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.

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.

“Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king’s army sought solace in the vast
geographies of Ariosto, in that valley of the moon in which one finds the time that is squandered by dreams, and in the golden idol of Muhammad stolen by Montalbán.

In gentle self-mockery, this old soldier conceived a credulous man—his mind unsettled by the reading of all those wonders—who took it into his head to ride out in search of adventures and enchantments in prosaic places with names such as El Toboso and Montici.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, don Quixote died in 1614 in the town of his birth. He was survived only a short time by Miguel de Cervantes.

For both the dreamer and the dreamed, that entire adventure had been the clash of two worlds; the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.

They never suspected that the years would at last smooth away the discord, never suspected that in the eyes of the future, La Mancha and Montici and the lean figure of the Knight of Mournful Countenance would be no less poetic than the adventures of Sindbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.

For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it.

“Two Friends” — Pierre Senges

From Studies of Silhouettes by Pierre Senges. English translation by Jacob Siefring. Forthcoming in the fall from Sublunary Editions.

A review of Edition 69, a collection of interwar pornophilic Czech surrealism

New from Twisted Spoon Press, Edition 69 collects three previously-untranslated volumes of Czech artist and writer Jindřich Štyrský’s private-press books of the same name. Beginning in 1931, Štyrský published six volumes of Edition 69. The series was devoted to outré erotic writing and art — “pornophilia,” as the biologist/poet/philosopher Bohuslav Brouk puts it in an essay accompanying the sixth and final volume of Edition 69.

Because of Czech censorship laws, Štyrský’s project was limited to subscribers and friends, with each volume running under 200 editions (the final volume was limited to 69 copies). Undoubtedly, the material in Edition 69 would present an affront—indeed an intentional affront—to the “supercilious psyches of the ruling peacocks,” to again borrow from Brouk (rendered wonderfully here in Jed Slast’s estimable English translation—I should’ve mentioned Slast earlier!). Much of the material in Twisted Spoon’s new collection of Edition 69 still provokes and disturbs nearly a century after their original publication.

Three of the original volumes of Edition 69 presented Czech translations–in some cases the first—of writers like the Marquis de Sade, along with accompanying illustrations by Toyen and Rudolf Krajc. Following its mission of bringing Czech literature to an English-reading audience, Twisted Spoon’s Edition 69 collects the three volumes by Czech artists in translation by Jed Slast: Vítězslav Nezval’s Sexual Nocturne (1931), František Halas’s Thyrsos (1932), and Štyrský’s own Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream (1933). (Štyrský designed and illustrated each of these volumes.)

Nezval’s fragmentary surrealist dream-memoir Sexual Nocturne is the strongest of the three pieces in Edition 69. Nezval gives us an abject, dissolving reminiscence of an unnamed narrator’s boarding school days, centering on a trip to the local bordello and culminating in a return visit years later, one soaked in alcohol and despair. It’s a creepy and decidedly unsexy story, directly referencing Poe’s “The Raven” and Whitman’s “The City Dead-House” (and cribbing more Gothic gloom from a handful of penny dreadfuls).

Sexual Nocturne is a Freudian ramble into adolescent sexual frustration, voyeurism, and ultimately loss, loneliness, and insanity. It’s also a wonderful exploration of the connection between taboo bodily functions and taboo words. In one notable scene, our narrator sends a missive to a crush containing an obscenity, only to be discovered by the bourgeois landlord of his boarding house:

His views reflected those of society. How ridiculous. A writer is expected to make a fool of himself by employing periphrastic expressions while the word ‘fuck’ is nonpareil for conveying sexual intercourse. Fortunately there are old dictionaries where this world has its monument. How I sought it out! When the kiss of lovers pronounces it during coitus it is infused with a sudden vertigo. I have little tolerance for its disgraceful and comic synonyms. They convey nothing, just mealy-mouthed puffballs that make me want to retch when I encounter them.

The word FUCK is diamond-hard, translucent, a classic. As if adopting the appearance of a gem from a noble Alexandrine, it has, since it is forbidden, a magical power. It is one of the Kabbalistic abbreviations for the erotic aura, and I love it.

I love it! I love that second paragraph so much. It’s one of the best paragraphs I’ve read all year.

The collages by Štyrský that accompany Sexual Nocturne are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s work in A Week of Sundays, but less frenetic. At times they sync with the tale’s dream logic, and when they don’t, fine. It’s interwar surrealism, baby!

František Halas’s Thyrsos is far less successful. Halas’s poems can’t quite live up to their namesake, let alone the Sophocles’ quote that precedes them (“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came”).

The opener, “Leda’s Sorrow,” isn’t particularly bad, but it’s nothing special either:

Other poems celebrate incest, arcadian bacchanalia, and old-man boners. Halas’s poem about cunnilingus (“The Taste of Love”) is particularly bad. Outlier “In the Field” connects the collection’s larger themes of sex-as-death’s-twin, evoking a scene of what might be a battle field, with trenches and barbed wire, a solitary man jerking off “like a demon” over what I take to be a foxhole. For the most part though, Thyrsos is a strange mix of ribald and whimsical with occasional sex tips thrown in. It’s weak stuff. In his translator’s note, Slast admits that “perhaps it’s understandable that Halas considered this thin collection of poems juvenile and much inferior to his other work.” Štyrský’s pen-and-ink illustrations are simple and charming though, even if their simple charm seems to point to the fact that Halas’s ditties are out of place in the queasy surrealism of the rest of the collection.

Štyrský’s Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream reads like a mix of dream writing and automatic writing. It’s stranger and more poetic than the prose in Nezval’s Nocturne, but neither as funny nor as profound. And yet it has its moments, as it shifts from sensuality to pornography to death obsession. “I came to love the fragrance of her crotch,” our narrator declares, and then appends his description: “a mix of laundry room and mouse hole, a pincushion forgotten in a bed of lilies of the valley.” He tells us he “was prone to seeing in dissolve,” and the prose bears it out later, in a linguistic episode that mirrors Štyrský’s surrealist collage techniques:

Later I placed an aquarium in the window. In it I cultivated a golden-haired vulva and a magnificent penis specimen and delicate veins on its temples. Yet in time I threw in everything I had ever loved: shards of broken teacups, hairpins, Barbora’s slipper, light bulbs, shadows, cigarette butts, sardine tins, my entire correspondence, and used condoms. Many strange creatures were born in this world. I considered myself a creator, and with justification.

After the dream writing, Štyrský delivers a sexually-explicit photomontage that’s simultaneously frank and ambiguous, ironic and sincere, sensual and abject. The photographic collages wed sex and death, desire and repulsion.

Štyrský’s Emilie includes a (previously-mentioned) postscript by Bohuslav Brouk, which, while at times academic and philosophical, plainly spells out that the mission of the so-called “pornophiles” is to give a big FUCK YOU to the repressed and repressive bourgeoisie. Brouk intellectualizes pornophilia, arguing against the conservative mindset that strives for immortal purity. He argues in favor of embracing corporeal animality: “The body will continue to demonstrate mortality as the fate of all humans, and for this reason any reference to human animality so gravely offends those who dream of its antithesis.” Hence, sex and death—blood, sweat, tears, semen—are the abject markers of the fucking circle of life, right? Our dude continues:

The body is the last argument of those who have been unjustly marginalized and ignored, because it demonstrates beyond question the groundlessness of all social distinctions in comparison to the might of nature.

I’ll give Brouk the last quote here because I think what he wrote resonates still in These Stupid Times.

Edition 69 has its highs and its lows, but I think it’s another important document of Czech surrealism from Twisted Spoon, and in its finest moments it reminds us that we are bodies pulling a psyche around, no matter how much we fool ourselves. Nice.

He saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin | From László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity …and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of anyway back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.

An excerpt from the beginning (and end) of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango. English translation by George Szirtes.

I listened to the audiobook of Satantango last week and then launched into it again, reading bits in tandem with my New Directions edition from years ago, finding it funnier, richer, and more complex than I’d initially thought, its plot threads clarifying more easily in a reread. I think this passage does a nice job of laying out the novel’s themes of abjection, time (and deep time), observation (and surveillance), and life as one big con.

 

Three Books (Books acquired, 31 July 2020)

2020-08-02_185600_1

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

2020-08-02_185600

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

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

2020-08-02_185600_2

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

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

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

img_5815

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)

img_5805

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.

“The Friar’s Dream” — Álvaro Mutis

2020-06-29_174250

From The Mansion; English translation by Beatriz Haugner.

“The Girl’s Dream” — Álvaro Mutis

2020-06-29_174250_1

From The Mansion; English translation by Beatriz Haugner.

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

img_5690

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Very Real Story” — Julio Cortázar

2020-03-06_151902_4

(English translation by Paul Blackburn.)

Blog about some recent reading

img_5662

From bottom to top:

I finally started Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia last week. I took the book with me to a place we rented near Black Mountain, North Carolina for a week. I purposefully took only Animalia, leaving behind two books I was in the middle of—Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent and Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine. I used the adverb purposefully in the previous sentence, although I’m not sure what my purpose was. I think I just wanted an associative break from the past few months. I read geographically, even in my own home. I read the first section of Animalia, often overwhelmed by its abject lifeforce. The novel begins in rural southwest France at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on a family farm. The preceding sentence is a bad description: Animalia is, so far anyway, a visceral, naturalistic, and very precise rendering of humans as animals. I don’t think I’ve ever been as intrigued as to how a novel was translated, either. In Frank Wynne’s English translation, Del Amo’s prose carries notes and tones evocative of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. Del Amo employs precise Latinate words, using, for example, genetrix, instead of mother, as in this paragraph:

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.

The paragraph, from early in Animalia, conveys the prose’s abject flavor. Read the rest of the excerpt at Granta.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is over 500 pages but somehow does not read like a massive novel, partly, I suppose, because the novel quickly teaches you how to read the novel. The key for me came about 100 pages in, when the narrator goes to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. There’s an earlier reference to a “bleeper” that stuck out too, but it’s at the precise moment of this alternate 2001 that The Unconsoled’s just-slightly-different universe clicked for me. Following in the tradition of Kafka’s The CastleThe Unconsoled reads like a dream-fever set of looping deferrals. Our narrator, Ryder, is (apparently) a famous pianist who arrives at an unnamed town, where he is to…do…something?…to help restore the town’s artistic and aesthetic pride. (One way we know that The Unconsoled takes place in an alternate reality is that people care deeply about art, music, and literature.) However, Ryder keeps getting sidetracked, entangled in promises and misunderstanding, some dark, some comic, all just a bit frustrating. There’s a great video game someone could make out of The Unconsoled—a video game consisting of only side quests perhaps. Once the reader gives in to The Unconsoled’s looping rhythms, there’s an almost hypnotic pleasure to the book. Its themes of family disappointment, artistic struggle, and futility layer like musical motifs, ultimately suggesting that the events of the novel could take place entirely in Ryder’s consciousness, where he orchestrates all the parts himself. Under the whole thing though is a very conventional plot though—think a Kafka fanfic version of Waiting for Guffman. I loved it.

I will be posting a proper review of Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine some time this month, so I won’t remark at length on it. I’m a little under halfway through (had to restart after returning from the mountains), and it seems to me that the plot is impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s really simple: A rural couple, Norabole and Bernard, escape from their small town and move to the big city (“Big City”). Norabole very quickly becomes the CEO of a huge company, with an eye toward creating “the world’s first Gothic conglomerate” (she plans to get an exorcist on the board, as well as having the company partake in an annual seance). Meanwhile, Bernard struggles to find employment and whips up seven course meals for his Noarbole. He also has apparently contracted (contracted?!) xenoglossiaLake of Urine is energetic and very funny and so so weird. Stitch seems to be doing whatever he wants on the page and I dig it.

I really enjoyed Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan), mostly for the narrator’s voice (which reminded me very much of Al Swearengen of Deadwood). Through somewhat nefarious means, Paulo Honorio takes over the run-down estate he used to toil on, restores it to a fruitful enterprise, screws over his neighbors, and exploits everyone around him. He decries at one point that “this rough life…gave me a rough soul,” which he uses as part confession and part excuse for his failure to evolve to the level his younger, sweeter wife would like him to. São Bernardo is often funny, but has a mordant, even tragic streak near its end. Ultimately, it’s Honorio’s voice and viewpoint that engages the reader. He paints a clear and damning portrait of himself and shows it to the reader—but also shows the reader that he cannot see himself. Good stuff.

Four by Muriel Spark. I’d never read her until May, and I’ve just been gobbling these up. I started with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is fantastic, and then read The Girls of Slender Means, which I liked even more than Prime. Slender Means unself-consciously employs some postmodern techniques to paint a vibrant picture of what the End of the War might feel like. The novel unexpectedly ends in a negative religious epiphany. (And the whole thing coincides with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) I then read Loitering with Intent, which is my favorite so far—just sharp as hell, and chock full of patterns and loops that I want to go back to again. I definitely will reread that one. I’m near the end of Memento Mori, a novel that concerns aging, memory, loss, and coming to terms with death. I was surprised to learn that this was Spark’s third novel, and that she would’ve been around 41—my age—when it was published. Most of the characters are over seventy, and Spark seems to inhabit their consciousness with a level of acuity that surprises me. Memento Mori is sharp and witty, but, barring some last minute shift, it’s not been my favorite Spark—but it’s still very good, and I want to read more. Any suggestions?

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

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

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

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

“How Trees Walk” — Leo Tolstoy

“How Trees Walk”

by

Leo Tolstoy

(Trans. by Leo Wiener)


One day we were cleaning an overgrown path on a hillock near the pond. We cut down a lot of brier bushes, willows, and poplars,—then came the turn of a bird-cherry. It was growing on the path, and it was so old and stout that it could not be less than ten years old. And yet I knew that five years ago the garden had been cleaned. I could not understand how such an old bird-cherry could have grown out there. We cut it down and went farther. Farther away, in another thicket, there grew a similar bird-cherry, even stouter than the first. I looked at its root, and saw that it grew under an old linden. The linden with its branches choked it, and it had stretched out about twelve feet in a straight line, and only then came out to the light, raised its head, and began to blossom.

I cut it down at the root, and was surprised to find it so fresh, while the root was rotten. After we had cut it down, the peasants and I tried to pull it off; but no matter how much we jerked at it, we were unable to drag it away: it seemed to have stuck fast. I said:

“Look whether it has not caught somewhere.”

A workman crawled under it, and called out:

“It has another root; it is out on the path!”

I walked over to him, and saw that it was so.

Not to be choked by the linden, the bird-cherry had gone away from underneath the linden out on the path, about eight feet from its former root. The root which I had cut down was rotten and dry, but the new one was fresh. The bird-cherry had evidently felt that it could[Pg 177] not exist under the linden, so it had stretched out, dropped a branch to the ground, made a root of that branch, and left the other root. Only then did I understand how the first bird-cherry had grown out on the road. It had evidently done the same,—only it had had time to give up the old root, and so I had not found it.

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

img_5379

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.