Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Affair (Book acquired, 9 Jan. 2023)

Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Affair is forthcoming this spring in translation by Howard Curtis from NYRB. Their blurb:

Milton—the name is a nom de guerre—is a member of a partisan band battling Italian Fascists and German forces in the chaotic last years of World War II. Before the war Milton was a student of English literature and a lover of poetry. He was in love with a girl, too, Fulvia, and from time to time she’d invite him over to her rich family’s fine house and have him read to her. Now, in the thick of war, he discovers that handsome Giorgio, his friend and fellow partisan, was sleeping with Fulvia at the time. Furious with jealousy, Milton hastens to have it out with Giorgio, but Giorgio has been captured by the Germans. A Private Affair tells the story of Milton’s mad quest—through mud and fog, rain and terror, while barely evading enemy patrols—to rescue his friend, the better to settle a grudge from a lost world of peace. Beppe Fenoglio’s masterpiece is a peerless story of the violent heart and world.

Farce, then tragedy | A few thoughts on Osvaldo Soriano’s novel A Funny Dirty Little War

I had never heard of the Argentinian author Osvaldo Soriano, but I plucked his novel A Funny Dirty Little War from the bookstore shelf because of its title. The goofy, menacingly violent cover, featuring an illustration by Oscar Zarate, intrigued me, and the Italo Calvino blurb on the back sold me on the book before I’d even opened it.

Calvino’s blurb offers a succinct summary of the novel:

A Funny Dirty Little War tells the story of a political confrontation in a small village in Argentina. Obscure differences between Peronist supporters and leaders escalate in a crescendo of violence to the final massacre.

Those “obscure differences” first evince as absurd, petty eruptions between the various characters. “You’ve got infiltrators,” the novel opens, and from there accusations accumulate and intensify.

That first accuser is the Inspector, who tells Ignacio, the city’s Council Leader, to fire a mild mannered clerk for his Marxist sympathies. Ignacio refuses, and the early part of the novel casts his as the closest thing to the protagonist. To be clear though, Soriano’s journalistic style recalls Hemingway’s brevity. His camera rarely dips into the interior lives of his characters; most of the action is conveyed in short, punchy sentences and often-terse, often-humorous dialogue. As Calvino observes, the “characters, who with each chapter evolve from the comic and grotesque to the tragic, are observed by the author with a cool, dispassionate gaze.”

The initial grotesquerie lends the novel a farcical air at the outset. Ignacio quickly deputizes an ad hoc militia to square off against the Inspector and his goon squad, and the atmosphere is one of buffoonish amateurism, best encapsulated in the drunken agricultural pilot who takes to the sky to spray DDT on his adversaries. As the violence escalates, we get farther from any ideological differences. Both sides claim to be true Peronists, yet there’s no real politics here beyond grievances exploding into vengeance.

That vengeance and violence overtakes the farcical absurdity of the novel’s first half, sweeping into brusque tragedy. “[In} the end we are left with a feeling of bitter pity,” Calvino writes, and I agree. There is a punchline at the end of the novel, but that punchline isn’t the novel’s cumulative, explosive slaughter—an explosion, an abject corpse laid out on a toilet.

Nick Caistor’s translation telegraphs Soriano’s journalistic, clipped style. At times, I wished that the dialogue might be rougher. While the men do curse at each other, there’s a veneer of gentility that at times seems out of place (at times I found myself substituting words or phrases I thought one of Bolaño’s translators might have employed). A Funny Dirty Little War could be even dirtier.

I’m not sure if Caistor or an editor or even Soriano settled on the English title A Funny Dirty Little War, which, as I mentioned above, called for my attention. Soriano’s original title is No habrá más penas ni olvido: “Pain and longing shall be no more.” This original title (from a tango by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera that expresses a longing to return to Argentina) suggests the deeper melancholy behind the narrative’s farcical, funny contours. The novel was first published in 1978, while Soriano was living in exile in Europe after the US-supported 1976 military coup in Argentina. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1984 after the junta’s collapse. Caistor’s English translation of No habrá más penas ni olvido published two years later.

A Funny Dirty Little War will in no way explain the Dirty War to those unfamiliar with its history. The causes and effects here unfold in the most basic way (all in a neat Aristotelian unity of action, place, and time). There is no introspection, no analysis—the violence just escalates. Absurd farce hurtles into absurd tragedy. Yet for all their outlandish, grotesque contours, Soriano’s characters are ultimately sympathetic. Or at least pathetic. In any case, this short novel will reward those who don’t mind their black humor extra bitter, with a heavy dose of violence.

Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life (Book acquired, early January 2023)

The first part of Konstantin Paustovsky’s memoir The Story of a Life is forthcoming in a new translation by Douglas Smith from NYRB. Their blurb:

In 1943, the Soviet author Konstantin Paustovsky started out on what would prove a masterwork, The Story of a Life, a grand, novelistic memoir of a life spent on the ravaged frontier of Russian history. Eventually expanding to fill six volumes, this extraordinary work of a lifetime would establish Paustovsky as one of Russia’s great writers and lead to a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here the first three books of Paustovsky’s epic autobiography—long unavailable in English—appear in a splendid new translation by Douglas Smith. Taking the reader from Paustovsky’s Ukrainian youth, his family struggling on the verge of collapse, through the first stirrings of writerly ambition, to his experiences working as a paramedic on the front lines of World War I and then as a journalist covering Russia’s violent spiral into revolution, this vivid and suspenseful story of coming-of-age in a time of troubles is lifted by the energy and lyricism of Paustovsky’s prose and marked throughout by his deep love of the natural world. The Story of a Life is a dazzling achievement of modern literature.

“The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man” — Franz Kafka

“The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man”

by

Franz Kafka

translation by

Alexander Starritt


It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation; to be ill and spend weeks looking out of the corner of your bed at an empty room; always to say goodbye at the door; never to squeeze your way up the stairs beside your wife; to live in a room where the side doors lead only to other people’s apartments; to carry your dinner home in one hand; to be forced to admire children you don’t know and not to be allowed to just keep repeating, “I don’t have any”; to model your appearance and behaviour on one or two bachelors you remember from childhood.

That’s how it’s going to be, except that in reality both today and in the future you’ll actually be standing there yourself, with a body and a real head, as well as a forehead, which you can use your hand to slap.

Vladimir Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts made me physically ill. (This is praise.)

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Their Four Hearts (in English translation by Max Lawton) made me physically ill several times. To be clear, the previous statement is a form of praise. I finished it a few weeks ago and put it on a high shelf where no one in my family might come across it.

I picked up Their Four Hearts on the strength of the first Sorokin novel I read, Telluria, and the third, Blue Lard (both also in translation by Max Lawton). The kinetic energy of those novels evoked cinema in my mind’s eye—something akin to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Holy Mountain or Luis Buñuel’s comic masterpiece L’Age d’Or—narratives that engender their own new visual grammars. In Their Four Hearts, I again found a cinematic comparison, this time in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s study of depravity and cruelty, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Like Salò, Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts explores seemingly every form of depravity in extreme detail. It is not for the faint of heart or stomach. (Sorokin’s potent language, in Lawton’s sharp translation, would eviscerate the cliches that precede this parenthetical aside.) Their Four Hearts is fairly short—200 pages, including over 30 pages of charcoal illustrations by Greg Klassen—but I had parcel it out over four distinct sittings. (After the second time I had to put it down because of nausea, I decided to avoid reading it close to mealtimes.)

Frontispiece for Their Four Hearts, Greg Klassen

Before I touch briefly on that depravity, it might be useful to interested readers to offer a gloss on the plot of Their Four Hearts. There is no recognizable plot. Or, rather, the plot hides behind the accumulation of violent, abject details, forever unavailable to a reader, no matter how keen a detective that reader might be. It is a cannibalizing plot, both literally and figuratively, stochastic, absurd, consuming its own horrific iterations.

But, like, what is it about?, hypothetical you might ask. In lieu of a list of depravities, let me cannibalize the back cover copy:

Their Four Hearts follows the violent and nonsensical missions carried out by a group of four characters who represent Socialist Realist archetypes: Seryozha, a naive and optimistic young boy; Olga, a dedicated female athlete; Shtaube, a wise old man; and Rebrov, a factory worker and a Stakhanovite embodying Soviet manhood. However, the degradation inflicted upon them is hardly a Socialist Realist trope. Are the acts of violence they carry out a more realistic vision of what the Soviet Union forced its “heroes” to live out? A corporealization and desacralization of self-sacrificing acts of Soviet heroism? How the Soviet Union truly looked if you were to strip away the ideological infrastructure? As we see in the long monologues Shtaube performs for his companions––some of which are scatological nonsense and some of which are accurate reproductions of Soviet language––Sorokin is interested in burrowing down to the libidinal impulses that fuel a totalitarian system and forcing the reader to take part in them in a way that isn’t entirely devoid of aesthetic pleasure.

Libidinal forces . . . totalitarian system . . . forcing the reader . . . aesthetic pleasure?

Aesthetic pleasure? Pleasure is doing a lot in that phrase, although I was admittedly alternately rapt by Their Four Hearts even while I was (quite literally) disgusted. I’ve read enough Sorokin to this point that I didn’t have to be forced into the surreal, jarring logic of the plot, finding instead deeply dark humor in it, where possible (although more often than not, horror without humor).

“Rebrov took a noose out of his pocket and put it around Alexandra Olegnova’s neck,” Greg Klassen

I have resisted turning this ostensible “review” into a catalog of the horrors Sorokin offers in Their Four Hearts. These horrors are all the more horrible for their sensory evocation set against their seemingly senseless (lack of) meaning. When the foursome, very early in the novel, drug and murder Seryozha’s parents, remove the glans from his father’s penis, and pop into the kid’s mouth to suck on, does that mean something exterior to the novel’s own aesthetics? That the quartet continues to trade the glans off, taking turns sucking on it throughout the novel—are we to plumb that for some kind of allegorical gloss? Or do we simply ride with it? Their Four Hearts confounds its readers, creating not only its own inventions of vocabulary, but its own grammar of storytelling.

Instead of my describing further the horrors of Their Four Hearts (murder, pedophilia, parricide, torture, mutilation, coprophagia, rape, cannibalism, etc. ), it might be more profitable for interested readers to inspect the illustrations by Greg Klassen I’ve included in this review. Reminiscent of George Grosz or Hans Bellmer, Klassen’s charcoals capture the tone and vibe of Their Four Hearts. They add to the text’s cinematic quality. (Publisher Dalkey Archive should have given Klassen the cover.)

“With only a few strokes, Schtaube opened up the maxillary sinus cavities in the corpse’s face,” Greg Klassen

By now you likely have a clear idea if Their Four Hearts is For You or Not For You. I found the experience of reading Sorokin’s novel paradoxically compelling and repellent. (One of the closest experiences I can compare reading it to was eating beef chitterlings at a Korean restaurant in Tokyo. The waitress brought the raw gray intestines to our table, where we grilled them ourselves over charcoal, dipping them in sauces. We ate three orders.)

“He skewered all of their hands on the first meter-long spoke,” Greg Klassen

Telluria and the forthcoming Blue Lard are much better starting places for those interested in Sorokin, but his translator Lawton suggested in an interview that,

…any new reader of Sorokin [should] immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.

It’s a strange chaser, and it leaves a flavor unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommended.

From Naoji’s Moonflower Journal | From Osamu Dazai’s novel The Setting Sun

From Naoji’s Moonflower Journal

from

The Setting Sun

by

Osamu Dazai

Translated by Donald Keene


A sensation of burning to death. And excruciating though it is, I cannot pronounce even the simple words “it hurts.” Do not try to shrug off this portent of a hell unparalleled, unique in the history of man, bottomless!

Philosophy? Lies. Principles? Lies. Ideals? Lies. Order? Lies. Sincerity? Truth? Purity? All lies. They say the wisteria of Ushijima are a thousand years old, and the wisteria of Kumano date from centuries ago. I have heard that wisteria clusters at Ushijima attain a maximum length of nine feet, and those at Kumano of over five feet. My heart dances only in those clusters of wisteria blossom.

That too is somebody’s child. It is alive.

Logic, inevitably, is the love of logic. It is not the love for living human beings.

Money and women. Logic, intimidated, scampers off precipitously.

The courageous testimony of Dr. Faust that a maiden’s smile is more precious than history, philosophy, education, religion, law, politics, economics, and all the other branches of learning.

Learning is another name for vanity. It is the effort of human beings not to be human beings.

I can swear even before Goethe that I am a superbly gifted writer. Flawless construction, the proper leavening of humor, pathos to bring tears to the reader’s eyes—or else a distinguished novel, perfect of its kind, to be read aloud sonorously with the deference due it, this (shall I call it running commentary on a film?) I claim I could write were I not ashamed. There’s something fundamentally cheap about such awareness of genius. Only a madman would read a novel with deference. In that case it had best be done in formal clothes, like going to a funeral. So long as it does not seem as affected as a good work! I will write my novel clumsily, deliberately making a botch of it, just to see a smile of genuine pleasure on my friend’s face—to fall on my bottom and patter off scratching my head. Oh, to see my friend’s happy face!

What is this affection which would make me blow the toy bugle of bad prose and bad character to proclaim, “Here is the greatest fool in Japan! Compared to me, you’re all right—be of good health!”

Friend! You who relate with a smug face, “That’s his bad habit, what a pity!” You do not know that you are loved.

I wonder if there is anyone who is not depraved.

A wearisome thought.

I want money.

Unless I have it….

In my sleep, a natural death!

I have run up a debt of close to a thousand yen with the pharmacist. Today I surreptitiously introduced a clerk from the pawnshop into the house and ushered him to my room. I asked, “Is anything here valuable enough to pawn? If there is, take it away. I am in desperate need of money.”

The clerk, with scarcely a glance at the room, had the effrontery to say, “Why don’t you forget the whole idea? After all, the furniture doesn’t belong to you.”

“Very well!” I said with animation, “just take the things I have bought with my own pocket money.” But not a one of all the odds and ends I piled before him had any value as a pledge.

Item. A hand in plaster. This was the right hand of Venus. A hand like a dahlia blossom, a pure white hand, mounted on a stand. But if you looked at it carefully you could tell how this pure white, delicate hand, with whorl-less finger tips and unmarked palms, expressed, so pitifully that even the beholder was stabbed with pain, the shame intense enough to make Venus stop her breath; in the gesture was implicit the moment when Venus’ full nakedness was seen by a man, when she twisted away her body, flushed all over with the prickling warmth of her shock, the whirlwind of her shame, and the tragedy of her nudity. Unfortunately, this was only a piece of bric-à-brac. The clerk valued it at fifty sen.

Items. A large map of the suburbs of Paris. A celluloid top almost a foot in diameter. A special pen-point with which one can write letters finer than threads. All things bought by me under the impression that they were great bargains.

The clerk laughed and said, “I must be leaving now.”

“Wait!” I cried, holding him back. I finally managed to load him down with an immense stack of books for which he gave me five yen. The books on my shelves were, with a few exceptions, cheap paper-bound editions, and at that I had bought them secondhand. It was not surprising that they fetched so little.

To settle a debt of a thousand yen—five yen. That is approximately my effective strength. It is no laughing matter.

But rather than the patronizing “But being decadent is the only way to survive!” of some who criticize me, I would far prefer to be told simply to go and die. It’s straightforward. But people almost never say, “Die!” Paltry, prudent hypocrites!

Justice? That’s not where you’ll find the so-called class struggle. Humanity? Don’t be silly. I know. It is knocking down your fellow-men for the sake of your own happiness. It is a killing. What meaning has it unless there is a verdict of “Die!” It’s no use cheating.

Continue reading “From Naoji’s Moonflower Journal | From Osamu Dazai’s novel The Setting Sun”

“The Challenge” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Challenge”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by d by Norman Thomas di Giovanni


All over the Argentine runs a story that may belong to legend or to history or (which may be just another way of saying it belongs to legend) to both things at once. Its best recorded versions are to be found in the unjustly forgotten novels about outlaws and desperadoes written in the last century by Eduardo Gutiérrez; among its oral versions, the first one I heard came from a neighborhood of Buenos Aires bounded by a penitentiary, a river, and a cemetery, and nicknamed Tierra del Fuego. The hero of this version was Juan Muraña, a wagon driver and knife fighter to whom are attributed all the stories of daring that still survive in what were once the outskirts of the city’s Northside. That first version was quite simple. A man from the Stockyards or from Barracas, knowing about Muraña’s reputation (but never having laid eyes on him), sets out all the way across town from the Southside to take him on. He picks the fight in a corner saloon, and the two move into the street to have it out. Each is wounded, but in the end Muraña slashes the other man’s face and tells him, “I’m letting you live so you’ll come back looking for me again.”

What impressed itself in my mind about the duel was that it had no ulterior motive. In conversation thereafter (my friends know this only too well), I grew fond of retelling the anecdote. Around 1927, I wrote it down, giving it the deliberately laconic title “Men Fought.” Years later, this same anecdote helped me work out a lucky story—though hardly a good one—called “Streetcorner Man.” Then, in 1950, Adolfo Bioy-Casares and I made use of it again to plot a film script that the producers turned down and that would have been called On the Outer Edge. It was about hard-bitten men like Muraña who lived on the outskirts of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century. I thought, after such extensive labors, that I had said farewell to the story of the disinterested duel. Then, this year, out in Chivilcoy, I came across a far better version. I hope this is the true one, although since fate seems to take pleasure in a thing’s happening many times over, both may very well be authentic. Two quite bad stories and a script that I still think of as good came out of the poorer first version; out of the second, which is complete and perfect, nothing can come. Without working in metaphors or details of local color, I shall tell it now as it was told to me. The story took place to the west, in the district of Chivilcoy, sometime back in the 1870’s. Continue reading ““The Challenge” — Jorge Luis Borges”

Maxim Osipov’s Kilometer 101 (Book acquired, early Sept. 2022)

Maxim Osipov’s Kilometer 101 collects six stories and four essays by the Russian author. The translations are by Boris Dralyuk, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and Alex Fleming. Kilometer 101 is out next month from NYRB. Their copy:

The town of Tarusa lies 101 kilometers outside Moscow, far enough to have served, under Soviet rule, as a place where former political prisoners and other “undesirables” could legally settle. Lying between the center of power and the provinces, between the modern urban capital and the countryside, Tarusa is the perfect place from which to observe a Russia that, in Maxim Osipov’s words, “changes a lot [in the course of a decade], but in two centuries—not at all.” The stories and essays in this volume—a follow-up to his debut in English, Rock, Paper, Scissors—tackle major questions of modern life in and beyond Russia with Osipov’s trademark blend of daring and subtlety. Deceit, political pressure, ethnic discrimination, the urge to emigrate, and the fear of abandoning one’s home, as well as myriad generational debts and conflicts, are as complexly woven through these pieces as they are through the lives of Osipov’s fellow Russians and through our own. What binds the prose in this volume is not only a set of concerns, however, but also Osipov’s penetrating insights and fearless realism. “Dreams fall away, one after another,” he writes in the opening essay, “some because they come true, but most because they prove pointless.” Yet, as he reminds us in the final essay, when viewed from ground level, “life tends not towards depletion, towards zero, but, on the contrary, towards repletion, fullness.”

Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures

 

Vladimir Sorokin’s 2013 novel Telluria, in its first English translation thanks to the estimable talents of Max Lawton, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in a long time. Telluria is a polyglossic satirical epic pieced together in vital miniatures. Its fifty sections are simultaneously discrete and porous, richly dense but also loose and funny. It teems with life and language, exploding notions of stable storytelling into a carnival of wild voices.

The world Sorokin conjures in Telluria is best experienced without map or gloss. My joy in reading the novel came from wandering through its fifty chapters and slowly building my own sense of this post-collapse world. You explore Telluria, finding footing after stumbling initially over the disorienting newness of a particular section. And just as you’ve tuned into the particular section’s frequency, you find yourself in a new chapter, a new idiom, a new voice. It’s a goddamn linguistic picaresque best enjoyed on its own terms, terms it refuses to spell out in simple exposition.

Telluria does not have a plot in the traditional sense, although its sum is greater than its parts. The fifty sections are not mere exercises in style, but rather a reflection of post-twentieth century consciousness: fractured, paranoid, hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic, chaotic, joyous, dystopian, utopian, ironic, earnest, strange…The reader who wanders through the fifty chapters will piece together a brave weird world where our contemporary nation states and political alliances have splintered into a cacophony of fiefdoms, city states, monarchies, republics, and so on. (There’s even a system of “enlightened theocratocommunofeudalism.”)

The needle that threads through it all is tellurium, a real (if earth-rare) element (as you’ll undoubtedly recall from your high-school chemistry class). In our world, tellurium is mostly employed in creating alloys for machines. In the world of Telluria, it is a drug that can take its user on a transcendental journeys, Those lucky enough to get their hands on a tellurium spike might find themselves transported into metaphysical spaces. Expert “carpenters” hammer tellurium nails into the heads of seekers, and these seekers go on to communicate with the dead, rampage fearlessly in battle, meet Christ in heaven, fly above mountaintops, or, in some cases, simply perish.

I should have by now offered a taste of the language in Telluria. A nice chunk of text set within the gum of context, no? But I don’t know how to do that effectively–Telluria is a dazzle of tongues. Offering a taste of just two or three of the sections would insufficient. It would amount to something like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Instead, I’ll offer Max Lawton’s thoughts on translating Telluria, from an interview he granted me earlier this year

Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices…I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations…), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others.

Telluria’s verbal carnival matches (and, really, engenders) seemingly endless imaginative invention on Sorokin’s part. We get dog-headed mutants engaged in philosophical discourse, “litluns” planning a revolution over the normies, the Carpenters of Western Europe hammering tellurium spikes into an army of Knights Templar who are about to set off on their thirteenth flying crusade against Islamic invaders. There are late-night, drug-fueled, multilingual bullshitting sessions, orgies, a princess who gets her kicks slumming it in disguise and fucking the serfs. There are lovers separated by thousands of miles, mutated horses larger than three-story houses, tourists in the USSR — the Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic. A centaur falls in love. Etc.

I copped out of citing any passages from Telluria above, protesting that it might offer an incomplete picture—and that’s true. But reviewing my notes, I think it’s worth sharing one passage at some length, a passage that I think both describes the milieu of the novel as well as approaches a kind of moral vision for the novel (with the strong caveat that any one distinct moral vision is necessarily exploded and ironized by the other voices that thread through the novel—as Lawton stated in our interview, Telluria is “an ode to difference….For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.”)

“We must not take anyone else’s karma upon ourselves, not even in small matters,” the brigadier continued. “Especially now in our renewed, post-war world. Take a look at the Eurasian continent: after the collapse of ideological, geopolitical, and technological utopias, it was finally plunged back into the blessèd and enlightened Middle Ages. The world returned to human scale. Nations found themselves. Man ceased to be the sum of the technology around him. Mass production is living out its final years. There aren’t two identical nails beaten into humanity’s head. Man regained a sense of the thing, started to eat healthy grub and ride horses again. Genetic engineering helps man to feel his true size. Man has regained faith in the transcendental. Regained his sense of time. We’re not rushing anywhere anymore. Most importantly–we understand that there can be no technological heaven on earth. And, and in broader terms, no heaven at all. Earth has been given to us as an island of overcoming. Everyone chooses what to overcome and how to overcome it. And they make that choice themselves!”

Sorokin’s post-collapse world doesn’t seem all that bad to me. 

Telluria was my first encounter with Sorokin, and I think it makes a grand introduction. I’ve since read Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) and Blue Lard (forthcoming next year from NYRB and also translated by Max Lawton). I’m currently reading Lawton’s translation of Their Four Hearts. While I think Blue Lard is the strongest of these titles (and I look forward to/dread reviewing it in the future), Telluria is an excellent introduction to Sorokin’s work, offering an engaging taste of his methods (all through Lawton’s lively translation). The book’s energy and imagination offer a nice counter to the dour dystopian narratives that abound these days.

Telluria is Not For Everyone. Readers interested in clear “worldbuilding” or plots that tie up all the loose ends will find themselves exasperated, as will readers who actively resist the linguistic playfulness of Lawton’s translation. Similarly, readers searching for a moral analogy for contemporary Russian politics and culture will find themselves straining to apply whatever mold they’ve already forged in their minds. Neither is this book particularly interested in the Americas or Western Europe. Sorokin’s province is the vast vacillating mass of Eurasia. In his 2012 book Russia: A Very Short History, Geoffrey Hosking notes “the arduous and challenging task of building a coherent polity on the flat open plains of northern Eurasia,” arguing that although Russia “has been a remarkable success story,” it is nevertheless a country “which had its own weaknesses programmed into it.” Hoskings continues: “[Russia] rested on a tacit compact between ruler, elites, and communities of ordinary people, renewed after periods of upheaval and crisis, yet never wholly harmonious, always subject to internal strains.” Telluria is an ecstatic and jarring exploration of those upheavals, those crises, those wonderful strains, a satire on the very notion of a coherent polity.

I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Vasily Grossman’s The People Immortal (Book acquired, 30 Aug. 2022)

A copy of by Vasily Grossman’s 1943 novel The People Immortal arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters. It’s a new translation by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, available next month from NYRB.

(It’s also a reminder to pick up the copy of Grossman’s massive novel Life and Fate that’s been staring me down for years).

NYRB’s blurb:

Vasily Grossman wrote three novels about the Second World War, each offering a distinct take on what a war novel can be, and each extraordinary. A common set of characters links Stalingrad and Life and Fate, but Stalingrad is not only a moving and exciting story of desperate defense and the turning tide of war, but also a monumental memorial for the countless war dead. Life and Fate, by contrast, is a work of moral and political philosophy as well as a novel, and the deep question it explores is whether or not it is possible to behave ethically in the face of overwhelming violence. The People Immortal is something else entirely. Set during the catastrophic first months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, this is the tale of an army battalion dispatched to slow the advancing enemy at any cost, with encirclement and annihilation its promised end. A rousing story of resistance, The People Immortal is the novel as weapon in hand.

Vladimir Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts (Book acquired, 30 July 2022)

I ordered a copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s 1991 novel Their Four Hearts in translation by Max Lawton a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing Max about his translation of Sorokin’s latest (in English), Telluria. In our discussion, Max told me,

I recommend any new reader of Sorokin to immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.

Here’s the back copy, which Max might’ve written:

In many respects, Their Four Hearts is a book of endings and final things. Vladimir Sorokin wrote it in the year the Soviet Union collapsed and then didn’t write fiction for ten years after completing it––his next book being the infamous Blue Lard, which he wrote in 1998. Without exaggerating too much, one might call it the last book of the Russian twentieth century and Blue Lard the first book of the Russian twenty-first century. It is a novel about the failure of the Soviet Union, about its metaphysical designs, and about the violence it produced, but presented as God might see it or Bataille might write it.

Their Four Hearts follows the violent and nonsensical missions carried out by a group of four characters who represent Socialist Realist archetypes: Seryozha, a naive and optimistic young boy; Olga, a dedicated female athlete; Shtaube, a wise old man; and Rebrov, a factory worker and a Stakhanovite embodying Soviet manhood. However, the degradation inflicted upon them is hardly a Socialist Realist trope. Are the acts of violence they carry out a more realistic vision of what the Soviet Union forced its “heroes” to live out? A corporealization and desacralization of self-sacrificing acts of Soviet heroism? How the Soviet Union truly looked if you were to strip away the ideological infrastructure? As we see in the long monologues Shtaube performs for his companions––some of which are scatological nonsense and some of which are accurate reproductions of Soviet language––Sorokin is interested in burrowing down to the libidinal impulses that fuel a totalitarian system and forcing the reader to take part in them in a way that isn’t entirely devoid of aesthetic pleasure.

As presented alongside Greg Klassen’s brilliant charcoal illustrations, which have been compared to the work of Bruno Schulz by Alexander Genis and the work of Ralph Steadman as filtered through Francis Bacon by several gallerists, this angular work of fiction becomes a scatological storybook-world that the reader is dared to immerse themselves in.

And here’s one of Greg Klassen’s illustrations:

“Legend,” a very short tale from Jorge Luis Borges

“Legend” by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Cain and Abel came upon each other after Abel’s death. They were walking through the desert, and they recognized each other from afar, since both men were very tall. The two brothers sat on the ground, made a fire, and ate. They sat silently, as weary people do when dusk begins to fall. In the sky, a star glimmered, though it had not yet been given a name. In the light of the fire, Cain saw that Abel’s forehead bore the mark of the stone, and he dropped the bread he was about to carry to his mouth and asked his brother to forgive him.

“Was it you that killed me, or did I kill you?” Abel answered. “I don’t re-member anymore; here we are, together, like before.”

“Now I know that you have truly forgiven me,” Cain said, “because forgetting is forgiving. I, too, will try to forget.”

“Yes,” said Abel slowly. “So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.”

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children (Book acquired, 6 July 2022)

NYRB is publishing Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children next month, in English translation by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. NYRB’s blurb:

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children is a masterpiece not only of the nineteenth century but of the whole of Russian literature, a book full to bursting with life. It is a novel about the relationships between the young and the old; about love, families, politics, religion; about strong beliefs and heated disagreements, illness and death. It is about the clash between liberals and conservatives, revolutionaries and reactionaries. At the time of its publication in 1862, the book aroused indignation in its critics who felt betrayed by Turgenev’s refusal to let his novel serve a single ideology; it also received a spirited defense by those who saw in his diffuse sympathies a greater service to art and to humanity. Fathers and Children is not a practical manifesto but a lasting work of art and a timely book for our present age, newly and ably translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater.

Fifty similes, really more than fifty similes, from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

  1. She looks like a nun, thought Quincy, or like she belongs to a dangerous cult.
  2. the movie in the dream was like a negative of the real movie
  3. clouds that looked like cathedrals or maybe just little toy churches abandoned in a labyrinthine marble quarry one hundred times bigger than the Grand Canyon
  4. like the work of a lunatic
  5. like a miniature Russian Orthodox church
  6. what it was most like was an enchanted island
  7. like the lilies that bloom and die in a single day
  8. a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water
  9. a metaphor is like a life jacket
  10. there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead
  11. I went through books like they were barbecue.
  12. friendly words that sounded like obscenities to my ear and that, thinking about it now, might actually have been obscene
  13. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.
  14. gestured and bobbed like a rapper
  15. Hollows in the ground, like World War I bomb craters
  16. Fate headed down the stairs, taking them in threes as if he were dashing for the street, like a boy heading out for a free afternoon with his friends.
  17. smiling a catlike smile
  18. everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus
  19. Sunsets in the desert seem like they’ll never end, until suddenly, before you know it, they’re done. It’s like someone just turned out the lights
  20. She had a hoarse, nasal voice and she didn’t talk like a New York secretary but like a
    country person who has just come from the cemetery.
  21. like butterflies summoned by his prayers
  22. something like happiness
  23. stood to attention like a soldier
  24. the story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and everybody forgets about it and goes back to work
  25. The fucking killings are like a strike, amigo, a brutal fucking strike.
  26. “It’s like a dream,” said Guadalupe Roncal. “It looks like something alive.”
  27. it looks like a woman who’s been hacked to pieces. Who’s been hacked to pieces but is still alive. And the prisoners are living inside this woman.”
  28. two Mexican reporters who stared at him like dying men
  29. the knowledge slipped like water through his fingers
  30. she smiled like a goddess
  31. This place is like hell
  32. A black sky like the bottom of the sea.
  33. like fucking a man who isn’t exactly a man
  34. like becoming a little girl again
  35. like being fucked by a rock. A mountain.
  36. it’s like you’re fucking a mountain but you’re fucking inside a cave
  37. In other words it’s like being fucked by a mountain in a cave inside the mountain itself
  38. Well, it feels like being fucked by the air. That’s exactly how it feels.
  39. So fucking a policeman is like being fucked by a mountain and fucking a narco is like being fucked by the air.
  40. like a tour guide with an eye for local color
  41. he treated her like his slave
  42. like a joke
  43. like the title of a David Lynch film
  44. narrow room like a monk’s cell
  45. the shadows dispersed by the flashes of car lights like comet tails in the dark
  46. It’s odd that someone would hang a book out like a shirt
  47. like a huge hearse
  48. She looked like an athlete from the 1940s.
  49. All of this is like somebody else’s dream
  50. the highway was like a river

These similes are from “The Part About Fate,” the third part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

A metaphor is like a life jacket | From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

Really, when you talk about stars you’re speaking figuratively. That’s metaphor. Call someone a movie star. You’ve used a metaphor. Say: the sky is full of stars. More metaphors. If somebody takes a hard right to the chin and goes down, you say he’s seeing stars. Another metaphor. Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket. And remember, there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead. Best not to forget it. But really, there’s just one star and that star isn’t semblance, it isn’t metaphor, it doesn’t come from any dream or any nightmare. We have it right outside. It’s the sun. The sun, I am sorry to say, is our only star. When I was young I saw a science fiction movie. A rocket ship drifts off course and heads toward the sun. First, the astronauts start to get headaches. Then they’re all dripping sweat and they take off their spacesuits and even so they can’t stop sweating and before long they’re dehydrated. The sun’s gravity keeps pulling them ceaselessly in. The sun begins to melt the hull of the ship. Sitting in his seat, the viewer can’t help feeling hot, too hot to bear. Now I’ve forgotten how it ends. At the last minute they get saved, I seem to recall, and they correct the course of that rocket ship and turn it around toward the earth, and the huge sun is left behind, a frenzied star in the reaches of space.

From “The Part About Fate,” the third part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

Blixa Bargeld’s “semi-fictional” tour diary, Europe Crosswise: A Litany (Book acquired, 6 June 2022)

Blixa Bargeld, the lead singer and guitarist of the German experimental noise band Einstürzende Neubauten published a “semi-fictional” account of his bands 2008 tour a year after the tour’s completion. That book, Europe Crosswise: A Litany is now available in English translation by Mark Kanak from Contra Mundum. Their blurb:

In this semi-fictional account, Blixa Bargeld recounts life on tour in 2008 with Einstürzende Neubauten — from Lisbon to Moscow, Oslo to Naples, criss-crossing Europe. Along the way we encounter mind numbing routines, interesting restaurants (good and bad), colorful museums, rocky bus rides, mundane hotels, odd characters and old friends — they’re all there.  Along with the structure holding it all together, namely, a recurring setlist that is invoked as a litany.  In the end the book proves to be a declaration of love for Europe, and in the current dark times we are presently living through, more immediate than ever.

The book, first published in German in 2009 and something of a semi-fictional travel journal from the “Alles Wieder Offen” Tour, will be published soon by Contra Mundum Press in an English translation by author, translator, and radioplay artist Mark Kanak.

Not toward peace | On Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary

“I don’t live well,” the unnamed narrator of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary tells the young woman he will soon marry. “The excuse isn’t clear to her, though she tries to follow its meaning,” he continues, this time to the reader. While the narrator seems, on the surface, a man with a good job as a clerk who lives in a respectable house with his mother, he doesn’t live well—the adverb modifies the verb live in a literal, visceral sense: our hero is an anxious wreck who cannot tune in to the modern condition. He “can’t sleep or eat or read or speak in the chaos of sound” that is the modern, post-war condition.

And that is the central problem of The Silentiary: the chaos of sound. Set in an unnamed, rapidly-growing Latin American city in the early 1950s, Di Benedetto’s 1964 novel belongs to the same canon of Kafkaesque, existentialist postwar novels like Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Like those novels, The Silentiary follows the nonadventures of a disaffected young man out of tune with his society.

There’s no need to summarize The Silenciary at length. The narrator works in an office, has a crush on his neighbor but ends up marrying her friend, and converses with his flighty philosophical foil, Besarion. He also dreams of completing a novel (to be called The Roof), but alas can never set about even getting started because of the “chaos of sound” that ever encroaches upon him. And that is the real plot of The Silentiary: our poor hero is ever retreating from modernity’s cacophony, only to find new, louder sounds piercing his repose.

His attempts to evade noise are simultaneously mundane and absurd. At one point, he’s schlepping around an old piano that no one can play (symbol of his mother’s middle-class respectability) like a giant anchor, trying to jam it into small quarters. Another sequence finds him moving to a small town, only to end up with a tragic punchline. He’s moved next door to a blacksmith: “Forge and bellows, the anvil and its hammers.”

The narrator’s wife loves him without understanding him, but he finds a confessor in his friend Besarion. This enigmatic character pops in and out of the novel, engaging in puzzling dialogues with the narrator, who is wary and possibly jealous of his friend: “He’s free. He has managed to make his life a long digression, or a kind of multiple metaphor.” Years ago, before the narrator had married and before Besarion had gone on a series of religious travels, he had diagnosed the narrator thusly: “Your quest against noise is metaphysical.” Upon return though, Besarion ironizes that diagnosis, stating that even though his friend believes that his “adventure is metaphysical,” it is actually “physiological, or psychic, or nervous.” This can’t relieve the narrator’s pain though: the chaos of noise “won’t let me exist,” he protests. Besarion solemnly tells him, “Bear up. Make do.”

For all its seriousness, The Silentiary is often a funny, wry novel. Consider the narrator’s description of the automechanics who’ve moved next door: “They seem to have abandoned themselves entirely to their passion for the hygiene of all that has four wheels and an engine.” Or our anxious guy getting dyspepsia: “The food I ingest at lunch does not resign itself to its destiny.”

The phrasing in such moments recalls Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama, also ably translated by Esther Allen. Again, Allen captures something crisp and wry, subtle and precise that is surely native to Di Benedetto’s prose. The results are often beautiful, like in a strange little haiku-like moment early in the novel:

Last night the big gray cat of my childhood came to me.

I told him that noise stalks and harries me.

Slowly, intensely, he cast his animal, companionable gaze upon me.

Or the beautiful phrasing of another strange moment:

…I come across a photo of the lion tamer we dined with after the circus performance.

The tamer’s mane is as untamed as ever, in all the dishevelment of bad nights to which no comb can offer a morning remedy. He’s under double guard.

Lovely!

Yet for all its humor and beauty, The Silentiary is ultimately a sad, though never dour, read. The novel does not wax elegaic for a romanticized, quieter past, nor does it call to make peace with cacophony. There’s only Besarion’s stern intonation to “Bear up [and] Make do.” We’ve the portrait of one man who cannot escape or mute the chaos of sound. Ultimately, he cannot bear up and make do. So he resists, becoming a martyr for silence…but it doesn’t end well. The novel concludes darkly: “The night flows on…and not toward peace.” Recommended.