I read the first few bits of Vladmir Sorokin’s postapocalyptic novel Telluria today. The book is forthcoming from NYRB in translation by Max Lawton. The fantastic blurb captured my interest right away:
Telluria is set in the future, when a devastating holy war between Europe and Islam has succeeded in returning the world to the torpor and disorganization of the Middle Ages. Europe, China, and Russia have all broken up. The people of the world now live in an array of little nations that are like puzzle pieces, each cultivating its own ideology or identity, a neo-feudal world of fads and feuds, in which no one power dominates. What does, however, travel everywhere is the appetite for the special substance tellurium. A spike of tellurium, driven into the brain by an expert hand, offers a transforming experience of bliss; incorrectly administered, it means death.
The fifty chapters of Telluria map out this brave new world from fifty different angles, as Vladimir Sorokin, always a virtuoso of the word, introduces us to, among many other figures, partisans and princes, peasants and party leaders, a new Knights Templar, a harem of phalluses, and a dog-headed poet and philosopher who feasts on carrion from the battlefield. The book is an immense and sumptuous tapestry of the word, carnivalesque and cruel, and Max Lawton, Sorokin’s gifted translator, has captured it in an English that carries the charge of Cormac McCarthy and William Gibson.
Telluria is forthcoming this summer; NYRB plans to publish three more by Sorokin, including Blue Lard, “which included a sex scene between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev [and] led to public demonstrations against the book and to demands that Sorokin be prosecuted as a pornographer.”
I read Italo Calvino’s posthumous collection Under the Jaguar Sun over the past three days (in William Weaver’s 1988 translation). When I bought it last month I had no idea that it was a collection of stories (and not a novella), nor posthumous. I didn’t read the summary on the back. I just knew it was a thin Calvino I hadn’t read and I’ve been into thin reads lately. (I have two fat novels in translation staring me down from across the room as I write this. Their accusations linger.)
But Under the Jaguar Sun is posthumous, and it is a collection–a thin collection, sure, but the stories are strong. In her note at the end of the book, Esther Calvino offers the following:
In 1972 Calvino started writing a book about the five senses. At his death, in 1985, only three stories had been completed: “Under the Jaguar Sun,” “A King Listens,” and “The Name, the Nose.” Had he lived, this book would certainly have evolved into something quite different.
Esther Calvino suggests that Italo “would have provided a frame, as in If on a winter’s night a traveler, a frame that amounts to another novel, virtually a book in itself,” but concludes that the book should be read “simply as three stories written in different periods of his life.” That conclusion was the last thing I read in the book, which I think is fortunate–my reading wasn’t colored by a sense of lack, a sense of what could have been.
The first story, “Under the Jaguar Sun” (1982), is the strongest. The unnamed narrator and his companion Olivia (presumably his wife) are traveling through the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. They visit temples, soak in history, but mostly enjoy the food. “Under the Jaguar Sun” is the “taste” episode of Calvino’s would-be five senses novel, and at times the story reads like a gourmand’s travelogue. The couple, led by Olivia, seek newer, stranger flavors. Calvino’s narrator renders the gustatory titillation in fatty detail. Our boy gets his first taste of guac:
… we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate — the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of “avocado” — is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavors, pretending to have none); then guajolote con mole poblano — that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesa-dillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).
The real flavor the pair (again, led by Olivia) seems to truly hanker after though is, uh, human flesh. There’s a light parody of tourism happening in “Under the Jaguar Sun,” but the story’s core is cannibalism, victors and victims, the predatory past. Olivia repeatedly seeks to learn about “that flavor” — the flavor of humans sacrificed by Aztecs through ritual sacrifice. She even asks if the priests who oversaw the sacrifices left any recipes.
The cannibal motif slithers into the couple’s (perhaps-failing) relationship. The narrator imagines himself as a willing victim to his partner:
It was the sensation of her teeth in my flesh that I was imagining, and I could feel her tongue lift me against the roof of her mouth, enfold me in saliva, then thrust me under the tips of the canines. I sat there facing her, but at the same time it was as if a part of me, or all of me, were contained in her mouth, crunched, torn shred by shred. The situation was not entirely passive, since while I was being chewed by her I felt also that I was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body. I was the one who aroused her every vibration — it was a reciprocal and complete relationship, which involved us and overwhelmed us.
“Under the Jaguar Sun” is unusually dark for Calvino. The sinister pulse in the background and the enthralling unresolved mystery recall the work of one of Calvino’s descendents, Roberto Bolaño—or really any descendent of the Marquis de Sade.
The next story, “A King Listens” (1984) is also uncharacteristically dark for Calvino, although it is composed in the master’s standby, the second-person perspective. Here, the you is a king. Despite its shadowy contours, “A King Listens” finds Calvino in familiar territory, playing with semiotics:
A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.
That core anxiety—holding onto the attributes of rule, of the symbols and signs of kingness—form the backbone of the fevered plot. The You-King finds himself imperiled by the ever-present specter of a coup. And the ever-present threat of a coup is, of course, part and parcel of the kingness of being king.
“A King Listens” plays out like something out of Poe:
Your every attempt to get out of the cage is destined to fail: it is futile to seek yourself in a world that does not belong to you, that perhaps does not exist. For you there is only the palace, the great reechoing vaults, the sentries’ watches, the tanks that crunch the gravel, the hurried footsteps on the staircase which each time could be those announcing your end. These are the only signs through which the world speaks to you; do not let your attention stray from them even for an instant; the moment you are distracted, this space you have constructed around yourself to contain and watch over your fears will be rent, torn to pieces.
With its paranoid court intrigues and shadowy dream-logic, “A King Listens” reminded me very much of a sketch that might find its way into Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
The last piece in Under the Jaguar Sun is “The Name, The Nose” is the shortest and earliest (1972). I imagine Calvino might have expanded (and improved on) it had he lived to see (taste smell feel hear) his five senses book to completion. The narrative trick behind the “The Name the Nose” is a fairly straightforward postmodern conceit: three narrators from different eras tell stories that are archetypically identical. Their stories are all versions of Cinderella, only told from the prince’s perspective. Oh, and that glass slipper is a very specific scent. We get a 17th. century French dandy, a 1960s rock star, and a caveman (had Calvino read William Golding’s The Inheritors?) all sniffing after a particular lady’s singular scent. Calvino’s conceit allows him to riff on anthropology and biology, and the conclusion seems to be that all of the manners, modes, and airs that we might put on doesn’t change the fact that we are beings who sense, who smell to survive and procreate. Our caveboy:
Odor, that’s what each of us has that’s different from the others. The odor tells you immediately and certainly what you need to know. There are no words, there is no information more precise than what the nose receives.
The dark trajectory of each male pursuant is again Edgar Allan Poe territory, gothic ground. In the end, the odor that haunts them is death. (I wonder if Patrick Süskind read this story, which seems like a condensation of his novel Perfume.)
Under the Jaguar Sun is probably the darkest thing I’ve read by Calvino. The stories here suggest that human perception is inexorably linked to death and sex, and that attempts to turn those links into signs and symbols are survival mechanisms. There might not be a soul in this world. But perhaps the darker sensations here are really just senses evading signs, senses just sensing. The world is dark without sense; sensation illuminates darkness. That’s what Calvino has done here.
I don’t think this collection is the best introduction to Calvino for those interested (although I think anyone interested probably knows to start with If on a winter’s night a traveler or Invisible Cities—or, hey, listen to me, start with The Baron in the Trees). I think Under the Jaguar Sun does offer a different flavor, or scent, or tone to Calvino’s oeuvre, though, and I enjoyed my time in these tales.
Heimito von Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps is forthcoming in translation by Vincent Kling from NYRB. Their blurb:
The Strudlhof Steps is an unsurpassed portrait of Vienna in the early twentieth century, a vast novel crowded with characters ranging from an elegant, alcoholic Prussian aristocrat to an innocent ingenue to “respectable” shopkeepers and tireless sexual adventurers, bohemians, grifters, and honest working-class folk. The greatest character in the book, however, is Vienna, which Heimito von Doderer renders as distinctly as James Joyce does Dublin or Alfred Döblin does Berlin. Interweaving two time periods, 1908 to 1911 and 1923 to 1925, the novel takes the monumental eponymous outdoor double staircase as a governing metaphor for its characters’ intersecting and diverging fates. The Strudlhof Steps is an experimental tour de force with the suspense and surprise of a soap opera. Here Doderer illuminates the darkness of passing years with the dazzling extravagance that is uniquely his.
Ahab (Sequels) is the latest English-language translation of a Pierre Senges novel—and. Again, the translation is by Jacob Siefring (who’s brought us couple of Senges’ marvelous oddities) and Tegan Raleigh and is published by the good people at Contra Mundum. Their blurb:
The reader will find here the true aftermath of the adventures of Ahab, self-described captain, survivor of his last fight against a giant fish. We will see how this retiree with a wooden leg tried to sell his whale story to the highest bidder — in the form of a Broadway musical, then a Hollywood script. Along the way, we will encounter Cole Porter and his chorus girls, but also Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Joseph von Sternberg and Scott Fitzgerald, drowned in his alcohol, as well as a host of producers, shady to varying degrees. We will remember the passage of young Ahab embarking at seventeen for London in the hope of playing Shakespeare there, and the circumstances which presided over the meeting of the librettist Da Ponte with Herman Melville in 1838. We will learn, ultimately, the best way to make the Manhattan cocktail a success and with what tenacity the indestructible Moby Dick seeks revenge on his nemesis.
At 550 pages, Ahab, like Moby-Dick, is a big boy, but I’m looking forward to digging in.
I’m a big fan of picaresque novels about con artists. Jean Giono’s The Open Road is forthcoming in translation by Paul Eprile from NYRB. Their blurb:
The south of France, 1950: A solitary vagabond walks through the villages, towns, valleys, and foothills of the region between northern Provence and the Alps. He picks up work along the way and spends the winter as the custodian of a walnut-oil mill. He also picks up a problematic companion: a cardsharp and con man, whom he calls “the Artist.” The action moves from place to place, and episode to episode, in truly picaresque fashion. Everything is told in the first person, present tense, by the vagabond narrator, who goes unnamed. He himself is a curious combination of qualities—poetic, resentful, cynical, compassionate, flirtatious, and self-absorbed.
While The Open Road can be read as loosely strung entertainment, interspersed with caustic reflections, it can also be interpreted as a projection of the relationship of author, art, and audience. But it is ultimately an exploration of the tensions and boundaries between affection and commitment, and of the competing needs for solitude, independence, and human bonds. As always in Jean Giono, the language is rich in natural imagery and as ruggedly idiomatic as it is lyrical.
Papa Hamlet is kind of a weird one. This is the first time Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf’s collaborative 1889 German novel has appeared in English, thanks to translator James J. Conway and publisher Rixdorf Editions. Here’s their blurb:
Adultery, vulgarity, disordered lives on the brink of collapse: the feverish existence of failed actor Niels Thienwiebel shocked German readers when Papa Hamlet was first published in 1889. In declaiming the soliloquies of his most famous role, ‘the great Thienwiebel’ finds delusional refuge from the squalid room he shares with despondent wife Amalie and infant son Fortinbras. But it was the radical style as much as the moral outrage of this novella that so confounded contemporaries. Reflecting their own bohemian Berlin milieu, Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf showed the dream of the self-authored life turning to nightmare through apathy and self-absorption. Originally credited to a fabricated Norwegian writer, Papa Hamlet signalled the explosive arrival of Naturalism while also pointing ahead to Modernism; its appropriations, irony and play of identity even foretold Postmodernism. Appearing for the first time in English, it is teamed here with an early incarnation of the same narrative by Schlaf alongside further collaborations with Holz. Together their fearless candour and anarchic ingenuity reveal another side to German Naturalism that is well overdue for rediscovery.
Just four years in duration, the collaboration between Arno Holz (1863-1929) and Johannes Schlaf (1862-1941) created a revolution in form and content which exerted a huge influence on German literature. As well as Papa Hamlet their partnership produced the play The Selicke Family, a number of shorter prose works and an autobiographical comic. After living and working in bohemian isolation just outside Berlin, the pair split acrimoniously in 1892 and continued sniping at each other for decades as they moved on from their Naturalist origins. Arno Holz was something of a tragic figure, consumed with bitterness; works like his verse collection Phantasus were years head of their time yet security eluded him. The more amenable Johannes Schlaf enjoyed greater success but his posthumous reputation suffers from his later embrace of the Nazis. Neither writer has previously appeared in English.
I read an excellent trio of novels to close out the summer: Carol Emshwiller’s Mister Boots, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (translated by Jane Gambrell). In between, I read most of Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist (translated by Matthew Spencer), described by publisher Sublunary Editions as “short fiction and feuilletonic digressions.” (I had to look up the word “feuilletonic.”)
Mister Boots seems as good an introduction to Carol Emshwilller’s writing as I’ll get. I just sort of picked it up, started reading, and kept going. (The print was larger than the edition of her more-famous novel Carmen Dog that I got around the same time. My eyes have declined more quickly in my early forties than I would have imagined.) Mister Boots is a short, fast-paced novel. It moves along like a ever-morphing picaresque. Set somewhere near the American West proximal to the Great Depression, Emshwiller’s novel is told from the first-person perspective of Bobby. Bobby is a ten-year-old girl, but the world, apart from her sister and mother, don’t know this—-her mother raises her as a boy, dresses her as a boy, addresses her as a boy. This conceit, which even young Bobby understands cannot last forever, is a defense against her malevolent father, a stage magician and conman who wants a son to perform in his act. When Bobby’s mother dies, the father returns to take her and her sister on a wild, surreal tour of performances (and other tricks). They bring with them Mister Boots, a man who sometimes turns into a horse. I loved Mister Boots and probably read it way too quickly. It’s surreal stuff, told from the perspective of a child that really captures what young consciousness is like–slippery, trying to match causes and effect, lacking the wisdom that is experience, but also teeming with the holy powers of innocence.
I then read Tatyana Tolstoya’s post-apocalyptic satire The Slynx. The book is funny and abject, and the world Tolstoya conjures is totally gross, but also a place I was sad to leave (the general vibe reminds me of Aleksei German’s film adaptation of Hard to Be a God). The Slynx is about 300 pages but I would’ve read another 700 happily. The central hero is a lunking would-be intellectual named Benedikt; the setting is a few centuries after the Blast has reduced humanity back to the Dark Ages; most of the descendants of the pre-Blast populace endure Consequences—mutations big and small (our boy Benedikt has a cute little tail). There are also elders whose consequence is a tenuous immortality—they survive the blast and continue living (as long as they want to), an ugly curse. We first meet Benedikt as a kind of copyist, a Bartleby maybe, but one who wants more from life. He marries into a near-aristocratic family, where he has access to a huge samizdat library. More problems ensue. Ultimately, The Slynx is a postmodern fable, a book about reading itself. It’s grimy and gross and I loved it and will read it again.
I devoured Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season and then started in again. The novel’s blurb compares it to “Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 of Faulkner’s novels,” which is high and true praise. As I stated, I immediately began rereading Hurricane Season after I started it. Like a lot of Faulkner’s work, Melchor’s narrative construction obscures, hides, and even elides important events. Crimes get lost in details. The story is set in and around a podunk Mexican town. It begins with a troop of slingshot-armed youngsters finding the body of “the Witch,” a hated and celebrated icon of the town. From there, the novel moves its camera to hover over a few key characters, letting us into their consciousness to get bits and pieces that may or may not add up to a larger picture. The village is a haunted, haunting place, a cursed world vibrating with bad mojo, drugs, rape, murder…as its publishers promised, Melchor’s world recalls Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, especially the infamous chapter “The Part about the Crimes.” (There is a fantastic moment in the fourth chapter when the third-person free indirect style slips into the language of police reports and detective inquiries.) Hurricane Season’s abjection, despair, and squalor also recalls Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, Faulkner’s A Light in August, and Bernhard’s Gargoyles. And, like Bernhard and Krasznahorkai (and his follower W.G. Sebald), Melchor crafts her novel as a brick of paragraphless text, a sometimes-flowing, sometimes-smothering miasma of words, words, words. Crimes, witches, grudges, and curses, curses, curses: Magical curses, literal curses, cursed text messages, and good old fashioned curse words. Hurricane Season is a devastating, cruel novel, but Melchor concludes it with a strange moment of grace–not for its characters, but for its readers, whom she ferries “out of this hole.” I went right back into the hole.
And—Kleist’s Anecdotes—well, I’ve kept it in my car up until this afternoon, when I finally brought it back into the house. I’ve been reading it while I wait in the carpool lane at my daughter’s school, her new school, the same high school I graduated from in fact. I read three or four as I wait for her and the other carpoolers to emerge. I’ve read a few of the anecdotes collected here before (I think I first became interested in Kleist after reading Donald Barthelme mention him as an influence). Here’s publisher Sublunary’s blurb:
Long available and celebrated in German—Kafka himself championed the 1911 Rowohlt edition of Anekdoten—Anecdotes gathers the first extensive English-language collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short fiction and feuilletonic digressions that appeared in Berliner Abendblätter, the newspaper for which he served as editor from 1810 to 1811. Writing under increasingly unfriendly social and political conditions, this is arguably Kleist at his funniest and most irreverent, not shying away from dirty jokes while nevertheless displaying the same knack for the stylish prose that Rilke called “beautiful and so blind and skillful”.
And here’s a sample (in translation by Matthew Spencer):
And Norma nodded and apologized and washed her blood-soaked knickers in secret so that her mother wouldn’t throw her out, so that she wouldn’t discover that her worst fear had come true, until finally one day Norma realized she’d been wrong all that time: the Sunday seven wasn’t the blood that stained her underwear but what happened to your body when that blood stopped flowing. Because one day, on her way home from school, Norma found a little paperback book with a ripped cover and Fairy Tales for Children of All Ages written across it, and on opening it at random the first thing she saw was a black-and-white illustration of a little hunchback crying terrified while a coven of witches with bat wings stabbed the hunch on his back, and the illustration was so strange that, ignoring the time and the ominous rain clouds, ignoring the dishes waiting to be washed and her siblings who needed feeding before their mother got home from the factory, Norma sat down at the bus stop to read the whole story, because at home there was never time to read anything, and even if there were she wouldn’t be to, with her siblings’ racket, the blare of the TV and her mother’s constant yelling, not to mention Pepe’s fooling around or the piles of homework that awaited her each night after washing the pots, which she herself had used at noon before leaving for school; and so she pulled the hood of her coat over her head and folded her legs under her skirt and she read the whole story from start to finish, the tale of the two hunchbacks, that’s what the fairy tale was called, and it was about a hunchback who lost his way one evening in the woods close to his home, dark and sinister woods where witches were said to meet to do their evil deeds, and that was why the little fellow was so frightened to find himself lost there, unable to find his way home, wandering blindly as night fell, until suddenly he spied a fire in the distance, and thinking it might be a campfire he ran towards it, convinced that he’d been saved. So imagine his surprise when he arrived at the clearing with the gigantic fire only to realize it was a Witches’ Sabbath: a coven of horrifying witches with bat wings and claws instead of hands, all dancing around the blazing fire in the most macabre fashion while they sang: Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three;Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three, and they were cackling their terrible witchy cackles and howling up at the full moon, and the hunchback, who, still unseen, had taken cover behind an enormous rock not far from the fire, listened to that cyclic chant and, unable to explain how, unable to explain the overwhelming urge that came over him, took a deep breath as the witches sang their next Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three, jumped onto the rock and shouted at the top of his lungs: Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six! His cry resounded with surprising force in that clearing, and on hearing him the witches froze where they were, petrified around the fire that was casting horrible shadows on their beastly faces. And seconds later they were all running around, hovering between the trees, shrieking and hollering that they had to find the human who’d said that, and the poor hunchback, once again crouched behind the rock, trembled at the thought of the fate awaiting him, but when at last the witches found him they didn’t hurt him as he’d imagined, nor did they turn him into a frog or a worm, or much less eat him. Instead, they took the man and cast spells to conjure enormous magical knives, which they used to cut off his hunch, all without spilling a drop of blood or hurting him at all, because the witches were pleased that the little fellow had improved their song, which, truth be told, they were beginning to find a little boring, and when the hunchback saw that he no longer had a hump, that his back was completely flat and that he didn’t have to walk hunched over, he was happy, enormously happy and contented, and as well as curing his hump the witches also gave him a pot of gold and thanked him for having improved their song, and before resuming their Witches’ Sabbath they showed him the way out of that enchanted part of the woods, and the little man ran all the way home and straight to his neighbor, who was also a hunchback, to show him his back and the riches he’d received from the witches, and his neighbor, who was a mean, jealous man, believed that he deserved those gifts more, because he was more important and more intelligent and those witches must be real fools to go around giving away gold just like that, and by the following Friday the jealous hunchback had convinced himself that he should copy his neighbor, and as night fell he entered the woods in search of that coven of cretinous hags and he walked for hours in the darkness until he, too, lost his way, and just as he was about to collapse against a tree and cry out in fear and desperation he glimpsed, in the distance, in the thickest, gloomiest part of the woods, a fire surrounded by witches dancing and singing: Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six; Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six, and with that the jealous neighbor scurried towards them and hid behind the same enormous rock, and at the next round of Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six, the vile little man – who, despite believing himself more intelligent than his neighbor, was not the smartest of fellows – opened his mouth, took the deepest breath he could, cupped his hands around his lips and shouted: SUNDAY SEVEN! with all his might. And when the witches heard him they froze on the spot, petrified in the middle of their dance, and that dimwit of a hunchback emerged from his hiding place and opened his arms to reveal himself, thinking they’d all flock to him to fix his hunchback and hand him a pot of gold even bigger than the one they’d given his neighbor, but instead he saw that the witches were furious, clawing at their chests and yanking out great clumps of flesh with their own nails, scratching their cheeks and pulling the flowing hair that crowned their horrific heads, roaring like wild beasts and screaming: Who’s the fool who said Sunday? Who’s the wretch who ruined our song? And then they caught sight of the mean little man and zoomed towards him, and with hexes and jinxes they conjured the hump they’d removed from the first man and put it on him, and as a punishment for his imprudence and greedthey placed it on his front, and instead of a pot of gold they pulled out a pot of warts that hopped out of the container and immediately stuck to the body of that despicable man, who was left with no choice but to return to the town like that, with two humps instead of one and warts all over his face and body, and all for having come out with his Sunday seven, the book explained – and in the final illustration of the story the jealous neighbor appeared with those two humps, one deforming his back and the other making him look pregnant, and that was the moment Norma finally understood how silly she’d been to think that the fateful Sunday seven was the blood that stained her knickers each month, because clearly what it referred to was what happened when that blood stopped flowing; what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-colored tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her belly would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but, above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet…
Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The N’Gustro Affair is forthcoming from NYRB in a translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. NYRB’s blurb:
Mean, arrogant, naive, sadistic on occasion, the young Henri Butron records his life story on tape just before death catches up with him: a death passed off as a suicide by his killers, French secret service agents who need to hush up their role—and Butron’s—in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a prominent opposition leader from a third-world African nation in the throes of a postcolonial civil war.
The N’Gustro Affair is a thinly veiled retelling of the 1965 abduction and killing of Mehdi Ben Barka, a radical opponent of King Hassan II of Morocco. But this is merely the backdrop to Jean-Patrick Manchette’s first-person portrait (with shades of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me) of a man who lacks the insight to see himself for what he is: a wannabe nihilist too weak to be even a full-bore fascist.
Aleksandar Tišma’s Kapo is forthcoming from NYRB in translation by Richard Williams. NYRB’s blurb:
The Book of Blam, The Use of Man, Kapo: In these three unsparing novels the Yugoslav author Aleksandar Tišma anatomized the plight of those who survived the Second World War and the death camps, only to live on in a death-haunted world. Blam simply lucked out—and can hardly face himself in the mirror. By contrast, the teenage friends in The Use of Man are condemned to live on and on while enduring every affliction. Kapo is about Lamian, who made it through Auschwitz by serving his German masters, knowing that at any moment and for any reason his “special status” might be revoked.
But the war is over now. Auschwitz is in the past. Lamian has settled down in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a respectable job as a superintendent in the railyard. Everything is normal enough. Then one day in the paper he comes on the name of Helena Lifka, a woman—like him a Yugoslav and a Jew—he raped in the camp. Not long after he sees her, aged and ungainly, Lamian is flooded with guilt and terror.
Kapo, like Tišma’s other great novels, is not simply a document or an act of witness. Tišma’s terrible gift is to see with an artist’s dispassionate clarity how fear, violence, guilt, and desire—whether for life, love, or simple understanding—are inextricably knotted together in the human breast.
Benedikt had arranged all the shelves in the storeroom a long time ago: you could see right away what was where. Father-in-law had Gogol right next to Chekhov–you could look for a hundred years and you’d never find it. Everything should have its own science, that is, its own system. So you don’t have to fuss around here and there to no good end, instead you can just go and find what you need.
Number eight wasn’t there. Well, maybe he made a mistake and put it in the wrong place … that happens … Here’s The Northern Herald, here’s The Herald of Europe, Russian Wealth, The Urals, Lights of the Urals, Beekeeping … no, not here … Banner, Literary Bashkortostan, New World … he’d read them, Turgenev, he’d read it, Yakub Kolas, read it, Mikhalkov, A Partisan’s Handbook, Petrarch, The Plague, The Plague of Domestic Animals: Fleas and Ticks, Popescu, Popka-the-Fool–Paint It Yourself, Popov, another Popov, Poptsov, The Iliad, Electric Current, he’d read it, Gone With the Wind, Russo-Japanese Poly-technical Dictionary, Sartakov, Sartre, Sholokhov: Humanistic Aspects, Sophocles, Sorting Consumer Refuse, Sovmorflot–60 Years, Stockard, Manufacture of Stockings and Socks, he’d read that one, that one and that one …
Chalk Farm, Chandrabkhangneshapkhandra Lal, vol. 18, Chaucer, John Cheever; The Black Prince, aha, a mistake, that didn’t go there, Chekhov, Chapchakhov, Chakhokhbili in Kar-sian, Chukh-Chukh: For Little People.
Chen-Chen: Tales of the Congo, Cherokee Customs, Chewing Gum Stories, Chingachguk the Giant Serpent, Chipmunks and Other Friendly Rodents, Chkalov, Chrysanthemums of Armenia Part V, Chukotka: A Demographic Review, Chukovsky, Chum– Dwelling of the Peoples of the Far North, Churchill: The Early Years, read it. Kafka, Kama River Steamboats, Kashas Derived from Whole Grain. Dial M for Murder, Murder in Mesopotamia, Murder on the Orient Express, Kirov’s Murder, Laudanum: The Poetic Experience, Lilliputians and Other Little People, Limonov, Lipchitz, Lipid-protein Tissue Metabolism … he’d read it all.
The Red and the Black, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The Blue and the Green, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Blue Cup, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Chocolate Prince, The Crimson Flower .. . that’s a good one … The Crimson Letter, Crimson Sails, Little Red Riding Hood, The Yellow Arrow, The Five Orange Pips, The White Steamboat, White Clothes, White Bim– Black Ear, T. H. White, The Woman in White, The Purple Island, The Black Tower, Black Sea Steamboats: Registry, this is where The Black Prince goes. Now …
The Vampire’s Embrace, The Dragon’s Embrace, The Foreigner’s Embrace, The Fatal Embrace, Passion’s Embrace, Fiery Embraces, The All-Consuming Flame of Passion … The Dagger’s Blow, The Poisoned Dagger, The Poisoned Hat, Poisoned Clothes, With Dagger and Poison, Poisonous Mushrooms of Central Russia, Golden-haired Poisoners, Arsenic and Old Lace, Death of a Salesman, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Death Comes at Midnight, Death Comes at Dawn, The Bloody Dawn. . .
Children of the Arbat, Vanya’s Children, Children of the Underground, Children of the Soviet Land, Kids in Cages, Children on Christ, The Boxcar Children, Nikita’s Childhood.
Marinina, Marinating and Pickling, Marine Artists, Marinetti –the Ideologist of Fascism, Mari-El Grammar: Uses of the Instrumental Case.
Klim Voroshilov, Klim Samgin, Ivan Klima, K. Li, Maximal Load in Concrete Construction: Calculations and Tables (dissertation).
Anais Nin, Nina Sadur, Nineveh: An Archeological Collection. Ninja in a Bloody Coat, Mutant Ninja Turtles Return, Papanin, Make Life from Whom?
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Tashkent–City of Bread, Bread –A Common Noun, Urengoi– The Land of Youth, Uruguay– An Ancient Land, Kustanai– The Steppe Country, Scabies–An Illness of Dirty Hands,.
Foot Hygiene on the Road, F. Leghold, Ardent Revolutionaries, The Barefoot Doctors, Flat Feet in Young Children, Claws: New Types, Shoe Polish Manufacture, Grow Up, Friend: What a Young Man Needs to Know about Wet Dreams, Hands Comrade!, Sewing Trousers, The Time of the Quadrupeds, Step Faster!, How the Millipede Made Porridge, Marinating Vegetables at Home, Faulkner, Fiji: Class Struggle, Fyodor’s Woe, Shakh-Reza-Pahlevi, Shakespeare, Shukshin.
Mumu, Nana, Shu-shu: Tales of Lenin, Gagarin: We Remember Yura, Tartar Women’s Costumes, Bubulina–A Popular Greek Heroine, Boborykin, Babaevsky, Chichibabin, Bibigon, Gogol, Dadaists Exhibition Catalogue, Kokoschka, Mimicry in Fish, Vivisection, Tiutiunnik, Chavchavadze, Lake Titicaca, Popocatepetl, Raising Chihuahuas, The Adventures of Tin Tin.
Afraid of guessing, Benedikt went through the treasures with shaking hands; he was no longer thinking about issue number eight. It’s not here, I’ll live. But book after book, journal after journal–he’d already seen this, read this, this, this, this, this … So what did this mean? Had he already read everything? Now what was he going to read? And tomorrow? A year from now?
His mouth went dry and his legs felt weak. He lifted the candle high; its bluish light parted the darkness and danced on the shelves along the books’ covers … maybe, up on the top …
Plato, Plotinus, Platonov, Plaiting and Knitting Jackets, Herman Plisetsky, Maya Plisetskaya, Plevna: A Guide, Playing with Death, Plaints and Songs of the Southern Slavs, Playboy. Plinths: A Guidebook, Planetary Thinking, Plan for Popular Development in the Fifth Five-year Plan. Plebeians of Ancient Rome. Plenary Sessions of the CPSU, The Horn of Plenty in Oil Painting, Pleurisy. Pliushka, Khriapa, and Their Merry Friends. Plying the Arctic Waters. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. He’d read them all.
From The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya. English translation by Jamey Gambrell.
I’ve been wanting to read Tatyana Tolstoya’s post-apocalyptic novel The Slynx for a few years now. I finally broke down and ordered a copy through my local book store, and started it yesterday—fantastic stuff: gross, grimy, raw, inventive, perplexing, upsetting, and very very funny. Jamey Gambrell’s translation transmits the playful noisy distortions that must surely be in the original Russian. I’m about fifty pages in, and so far it reminds me of the Strugatski brothers’ stuff—pessimistic, wry, earthy, as well as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Gely Korzhev’s mutant paintings.
Here’s NYRB’s blurb:
Two hundred years after civilization ended in an event known as the Blast, Benedikt isn’t one to complain. He’s got a job—transcribing old books and presenting them as the words of the great new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe—and though he doesn’t enjoy the privileged status of a Murza, at least he’s not a serf or a half-human four-legged Degenerator harnessed to a troika. He has a house, too, with enough mice to cook up a tasty meal, and he’s happily free of mutations: no extra fingers, no gills, no cockscombs sprouting from his eyelids. And he’s managed—at least so far—to steer clear of the ever-vigilant Saniturions, who track down anyone who manifests the slightest sign of Freethinking, and the legendary screeching Slynx that waits in the wilderness beyond.
Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx reimagines dystopian fantasy as a wild, horripilating amusement park ride. Poised between Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, The Slynx is a brilliantly inventive and shimmeringly ambiguous work of art: an account of a degraded world that is full of echoes of the sublime literature of Russia’s past; a grinning portrait of human inhumanity; a tribute to art in both its sovereignty and its helplessness; a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.