Clarice Lispector/Malcolm Braly (Books Acquired 6.22.2012)

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It’s a sickness. Should I explain that the bookstore is like 1.1 miles from my house? And that it holds somewhere between one and two million books? (No exaggeration). That it’s like three or four buildings  cobbled together in snaking passages, all said passages lined by books? It’s also like .2 miles from the grocery store I/we usually shop at. Which I had to go by to get mozzarella. For make your own pizza night. But of course, I had to stop off and browse. (Is it weird I set the timer on my iPhone? Gave myself 17 minutes?).

Anyway. Picked up these two.

The Lispector comes via recommendation of Scott Esposito, although this New Directions edition is not the latest translation, but, I dunno. It’s short. The Braly, well, I’d never heard of it, honestly, but it’s an NYRB edition, and the spines of those books always standout, and Lethem introduces it, and even though I haven’t liked Lethem’s last few books, well, he’s still a tastemaker par excellence, and Kurt Vonnegut blurbs it on the back, calling it, “Surely the great American prison novel.” And I just finished “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 (yet again, more on that to come) and maybe a prison novel seems especially intriguing.

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Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil (Book Acquired, 4.09.2012)

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How you react to a “new” book by Roberto Bolaño at this point is probably dependent on how much you love or loathe his work—although I imagine those indifferent to or unfamiliar with his writing might be unduly put off by this point at the volume of material that this writer drops posthumously [insert Tupac joke here].

I’m a fan though, so I’m excited about The Secret of Evil, even if the material collected here is in part unfinished . . . although, as Ignacio Echevarria points out in his introduction, all of Bolaño’s “narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness.” A few of the pieces in Evil have already been excerpted, and I read a few this weekend (who can resist a Bolaño text called “Crimes”?), and while some pieces here are sketchier than others, there’s that preponderance of life force that we expect from late period Bolaño, from a man who seemed to pour what was left of himself into his words and sentences.

From publisher New Directions’ website:

Opening this book is like being granted access to the Chilean master’s personal files. Included in this one-of-a-kind collection is everything Roberto Bolaño was working on just before his death in 2003, and everything that he wanted to share with his readers. Fans of his writing will find familiar characters in new settings, and entirely new stories and styles, too.

A North American journalist in Paris is woken at 4 a.m. by a mysterious caller with urgent information. Daniela de Montecristo (familiar to readers of Nazi Literature in the Americas and 2666) recounts the loss of her virginity. Arturo Belano returns to Mexico City and meets the last disciples of Ulises Lima, who play in a band called The Asshole of Morelos. Belano’s son Gerónimo disappears in Berlin during the Days of Chaos in 2005. Memories of a return to the native land; Argentine writers as gangsters; zombie schlock as allegory…and much more.

Satantango (Book Acquired, 3.15.2012)

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Was happy to get a finished copy of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango (new in English translation for the first time from the good people at New Directions). From Jacob Silverman’s review at The New York Times:

As in much of Krasznahorkai’s work, a sense of hallucinatory conspiracy is in the air. People speak ominously, if vaguely, about what lies ahead. They see visions and hear bells they can’t place. “If they read the papers properly,” one character says, “they would know that there is a real crisis out there.”

But there is also a shared belief that things aren’t as they appear. Some mistake must have been made; things can’t be as bad as they seem. And so the residents “are waiting. They’re waiting patiently, like the long-suffering lot they are, in the firm conviction that someone has conned them. They are waiting, belly to the ground, like cats at pig-killing time, hoping for scraps.” (This repetition, with its gradual slathering of metaphoric detail, characterizes Krasznahorkai’s style.)

I started the ARC I got of Satantango (mistitled on the spine; see below), but got sidetracked with epic books by William Gaddis and William Vollmann. (Blame the Bills). I will give the book my full attention in the nearish future.

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Book Acquired, 12.06.2011 — Or, I Photograph My Reader’s Copy of Satantango in the Cheap Showiness of Nature

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Damn. Check this out. László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, the title of which does not apparently include diacritical marks in its new (first published!) English translation.

Publisher New Direction’s description:

Already famous as the inspiration for the filmmaker Béla Tarr’s six-hour masterpiece, Satantango is proof, as the spellbinding, bleak, and hauntingly beautiful book has it, that “the devil has all the good times.” The story of Satantango, spread over a couple of days of endless rain, focuses on the dozen remaining inhabitants of an unnamed isolated hamlet: failures stuck in the middle of nowhere. Schemes, crimes, infidelities, hopes of escape, and above all trust and its constant betrayal are Krasznahorkai’s meat. “At the center of Satantango,” George Szirtes has said, “is the eponymous drunken dance, referred to here sometimes as a tango and sometimes as a csardas. It takes place at the local inn where everyone is drunk. . . . Their world is rough and ready, lost somewhere between the comic and tragic, in one small insignificant corner of the cosmos. Theirs is the dance of death.” “You know,” Mrs. Schmidt, a pivotal character, tipsily confides, “dance is my one weakness.”

New Directions has a fantastic record when it comes to lit in translation, and Satantango has been long anticipated by English-reading audiences, due in large part to Béla Tarr’s movie (which is more like seven and a half hours, which I meant to watch this summer but couldn’t because I want to watch it with no interruptions, but I have kids and a wife, so, hey).

I got into it a bit last night, and, I don’t know if it’s just the advance reader copy I got or what, but there are no paragraph breaks, which is a grueling rhetorical technique, a big dare to readers, really (see also: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (note: Sebald blurbs Satantango)). The advance reader copy also has a delightful typo on the spine, one that makes the book sound like, I dunno, if Santana made a tango record. Or maybe Santa n’ Tango for ever (Cash will no doubt be jealous). More to come.

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Good Offices — Evelio Rosero

In Poetics, that ancient didact Aristotle informs us that admirable drama adheres to unities of action, place, and time. There must be no extraneous subplots, just one central action confined to a specific and defined place and time—no more than 24 hours, in fact.

I was reminded of these (oft-broken) rules when reading Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, a sharp, gleaming novel that illustrates just how effective these classical unities might be in the hands of a gifted author. Rosero’s tale snakes out over the course of only a few hours and takes place entirely in a Catholic church in Bogotá, Colombia. The action—more on that in a moment—is indivisible from the time and place.

Good Offices centers on Tancredo, a hunchback afflicted with “a terrible fear of being an animal.” Tancredo is basically an indentured servant of the church, strung along by Father Almida’s promises of a college education that never seems to surface. His great “cross to bear” is the program of Community Meals that Father Almida mandates (yet never helps execute) each night—charity meals for children, old people, blind people, whores, and families (all segregated by day of the week, naturally). In particular, Tancredo hates the nights for the old people, indigents who complain about the free food and then pretend to be dead so they don’t have to go back to the dark streets of Bogotá. Sometimes they do die though, and it’s Tancredo who must discover their abject corpses.

Aiding Tancredo in the family meal labor are Sabina Cruz, and the Lilias, three ancient widows of the same name who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Moirae. It is the Lilia’s lot to cook these massive meals, making something from nothing, essentially, a job made all the harder by their arthritic joints. They pester Tancredo mercilessly. Sabina doesn’t so much pester Tancredo as haunt him, imploring repeatedly that they run away together. She’s the sexton’s god-daughter, and like Tancredo she is more or less church property. What our cast shares in common is a suppressed humanity, that vital spark now ground down to a dim nub.

This feeling of endless, indefinite weariness hangs over our heroes at the beginning of the novel, as we see here, when the sexton and priest begin an interrogation of sorts of Tancredo—

. . . he felt worn out, exhausted: after the old people crawling around the hall, over and under the table, bathed in soup, stepped in filth and saliva, like a Roman orgy or a witches’s Sabbath, to have a to face the sacristan’s inquisition infuriated him. Once again he experienced the dreadful fear of becoming an animal, or the desire to be one, which was worse. He imagined himself dashing that table against the ceiling; kicking over the chairs of the Church’s two representatives; tipping out their occupants, pissing on their sacred heads; pursuing Sabina, pulling up her heavy lay sister’s skirt, ripping into the apparent innocence of her blouse, buttoned up to the neck, pawing her breasts, pinching her belly button, her thighs, her backside. Truly, he thought, aghast, he needed to confess to the Father about his dreadful fear of being an animal, and the sooner the better.

Rosero’s remarkable prose here twists through the writhing subsurface urges the Catholic Church has worked for hundreds of years to suppress. The writing is violent, funny, sexy, and passionate, culminating in a devastating punchline. The passage is indicative of the book’s strange blending of tones, a sardonic but also sensual crash course in the seven sins.

Almida is too busy to take the time to fully listen to Tancredo’s confession though—he and the sexton must rush to meet a rich benefactor (a gangster, of course). For the first time ever, Almida will miss the mass, necessitating a substitute: Father Matamoros.

To Tancredo’s horror, part of Matamoros’ preparation involves getting drunk; however, he sings the mass in a beautiful voice that entrances the congregants—including Tancredo and the Lilias, who are so enthralled they set to work preparing a feast. Matamoros insists they drink with him, and in time, our principals are all quite drunk, not just on the fine wine that Almida and the sexton secret away for themselves, but also on the Lilia’s rich feast and Matamoros’ splendid singing. These visceral pleasures inject a humanity (and real purpose for living) that has been missing in the church for far too long, and as the night creeps into the morning, the rapture caused by the stranger’s presence overwhelms our cast.

Having lost faith in Almida (and perhaps Catholicism and even God), Tancredo confesses to Matomoros. Before I offer another passage of Rosero’s sensual, intense writing, let me commend the work of translators Anne McLean and Anna Milsom. From Tancredo’s second confession—

Without knowing how, Tancredo resumed the conversation, as if he really had been holding that non-existent conversation with the Father, or did it exist?  Whatever the case, he said, or kept on saying, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that he had dreamt, Father, that he had an Indian slave-girl, tied up in with a chain like an animal, and that he took her for a walk through a sunlit meadow, the sun, the smell of the sunshine, “everything full of the most terrible lustfulness, Father, hanging over our heads, it was impossible not to take her in my arms, the soft moss offered itself, the leafy oak gave its shade, she stretched out wearily on the grass, it wrapped itself around her like a sheet, offering her rest, and, with the same chain I used for leading her about, she drew me toward her, as if I were an animal and not her, and she spread her legs and all her Hell burned me, Father.”

Matamoros offers Tancredo comfort, if not wisdom, but in treating the young man like a human and not an animal in bondage, he underscores the simple but strong theme of the book.

I won’t spoil more of Good Offices, which I think you should read. It’s a compact, vigorous treat, often blue, sharp as a scimitar, and saturated in suspense. Like any good Aristotelian drama, Rosero’s novel offers catharsis for its audience, but its greater impact comes from what it withholds, from what is left implicit, lingering under the details that ball together toward an end that is funny, horrific, and quite moving. Highly recommended.

Good Offices is new from New Directions this month.

Between Parentheses — Roberto Bolaño

Between Parentheses (new from New Directions and deftly translated by Natasha Wimmer) collects over 400 pages of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, speeches, introductions, and newspaper columns, composed between 1998 and 2003, the year Bolaño died. The bulk of the book, as well as its title, comes from a column that Bolaño wrote for the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias. As one would expect, these pieces are relatively short, sometimes under 500 words, punctuated with a depth that belies their brevity. Bolaño writes about everything (or, everything worth writing about, I suppose), but, as those familiar will guess, literature is his main subject, whether he’s reviewing a Spanish-language translation of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, comparing Kafka and Philip K. Dick, explaining his affection for William Burroughs, or discussing the merits of translating literature. If these samples tantalize you, let me go further: Bolaño writes about detective novels, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Swift, Jorge Luis Borges, magic, devils, memoirs, Gunter Grass, murder, troubadours, the Hell’s Angels, poetry, and more, more, more.

Despite its discursive topics, a unified tone inheres throughout Between Parentheses, a distinctly Bolañonian tone, at once grand and romantic (and Romantic) and profound and cynical and biting and flippant. In her blurb on the back of the book, Marcela Valdes (The Nation) declares that in Between Parentheses “we hear Bolaño’s real voice, the one he often disguised through the ventriloquism of his fiction.” This is perhaps a too-bold statement—I’m not sure if Bolaño can be said to have a “real voice”—instead, we find an author who’s constantly inventing and then reinventing, inflating and deflating, expanding and contracting.

And yet I think we’ll have to take Between Parentheses as Bolaño’s “real voice”—it’s perhaps the closest thing we’ll get to memoir or autobiography from the man (at least for now: his literary estate seems to be  in a constant state of excavation, so who knows). But Bolaño, ever the winking imp, is there to warn us against taking memoir at face value—

Of all books, memoirs are the most deceitful because the pretense in which they engage often goes undetected and their authors are usually only looking to justify themselves. Ostentation and memoirs tend to go together. Lies and memoirs get along swimmingly.

If Bolaño may occasionally employ invention in some of the passages here, it’s all to his credit, and all perhaps in the service of Higher Artistic Truth (whatever that means). He shares much of himself in Between Parentheses, especially in the book’s first section, “Three Insufferable Speeches,” (you may have already read “Literature and Exile”) and its second section, “Fragments of a Return to the Native Land,” detailing the writer’s return to Chile in 1998. These are indeed fragments, sketchy, pained moments where we glimpse Bolaño trying to process a difficult and emotional journey. The tone is at once comic, analytical, and depressive—familiar territory to Bolaño’s readers, I suppose. Besides its obvious appeal as a Bolaño memoir, “Fragments” is also fine travel literature, as is the later section “Scenes,” which comprises evocations of various locales, chief among them Bolaño’s adopted home Blanes. Several of the pieces in “Scenes” seem to extend into the realm of pure fiction; a few are narrated by speakers who are only partly-Bolaño (if such a construction can be said to exist). In any case, they are the book’s closest approximations of short fiction.

The book’s fifth section, “The Brave Librarian,” features one of the highlights (and longer pieces) of the volume, a preface for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn called “Our Guide to the Abyss,” where Bolaño parses Twain and Melville, delving into American literature. I’m sure that for many this piece alone will be worth the price of admission. If you still need convincing, the book’s final section offers a treatise on book theft, advice on the art of writing short stories, a transcript of Bolaño’s last interview before his death, and more, more, more. “More, more, more” might be a simple way to summarize this book.

Between the Parentheses does little, ultimately, to explicate Roberto Bolaño. If anything, it helps to further confound those of us who’ve been puzzling out his fiction for the past few years. And thank God for that. I’ve written before about “the Bolañoverse,” about Bolaño’s labyrinthine genre-crossing intertextuality. Between Parentheses, despite its claims to reality or truth, is nevertheless a part of Bolaño’s maze, a maze by turns dark or illuminating, tragic or comic, and stark and enriching. Most of all, this maze is a strange joy to get lost in. Highly recommended.

“How to Recognize a Piece of Art” — Roberto Bolaño on the Power of Translation

A sample of Roberto Bolaño’s short essay “Translation Is an Anvil” (from New Directions’ forthcoming Between Parentheses, a collection of Bolaño’s essays, newspaper columns, and other ephemera)——

How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its  voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.