Witches, crimes, mutants, shape-shifting horses, feuilletonic digressions etc. | Blog about some recent reading

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 AnekdotenAnecdotes 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):

Benedikt’s Oldenprint Library | An excerpt from Tatyana Tolstaya’s post-apocalyptic novel The Slynx

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 …

Appleton, Bacon, Belcher, Blinman, Cooke, Culpepper, Honeyman, Hungerford, Liverich, Pearson, Saulter … Baldwin, Beardsley, Hatcliff, Morehead, Skinner, Topsfield, Whitehead, Whisker … Bairnsfather, Childe, Fairbrother, Motherwell, Littleboy … Ambler, Bulstrode, Chatterley, Doddleton, Dolittle, Fleetwood, Gabbler, Golightly, Hopkins, Sitwell, Skip-with, Standon, Swift, Talkien, Walker, Whistler. .. Hammer-stein, Hornebolt, Ironquill, Newbolt, Witherspoon … Canby, Mabie, Moody, Orwell, Whowood … Bathurst, Beerbohm, Beveridge, Brine, Dampier-Whetham, de La Fontaine, Dewey, Drinkwater, Dryden, Lapping, Shipwash, Washburn, Water-house .. . Addicock, Cockburn, Crapsey, Dickens, Dickinson, Fullalove, Gotobed, Hooker, Longfellow, Lovelace, Loveridge, Middlesex, Sexton, Simpkiss, Sinkin, Strangewayes, Sweetecok, Toplady . .. Fairweather, Flood, Fogg, Frost, Haleston, Rain-borough, Snowdon, Sun Yat-sen, Weatherby, Wyndham … Middleton, Overbury, Underhill… Coffin, Dyer, Feversham, Lockjaw, Paine, Rawbone …

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?

Eugenia Grandet, Eugene Onegin, Eugene Primakov, Eugene Gutsalo, Eugenics: A Racist’s Weapon, Eugene Sue.

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.

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx (Book acquired, 23 July 2021)

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 OrangeThe 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.