Three Books

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The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. 2019 trade paperback from NRYB. Cover design by Kathy Homans featuring an image titled Ruins of Castle Acre Priory Church, c. 1780-1820 (artist uncredited).

Ironic, mordant, energetic, and packed with life, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fifth novel The Corner That Held Them (1948) tells the story of a backwater convent over the course of a few hundred years. Warner’s story weaves her nuns’ mundane world into something grander and funnier than might be expected of such a premise.

 

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Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. 2019 first edition hardback from Pantheon. No cover designer or artist credited, but the work is unquestionably Ware’s.

Rusty Brown is ostensibly the first part of Ware’s third novel. It ends, after 350 pages, with the word “INTERMISSION” vibrating across two pages, promising us a second part. I hope that that second part will not take Ware as long to produce as this first part, which took the better part of two decades. Like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), Rusty Brown is crushingly sad and aesthetically brilliant; like Building Stories (2012), Rusty Brown adds up to more than the sum of its parts—its fragments come together to tell the story of sad lives intersecting. It’s moving, it’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s challenging, and I hope that we don’t have to wait too long for the next installment.

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The Doomed City by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. 2017 trade paperback from Gollancz. English. Cover illustration by Eamon O’Donoghue; no designer credited. English translation by Andrew Bromfield.

“The Experiment is the Experiment” repeat the citizens of the titular doomed city in the Strugatskys Kakfaesque dystopian novel, which was written in the early 1970s but wasn’t published until 1989. The Experiment, purportedly run by the Mentors, seemingly begins as an egalitarian project, but soon devolves into civil war against baboons, and eventually a dictatorship. There’s a late act expedition across the desert to infiltrate the fabled Anticity. Baggy and abject, The Doomed City was not the best Strugatsky novel I’ve read, but I enjoyed its weirder moments very much.

Blog about some books acquired, 17 July 2019 (and some Poe and Whitman illustrations)

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Despite having a pretty large TBR stack, I killed this afternoon’s spare hour at my favorite used bookstore. This particular bookstore is a maze of used books, labyrinthine walls of books, with ever-mutating shelves growing from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. I confess I don’t always stoop low—I get old, I get dizzy—but stooping low to look for something else (which I now misremember; I get old) I found a big fat stack of copies of John Kennedy Toole’s cult novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Which I have never read. Which was recommended to me twenty years ago when I wasn’t so old, when I was way into Vonnegut, Burroughs, Hemingway. Which was recommended to me by someone who had made me read Tom Robbins. Which was why I didn’t bother to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I’ve always sort of assumed that I’d missed my window with this one—not sure why—-like that I should’ve read it before I was thirty. Anyone, I threw it out on twitter and some smart folks gave me the go ahead. So we’ll see.

I also found a copy of The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. Again, I wasn’t looking for this book. Actually, I found this Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series edition quite by accident, but recalled the NYRB edition (both are translated by Barbara Bray) and picked it up. I usually am not a big fan of photographs of people on covers, but I really like this one.  I’ll steal NRYB’s blurb:

This is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Here long-suffering Telumee tells her life story and tells us about the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from. Time flows unevenly during the long hot blue days as the madness of the island swirls around the villages, and Telumee, raised in the shelter of wide skirts, must learn how to navigate the adversities of a peasant community, the ecstasies of love, and domestic realities while arriving at her own precious happiness. In the words of Toussine, the wise, tender grandmother who raises her, “Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

My good luck streak of finding old massmarket paperback copies of Strugatsky brothers novels continued when I found Prisoners of Power (English translation by Helen Saltz Jacobson).

I also found myself intrigued by some large illustrated editions of Melville and Poe, although I resisted picking them up. I really love the simple design of this 1931 omnibus Romances of Herman Melville—

As far as I could tell, the publishers failed to credit the edition’s illustrator, but he signed it—Edward S. Annison.

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The editors of an oversized 1973 David R. Godine edition of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did bother to name the illustrator: Gerry Hoover. Hoover’s illustrations are pretty creepy:

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Okay—maybe the last one isn’t creepy. But the tortoise’s grimacing beak is intense.

Blog about the first paragraph of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s surreal novel The Snail on the Slope

I have been listening to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel The Snail on the Slope on audiobook over the last two weeks.

This new English translation is by Olena Bormashenko, who also translated Roadside Picnic and Hard to Be a God. (I listened to Roadside Picnic last year—this fantastic audiobook is read by Robert Forster—and read Bormashenko’s translation of Hard to Be a God after watching Aleksei German’s 2013 film adaptation. All are excellent). Chris Andrew Ciulla narrates the new audiobook of The Snail on the Slope and he does a very good job. 

Like I said, I’ve been listening to this new translation of The Snail on the Slope for a few weeks. I should be done (the book is only 9.5 hours), but I’ve listened to most of the chapters twice, and restarted the book once, because The Snail on the Slope is fucking bonkers. The novel is a wild trip, full of bizarre transformations, failed plans, jungle swamps,  marching ants, deadlings, mushrooms, foolish bureaucrats, and broken calculators—it’s abject, savage, funny, and just so fucking weird, a bizarre beast tumbling around on its own radical logic. I have about 3 hours left, but I don’t think I’ll muster a review—or a summary, I mean. Or anyway—

I mean, here’s my review: I love itI love its strange mucky weirdness, its refusal to clearly delineate the contact points of its allegorical satire, its sheer absurdity, its utter alterity. But a summary seems too much to ask so—

Here is publisher Chicago Review Press’s blurb—

The Snail on the Slope is a neglected masterpiece by Russian science fiction greats Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who thought of it as their “most complete and important work.” now, in a stunning translation, this tour de force is ready to be introduced to a new generation of American readers. The novel takes place in two worlds. One is the Administration, an institution run by a surreal, Kafkaesque bureaucracy whose aim is to govern the forest below. The other is the Forest, a place of fear, weird creatures, primitive but garrulous people, and violence. Peretz, who works at the Administration, wants to visit the Forest. Candide crashed in the Forest years ago and wants to return to the Administration. Their journeys are surprising and bizarre, and readers are left to puzzle out the mysteries of these foreign environments. Brilliant, enigmatic, and revelatory, The Snail on the Slope is one of the greatest literary works to come out of Soviet Russia.

Here is the cover + blurb of Bantam’s 1980 edition of The Snail on the Slope (translated by Alan Meyers). Bob Larkin’s cover is more interesting to me than the “respectable” cover that Chicago Review Press put together so—

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This edition was apparently recalled, distribution was halted, and existing copies were destroyed.

The German cover (credited to Ute Osterwalder and Hans Ulrich Osterwalder) is also pretty cool—

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But I promised in this blog’s headline to riff on the first paragraph, which isn’t that long, but in some ways reveals the sheer oddity of The Snail on the Slope. So here is that paragraph:

From this height, the forest looked like dappled, fluffy foam; like a gigantic, world-encompassing porous sponge; like an animal that had once lain hidden in wait, then had dozed off, becoming overgrown with coarse moss. Like a shapeless mass, hiding a face no one had ever seen.

The viewer at this height is one of the novel’s two heroes, Peretz, who dangles his feet over the forest that calls to him. I could go on about Peretz’s attraction to the unknowable forest, but let’s look instead at the similes the Strugatskys (and their translator Bormashenko) deploy here:

The forest is like

  1. foam
  2. a sponge
  3. a dozing, bemossed animal
  4. an indefinite mass with an unseen face

The utter alterity of the forest is announced at the novel’s outset. This shifting series of similes shows that the central space of The Snail on the Slope cannot have a fixed definition—it cannot even have a stable referent of similitude. Rather, the forest is ever-shifting, from the playful guise of a space of “fluffy foam” to the sinister aspect of a “shapeless mass” that hides an unknown (and unknowable) visage. The Strugatskys shuttle us from simile to simile, foregrounding one of the novel’s central themes—language has a limited purchase of reality. Peretz, a surrogate for the reader, cannot settle on a simile, which only entices him more: What is this place? What would it mean to know this place—in language? Significantly, Peretz is a linguist, but he—and the reader–have no training to properly comprehend what enfolds when The Snail on the Slope takes us into the forest. And this is the fucked up joy of the novel—one weird transformation morphs into another, similes unwinding in a stretch toward an ultimate referent that refuses to arrive on time.