada’s novel tells the story of German resistance to the Nazi regime, not at an aristocratic or militaristic level (this isn’t Valkyrie), or even a literary or philosophical level, but at the level of every day, ordinary existence. After the death of their son in battle, Otto and Anna Quangel initiate a campaign of resistance to the Nazi party, one that is of course doomed from the outset. The Quangels soon involve Eva Kluge, among others, in their covert resistance cell. Kluge is a letter-carrier who becomes disgusted with the moral implications of the regime; she’s also deeply embittered by the way Nazi rule has systemically destroyed her family. Kluge’s peripatetic job helps to enact Fallada’s major rhetorical gesture, a sweeping busyness that vividly recreates the life of ordinary Germans during the rule of the Third Reich. We might begin in Kluge’s mind as she embarks to deliver a letter, only to find ourselves awash in the thoughts of its recipient a few pages later. Fallada’s omniscient third-person narrator moves freely from one character’s consciousness to another’s, shifting fluidly from the immediacy of present tense to the solidity of past tense. It’s modernism (whatever that means)–Tolstoy without the rich and famous, Joyce without the mythos and erudition, but deeply engaging in its scope. WWII has produced a seemingly endless myriad of narratives, yet Fallada’s tome is the first that I’ve experienced of its kind. Perhaps its subject matter–the lives of ordinary Germans and their unsuccessful attempts to resist the mundane evil all around them–is simply not the stuff that we want from our war stories, and perhaps this is why the book has been absent so long from an English translation. It’s evocative of a world that I had never really considered before: after all, the narrative of WWII is far easier to comprehend if you retain the simplicity of the good guys (the Allies), the bad guys (the Nazis), and the victims (the Jewish population of Europe). Ordinary Germans have only one place in this uncomplicated system, which is why the story of the Quangels and their cohort is so profound (oh, the Quangels are based on the real-life Nazi resisters Otto and Elise Hampel, if you must know). Driven in part by despair, they seek to forge meaning in their lives, even if its at the cost of death, or the horrors of a concentration camp. To return to McCarthy’s caveat, Fallada’s novel is a work that dramatizes life and death against a decidedly unheroic backdrop, a novel that makes its reader repeatedly ask himself whether or not he would be, to use another McCarthyism (from The Road) one of the “good guys.” Great stuff, and so far one of the better novels we’ve read this year. Go get it.

It’s perhaps unfair to lump Lethem’s latest in a review with Fallada, given the historical complexity of Every Man Dies Alone‘s milieu. Still, I’ve been reading my review copies of both novels over this long weekend, trying to catch up, and I find that I would almost always rather pick up Fallada’s book. It compels me, whereas, half way through Chronic City, I still find nothing to care about, no risk, no cost, no guts. No matters of life and death. The novel centers around former-child actor Chase Insteadman, whose directionless existence seems to thematically underpin the book. Chase moves from party to party in a fictitious Manhattan, charming various socialites and keeping boredom (marginally) at bay. He soon hooks up with Perkus Tooth, a marijuana-addicted pop culture critic, whose characteristics will be familiar to pretty much anyone who earned a liberal arts degree in college. Tooth seems to function largely as a mouthpiece for Lethem to espouse various opinions on movies and books and art. It’s a clumsy device as it doesn’t shade the character–it’s simply Lethem couching his cultural criticism in the comfort of a work of fiction. In a particularly telling scene, Perkus picks up a copy of The New York Times and thinks that it feels too light. He looks up at the right-hand corner: “WAR FREE EDITION. Ah yes, he’d heard about this. You could opt out now.” Perkus seems to deliver the line as a criticism, but it’s Lethem who’s opting out. He drops hints of destruction and annihilation and disintegration in the novel–there’s a giant tiger on the loose somewhere in Manhattan; Chase’s fiancée floats estranged in space, stranded on the International Space Station; a crooked mayor is up to dastardly shenanigans–but Lethem protects his characters from it all in an insulating cocoon of marijuana smoke and pop trivia. Their forays into the darkness of Manhattan’s mysteries are meant to play both humorously but also with enough danger to fully invest a reader’s attention (think of Lethem’s more successful sci-noir Gun, with Occasional Music, or his detective thriller Motherless Brooklyn). Instead, the adventures fall flat, collapsing back into Perkus’s apartment, a vortex of (ultimately meaningless) pop culture. While the novel is by no means terrible–it’s well-written, of course–there is simply a tremendous lack of the “life and death” stuff that McCarthy–and other readers–require. In short–and in contrast with Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone–it does not compel itself to be read. Which is a shame of course. I still think Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude was one of the finest books of the decade, and I was deeply disappointed in his last novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Chronic City is a much finer book than that silly train wreck, but it lacks the urgency of Lethem’s finest works, Fortress and Motherless Brooklyn, which temper a love of popular culture with genuine characters and an affecting plot.

I’ll conclude by returning to Cormac McCarthy, this time to his latest interview (in The Wall Street Journal). He says, on writing novels: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” And later: “Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don’t have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything.” For McCarthy, literature, in its final product–the reader reading the book–is the direct communication of the pain of creation, the awkward and incomplete translation of ideas exchanged from author to audience. Perhaps the pain was too much for Fallada, who died in 1947 of a morphine overdose, but that pain–that spirit–exists in the book. A similar spirit exists in Lethem’s earlier works; I’d love to see him tap into it again in his next venture.

Every Man Dies Alone is now available in hardback from Melville House.

Chronic City is now available in hardback from Double Day.