The Canal — Lee Rourke

In Lee Rourke’s début novel The Canal, the unnamed narrator quits his job and begins walking to a canal everyday. Why? Out of boredom. At the titular canal, he watches (and describes in banal detail) the geese, swans, and coots that swim in the filthy water. He also keeps one eye on the drudges who go about emailing and faxing in the office building across from the bench on which he sits each day. A strange, icy young woman soon begins sharing the bench with the narrator; in time, she also shares her morbid secrets with him. Complicating the narrator’s paradise of boredom is a gang of youths who terrorize the area with random violence. The novel’s steady pace escalates to frantic tragedy as the narrator’s bored repose gives over to desperate obsession with his erstwhile bench mate and her horrific past.

The Canal takes boredom as its explicit subject. In the second paragraph of the book, the narrator tells us–

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things–even if that something is nothing.

The canal seems (at first) the right place for the narrator to embrace his boredom, but it soon becomes a space–a “real” space, as the narrator eventually realizes–of transformation and excitement. This space quickly complicates the narrator’s will toward “nothing,” that pull toward nihilism. He’s keenly interested in the various birds that make the canal their home, and his obsessive derision toward the office workers highlights the fact (a fact he doesn’t seem to see) that his apathy is not as pure as he would like it to be. Rather, his “boredom” is a direct response to the apparent meaninglessness of 21st century life in general and, specifically, life in post-Blair London. His horror and fear at the four hoodied teens from a nearby estate (the English equivalent of an American housing project) who insult and attack him is grounded in a relatively conventional morality, one that belies his enduring belief in his own apathy.

The most dramatic challenge to his philosophy of boredom though is his unnamed female foil. Through cryptic, elliptical dialogues he soon becomes a bizarre confessor to her strange sins. Yet she’s remorseless in her unrepentant nihilism. In one conversation she tells him that “There’s nothing left to believe in anywhere. All is fiction. Somehow, we have to invent our own reality. We have to make the unreal real.” This cheerful little aphorism comes after she reveals her empathy for (and sexual attraction to) the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London. Terrorism, particularly the 7/7 attacks and the 9/11 WTC attacks are a major motif of The Canal; the unnamed narrator obsesses about flight (both of airplanes and birds) and dwells on the image of the planes crashing into the towers. Although he never admits it, it seems that both flight and death are possible forms of escape from the very boredom he claims to embrace. At the same time, the violence of terrorism seems part and parcel of his philosophy of boredom–

“It is obvious to me now that most acts of violence are caused by those who are truly bored. And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will become increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot control.”

And yet the violent acts of the estate youths shock and disgust the narrator. In one of the book’s most stunning passages, he watches them in horror as they destroy a stolen motor scooter and then cast it into the creek while filming the whole business on a cell phone. The scooter upsets the resting birds and becomes one more piece of detritus clogging up the canal–part of the “quagmire of nothingness,” perhaps. Repeatedly in the novel, the narrator wishes that long-overdue dredges will come along to clean the canal, to restore it, an impulse to control the stochastic violence of life that doubles his horror at the teen gang’s violence. In short, despite what he tells us, the narrator cannot embrace his boredom–although he does wish to name it, recognize it, and perhaps treat it.

This treatment comes in the form of the anti-ingenue he meets with daily by the canal. His obsession with her soon gives way to outright stalking. For a man who claims to embrace boredom, he’s awfully interested in her. The narrator’s stalking feeds into the novel’s deft discourse on surveillance in the 21st-century world, where CCTV, mobile phone cameras, and live pictures of spectacular disaster make people feel alternately safe or horrified (or at least alleviate some of their boredom). The narrator’s relationship with the woman tests the bounds of his devotion to boredom and reveals to both him and the novel’s audience that opting out is not always opting out. Rourke uses a quote from Martin Heidegger – “We are suspended in dread” – as an epigraph to the novel; the narrator must learn how to live in that suspension.

What makes The Canal such a remarkable read is watching the disconnect between the narrator’s would-be solution to life-as-state-of-dread (“embrace boredom”) and his actual responses to the effects of boredom in the world around him (literal and figurative waste, violence). Although he seeks to mitigate the pain of his dread and boredom by submitting to it, the novel repeatedly finds him engaging–and resisting–the cruelty and inhumanity he perceives. While parts of The Canal occasionally seem forced or overdetermined, there is much to commend here and the novel clearly suggests Rourke as a rising talent to watch out for. Recommended.

The Canal is available from Melville House on June 15, 2010.

Ethical Realism (and Grim Decadence) in Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves

On the heels of last year’s hugely successful first-time-in-English publication of Every Man Dies Alone, the good folks at Melville House have issued another of Hans Fallada’s epic novels, Wolf Among Wolves. Set during Germany’s 1923 economic collapse, Wolf centers on Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier and itinerant gambler languishing in the corruption of Weimar Berlin.The beginning of the novel focuses on a single summer day in Berlin; Fallada’s naturalist, realist eye paradoxically puts all the minutiae of this world under a microscope even as it expands to capture a holistic vision of life in morally-decadent, post-war Germany. The effect is both devastating and enlightening. It is epic realism, the condensation of the everyday existence of an alien world. Another paradox–behind Fallada’s omniscient, steady, neutral narrative, so plain and descriptive and frank, there lies another voice, a moral, ethical voice that prompts Pagel to transcend the wolf-eat-wolf world. Indeed, Fallada presents a vision of moral cooperation in a world dominated by self-interest. Here’s a passage describing some of Berlin’s heady post-war decadence:

But the girls were the worst. They strolled about calling, whispering, taking people’s arms, running alongside men, laughing. Some girls exposed their bodies in a way that was revolting. A market of flesh–white flesh bloated with drink, and lean dark flesh which seemed to have been burned up by spirits. But worst of all were the entirely shameless, the almost sexless: the morphine addicts with their contracted pupils, the cocaine sniffers with their white noses, and the cocaine addicts with high-pitched voices and irrepressibly twitching faces. They wriggled, they jiggled their flesh in low-cut or cunningly-slashed blouses, and when they made room for you or went round a corner they picked up their skirts (which, even so, didn’t reach their knees), exhibiting between stockings and drawers a strip of pale flesh and a green or pink garter. They exchanged remarks about passing men, bawled obscenities to each other across the street, and their greedy eyes searched among the slowly drifting crowd for foreigners who might be expected to have foreign currency in their pockets.

Melville House’s edition of Wolf Among Wolves is the first unabridged English translation ever–scholars Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs have restored  passages originally omitted in Philip Owens’s contemporaneous translation.In his insightful afterward, Carstensen addresses why certain passages were not included in Owens’s original translation, pointing out that most omitted passages showed an inclination toward fairy-tale or mythic structures, aesthetics that “contradict the claim to naturalistic representation” one expects in Fallada’s work. By preserving the occasional “almost surreal mode of perception” omitted in the original, Carstensen argues that:

In short, the fully reconstructed text, with its enhanced inconsistency, provides the reader with insight into a literary aesthetics that is unique among the novels of German modernism: Fallada combines realist prose and ethical concerns with a narrative technique that renders ambiguous what is supposedly a semi-documentary representation, shaped by his very own experiences in the country.

We’re eating up Wolf Among Wolves right now, and will have a full review in time); for now, we recommend you pick it up for some good summer reading.

The 1st Annual Moby Awards to Honor the Best (and Worst) Book Trailers

Next month (May 20th, 2010 to be precise), the fine folks at indie publisher Melville House will honor the best–and worst–book trailers. The invite promises awards for “Best Cameo,” “Best Author Appearance,” and, of course, “Best Trailer” (“both Big and Low budgets”). Melville House honcho Dennis Loy Johnson will host and author John Wray (Lowboy) will be among the special cadre of envelope-openers. Judges include Carolyn Kellogg (LA Times) and Slate’s Troy Patterson, who wondered if books really needed trailers last year. Nominate trailers here. Not sure how I feel about book trailers, but I like this one for Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, probably mostly because he reads the damn thing and it cracks me up–

Biblioklept Interviews Melville House’s Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson, along with wife Valerie Merians, heads Melville House Publishing, an independent book house putting out some of the best stuff on the market today. They also have a bookstore in Brooklyn that regularly hosts all kinds of neat literary-type events. Melville House is the outgrowth of Johnson’s literary blog MobyLives, an insightful source of reportage on the literary world today. In 2007, the Association of American Publishers awarded Melville House the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing and in 2009 The Village Voice declared Melville House “The Best Small Press of the Year.” I talked to Johnson by phone last week and he answered my questions with patience and humor. We discussed how Johnson finds the marvelous books he publishes, translation, novellas, and upcoming releases from Melville House. After the interview he was kind enough to ask me about my own blog and offer me some encouraging words. Just a few days after our talk it was announced that one of Melville House’s recent publications, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven had won the 2010 Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

Biblioklept: I want to begin by congratulating Melville House on Hans Fallada’s novel, Every Man Dies Alone. It’s done really well both critically and commercially. The book is something of a “recovered classic,” published just last year for the first time in English. Can you tell us a little bit about how Melville House came to publish the book?

Dennis Johnson: Well, it was a search it’s a real saga about hunting down that book. I’m always interested in finding material from that part of the world and that time of history because I think a good deal of very good literature was lost between the two wars. And it’s just writing that I like a lot. So a friend of mine, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg had family that came through that part of the world at that time and I asked her if she had any recommendations and she told me I should look into Hans Fallada, who I’d never heard of. So I tracked down a couple of his titles that had been translated–because he was a bestselling writer here in the 1930s–and it took a while but I found some of those books which had been out of print for a long time and I really loved them. And then, von Furstenberg told me that his best one had never been translated. That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it. And, at that point, once we’d discovered it, it was pretty easy sailing. But tracking down his stuff that had been translated and finding out more about him was really kind of a fun bit of detective work.

B: Did Michael Hoffman translate it specifically for Melville House?

DJ: Yeah, he did. We hired him to do it.

B: Is that normally how you go about with these works–like Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan or Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack? Hiring a translator?

DJ: Well, there’s a couple of things you can do. You can find the translator, or you can reprint things that have been translated already, if you think it’s already a good translation–that’s a less expensive way to do a translated book. So for example, with the Fallada, I bought some old translations of his other books and published them simultaneously with the new translation of Every Man. There was, you know, there was no old translation to buy. But two of his other books, two great books, one called The Drinker and one called Little Man, What Now? I thought were pretty well translated so we just bought those old translations. They were out of print, they were available [for publication].

B: It seems like a lot of the books you guys put out are–I don’t know how to put it–recovered classics or cult books or just books that English-reading audiences just aren’t necessarily exposed to. Is that purposeful with Melville House?

DJ: I think we have a fairly mixed list. The names you were citing a minute ago . . . Balestrini, he’s only been translated once, I think, thirty or forty years ago. But he’s a very prominent writer in Italy. And it wasn’t exactly a “discovery,” it was just someone that we thought American audiences should know about. Imre Kertész on the other hand is extremely famous, he’s a Nobel Prize winner and he’s published by Knopf. We were thrilled when he wanted to come to Melville House. So, you know, some of these writers are here, some are not. We publish some well known writers, some very obscure writers. We try to mix it up. You know, there’ s no rule, just good literature.

B: Can you talk a little bit about the Contemporary Art of the Novella series? How did it come about?

DJ: Well, we originally had a series called just the Art of the Novella. It’s classics, many of them translated, classics from around the world, lots of European classics, and some of those are new translations that we did it, some are old translations that we reprinted. And that series did really, really well and people really seemed to love it so we decided that we would do a contemporary version of that series and try to mix it up the same way. And so the new series has new discoveries in it, some old reprints, things from around the world, we’re expanding beyond Europe and Russia, we’ve got a native Japanese author named Banana Yoshimoto in it coming out, we’ve got African writers, South American writers . . . It’s been off to a very good launch. I think we’ve done about fourteen or fifteen books in that series so far and it’s going really well. You know, it’s very hard to publish translation in the United States. It doesn’t . . . it doesn’t sell. It’s hard to keep it in store for a long time. And it’s expensive to do translated books because you have to pay your translator. In the Contemporary series we often use new translations because it’s new work that’s never been translated before and that can get very expensive because you’ve got two authors, you know, you have to pay the author, the translator, and that’s why a lot of people are cutting back on doing translations. But we wanted to keep doing translations and we had to figure out a way to keep doing it and one idea we had was, if we had this series of short novels . . . well, one, they’re just cheaper to do, they cost less to buy from another publisher, they cost less to make because they’re less paper and they cost less to translate because they’re shorter. And you know, you pay by how long. So, it suddenly became a more economical way for us to publish translated books. The booksellers, they like the Contemporary series. They get the whole series and they keep it in the store. So, for example, we’re about to do a deal with a new book store in Fort Greene called Greenlight where they would do a whole wall of these books. Other stores do a spin-rack of these books. And they just keep them. And what usually happens with new books is you just get a few weeks in the bookstore and if it doesn’t sell they return it. And so we would get really creamed on the translated work because it wouldn’t have very long in the store and it’s hard to get publicity for them and then they just didn’t have enough time to sell. But, if they’re taking the whole series and keeping them on display, forever, well, then these books have a real chance of surviving. So there were a lot of good reasons for us to do a Contemporary series. And in the end, the reason was that it allowed us to keep doing really good, serious, translated work.

B: What do you think about “rock star” writers like Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño whose English translations sell very well? Does that help the prospects of translated books at all?

DJ: Well, every year there are one or two books that are translated that do very well. But they’re the exception to the rule. At any given point in the year, you look at the New York Times bestseller list for fiction, there’s almost never a translated book on it. Or if there is, it’s some, you know, Scandinavian murder mystery or something. It’s very rare it’s a serious work of literature. So I would say those writers are the exception to the rule. But it’s certainly does help those of us selling translated fiction to be able to point to those things. It encourages booksellers to give us a chance.

B: Can you tell us a little bit about upcoming titles and authors you’re excited about?

DJ: Well, we’re doing another Fallada–

B: Wolf Among Wolves, right?

DJ: We’re doing Wolf among Wolves in May. And we’re doing the paperback for Every Man Dies Alone at the end of this month, as a matter of fact. So those are two that I’m really excited about. We have some really great nonfiction coming out. We just published a book about North Korea called The Cleanest Race. It’s about understanding North Korea through its propaganda. It’s got a lot of really wild art showing the propaganda posters and movie stills and things. And then we’ve got some novels coming out, one from a young British writer named Lee Rourke. It’s the first novel. It’s called The Canal and I think it’s one of the very best novels we’ve ever published. It’s generating a lot of excitement. We’re doing another one with Kertész next year, which is a big novel called Fiasco. He wrote a trilogy years ago about his experience in the camps. What was he, fifteen or something, when he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, working in a Nazi factory trying to turn coal into gasoline? And he wrote a novel called Fatelessness about that and another one called Kaddish for an Unborn Child. And Knopf published Kaddish and Fatelessness but they never published Fiasco. So we’re really excited about that.

B: Something I enjoy about MobyLives is your perspective as a publisher covering real news about book selling.

DJ: Thanks. It’s a labor of love. If you look at the historic arc of the website, you can see that we became more informed by being a publisher. I wasn’t a publisher when I started it and it was much more general-interest reader kind of thing. I try to get help. I try to make the staff here participate, I think it makes it a little more wide-ranging.

B: So, have you ever stolen a book?

DJ: Sure, yeah. I used to steal a lot of books from my brother. I remember stealing Gore Vidal’s Burr. My big brother’s a lot older than me and he left the house when I was a kid and I remember stealing a lot of his books. So Burr yeah, a novel Vidal wrote about Aaron Burr. Fantastic book. I still have it. He hasn’t asked for it back. I don’t think he knows.

The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Cerebral and often ethereal, Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack attempts to recount an attempt to recount a simple anecdote, the unnamed author’s epiphanic sighting of a jeep bearing the British flag during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. No, there’s not a typo in the previous sentence: Kertész’s slim novella is more about a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth than it is about a student uprising against an oppressive Stalinist regime. The unnamed narrator (presumably a version of Kertész) is prompted by his former students to tell the story of the Union Jack; he spends most of the novella attempting to tell his readers of that attempt to tell his anecdote. The problem is that to really tell the story of the Union Jack, our narrator tells us:

I would have to tell about the books I was reading at the time, about my passion for reading, what nourished it, the vagaries of chance on which it hinged, as indeed does everything else in which, with the passage of time, we discern what, whether it be the consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny, is in any event our destiny; I would have to tell you about when that passion started, and whither it propelled me in the end; in short, I would have to tell almost my entire life story.

The narrator then concedes that to tell one’s whole life story is “impossible,” and sets out then instead to build to his story about the Union Jack by first explaining his initial encounter with the opera of Richard Wagner, one of several epiphanies that form the essential plot of the novella. The narrator is an old man looking back on a young man who is somehow the same man but also somehow not. As a way of understanding this disjunction, the old man narrates his tale as a series of the young man’s “formulations” of possibility and identity. These formulations include an early encounter with the Hungarian writer Ernő Szép, a transcendent viewing of Wagner’s Die Walküre, and an obsession with Thomas Mann’s The Blood of the Walsungs. For the young narrator (who surely must be Kertész), these moments offer “a kind of metaphysical solace” amid the horrors of the Stalinist regime, which the narrator calls “the disaster.” He continues: ” . . . put simply, even in the depths of disaster, and in the lowest depths of consciousness of that disaster, I was never again able to carry on living as if I had not seen and heard Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre.” These experiences offer the narrator hope in the form of Platonic aesthetic ideals, vibrantly extant in striking relief against the grim disaster-world of communist Hungary. And yet, despite the literary bent of the narrator’s experiences, he ultimately eschews them in favor of pure, unmediated living, fearing that “literature has fallen under suspicion”:

One should strive for formulations that totally encapsulate the experience of life (that is to say, the disaster); formulations that assist one to die and yet still bequeath something to posterity. I don’t mind if literature, too, is capable of such formulations, but what I see increasingly is that only bearing witness is able to do this, possibly a life passed in muteness without being formulated as a formation.

For the narrator (come on, he’s got to be Kertész!) to bear witness is beyond problematic; it approaches impossible, hence the elliptical layering of his narrative. He spends almost seventy pages spiraling toward telling an anecdote that clocks in at just one page. He admits again and again that the construct of his narrative, “the spirit of formulability,” is “by no means the same thing, of course, as the real spirit of those details” of life during the “disaster.” Kertész writes of the

. . .iron curtain that rises between formulation and being, the iron curtain that rises between the storyteller and his audience, the iron curtain that rises between one person and another, and, in the end, the impenetrable iron curtain that rises between a person and himself, between a person and his own life.

If the problem of witnessing through formulation always rises like an iron curtain, then Kertész does offer some of his own metaphysical solace at the end of The Union Jack, to both his interior audience of former students and his exterior audience of readers. He tells them–and us–that:

. . . anecdotes apart, every story and everybody’s story is one and the same story when it comes down to the essentials, and that these selfsame stories are really essentially all horror stories; that essentially every event is really a horror even, and even history too had long, long ago become, essentially, at best just horror history.

Okay, sure, that seems mighty grim for something I’ve claimed as “metaphysical solace”–but it does speak to an essential connection, an essential ability for formulations to match in a shared “horror history” that might transcend time and place. For Kersétz (or the young narrator, to be fair), there must have been something at the core of Wagner’s opera, something in the spirit of its storm, that connected to–and in some way sublimated–the horror of “the disaster.”

I’ve tried in this review to convey a sense of Kertész’s challenging style. His long, elliptical sentences branch out over pages at a time, often–very often–floating into awfully abstract territory. At times, The Union Jack reads more like a work of continental philosophy than a novella, and it’s not the first place to go to for an account of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I read the book in two sittings, but one would’ve better matched its breathless rhythm. The book reminds me very much of the work of W.G. Sebald in a number of ways: its philosophical density, its challenging allusiveness, and its melancholy tone. Like Sebald’s stuff, The Union Jack is a personal coming-to-terms, with not just history, but with how one might witness to history. It’s a very rewarding book, and Tim Wilkinson should be commended for his translation, as should Melville House for their continued commitment to bringing under-translated authors to an English-reading audience. Highly recommended.

The Union Jack is new in trade paperback from Melville House. The book is part of Melville House’s continuing series, The Contemporary Art of the Novella.

In Praise of the Novella

How long is a novella? Longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Sure. Yet this answer doesn’t seem satisfactory. Is Melville’s Bartleby a novella or just a really, really long short story? I’m pretty sure Melville’s Billy Budd and Benito Cereno are both novellas. What about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? The edition we read last week clocked in at a slim 40 pages. Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl–at about 100 pages each, these seem in novella territory. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that’s a novella, right? What about García Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold? James Joyce’s The Deador is it “The Dead”?–is collected in Dubliners but it also gets published as a novella. So which is it? Short story, novella–or both?

The Dead has recently been republished by Melville House as part of their Art of the Novella series. They’ve also got a series called The Art of the Contemporary Novella which we’re just loving over here. Lore Segal’s Lucinella was a treat and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan floored us. Melville House was kind enough to send a copy of  A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib and we’ve thoroughly been enjoying it. Like all of the books in the series it fits neatly in a blazer pocket and is ideal reading at traffic lights and doctor offices. It’s kinda hard to beat that. Praise the novella for its compact nature and ease of readability. Full review forthcoming.

It was the copy of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, new in trade paperback from Picador, that showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters this week that kinda sorta prompted this whole post. The book, detailing a three-week visit from a terminally-ill friend is terse and tense and, uh, spare, a perfectly-paced exercise in all the ugliness of being human and having emotions. Ugh. Garner makes great use of the novella as a specific medium here. The book is a sustained internalized encapsulation of a brief period, vivid and funny, but also harsh, as Garner lays bare all those things we think but shouldn’ t say (and think we shouldn’t think). At any greater length her prose might risk veering into navel-gazing territory, but the constraint of the novella provides a control and rhythm that compels (and rewards) reading. Full review forthcoming.

So anyway, here’s an admission: we’ve never read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities but all these novellas prompted us to pick up a copy today at our favorite used book store. It’s a novella, right? It’s certainly slim. And choppy. We’ll get to it soon.

Sandokan — Nanni Balestrini

Nanni Balestrini’s novella Sandokan, new in English translation from Melville House, tells the story of the rise of the Camorra crime syndicate in the small, poverty-stricken cities around Naples. Balestrini’s unnamed narrator occupies a fascinating insider-outsider perspective: one one hand, he, unlike many of his peers, does not join the gang, or “clan,” as its called–in fact, their behavior repulses him. On the other hand, he’s a native of the small town where Francesco Schiavone (aka Sandokan), Antonio Bardellino, and their henchman rule mercilessly, an eye-witness to the brutality and inhumanity of organized crime. The narrator is a sensitive young man who delineates clearly how the crime cartel was able to achieve such economic prosperity and power in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, detailing the various rackets the clan imposed upon the town, like stealing elections, peddling drugs, and manipulating the agribusiness that is the main source of income for average Neapolitan peasants. The narrator also explores why these small towns fall so easily into the terror of organized crime. The main reason: boredom stemming from little or nothing to do.

Balestrini’s narrator’s description of the Camorra is systematic, detailing the awful history and brutal practices of the syndicate in spare, concrete terms. His explications of the clan’s violence is not so much thrilling as  it is ugly, as the narrator always shows how “normal people” (his words) are cheated, killed, or otherwise harmed by the Camorra. The narrator’s tone is often journalistic but never clinical; he always shows what’s at stake for the “normal people,” how they are affected by these crimes. At times the narrator is wryly funny, a tone that results in large part from his observation that the townspeople, the people he grew up around, begin to normalize the violence. It becomes part of their daily lives and affects them so directly that it becomes casual, and the sensitive narrator is one of only a few not to bow to it, ignore it, or take part in it–yet the violence and crime is so overwhelming that to live with it is to live with absurdity. Balestrini employs a punctuation-free rhetorical style in Sandokan that captures the breathless energy and frustration of the narrator. While many readers might balk at the lack of commas, periods, or semi-colons, I found the technique quite liberating. It enhances the immediacy of the narrator’s voice, the rushed sense of importance to his tale. It also promotes sustained readings of the text–I read most of Sandokan in three enthralled sittings.

Sandokan has its cinematic twin in the 2008 film Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone. The film, like the book, illustrates the affect that crime has on a range of “normal people,” mostly occupants of a housing project outside of Naples. As in Sandokan, the ordinary citizens find that they have no choice but to choose between sides as an absurd, petty gang war ravages their already decimated landscape. Where Balestrini’s punctuation-free rhetoric allows readers closer access to his narrator’s pathos-driven story, Garrone lets his camera wander freely over the grim landscape without ever imposing any clear narrative structure. It is not until the film’s final third that the five disparate stories he tells coalesce, and even then, it remains unclear who is on whose side. What is clear is that the violence and crime is quickly stealing–and killing–another generation.

In an age where violence is sensationalized and glamorized, particularly in gangster films and TV shows (do I really need to list them?), Sandokan and Gomorra both lay bare the Darwinian cost of crime. In both narratives, the violence is mundane and inescapable, meaningless yet awful, and very, very dark. Neither narrative is didactic in the least–or even hopeful, for that matter–but their is an implicit suggestion that if only there were some alternative to the Camorra–libraries, social clubs, movie houses–there might be another prospect for the young people in this area.

I highly recommend both Sandokan and Gomorra. As an end note, I’d love to see more of Nanni Balestrini’s work come into English translation, perhaps via Antony Shugaar and Melville House, who’ve done a lovely job here.

Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview

I hate reviews that hem and haw too much over context, but I feel that a proper review of Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview has to begin with some background information. But because I love you, gentle reader, as much as I hate context-driven reviews, here’s the quick version: if you, like me, have found yourself compelled to read everything by Bolaño that you could get your hands on in the the past year or two, then you should buy and read The Last Interview because you will enjoy it. Now for the context:

When Bolaño died at age 50 in 2003, he was only just rising to prominence as a fiction writer, with most of that prominence still restricted to the Spanish-speaking world. Bolaño’s tremendous success has been mostly posthumous and there really aren’t that many interviews with the man. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview collects four of them, scattered between 1999 and 2003. Up until now, not all of these interviews were available in English (unless you took the time to put them in a translator program like Babel Fish. Which I did. Quick note: Sybil Perez’s translations here are better than the syntax soup I got via Babel Fish). The book gets its name from Bolaño’s last interview, conducted by Mónica Maristain in a 2003 issue of the Mexican edition of Playboy; that longish interview makes up the bulk of this book. There’s also an essay entitled “Alone Among the Ghosts” by Marcela Valdes, previously published in a 2008 issue of The Nation.

“Alone Among the Ghosts” works as a sort of preface for the interviews, providing a brief overview of Bolaño’s oeuvre and shedding light on his working methods. In particular, “Ghosts” details how Bolaño researched the gruesome crimes at the heart of 2666. The interviews that follow range in tone from flighty (Maristain’s Playboy interview) to intimate (Carmen Boullosa’s inteview in Bomb), but all share one common trait: each interviewer attempts to get Roberto Bolaño to name his place in the canons of Spanish and world literature. The interviews, much like Bolaño’s at-times-esoteric (at least to this English speaker) novel The Savage Detectives, are chock full of literary references to Spanish-language writers, poets, and critics, and each interviewer seems to delight in pushing Bolaño into saying something provocative about other writers. Tom McCartan’s annotations, located in the margins of this extra-wide book, help to enlighten those of us who are unfamiliar with the greater (and lesser) fights and scandals of Latin American literature. In his books, Bolaño often satirized the petty in-fighting between various literary groups, at the same time revealing the paradoxically serious nature of these conflicts. One of the best examples comes from The Savage Detectives–Bolaño’s stand-in Arturo Belano fights a duel with a critic on a beach in an episode that’s both hilarious, pathetic, and slightly horrifying. In the interviews, you get the sense that Bolaño is both provoking literary battles and, at the same time, downplaying them. He’s serious about his aesthetic values but knows that most of the world is not–he knows that most of the world is concerned with more immediate and perhaps weightier concerns like family, sex, and death. It’s on these subjects that Bolaño the interviewee is more poignant and candid–and fun.

There is a sense of creation in these interviews, of Bolaño creating a public self through his answers. It’s at these times that you can almost sense Bolaño writing. On the one hand, it’s a treat to see his voice so fresh and immediate, but on the other hand, in the context of an interview, it lends credence to the notion that he’s resisting presenting an authentic “self” (please put aside all postmodern arguments about authenticity, identity, and textuality for a few moments). Consider his response to his “enemies”:

Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

A lovely passage. Apparent sincerity gives way to hyperbole gives way to healthy habits gives way to literary allusion–and perhaps hints of bathos. I get the sense that Bolaño is pulling a collective leg here, yet, there must be a kernel of truth to the notion that his critics affect him. In any case, the response, in its compelling rhythm and pathetic humor, might fit neatly into one of Bolaño’s books, where the author has often blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

These interviews will no doubt be pored over as “Bolaño Studies” hits academia hard, and would-be Bolaño scholars try to parse out their own narratives against the myriad gaps in Bolaño’s record. For more on the many inconsistencies in Bolaño’s life, check out this story from the The New York Times, which interviews family, friends, and literary associates to tease truth out of some of Bolaño’s grander embellishments. Of course, Bolaño was not solely responsible for all exaggerations. From the interview first published in Turia:

“It’s the typical Latin American tango. In the first book edited for me in Germany, they give me one month in prison; in the second book–seeing that the first one hadn’t sold so well–they raise it to three months; in the third book I’m up to four months, in the fourth it’s five. The way it’s going, I should still be a prisoner now.”

The New York Times article questions whether Bolaño even spent the eight days in a Chilean prison that he claims he did. Whether or not that ruins the authenticity of Bolaño’s short story “Dance Card,” collected in Last Evenings on Earth, is totally up to you of course, dear reader, but I think that self-invention has always been the privilege of the writer. If the interviews collected in The Last Interview reveal a myth-maker creating a self, they are also transparent and humorous in these creations. Highly recommended.

Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview is now available from Melville House. For a detailed account of the authors mentioned in the interviews, read Tom McCartan’s fantastic series “What Bolaño Read.”

Literature Is Not Made From Words Alone

Roberto Bolaño, in a 2002 interview, tells us that

. . . literature is not made from words alone. Borges says that there are untranslatable writers. I think he uses Quevedo as an example. We could add García Lorca and others. Notwithstanding that, a work like Don Quijote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it–bad translation, incomplete and ruined–any version of Quijote would still have very much to say to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature.

The interview, conducted by Carmen Boullosa, was originally published in Bomb. It’s now collected along with three other interviews, all meticulously annotated (there’s also a fabulous introductory essay by Marcela Valdes) in a collection called Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview, new from Melville House. While you’re browsing Melville House, I highly, highly recommend Tom McCartan’s column “What Bolaño Read,which will be ongoing through next week. Great stuff. Biblioklept will run a proper review of The Last Interview later this week (no big surprise for regular ‘klept readers: I love it. Get it. Read it. Give it to the Bolaño fanatic in your life), but in the meantime, back to the quote.

I’ve written so much about Bolaño over the past year yet I’ve never really reflected on his English translators, Chris Andrews (the shorter works) and Natasha Wimmer (the long books), probably because I wouldn’t know how to begin. Reading interviews with Andrews and Wimmer (links above) is enlightening. Andrews attests that he tries to avoid “a translation that is unduly distracting,” and remarks on Bolaño’s epic syntax. Wimmer says she simply tried “to follow Bolaño’s lead,” but admits to her reviewer that she might have missed some puns (“Missing things like that is the translator’s great dread, but it’s probably inevitable occasionally, especially with Bolaño”). In both of the interviews, Bolaño’s translators come off as critical readers whose love of their source material is clearly at the forefront of their project. I have to believe–and have to is the operative term here–that their translations are faithful to Bolaño’s text (and spirit), that they are not, to use the man’s term, a “shit storm” on his oeuvre. But, given Bolaño’s own definition of “literature,” I’d also aver that his masterpiece 2666 could weather any shit storm (hell, the thing was, I suppose, technically incomplete at his death). In any case, I find Bolaño point reassuring, not just in light of his own work, but also within the context of a greater canon of world literature. His suggestion that real literature speaks beyond “words alone,” that storytelling is more than mere verbal tricks and schemes, should be an affirmation to anyone who’s ever been unsure that he’s properly “got” Kafka or Haruki Murakami or Dostoevsky or whomever. And I like that idea quite a bit.

Cormac McCarthy’s Issues of Life and Death, Hans Fallada’s Complex Resistance, and Jonathan Lethem’s Bloodless Prose

In a 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy famously said that he only cares for writers who  “deal with issues of life and death.” He disses Proust and Henry James, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” Because he has granted so few interviews–and come off so guarded in those he has done–McCarthy’s dictum on “good writers” has perhaps become a bit inflated, elevated from one man’s opinion to a grand litmus test of literary worth. Still, I often find myself putting the books I read under the McCarthy stress-test: do they narrativize the Darwinian drama of life and death? Or are they simply bloodless spectacles of rhetoric, ephemeral social critiques, or faddish forays into solipsism? McCarthy’s targets, Proust and James, arguably do address life and death issues in their works, but when compared to McCarthy’s heroes–Melville, Faulkner, Dostoevsky–the social fictions of Proust and James seem wan, or at least too subtle and overly-coded. The two novels I’m currently working through, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, illustrate not just the poles of McCarthy’s dichotomy, but also why many readers (myself included) tend to prefer that their novels address matters of life and death.

Every Man Dies Alone, first published in German in 1947, is available for the first time ever in English, thanks to translator Michael Hoffman (if you’ve read Kafka in English, you’ve probably read Hoffman’s work) and the good folks at Melville House. Fallada’s novel tells the story of German resistance to the Nazi regime, not at an aristocratic or militaristic level (this isn’t Valkyrie), or even a literary or philosophical level, but at the level of every day, ordinary existence. After the death of their son in battle, Otto and Anna Quangel initiate a campaign of resistance to the Nazi party, one that is of course doomed from the outset. The Quangels soon involve Eva Kluge, among others, in their covert resistance cell. Kluge is a letter-carrier who becomes disgusted with the moral implications of the regime; she’s also deeply embittered by the way Nazi rule has systemically destroyed her family. Kluge’s peripatetic job helps to enact Fallada’s major rhetorical gesture, a sweeping busyness that vividly recreates the life of ordinary Germans during the rule of the Third Reich. We might begin in Kluge’s mind as she embarks to deliver a letter, only to find ourselves awash in the thoughts of its recipient a few pages later. Fallada’s omniscient third-person narrator moves freely from one character’s consciousness to another’s, shifting fluidly from the immediacy of present tense to the solidity of past tense. It’s modernism (whatever that means)–Tolstoy without the rich and famous, Joyce without the mythos and erudition, but deeply engaging in its scope. WWII has produced a seemingly endless myriad of narratives, yet Fallada’s tome is the first that I’ve experienced of its kind. Perhaps its subject matter–the lives of ordinary Germans and their unsuccessful attempts to resist the mundane evil all around them–is simply not the stuff that we want from our war stories, and perhaps this is why the book has been absent so long from an English translation. It’s evocative of a world that I had never really considered before: after all, the narrative of WWII is far easier to comprehend if you retain the simplicity of the good guys (the Allies), the bad guys (the Nazis), and the victims (the Jewish population of Europe). Ordinary Germans have only one place in this uncomplicated system, which is why the story of the Quangels and their cohort is so profound (oh, the Quangels are based on the real-life Nazi resisters Otto and Elise Hampel, if you must know). Driven in part by despair, they seek to forge meaning in their lives, even if its at the cost of death, or the horrors of a concentration camp. To return to McCarthy’s caveat, Fallada’s novel is a work that dramatizes life and death against a decidedly unheroic backdrop, a novel that makes its reader repeatedly ask himself whether or not he would be, to use another McCarthyism (from The Road) one of the “good guys.” Great stuff, and so far one of the better novels we’ve read this year. Go get it.

It’s perhaps unfair to lump Lethem’s latest in a review with Fallada, given the historical complexity of Every Man Dies Alone‘s milieu. Still, I’ve been reading my review copies of both novels over this long weekend, trying to catch up, and I find that I would almost always rather pick up Fallada’s book. It compels me, whereas, half way through Chronic City, I still find nothing to care about, no risk, no cost, no guts. No matters of life and death. The novel centers around former-child actor Chase Insteadman, whose directionless existence seems to thematically underpin the book. Chase moves from party to party in a fictitious Manhattan, charming various socialites and keeping boredom (marginally) at bay. He soon hooks up with Perkus Tooth, a marijuana-addicted pop culture critic, whose characteristics will be familiar to pretty much anyone who earned a liberal arts degree in college. Tooth seems to function largely as a mouthpiece for Lethem to espouse various opinions on movies and books and art. It’s a clumsy device as it doesn’t shade the character–it’s simply Lethem couching his cultural criticism in the comfort of a work of fiction. In a particularly telling scene, Perkus picks up a copy of The New York Times and thinks that it feels too light. He looks up at the right-hand corner: “WAR FREE EDITION. Ah yes, he’d heard about this. You could opt out now.” Perkus seems to deliver the line as a criticism, but it’s Lethem who’s opting out. He drops hints of destruction and annihilation and disintegration in the novel–there’s a giant tiger on the loose somewhere in Manhattan; Chase’s fiancée floats estranged in space, stranded on the International Space Station; a crooked mayor is up to dastardly shenanigans–but Lethem protects his characters from it all in an insulating cocoon of marijuana smoke and pop trivia. Their forays into the darkness of Manhattan’s mysteries are meant to play both humorously but also with enough danger to fully invest a reader’s attention (think of Lethem’s more successful sci-noir Gun, with Occasional Music, or his detective thriller Motherless Brooklyn). Instead, the adventures fall flat, collapsing back into Perkus’s apartment, a vortex of (ultimately meaningless) pop culture. While the novel is by no means terrible–it’s well-written, of course–there is simply a tremendous lack of the “life and death” stuff that McCarthy–and other readers–require. In short–and in contrast with Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone–it does not compel itself to be read. Which is a shame of course. I still think Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude was one of the finest books of the decade, and I was deeply disappointed in his last novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Chronic City is a much finer book than that silly train wreck, but it lacks the urgency of Lethem’s finest works, Fortress and Motherless Brooklyn, which temper a love of popular culture with genuine characters and an affecting plot.

I’ll conclude by returning to Cormac McCarthy, this time to his latest interview (in The Wall Street Journal). He says, on writing novels: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” And later: “Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don’t have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything.” For McCarthy, literature, in its final product–the reader reading the book–is the direct communication of the pain of creation, the awkward and incomplete translation of ideas exchanged from author to audience. Perhaps the pain was too much for Fallada, who died in 1947 of a morphine overdose, but that pain–that spirit–exists in the book. A similar spirit exists in Lethem’s earlier works; I’d love to see him tap into it again in his next venture.

Every Man Dies Alone is now available in hardback from Melville House.

Chronic City is now available in hardback from Double Day.

Lucinella — Lore Segal


The story of a group of poets and critics in the late 60s/early 70s NYC should not be so fun or rewarding. From its first page, Lore Segal’s novella Lucinella invents itself as a scathing satire of writers and would-be writers. Segal’s book paradoxically reveres its subject matter, a back-biting and insular literati; and yet at the same time it exposes their solipsistic, narcissistic, cannibalistic shortcomings. These are not particularly generous people, but they are somehow endearing.

Lucinella takes first-person authority to tell the story–and boy does she take authority, bending reality, reason, and narrative cohesion to fit her whim. Lucinella is a poet (a minor poet, perhaps), and Lucinella is very much a poetic action, an act of creation in thirteen parts. The story begins with our (utra-)self-conscious heroine at the idyllic artists’ retreat Yaddo, where she’s ostensibly trying to compose a poem about a root cellar but really just having a grand ole time with a host of notable intellectuals, the poets and critics who will populate the book. “I will make up an eye here, borrow a nose or two there, and a mustache and something funny someone said and a pea-green sweater, so it’s no use your fitting you keys into my keyholes, to try and figure out who’s who,” Lucinella tells us. No worries, Lucinella, we had no idea who, if anyone, your Betterwheatling and Winterneet and Meyers were based on–heck, it took us a few pages to figure out that your Zeus was, um, y’know, that Zeus.

Segal’s (or Lucinella’s) inventions work within a hyperbolic schema set to slow burn. Describing a fellow poet of greater renown:

This Winterneet walking beside me has walked beside Roethke, breakfasted with Snodgrass and Jarrell–with Auden! Frost is his second cousin; he went to school with Pound, traveled all the way to Ireland once, to have tea with Yeats, and spent the weekend with the Matthew Arnolds. He remembers Keats threw up on his way from anatomy; Winterneet says he admires Wordsworth’s poetry, but couldn’t stand the man.

This is pretty much Lucinella‘s program: plausibly esoteric literary references running amok into sublimely surrealistic sketches. If you don’t like that, take your sense of humor to its doctor. Lucinella’s time at the haven of Yaddo is soon up, and she must return to the monster of Manhattan, where young poet William (despite his too-thin neck) shows up at her doorstep to fall in love and eventually marry her. The two attend every literary party, where they feel alternately bedazzled, thrilled, or–mostly–slighted. William, composer of a never-quite-finished epic about Margery Kempe, takes his snubs especially hard, even when he’s being celebrated (and published). We weren’t there, but it seems that Segal evokes her Manhattanite milieu with painterly (or perhaps cartoonly) accuracy. Really, the infighting intellectuals are reminiscent of poseurs and scenesters of any time and place. Lucinella and William go to parties, throw parties, complain about parties, and throw fits like children when they don’t get invited to parties. It’s all very real and very silly and very funny. In one (literally) fantastic set-piece (okay, the whole book might be a fantasy set-piece), Lucinella meets Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella at a party, giving her an(other) opportunity to critique herself. “There’s old Lucinella, the poet,” says one character. “She hasn’t written much in these last years. Used to be good in a minor way” comes the nonchalant reply. Young Lucinella fares no better, although she does manage an affair with William (don’t worry, Lucinella proper hooks up with Zeus in one of the book’s strangest flights of fancy).

The real seduction, as Lucinella points out at a party (of course), is her attempt to seduce her reader into a trenchant unreality that the poets and critics pretend is reality even as they bemoan the reality that their addiction to unreality is their main reality. Yeah. It’s all a bit surreal, and it all comes to a head quite pointedly twice in the novel. The first unmasking occurs at a symposium where the group holds forth on weighty matters – “Why Read?” – “Why Write?” – “Why Publish?” The house lights come up to reveal our fretting poets addressing an empty hall. Even in 1970, no one cares about reading and writing and publishing. And it’s not just the symposium–when Lucinella hosts a party for her pal Betterwheatling, who’s just published a collection of a criticism, she’s shocked to realize as the party dwindles that, not only has she not read his new book, she’s never read anything he’s written. But that’s not all: “I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain.” Betterwheatling’s punishment: “I’ll never invite him to another party!” Ahhh . . . the petulance. Oh, all the backstabbing and perceived slighting and posing and posturing leads up to an apocalyptic climax, complete with a proper de-invention of Lucinella. It’s all really great.

If Lucinella is light on plot–which we don’t really think it is, despite its slim build, light weight, and 150 or so pages–it’s big on ideas and even bigger on voice. Lucinella is kinda like that crazy art chick you knew in college who was always working on some project that never quite came to fruition, and her cohorts are just the sort of mad loonies you spend time alternately ducking calls from or hoping to run into at a party (depending on your mood). Her evocation of the youthful excitement and nascent romance of poetry reminds us of some of Roberto Bolaño‘s work, particularly the joyful jocularity of Garcia Madero’s section of The Savage Detectives (Segal’s volume is in no short supply of exclamations points). The book builds to a massive millennial climax, a hodgepodge of social consciousness movements and poetry and block party–a moveable feast of paranoia and art and possibility and good clean fun, and, more than anything else, the death-sentences we impose upon ourselves. But we’re overextending our review. Let’s just say that the book is great, and if you love books that both simultaneously mock and valorize the creative process, you’ll probably dig Lucinella’s metafictional tropes. Highly recommended.

Lucinella is in print again for the first time since the 1970s thanks to indie stronghold Melville House Publishing.