Read an excerpt from Antoine Volodine’s novel Lisbon, Last Frontier

5

The latest issue of The Evergreen Review features a long excerpt from Antoine Volodine’s novel Lisbon, Last FrontierThe excerpt is translated by Andrew Wilson and features some pretty cool art by Billy Jacobs. Here are the first six paragraphs:

On the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, gallows abound.

“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.

He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.

He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.

As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.

And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I’m just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?

Read the rest of the excerpt at The Evergreen Review (the last paragraph is, uh, really something).

Advertisements

Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers (Book acquired, 6 December 2018)

img_1840

Lina Wolff’s novel The Polyglot Lovers is forthcoming in English translation by Saskia Vogel from And Other Stories. Here’s their blurb:

‘Do you have to stare like that?’ I asked.

‘Think about the actors in porn. They’ve got no problem showing themselves off.’

‘Think about when I broke your nose,’ I replied.

Ellinor is thirty-six. She wears soft black sweatpants and a Michelin Man jacket. She fights. Smart and unsentimental, she tries her hand at online dating, only to be stranded by a snowstorm with a literary critic. Cut to Max Lamas, an author who dreams of a polyglot lover, a woman who will understand him—in every tongue. His search takes him to Italy, where he befriends a marchesa whose old Roman family is on the brink of ruin. At the heart of this literary intrigue is a handwritten manuscript that leaves no one unaffected.

The Polyglot Lovers is a fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era. Pleasure is an elusive thing, love even more so.

Read an excerpt of The Polyglot Lovers.

João Gilberto Noll’s Lord (Book acquired, 5 Nov. 2018)

drq8kxbvyaatsec

João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord is new in English translation (by Edgar Garbeletto) from Two Lines Press. I really enjoyed the last two I read by Noll, Atlantic Hotel and  Quiet Creature on the Corner, so I’m looking forward to carving out time for Lord. In the meantime, Two Lines’ blurb:

As Lord begins, a Brazilian author is arriving at London’s Heathrow airport for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. Only aware that he has been invited to take part in a mysterious mission, the Brazilian starts to churn with anxiety. Torn between returning home and continuing boldly forward, he becomes absorbed by fears: What if the Englishman who invited him here proves malign? Maybe he won’t show up? Or maybe he’ll leave the Brazilian lost and adrift in London, with no money or place to stay? Ever more confused and enmeshed in a reality of his own making, the Brazilian wanders more and more through London’s immigrant Hackney neighborhood, losing his memory, adopting strange behaviors, experiencing surreal sexual encounters, and developing a powerful fear of ever seeing himself reflected in a mirror.

A novel about the unsettling space between identities, and a disturbing portrait of dementia from the inside out, Lord constructs an altogether original story out of the ways we search for new versions of ourselves. With jaw-dropping scenes and sensual, at times grotesque images, renowned Brazilian author João Gilberto Noll grants us stunning new visions of our own personalities and the profound transformations that overtake us throughout life.

Blog about Jindřich Štyrský’s Dreamverse

img_1161

I have to admit that I had never heard of the Czech artist Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) until a review copy of something called Dreamverse arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters a week or so ago. I was excited when I saw the package though—the book is from Twisted Spoon Press, and their books are always gorgeous and strange and fascinating. Dreamverse is no exception, collecting Štyrský’s paintings, collages, sketches, poems, essays, and prose in a baffling (and yet simultaneously accessible) compendium translated by Jed Slast. Here is Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

Published posthumously in 1970 as Dreams, Štyrský’s dream journal spanning the interwar years comprises prose, sketches, collages, and paintings. The present volume includes the complete series of texts and full-color and halftone images based on Štyrský’s layout for its publication in the 1940s, his sole volume of poetry (also published posthumously), as well as a selection of his most important essays, articles, manifestos, and assorted other texts. This edition presents in English for the first time the broad range of Štyrský’s contribution to the interwar avant-garde and Surrealism.

Dreamverse begins with an (overly academic) introduction by the Czech avant garde artist Karel Teige dated from 1948, which argues that the Štyrský is deeply underappreciated. Teige describes Štyrský’s gradual artistic shift into surrealism, an excursion Štyrský shared with his partner Toyen.

Teige writes like an art historian, fussily constructing a place for a displaced artist. Dreamverse really takes off when we get to Štyrský’s prose. Dreams (1925-1940) comprises about half of the book, and begins with this lucidly surreal self-description:

Work birthed in the wellsprings of hypnagogic mental models, via faithful representations of dream objects and authentic dream records.

Štyrský then offers a brief introduction in which he dedicates the work to “my CHIMERA, my PHANTOM OBJECT.” This particular chimera is a Freudian’s fantasy: Štyrský begins by discussing his prepubescent infatuation with “the image of a woman’s head, exquisite with golden hair” which he sees in a cheap magazine. This image somehow transmogrifies into “the head of Medusa, the whole of it in a pool of blood,” its hair a “cluster of vipers, erect, ready to penetrate the woman through her mouth, nose, and ears.” Štyrský then tells us that this “ghastly horror,” this “alluring horror” haunts his dreams, and he tries to “place the head” on his mother and sister. The head fits his sister: “So I was madly in love with her.” Štyrský then details his sister’s death in strange, alarmingly sensual language. (She died in 1905 when he was a young boy). His muse then, his chimera, foregrounds the dreamverse he creates: we get a mass media image reconverted into a mythological figure, then reconverted again, through creative imagination, into a sister, who is in turn transformed again into a mythic trope of some kind—a figure like Eurydice for Štyrský to play Orpheus to. Štyrský’s dreamverse is a writhing collage of contradictions. Hope and despair, sex and death, the beautiful and the lurid are all collapsed into surrealist expression.

Take, for example, Dream XXXI:a

Štyrský’s dream—and its expression—excavates the sexuality suppressed just beneath the surface of our fairy tales. And while sexual abjection is typical in both Dreams (and in many of the poems collected in the Verse section of Dreamverse, sex is not always the dominant motif. Consider Dream VIII:

 

c

The vignette is a perfect slice of dread an horror, and the accompanying illustration—humorous and grotesque—is nightmare fuel.

I’ve been reading the Dreams somewhat slowly, a handful at a time, and then dipping deeper in the book, into the Verse, reading the Dreamverse as a sort of push-pull of image and word.

Štyrský’s writing is abject, evocative of a world that decays and regenerates at the same moment. A poem with the title “In the Swamps” of course stands out to me, a Florida boy always on the look out for abject images:

b

Štyrský’s imagery here is wonderful: The “fortune of blackcaps” pops out as an invented form of venery. Are the “blackcaps” actually little warblers—or just a surreal transformation of moorhens, the birds we would expect to find in the swamps? In either case, they are merely prey for “compassionate hunters,” susceptible to the arms of unseen brunettes and hunting dogs. The end of the poem is beautifully abject. The “horde of black swine” rumble in, neatly parallel to the “fortune of blackcaps” in the poems’s first line. These pigs slough through the swamp for “Sodden sacks of gold,” some kind of treasure there in the abject muck. Above it all is a speaker—a poet? Language hovers over the swamp.

Jed Slast deserves much praise for his translation, which seems tonally perfect and consistent over both the Dreams and the Verse sections. I’ll admit I haven’t gotten into any of the Writings at the end, which include lectures, essays, manifestos, and other fragments, but that gives me something to look forward to. So far though, Dreamverse has been an unexpected and strange joy, a dark and often perverse collection that plants its own dreamseeds in its reader.

Blog about the first paragraph of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s surreal novel The Snail on the Slope

I have been listening to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel The Snail on the Slope on audiobook over the last two weeks.

This new English translation is by Olena Bormashenko, who also translated Roadside Picnic and Hard to Be a God. (I listened to Roadside Picnic last year—this fantastic audiobook is read by Robert Forster—and read Bormashenko’s translation of Hard to Be a God after watching Aleksei German’s 2013 film adaptation. All are excellent). Chris Andrew Ciulla narrates the new audiobook of The Snail on the Slope and he does a very good job. 

Like I said, I’ve been listening to this new translation of The Snail on the Slope for a few weeks. I should be done (the book is only 9.5 hours), but I’ve listened to most of the chapters twice, and restarted the book once, because The Snail on the Slope is fucking bonkers. The novel is a wild trip, full of bizarre transformations, failed plans, jungle swamps,  marching ants, deadlings, mushrooms, foolish bureaucrats, and broken calculators—it’s abject, savage, funny, and just so fucking weird, a bizarre beast tumbling around on its own radical logic. I have about 3 hours left, but I don’t think I’ll muster a review—or a summary, I mean. Or anyway—

I mean, here’s my review: I love itI love its strange mucky weirdness, its refusal to clearly delineate the contact points of its allegorical satire, its sheer absurdity, its utter alterity. But a summary seems too much to ask so—

Here is publisher Chicago Review Press’s blurb—

The Snail on the Slope is a neglected masterpiece by Russian science fiction greats Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who thought of it as their “most complete and important work.” now, in a stunning translation, this tour de force is ready to be introduced to a new generation of American readers. The novel takes place in two worlds. One is the Administration, an institution run by a surreal, Kafkaesque bureaucracy whose aim is to govern the forest below. The other is the Forest, a place of fear, weird creatures, primitive but garrulous people, and violence. Peretz, who works at the Administration, wants to visit the Forest. Candide crashed in the Forest years ago and wants to return to the Administration. Their journeys are surprising and bizarre, and readers are left to puzzle out the mysteries of these foreign environments. Brilliant, enigmatic, and revelatory, The Snail on the Slope is one of the greatest literary works to come out of Soviet Russia.

Here is the cover + blurb of Bantam’s 1980 edition of The Snail on the Slope (translated by Alan Meyers). Bob Larkin’s cover is more interesting to me than the “respectable” cover that Chicago Review Press put together so—

thsnlnthsl1980

This edition was apparently recalled, distribution was halted, and existing copies were destroyed.

The German cover (credited to Ute Osterwalder and Hans Ulrich Osterwalder) is also pretty cool—

dschnckmhn1978

But I promised in this blog’s headline to riff on the first paragraph, which isn’t that long, but in some ways reveals the sheer oddity of The Snail on the Slope. So here is that paragraph:

From this height, the forest looked like dappled, fluffy foam; like a gigantic, world-encompassing porous sponge; like an animal that had once lain hidden in wait, then had dozed off, becoming overgrown with coarse moss. Like a shapeless mass, hiding a face no one had ever seen.

The viewer at this height is one of the novel’s two heroes, Peretz, who dangles his feet over the forest that calls to him. I could go on about Peretz’s attraction to the unknowable forest, but let’s look instead at the similes the Strugatskys (and their translator Bormashenko) deploy here:

The forest is like

  1. foam
  2. a sponge
  3. a dozing, bemossed animal
  4. an indefinite mass with an unseen face

The utter alterity of the forest is announced at the novel’s outset. This shifting series of similes shows that the central space of The Snail on the Slope cannot have a fixed definition—it cannot even have a stable referent of similitude. Rather, the forest is ever-shifting, from the playful guise of a space of “fluffy foam” to the sinister aspect of a “shapeless mass” that hides an unknown (and unknowable) visage. The Strugatskys shuttle us from simile to simile, foregrounding one of the novel’s central themes—language has a limited purchase of reality. Peretz, a surrogate for the reader, cannot settle on a simile, which only entices him more: What is this place? What would it mean to know this place—in language? Significantly, Peretz is a linguist, but he—and the reader–have no training to properly comprehend what enfolds when The Snail on the Slope takes us into the forest. And this is the fucked up joy of the novel—one weird transformation morphs into another, similes unwinding in a stretch toward an ultimate referent that refuses to arrive on time.

Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11 (Book acquired in July, 2018)

img_0454

Even though I haven’t gotten to Minor Angels yet, I went ahead and picked up Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Publisher Open Letter’s blurb:

Like with Antoine Volodine’s other works (Minor AngelsWe Monks & Soldiers), Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven takes place in a corrupted future where a small group of radical writers—those who practice “post-exoticism”—have been jailed by those in power and are slowly dying off. But before Lutz Bassmann, the last post-exoticist writer, passes away, journalists will try and pry out all the secrets of this powerful literary movement.

With its explanations of several key “post-exoticist” terms that appear in Volodine’s other books, Lesson Eleven provides a crucial entryway into one of the most ambitious literary projects of recent times: a project exploring the revolutionary power of literature.

Translated from the French by J. T. Mahany

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction will debut in English translation in 2019

Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction will be published in English translation next year. The translation is by Natasha Wimmer (who translated 2666 and The Savage Detectives, among other Bolaño works). Bolaño began The Spirit of Science Fiction in 1984 but apparently never finished it. The novel was first published in 2016 by the Spanish publishing house Alfaguara. Based on the blurb, The Spirit of Science Fiction sounds like a prototype for The Savage Detectives (much as Woes of the True Policeman is a prototype of 2666).

Here is the blurb from the publisher, Penguin Random House—

Mario Benedetti’s The Truce (Book acquired, 2 June 2018)

img_9998

I’m excited about this one! I’ll admit I haven’t heard of Mario Benedetti before. The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé (first published in Uruguay 1960) is in English translation from Penguin by Harry Morales. More to come, but for now, Penguin’s blurb–

Forty-nine, with a kind face, no serious ailments (apart from varicose veins on his ankles), a good salary and three moody children, widowed accountant Martín Santomé is about to retire. He assumes he’ll take up gardening, or the guitar, or whatever retired people do. What he least expects is to fall passionately in love with his shy young employee Laura Avellaneda. As they embark upon an affair, happy and irresponsible, Martín begins to feel the weight of his quiet existence lift – until, out of nowhere, their joy is cut short.

The intimate, heartbreaking diary of an ordinary man who is reborn when he falls in love one final time, this beloved Latin American novel has been translated into twenty languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, and is now published in Penguin Classics for the first time.

A review of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics

dvsfm7rvwaaoolo

“The main difficulty with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz,” writes Soren Gauger in his translator’s note for Narcotics, “is that no matter what he was writing, it seems he wished he were writing something else.” Witkiewicz’s playful (and occasionally frustrating) discursive style is on vivid display in the six essays that comprise most of Narcotics (new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press)Witkiewicz’s stylistic twists are one of the joys of Narcotics. A moralizing diatribe might veer into medical discourse; private anecdotes might shift into a rant on class theory or a patchy precis of a book about physiognomy. (All delivered in a semi-ironic-yet-wholly-sincere tone). In the case of Witkiewicz’s essay “Peyote,” we go from “Elves on a seesaw. (Comedic number)” to “A battle of centaurs turned into a battle between fantastical genitalia.” This last note is preceded by the observation that “Goya must have known about peyote.”

img_9138

“Peyote” is the most vivid and surreal of the essays in Narcotics. Unlike the other sections, this chapter most closely resembles a conventional drug diary. “Peyote” begins with Witkiewicz taking his first of seven (!) peyote doses at six in the evening and culminating around eight the following morning with “Straggling visions of iridescent wires.” In increments of about 15 minutes, Witkiewicz notes each of his surreal visions. The wild hallucinations are rendered in equally surreal language: “Mundane disumbilicalment on a cone to the barking of flying canine dragons” here, “The birth of a diamond goldfinch” there. Gauger’s translation conveys not just the wild imagery, but also the wild linguistic spirit of Witkiewicz’s prose.

img_9142

The prose in “Peyote” most closely approximates the spirit of Witkiewicz’s wonderful paintings. Narcotics includes 34 full-color reproductions of Witkiewicz’s art, which is reason enough to pick up this volume. According to Narcotics’ blurb, Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he is commonly known) “established rules and types for his portrait work, marking the paintings and pastels with corresponding symbols and abbreviations of the substances he had either taken or, in the case of alcohol and nicotine, not taken at the time.”

For example, we see that Witkiewicz has noted that he had ingested cocaine and eucodal (a semi-synthetic opioid) in order to paint the Portrait of Michal Jagodowski (below). Narcotics includes a helpful “List of Symbols” as a glossary for the shorthand Witkiewicz used both in the text of his writings and in his paintings. (Although “her (herbata): tea” is included in the gloss, this vice regretfully does not merit its own essay).

img_9139

In addition to peyote, we get essays on nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and ether (a list that may remind you of a certain Queens of the Stone Age jam). In “Nicotine,” Witkiewicz despairs that “A person deadened by tobacco and alcohol…seeks even more mind-numbing entertainment to relax,” whether that be the “utterly depraved cinema with its vacuous attempts at artistry,” or the “sensory narcotization through music” achieved by “station surfing” on the radio. (Even worse is “chronic and brainless dancing, that most monstrous of modern society’s unacknowledged plagues”).

In “Alcohol,” Witkiewicz concedes that “alcohol lets you perform actions at a particular moment that otherwise would not have been possible right then,” before launching into a sustained attack on alcohol as a creative crutch. His most convincing (and depressing) line here is “alcohol is boring. Anyone who has abused it even mildly knows this to be true.” (If this were a different sort of review, I might riff here a bit on the fact that I drank no fewer than three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon while writing about Narcotics).

Witkiewicz, despite his exorbitant indulgences, is a bit of a snob—a modernist snob though. From frenzied, enthusiastic experience he warns us that “cocaine is one of the worst kinds of filth,” before plugging his cocaine novel Farewell to Autumn and offering a synopsis of one of the novel’s chapters, a so-called “cocaine orgy.” (The editors of Narcotics graciously include a brief selection from Farewell to Autumn, as well as additional essays by Witkiewicz on hygiene and other matters).

In the last two essays, Wietkiewicz hands the reins over to friends (designated drivers?). In “Morphine,” Bohdan Filipowski warns that, “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable, you must first travel through all manner of hell and suffering in life, only then to find yourself in addled stupefaction, which ultimately is all there is.” The essay “Ether” — a drug that packs a “powerful metaphysical wallop” is attributed to “Dr. Dezydery Prokopowicz,” a pseudonym for Wietkiewicz’s friend, poet Stefan Glass.

img_9141

The admonition that “before you can taste the sweets of narcotic paradises you must first be miserable” is pretty much the thesis for Narcotics, a book that simultaneously celebrates and reviles drug use. Misery is the byword here, a word we find repeated in in Henri Michaux’s 1956 collection Miserable Miracle. Published a quarter century after Narcotics, the two volumes share much in common. Too, Narcotics picks up some of the threads that we find in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater(1821)–that foregrounding of suffering, even if it also anticipates the (exhaustive) drug literature of the 1960s, which wasn’t nearly so reticent about banging the narcotic gong. And yet Witkiewicz seems to wink at us through all the moralizing and apologia, suggesting that, yes, narcotics, are, like, bad—they are a crutch, a shortcut, a substitute for true artistic inspiration—but he also shows how utterly modern the process of consuming mind-and-body-altering substances is. Witkiewicz comprehends the dangers of narcotics. He’s out there on the ledge, dancing around a bit, his foot wagging over the precipice, while he grins and says, “Hey, don’t try this at home.”

Try this at home. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Narcotics, translated from the Polish by Soren Guager is new in hardback from Twisted Spoon Press. Just Say Yes.

“Two Little Things” — Robert Walser

tw

Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language

411xfx2hll-_sl500_

I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).

The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.

Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:

Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”

Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!

So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.

The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).

Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).

Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous.  Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.

What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is.  And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.

As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulumbut The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.

 

 

 

João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel (Book acquired, 14 August 2017)

João Gilberto Noll’s novella Atlantic Hotel is new English translation by Adam Morris from Two Lines Press. I loved loved loved the last one I read by Noll, Quiet Creature on the Corner. Full review to come; for now, here’s Two Lines’ blurb:

Compared by critics to filmmaker David Lynch—and deeply influenced by Clarice Lispector—João Gilberto Noll is esteemed as one of Brazil’s living legends. Following the breakthrough success of last year’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, Two Lines Press now presents Noll’s career-defining work, Atlantic Hotel.

Just who narrates the dark and mysterious Atlantic Hotel? First he books a room where a murder has occurred, claiming he’s just arrived from the airport. But then he suddenly leaves, telling a cabbie he’s an alcoholic headed for detox. After that he hops on an all-night bus across Brazil, where he begins to seduce a beautiful American woman. Next he’s recognized as a soap opera actor. Then he impersonates a priest.

At length he knocks on a very wrong door in a small town: when it opens he’s looking down the barrel of a gun. He falls down unconscious, and when he awakes something terrible is happening to him…

A review of Gisèle Prassinos’s collection of surreal anti-fables, The Arthritic Grasshopper

img_7667

I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.

1-work
Prassinos reading her work to the Surrealists; photograph by Man Ray

 

I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.

Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:

Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.

Let’s look at that reigning chaos.

In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:

img_7666

I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.

Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.

img_7664

You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.

img_7663

Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”

I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora CarringtonIn their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.

I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checherTo Find without Seeking.

In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.

The Book of Emma Reyes (Book acquired, 3 Aug. 2017)

img_7636

This one looks pretty cool. The Book of Emma Reyes, an epistolary “memoir,” is new in hardback from Penguin, in English translation by Daniel Alarcón.  Here’s Penguin’s blurb/bio:

Landolfi and Klossowski but not Klise (Books acquired/not acquired 11 July 2017)

img_7525

Having a spare hour, I searched my favorite local used book store again for a copy of Thomas S. Klise’s 1974 cult novel The Last Western. I’d like to write about The Last Western more, and I only have a samizdat digital copy (clearly made by someone who deeply loves this out of print novel). It’d be nice to check the digital copy against an actual book of course. Anyway, I didn’t find the Klise, despite extending my search to, um, westerns. (I see interlibrary loan in my future). Really, any indie press that brings The Last Western back into print will find plenty of readers (and champions for the book).

I did find a hardback Viking copy of a Tommaso Landolfi collection Words in Commotion, and read one of the shorter stories, “The Werewolf,” in the shop and then picked it up. Here’s Publisher’s Weekly’s 1986 review:

Little known in this country when he died in 1979, Landolfi is scarcely better recognized today, a situation this collection of 24 stories, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, is intended to remedy. Landolfi did not aspire to amuse or entertain in the usual sense; he preferred to confound and mystify. Even in his relatively conventional stories he scarcely bothered to inquire into motive or seek resolution. In “Uxoricide,” for example, a wife-murderer sets out to kill the shrew for reasons that do not seem quite sufficient, so that the act itself appears brutal and sadistic. In “A Woman’s Breast,” a man lusts after that part of a stranger until he attains it, is thereupon sickened by the sight and discovers odd morbidities within himself. Landolfi’s overriding interests–language and its literary possibilities, metaphysics, literary criticism—necessarily limit his audience. He saw the writer as one who spits words (see the title story), and he set himself against the critics who accused him of being “utterly indecipherable and mysterious.” That is, however, a challenge hurled at the reader.

You can read “Gogol’s Wife,” probably Landolfi’s most famous story, here.

img_7526

I also picked up a Grove Press first edition of Pierre Klossowski’s Roberte Ce Soir & The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, two midcentury erotic novels. Austryn Wainhouse translates. Klossowski was the elder brother of the painter Balthus. Here’s the back cover, and an illustration of Klossowski’s (I’ll post the rest of the illustrations later):

img_7527

img_7533

Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant (Book acquired sometime at the end of June, 2017)

img_7443

Wolfgang Hilbig’s novella Old Rendering Plant (translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole) is new from Two Lines Press. It looks pretty cool—a blurb from the NYT comparing him to Sebald and that quote on the cover from Krasznahorkai don’t hurt either. Here’s TLP’s blurb:

What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies—possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone worthy of Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.

Suggestive and menacing? Poe and Joyce? This one’s next on my list. I was hoping to dig into it over the July 4th weekend(ish), but I was a bit crosseyed from Bloody Marys and other good spirits, and got almost no reading done for five days in a row.

I loved the last novella I read from Two Lines, by the way—João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner.

A review of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad

ilya_repin_-_leo_tolstoy_barefoot_-_google_art_project-1457AC8C0DE4F21084B
Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901 by Ilya Repin

Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.

Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.

In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—

It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.

Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.

The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—

That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.

Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].