Kobo Abe’s Secret Rendezvous (Book acquired, 8 July 2021)

So well my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and we’ve had to move her to a memory care facility and pack up all the many many things in her house and so on and etc., the house she’s lived in forever, or at least for close to what I conceive of as forever, and it’s been painful and I’m not writing about it here or now, but she was a reader, still is a reader, although she doesn’t remember what she reads, although I guess I don’t remember most of what I read, but I do remember the feeling of reading a certain book, or at least the feeling of the feeling of reading a certain book, but I don’t know what it’s like for her to read now, I just know that she loved reading—not the kind of stuff I like, but a reader nonetheless, and so well now anyway I have boxes and boxes of her books to go trade in for store credit at the local shop, a thing, the trading I mean, that I try to do slowly, one box (or sometimes bag) at a time, so as not to overburden the kindly bookbuyers, who seem to be always dealing with box after box after musty box of books obtained in similar situations (i.e., grandmothers, grandfathers, beloved old great uncles and strange wonderful aunts, you know the type, who, for whatever sad reason, no longer require books in such a volume)—and so like I don’t bring in but one or two bags or boxes at a time, a strategy that also gives me some small license to browse and browse and browse and

 

 

 

And so last Thursday I picked up Kobo Abe’s 1977 novel Secret Rendezvous. I’ve always wanted to read Abe—specificically his first novel, Inter Ice Age 4, but I’ve never found it. (I have found his most famous novel, Woman in the Dunes, but for whatever reason failed to pick it up.) Secret Rendezvous, in English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter, seems to be a surrealistic tale of “a man’s desperate search for his vanished wife in a vast underground hospital.” The blurb on the back also mentions a test-tube baby, an impotent health administrator, and a nymphomaniac. Maybe I’ll read it next.

Anna Seghers’s short story collection, The Dead Girls’ Class Trip (Book acquired, 14 May 2021)

NYRB have a collection of Anna Seghers’s short stories coming out next month. The Dead Girls’ Class Trip is both translated and edited by Margot Bettauer Dembo and includes an introduction by German author Ingo Schulze. There are sixteen stories in the collection, some quite long and others quite short. Many have ominous titles, like “Jan Is Going to Die,” “Shelter,” “The End,” “A Man Becomes a Nazi,” and the title story, of course. I read a shorter tale the other day, “The Square,” and it was a depressing little ominous microfiction. I also read “The Three Trees,” three micros arboreally bound. The first piece, “The Knight’s Tree,” condenses history, humor, and despair into a few sentences:

The Dead Girls’ Class Trip drops mid June from NYRB. Their blurb:

Best known for the anti-fascist novel The Seventh Cross and the existential thriller Transit, Anna Seghers was also a gifted writer of short fiction. The stories she wrote throughout her life reflect her political activism as well as her deep engagement with myth; they are also some of her most formally experimental work. This selection of Seghers’s best stories, written between 1925 and 1965, displays the range of her creativity over the years. It includes her most famous short fiction, such as the autobiographical “The Dead Girls’ Class Trip,” and others, like “Jans Is Going to Die,” that have been translated into English here for the first time. There are psychologically penetrating stories about young men corrupted by desperation and women bound by circumstance, as well as enigmatic tales of bewilderment and enchantment based on myths and legends, like “The Best Tales of Woynok, the Thief,” “The Three Trees,” and “Tales of Artemis.” In her stories, Seghers used the German language in especially unconventional and challenging ways, and Margot Bettauer Dembo’s sensitive and skilled translation preserves this distinction.

Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel (Book acquired, 30 March 2021)

Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel is forthcoming in English translation by Annie McDermott from the good folks at And Other Stories. It’s a big ole book! Here is And Other Stories’ blurb:

A writer attempts to complete the novel for which he has been awarded a big fat Guggenheim grant, though for a long time he succeeds mainly in procrastinating – getting an electrician to rewire his living room so he can reposition his computer, buying an armchair, or rather, two: ‘In one, you can’t possibly read: it’s uncomfortable and your back ends up crooked and sore. In the other, you can’t possibly relax: the hard backrest means you have to sit up straight and pay attention, which makes it ideal if you want to read.’

Insomniacs, romantics and anyone who’s ever written (or failed to write) will fall in love with this compelling masterpiece told by a true original, with all his infuriating faults, charming wit and intriguing musings.

I loved the last two And Other Stories editions I read, by the way. I highly recommend Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood (translated by Nora Whittle) — I wrote about it here.

The other AOS book was Ann Quin’s 1969 avant garde novel Passages, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever read (although Joyce’s Ulysses, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Beckett, Derrida’s Glas, and Julia Kristeva come to mind). I reread it last weekend in an attempt to outline a review, which I hope to have up soon.

Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Book acquired, sometime in February 2021)

The nice people at Contra Mundum continue to put out new Charles Baudelaire translations. Paris Spleen is out in a new translation from Rainer J. Hanshe. A little taste:

I wish I could get drunk on virtue. I’ll settle for wine.

Here’s Contra Mundum’s blurb:

In the 1850s, ancien and Haussmannian Paris clash, giving birth to a violent disjunction. At that moment in time, an other present is born, a new history, like Baudelaire’s poet freely abandoning his halo on the macadam. The laurel crown has been discarded; the pastoral poet is dead; classical lyric poetry is dead. The steam-driven, gaslit, electrically-charged poet is born. “Retreat Academic Muse!,” Baudelaire commands, “I don’t care about that old stutterer.”

With Paris Spleen, we move toward a new rhythm, a rhythm born of the pace, speed, and reality of a metropolis hitherto never seen or experienced. It is the rhythm of the street, of the swift-moving eye, of overloaded senses and hyper-perception, of newspapers and optical devices. Baudelaire’s life spans the essential birth of whole new forms of technology, including steam locomotives, gas light, and electricity, not to speak of the typewriter and the Daguerreotype. The dandy sees and moves with the coming speed of light. His life is one lived in the midst of illumination, mechanics, and simulacra.

Baudelaire’s Paris is a place of experience, a metropolis that spawns unique and particular realities, a kaleidoscope of visions and mirror of alternative societies. The grist of his poems is not ancient Greece or the Renaissance. As he stated in the so-called preface to Paris Spleen, it is especially from frequenting great cities, from the crossroads of their innumerable relations, that the haunting ideal of the prose poem was born. Our flâneur wanders swiftly through crowds, in contact, but anonymous, extracting from the city material to forge his new ars poetica, like a bricolage artist.

The future is called forth. The street is the new Olympus; the phantasmagoric city is a big harlot whose infernal charm continually rejuvenates the poet. The ironic, infernal beacon is the totem of the new age: the age of dissonance, the age of artificial paradises. “I love you, O infamous capital!” the poet exults.

Here is Paris Spleen, an invitation to voyage, to have the entirety of Baudelaire’s Paris enter into our flesh and for us to undergo contagion, if our spleens can handle it.

Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die | On Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood (Book acquired, 30 March 2021)

I’ll admit I’d never heard of Norah Lange until the nice people at indie superpublisher And Other Stories alerted me to her memoir, Notes from Childhood.

Lange was an Argentinian writer, publishing poems and prose from the 1920s through  the 1950s. She was part of the Florida Group, along with Jorge Luis Borges and his sister, the painter Norah Borges, as well as Victoria Ocampo and others, and first published her poems in ultraist magazines.

In her note at the end of Notes from Childhood, Lange’s translator Charlotte Whittle suggests that Lange’s memoir marked a break from the ultraist school, embracing a new style of prose—her own style. Whittle points out that Lange’s “approach to memory” trains its “gaze on domestic, family scenes.”

Whittle continues,

Far from being a linear autobiography or tale of coming of age, this narrative takes the form of a constellation of pieces of childhood, and these pieces provide Lange with ground for experimentation.

I read the first forty pages of Notes from Childhood this afternoon; the book showed up last week and I didn’t have a spare half hour to carve from a day to sink into it.

I didn’t have a spare half hour this afternoon, but I opened it, after moving a pile of books to another pile of books, and then I just kept reading.

Lange’s Notes feels subtly cinematic—in vivid flashes, brief vignettes, scenes of a page or two, she conjure the irreal reality of childhood. The memoir opens in a hotel, where, in the dining room, Lange and her sisters spy the “owner of the circus, and next to him the strongest woman in the world,” who, every night “lifts three men with her teeth.” They later light lamps in their new old house to “watch the spiders and kissing bugs all over the walls.”

A few pages later, Lange describes her mother riding sidesaddle horseback in nine succinct but powerful paragraphs. She frames the poetic photograph for her reader:

I see her framed with a gentleness no one could touch without taking something away, without adding more grace than that which was essential and true.

And our narrator riffs on her eldest sister, Irene, framed through a “third window” in one chapter: “I was always a little afraid and a little in awe of her. She was six years older than me. Sometimes, she was allowed to sit at the table in the large dining room during visits from family friends.” Irene at the big table! We get a trickle of information about whispers of Irene, who is growing up while our narrator remains a child:

Susana and I, the youngest two, weren’t shrewd enough to guess the reason for these long whispering sessions. One afternoon, I heard them speak of breasts. When I think back, I understand the fear she must have felt—the first sister, all alone—when she saw her body begin to curve, her rib cage lose its rigidity, her breasts start to ache and stir imperceptibly.

A few chapters later (there aren’t really chapters in Notes), sister Marta, convalescent, repeats, “God is evil. God is evil.” A few pages later, schoolbound, Little Lange is enchanted by typeface:

Words in capital letters, like TWILIGHT, DISCOVERY, DAGUERREOTYPE, LABYRINTH, and THERAPEUTIC, brought me a zeal and contentment all by themselves that now I would have to describe as aesthetic.

And then this wonderful weird episode. Scene: Lange and the sisters:

We had made big hats out of paper and the five of us stood before the mirror, each absorbed by the reflection of her own face, contemplating the effect of shadow over our eyes, the changing glimmer taken on by the light from the window as it fell on our hair against the newspaper.

The door opened suddenly, and a gust of air caused the hats to teeter on our heads.

One of my sisters said,

“The first one who loses her hat will die before the others…”

Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die.

Great stuff! Read an excerpt of Notes from Childhood here.

“Ulrikke” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Ulrikke”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abertVolsunga Saga, 27

My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases. I wish to tell the story of my encounter with Ulrikke (I never learned her last name, and perhaps never will) in the city of York. The tale will span one night and one morning.

It would be easy for me to say that I saw her for the first time beside the Five Sisters at York Minster, those stained glass panes devoid of figural representation that Cromwell’s iconoclasts left untouched, but the fact is that we met in the dayroom of the Northern Inn, which lies outside the walls. There were but a few of us in the room, and she had her back to me. Some-one offered her a glass of sherry and she refused it.

“I am a feminist,” she said. “I have no desire to imitate men. I find their tobacco and their alcohol repulsive.”

The pronouncement was an attempt at wit, and I sensed this wasn’t the first time she’d voiced it. I later learned that it was not like her—but what we say is not always like us.

She said she’d arrived at the museum late, but that they’d let her in when they learned she was Norwegian.

“Not the first time the Norwegians storm York,” someone remarked.

“Quite right,” she said. “England was ours and we lost her—if, that is, anyone can possess anything or anything can really be lost.”

It was at that point that I looked at her. A line somewhere in William Blake talks about girls of soft silver or furious gold, but in Ulrikke there was both gold and softness. She was light and tall, with sharp features and gray eyes. Less than by her face, I was impressed by her air of calm mystery. She smiled easily, and her smile seemed to take her somewhere far away. She was dressed in black—unusual in the lands of the north, which try to cheer the dullness of the surroundings with bright colors. She spoke a neat, precise English, slightly stressing the r’s. I am no great observer; I discovered these things gradually.

We were introduced. I told her I was a professor at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá. I clarified that I myself was Colombian.

“What is ‘being Colombian’?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “It’s an act of faith.”

“Like being Norwegian,” she said, nodding.

I can recall nothing further of what was said that night. The next day I came down to the dining room early. I saw through the windows that it had snowed; the moors ran on seamlessly into the morning. There was no one else in the dining room. Ulrikke invited me to share her table. She told me she liked to go out walking alone.

I remembered an old quip of Schopenhauer’s.

“I do too. We can go out alone together,” I said.

We walked off away from the house through the newly fallen snow. There was not a soul abroad in the fields. I suggested we go downriver a few miles, to Thorgate. I know I was in love with Ulrikke; there was no other person on earth I’d have wanted beside me.

Suddenly I heard the far-off howl of a wolf. I have never heard a wolf howl, but I know that it was a wolf. Ulrikke’s expression did not change.

After a while she said, as though thinking out loud: “The few shabby swords I saw yesterday in York Minster were more moving to me than the great ships in the museum at Oslo.”

Our two paths were briefly crossing: that evening Ulrikke was to continue her journey toward London; I, toward Edinburgh.

“On Oxford Street,” she said, “I will retrace the steps of DeQuincey, who went seeking his lost Anna among the crowds of London.”

“DeQuincey,” I replied, “stopped looking. My search for her, on the other hand, continues, through all time.”

“Perhaps,” Ulrikke said softly, “you have found her.”

I realized that an unforeseen event was not to be forbidden me, and I kissed her lips and her eyes.

She pushed me away with gentle firmness, but then said: “I shall be yours in the inn at Thorgate. I ask you, meanwhile, not to touch me. It’s best that way.”

For a celibate, middle-aged man, proffered love is a gift that one no longer hopes for; a miracle has the right to impose conditions. I recalled my salad days in Popayán and a girl from Texas, as bright and slender as Ulrikke, who had denied me her love.

I did not make the mistake of asking her whether she loved me. I realized that I was not the first, and would not be the last. That adventure, perhaps the last for me, would be one of many for that glowing, determined disciple of Ibsen.

We walked on, hand in hand.

“All this is like a dream,” I said, “and I never dream.”

“Like that king,” Ulrikke replied, “who never dreamed until a sorcerer put him to sleep in a pigsty.”

Then she added: “Ssh! A bird is about to sing.”

In a moment we heard the birdsong.

“In these lands,” I said, “people think that a person who’s soon to die can see the future.”

“And I’m about to die,” she said.

I looked at her, stunned.

“Lets cut through the woods,” I urged her.

“We’ll get to Thorgate sooner.”

“The woods are dangerous,” she replied. We continued across the moors.

“I wish this moment would last forever,” I murmured.

“Forever is a word mankind is forbidden to speak,” Ulrikke declared emphatically, and then, to soften her words, she asked me to tell her my name again, which she hadn’t heard very well.

“Javier Otárola,” I said.

She tried to repeat it, but couldn’t. I failed, likewise, with Ulrikke.

“I will call you Sigurd,” she said with a smile.

“And if I’m to be Sigurd,” I replied, “then you shall be Brunhild.”

Her steps had slowed. “Do you know the saga?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “The tragic story that the Germans spoiled with their parvenu Nibelungen.”

I didn’t want to argue, so I answered: “Brunhild, you are walking as though you wanted a sword to lie between us in our bed.”

We were suddenly before the inn. I was not surprised to find that it, like the one we had departed from, was called the Northern Inn.

From the top of the staircase, Ulrikke called down to me: “Did you hear the wolf? There are no wolves in England anymore. Hurry up.”

As I climbed the stairs, I noticed that the walls were papered a deep crimson, in the style of William Morris, with intertwined birds and fruit. Ulrikke entered the room first. The dark chamber had a low, peaked ceiling. The expected bed was duplicated in a vague glass, and its burnished mahogany reminded me of the mirror of the Scriptures. Ulrikke had already undressed. She called me by my true name, Javier. I sensed that the snow was coming down harder. Now there was no more furniture, no more mirrors. There was no sword between us. Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke.

Vítězslav Nezval’s Woman in the Plural (Book acquired, sometime last week)

Woman in the Plural is a newly-translated collection of poems and plays by Vítězslav Nezval. The new translation is by Ka (the volume also features art by Karel Teige).

Here’s a taste:

And here’s publisher Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

In the summer of 1935, Vítězslav Nezval, already one of the most celebrated Czech poets of his generation, embarked on a period of manic creativity that would result in three volumes of poetry written and published in a two-year span (1935-37), mirrored by three volumes of memoir-like poetic prose. These collections would not only reshape Czech poetry, blending approaches developed by the French Surrealists with national cultural sensibilities and political concerns, taken together they are among the highest achievements of the interwar avant-garde. Woman in the Plural (1936), the first volume in this loose trilogy, adopted “objective chance” as its modus operandi (whereas the third and final volume, The Absolute Gravedigger (1937), was guided by the paranoiac-critical method).

Appearing in English translation for the first time, Woman in the Plural displays Nezval’s prodigious talents in a variety of forms, styles, and genres as he spins images of the female form like a zoetrope to create novel and hallucinatory ways of conceiving woman’s mythical, divine, and creative power. It is an eclectic collection that blends profound free verse, at times reading like a cascade of automatic writing, with pages from Nezval’s dream journal, an exuberant set of Surrealist exercises, and a full-length play of chance encounters with “a woman like any other,” all the while addressing the social and political uncertainties of the 1930s. Led off by Karel Teige’s original collages from the first edition, Woman in the Plural is a vibrant and volatile tour de force from one of the greatest European artists of the 20th century.

“The Sect of the Thirty” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Sect of the Thirty”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


The original manuscript may be consulted in the library at the University of Leyden; it is in
Latin, but its occasional Hellenism justifies the conjecture that it may be a translation from the Greek. According to Leisegang, it dates from the fourth century of the Christian era; Gibbon mentions it, in passing, in one of his notes to the fifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall.

These are the words of its anonymous author:

…The Sect was never large, but now its followers are few indeed. Their number decimated by sword and fire, they sleep by the side of the road or in the ruins spared them by war, as they are forbidden to build dwellings. They often go about naked. The events my pen describes are known to all men; my purpose here is to leave a record of that which has been given me to discover about their doctrine and  their habits. I have engaged in long counsel with their masters, but I have not been able to convert them to Faith in Our Lord.

The first thing which drew my attention was the diversity of their opinion with respect to the dead. The most unschooled among them believe that they shall be buried by the spirits of those who have left this life; others, who do not cleave so tight to the letter, say that Jesus’ admonition Let the dead bury the dead condemns the showy vanity of our funerary rites.

The counsel to sell all that one owns and give it to the poor is strictly observed by all; the first recipients give what they receive to others, and these to yet others. This is sufficient explanation for their poverty and their nakedness, which likewise brings them closer to the paradisal state. Fervently they cite the words Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap: which neither have storehouse nor barn: and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? The text forbids saving, for If God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven: how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.

The prescription Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart is an unmistakable exhortation to purity. Still, many are the members of the Sect who teach that because there is no man under heaven who has not looked upon a woman to desire her, then we have all committed adultery. And since the desire is no less sinful than the act, the just may deliver themselves up without risk of hellfire to the exercise of the most unbridled lustfulness.

The Sect shuns churches; its teachers preach in the open, from a mountaintop or the top of a wall, or sometimes from a boat upturned upon the shore.

There has been persistent speculation as to the origins of the Sect’s name. One such conjecture would have it that the name gives us the number to which the body of the faithful has been reduced; this is ludicrous but prophetic, as the perverse doctrine of the Sect does indeed predestine it to extinction.

Another conjecture derives the name from the height of the Ark, which was thirty cubits; another, misrepresenting astronomy, claims that the name is taken from the number of nights within the lunar month; yet another, from the baptism of the Savior; another, from the age of Adam when he rose from the red dust. All are equally false. No less untruthful is the catalog of thirty divinities or thrones, of which, one is Abraxas, pictured with the head of a cock, the arms and torso of a man, and the coiled tail of a serpent. I know the Truth but I cannot plead the Truth. To me the priceless gift of giving word to it has not been granted. Let others, happier men than I, save the members of the Sect by the word. By word or by fire.

It is better to be killed than to kill oneself. I shall, therefore, limit myself to an account of the abominable heresy. The Word was made flesh so that He might be a man among men, so that men might bind  Him to the Cross, and be redeemed by Him. He was born from the womb of a woman of the chosen people not simply that He might teach the gospel of Love but also that He might undergo that martyrdom.

It was needful that all be unforgettable. The death of a man by sword or hemlock was not sufficient to leave a wound on the imagination of mankind until the end of days. The Lord disposed that the events should inspire pathos. That is the explanation for the Last Supper, for Jesus’ words foretelling His deliverance up to the Romans, for the repeated sign to one of His disciples, for the blessing of the bread and wine, for Peter’s oaths, for the solitary vigil on Gethsemane, for the twelve men’s sleep, for the Son’s human plea, for the sweat that was like blood, for the swords, the betraying kiss, the Pilate who washed his hands of it, the flagellation, the jeers and derision, the thorns, the purple and the staff of cane, the vinegar with honey, the Tree upon the summit of the Hill, the promise to the good thief, the earth that shook, and the darkness that fell upon the  land.

Divine mercy, to which I myself owe so many blessings, has allowed me to discover the true and secret reason for the Sect’s name. In Kerioth, where it is plausibly reputed to have arisen, there has survived a conventicle known as the Thirty Pieces of Silver. That was the Sect’s original name, and it provides us with the key. In the tragedy of the Cross (and I write this with all the reverence which is its due) there were those who acted knowingly and those who acted unknowingly; all were essential, all inevitable. Unknowing were the priests who delivered the pieces of silver; unknowing, too, was the mob that chose Barabbas; unknowing the Judean judge, the Romans who erected the Cross on which He was martyred and who drove the nails and cast the lots. Of knowing actors, there were but two: Judas and the Redeemer. Judas cast away the thirty coins that were the price of our souls’ salvation and immediately hanged himself. At that moment he was thirty-three years old, the age of the Son of Man. The Sect venerates the two equally, and absolves the others.

There is not one lone guilty man; there is no man that does not carry out, wittingly or not, the plan traced by the All-Wise. All mankind now shares in Glory.

My hand fails when I will it to write a further abomination. The initiates of the Sect, upon reaching a certain age, are mocked and crucified on the peak of a mountain, to follow the example of their masters.

This criminal violation of the Fifth Commandment should be met with the severity that human and divine laws have ever demanded. May the curses of the Firmament, may the hatred of angels …

The end of the manuscript has not been discovered.

André Gide’s Marshlands (Book acquired, 9 Dec. 2020)

André Gide’s 1895 novel Marshland is out in a few weeks from NYRB in a new translation by Damion Searls.

NYRB’s blurb:

André Gide is the inventor of modern metafiction and of autofiction, and his short novel Marshlands shows him handling both forms with a deft and delightful touch. The protagonist of Marshlands is a writer who is writing a book called Marshlands, which is about a reclusive character who lives all alone in a stone tower. The narrator, by contrast, is anything but a recluse: He is an indefatigable social butterfly, flitting about the Paris literary world and always talking about, what else, the wonderful book he is writing, Marshlands. He tells his friends about the book, and they tell him what they think, which is not exactly flattering, and of course those responses become part of the book in the reader’s hand. Marshlands is both a poised satire of literary pretension and a superb literary invention, and Damion Searls’s new translation of this early masterwork by one of the key figures of twentieth-century literature brings out all the sparkle of the original.

Gide’s blurb:

I don’t understand a single thing in Marshlands. Did I write the book?

Ge Fei’s Peach Blossom Paradise (Book acquired, 12 Nov. 2020)

Ge Fei’s novel Peach Blossom Paradise, translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse, is forthcoming from. Their blurb:

In 1898 reformist intellectuals in China persuaded the young emperor that it was time to transform his sclerotic empire into a prosperous modern state. The Hundred Days’ Reform that followed was a moment of unprecedented change and extraordinary hope—brought to an abrupt end by a bloody military coup. Dashed expectations would contribute to the revolutionary turn that Chinese history would soon take, leading in time to the deaths of millions.

Peach Blossom Paradise, set at the time of the reform, is the story of Xiumi, the daughter of a wealthy landowner and former government official who falls prey to insanity and disappears. Days later, a man with a gold cicada in his pocket turns up at his estate and is inexplicably welcomed as a relative. This mysterious man has a great vision of reforging China as an egalitarian utopia, and he will stop at nothing to make it real. It is his own plans, however, which come to nothing, and his “little sister” Xiumi is left to take up arms against a Confucian world in which women are chattel. Her campaign for change and her struggle to seize control over her own body are continually threatened by the violent whims of men who claim to be building paradise.

Cast your jacket, noble dream, over the shoulders of the child (Pierre Senges)

From Studies of Silhouettes by Pierre Senges. English translation by Jacob Siefring. Get it from Sublunary Editions.

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.