A 19th century masterpiece about a Russian family of landowners. The psyshological drama and the descriptions of everyday life in the Russian countrysA 19th century masterpiece about a Russian family of landowners. The psyshological drama and the descriptions of everyday life in the Russian countryside are among the strongest I've ever come across. The characters are built in the tradition of great archetypes, in particular that of the Miser (see Molière and Dickens). It's one of those books that you can't put down, and which are entirely satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level. The ending is pure Dostoevsky: it has an unexpected catharsis, in which the "bad" (not to say "evil") characters attain a brief, saint-like illumination through a symbolic, rather than plausible, repentance. On top of this, the edition I have has gorgeous ink drawings by a certain Kukrynisky (one name). The Russian publisher is asking the book's readers to write them with their opinions on the novel, the book's design and the translation. I wish I could do this, but I doubt they still exist or have the same address 36 years later....more
Five Spice Street (Yale UP, 2009) by the contemporary Chinese writer Can Xue is one of the strangest, most original novels I’ve ever read. It also hapFive Spice Street (Yale UP, 2009) by the contemporary Chinese writer Can Xue is one of the strangest, most original novels I’ve ever read. It also happens to be one of the worst translations. There is a difference between deliberate strangeness—Can Xue is known for her unusual writings—and a strange feeling resulting from a bad translation. Five Spice Street is strange, I’m afraid, in both ways.
The novel’s deliberate absurdness resides in its way of “telling a story” (the novel is full of ironic quotes, by the way). The “story” revolves around a few questions: Who is Madame X? What is her relationship with Q? Do they even have a relationship? For 329 pages, a series of picturesque characters from Five Spice Street—a widow proud of being both very sexy and virtuous, a coal miner infatuated with Madame X, a female friend jealous of Madame X, several male characters with dubious intentions, Madame X’s sister, who ends up living in a shed surrounded by…shit, and others—give us their points of view on Madame X. These perspectives intersect, complement or contradict each other in a way that is voluntarily absurd. The story takes the shape of a maze or of a diagram that is unrolled and undone before the reader’s eyes. The novel could be described as a “meta-story,” but unlike other such narratives, this one is very funny, and the writer doesn’t escape Can Xue’s ironic eye either. Unlike most classic novels about writers in which the character-writer is almost a copy of the author-writer, here, the writer is not even the same gender as the author (i.e., Can Xue). In fact, writers in general are made fun of as “geniuses” who are “usually sitting on a deserted mountaintop or the roof of a thatched cottage,” having dialogues with the gods.
One could also look at this novel as a sort of upside-down “comedy of manners” in which the author (Can Xue), using the research done by the character-writer and all the other characters on Five Spice Street, gives us a study of the sexual behavior of “our people.” There are many hilarious passages, but the comic is not always obvious, sometimes because of the translation, other times because of the grotesque element in many of the scenes, or because the comic of the language is based on a parody of Communist slogans. Some of the scenes seem in the tradition of the slapstick (or that of traditional Chinese theater): “they reached the granary [where they usually had sex] and he was kicked in the butt and fell. This was a good kick, very educational. He was kicked back to reality, and began to fulfill a male’s responsibilities.”
Since the translation of a novel from the Chinese is not an easy feat, I am willing to give the two translators (Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) some credit for their hard work, but still, I cannot but deplore the result. Here are a few (very few!) examples: “how could that person shout so loud as to scare a person?”; “I’m so confused inside” [rather than “outside”?]; “Everyone knew he was a doll” [in the context it’s clear the author meant “a puppet”]. And yet, in spite of the translation, the novel is worth reading. If someone at Yale UP reads this, please try to edit this novel and reprint it! The author deserves it.
For an unfinished novel, José Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale is surprisingly polished and well structured. Credit should be given to the editor, Julio OrtFor an unfinished novel, José Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale is surprisingly polished and well structured. Credit should be given to the editor, Julio Ortega, and the translator, Suzanne Jill Levine. I haven’t read the Spanish, but a glimpse at the title in Spanish is enough to give one an idea of the translator’s ingenuity. The title means, literally, “lizard without a tail,” but the translator and the book designer have created a word play in English that doesn’t exist in the original. The book cover features a lizard whose cut tail is replaced by the words “The Lizard’s Tale.” This is an example of “unfaithfulness” in translation that not only doesn’t contradict the spirit of the novel, but it complements it. It also shows that a book’s meaning comes not merely from its “content,” but from everything, including the cover.
The novel’s protagonist, Antonio, is a Spanish painter who abandons art and Barcelona’s bohemian world, “as a lizard sheds its tail,” and retires to the isolated village of Dors, a place of untouched architectural beauty, whose many old houses go back hundreds of years. The flashbacks of Antonio’s previous life with their focus on the “informalists” are reminiscent of scenes from Cortazar’s Hopscotch, or Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and its “visceral realists.” The latter, however, was first published in 1998, while Donoso’s novel, written in 1973, was set aside and published for the first time in 2007.
Antonio—and through him, Donoso—laments the commercialization of tourism “which brings in foreign currency but destroys all identity,” and which is merely an extension of the prostitution that characterizes modern art in general, and the “informalist” movement in particular. Although most readers wouldn’t disagree, like me, they might find tiresome these repeated laments, which might have been more original in the early seventies when Donoso wrote them. I was afraid the novel might turn into some kind of homage to rustic, authentic life versus the corrupt life of the city—and I was wrong. Not only doesn’t Donoso idealize the former, but his description of the villagers is rather cynical (and, as such, is closer to reality than any kind of sugary idealization). As it happens, the villagers despise these old houses, and all they want is to sell them and move into modern, functional, interchangeable apartment buildings. While this desire might be justified by practical reasons, the villagers’ relationships among themselves and their status in the community are less justifiable: as in most communities, the big players in the village are the most ruthless and unscrupulous ones. As a consequence, as soon as he arrives in Dors, Antonio succeeds in making enemies, and it is by creating enemies that he becomes part of the community—an irony that is, certainly, not accidental.
When people from Antonio’s previous life begin to show up in the village—his latest lover, her daughter (who becomes his lover too), the lover’s doctor, Antonio’s former wife, their son, and the wife’s entourage, whose eccentricity brings to mind Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—a new air infuses the village. Antonio—and with him, the reader—is confronted with a paradox: the intruders will, no doubt, destroy the peaceful, traditional life of the village, for which he’d come there in the first place; at the same time, the intruders, whose tastes are similar to his, are the only ones who can help him preserve the old houses by buying and renovating them. The salvation and the destruction of the past seem to come from the same source.
This conflict is very much a reframing of The City and the Mountains by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós, in which the conflict is between technological progress or civilization, on the one hand, and nature, on the other. Eça de Queirós’s novel is, however, slightly less ambivalent, as the narrator’s preference goes definitely toward nature. The city—which happens to be Paris, where the writer wrote this novel in 1895—is described as an infinite source of pointless agitation, a place where one can find all the pleasures imaginable, but which in the end have one result: tedium. When the novel’s rich protagonist is called by a business emergency to his rural property in Portugal, the narrator describes his new life in the mountains as that of a “benefactor” who proceeds to remedy some of the local poverty by implementing urban technologies that would make the peasants’ lives better. Thus, the city finds its way into the mountains in the same way the attempt of Donoso’s protagonist to protect the village ends up opening it to the outside world.
Little by little, a story focused on an artist who runs away from one kind of community (that of Barcelona’s artistic bohemia) to a rural community that ends up rejecting and ostracizing him, turns into a philosophical reflection on the impossibility of any kind of community. As in a Greek tragedy, Antonio becomes the scapegoat the villagers feel they have to excommunicate in order for the village to return to its previous harmony. And when a young man dies, Antonio is declared guilty of a crime he hadn’t committed, and has to run away again. At the end of the novel—in the form given to us by its publisher—Antonio is hiding in an apartment in Barcelona, but we don’t know what the “real ending” is since the writer never finished it. In an interesting parallel, de Queirós never finished revising his novel either, and the ending to his novel—a little too naively enthusiastic for the “eternal” beauty of “gentle” nature—was chosen by another writer. ...more
I assume this is the original of the English translation, "Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh" (Autumn Hill Books, 2007). I am puzzled that I couldn't findI assume this is the original of the English translation, "Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh" (Autumn Hill Books, 2007). I am puzzled that I couldn't find the English title neither on Amazon nor on Goodreads. The novel is difficult to read, but powerful. A major East-European writer. I don't understand why the publisher hasn't done anything to make it visible....more
Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was one of the interwar European writers who were deeply influenced by Marcel Proust, in particular by the jealous ruminaMihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was one of the interwar European writers who were deeply influenced by Marcel Proust, in particular by the jealous ruminations of his protagonists, and the idea that we can never know the truth about another person, which was expressed by portraying a given character through various points of view that created a fluid and elusive “truth.”
The Accident has as a backdrop Bucharest’s (Romania’s capital) cosmopolitan life in the 1930s, when artists, lawyers, businessmen and bohemians rub elbows in bars until two am, go to the same receptions and parties, and spend their winter vacation at Predeal and other ski resorts in the area.
The main character, a dejected, melancholy young lawyer, suffering of some kind of mal de vivre, is trying to heal from a painful relationship. Like Proust’s objects of desire, the woman he is obsessed with is a mysterious puzzle made of many sides shown to the reader alternately, without nonetheless revealing her “secret.” The protagonist is offered a chance to free himself when he meets literally by accident (that is, as the result of an accident) another woman who will teach him how to ski.
The novel’s best pages are the descriptions of the mountains in winter, and the exhilarating sensation one experiences while skiing. A captivating novel and a good translation. ...more
Among the writers we read there are some who entertain us, some we can appreciate but don’t feel any particular afThe Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson
Among the writers we read there are some who entertain us, some we can appreciate but don’t feel any particular affinity with, some we intensely dislike, and some we admire so much we’d like to be them. And then, there is a small category that transcends all the categories above: the writers we are simply in awe of. I had such a feeling when I read Th. Mann, or Maurice Blanchot. And now—reading Brian Evenson’s The Wavering Knife.
I should say that I didn’t “like” all the stories in this collection—in fact, I disliked some of them because of their violence and cruelty (though this violence makes me think of Georges Bataille, since in many of the stories it’s directed against the first-person narrator—that is, against the author’s alter ego—and is, therefore, a very different kind of violence that the one in, say, Hollywood movies). One could say that the dismembering of the narrator’s body—a leitmotif in many of these stories—is akin to the falling apart of language and its meaning (sorry for the cliché, but it’s hard to put into a language that doesn’t sound ridiculous the experience of reading these stories). Or, one could say exactly the opposite: that in order for language to be born, the writer has to experience a kind of death: “language being the only thing worth living, or dying, over” (from “One Over Twelve”).
Evenson’s descriptions of the various mutilations of the body are, for me, among the most authentic expressions I’ve ever come across of the attempt to capture a lost sacredness of language (again, the word “sacredness” should be taken here in the sense given to it by Bataille or Blanchot). Another author in whose work I felt a similar authenticity is the poet Ghérasim Luca—not by accident are both Luca and Evenson praised by Gilles Deleuze. Evenson doesn’t have Luca’s stammered language—on the contrary, he is a master of the proper word (i.e., of the perfect word in the right place) but there is a pain coming through the page, which can only originate in the author’s body, and which seals the text with an authenticity that refuses to accept any kind of (mimetic) “representation” of the experience.
But there are also stories in this collection that are extremely funny—a dark humor, to be sure—such as “The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette.” In this story, the characters’ names and “relationships” have a Beckettian absurdness; in other stories this absurdness goes even farther, as the “relationships” are stripped of causality and psychology, and the settings are reduced to their essential elements. It is also interesting that this book is written (for the most part) in two voices: one, infused with Beckettian detachment; and another one, very different, impersonating a Christian, alcoholic, government-hater fundamentalist who, obviously, “doesn’t express the author’s point of view.” ...more
When I opened Ronald De Feo’s Calling Mr. King I was convinced I wasn’t going to read more than a few pages. I had received a free copy at the BEA froWhen I opened Ronald De Feo’s Calling Mr. King I was convinced I wasn’t going to read more than a few pages. I had received a free copy at the BEA from the publisher, Other Press, and since I normally don’t read novels about hit men, I thought I would just take a quick look at the hit man’s travels between Paris, London, New York and Barcelona, and get some vicarious tourist enjoyment this way. And then…I couldn’t stop reading. This novel turned out to be a faux thriller written in a minimalist, witty style, in the voice of a man who, after having worked as a hit man for all his adult life, starts to wonder one day about the life and the world inhabited by his “marks.” He begins to do research on Georgian style houses because one of his targets lived in such a house, and eventually, becomes fascinated with art and architecture. The hit man goes through some Sartrian moments of existential nausea, and even begins to change by the end, but the change is credible and not at all moralizing—that is, the author is smart enough not to tell us a story of “redemption” (though one may frame it this way). A very entertaining and witty novel....more
Nocturnes is the first book by Kazuo Ishiguro I’ve ever read. I often avoid reading books by famous contemporary authors because they are usually overNocturnes is the first book by Kazuo Ishiguro I’ve ever read. I often avoid reading books by famous contemporary authors because they are usually overrated, and I prefer to give my time to underappreciated writers. But Ishiguro was a nice surprise. I read this collection of five short stories in a day—which is very unlike me. The stories have a false simplicity, that is, they are written in an unassuming style, and are all related to music in some way (it is clear that the author is not only a lover of music, but a connoisseur). Most of them are “double narrations”—they are narrated by someone who remembers something that happened to an acquaintance—a technique often used by 19th century Russian writers, which gives these stories a “patina” that is in contrast with their contemporary topic and characters. This patina, together with the psychological subtlety and a certain absurdness present in certain dialogues make the book a great read. ...more
Sándor Márai’s Portraits of a Marriage (Trans. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, Knopf, 2011)
I had read Embers, The Rebels, Memoir of Hungary, EsSándor Márai’s Portraits of a Marriage (Trans. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, Knopf, 2011)
I had read Embers, The Rebels, Memoir of Hungary, Esther’s Inheritance, and the French edition of The Confessions of a Bourgeois (the English version is yet to come) by Márai, and I am a big admirer of his, but I didn’t expect to be so impressed by Portraits of a Marriage, his latest novel in English, released early this year by Knopf in George Szirtes’s outstanding translation. How should I put this? Portraits of a Marriage is a masterpiece. Portraits of a Marriage is one of the greatest 20th century novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a work whose psychological finesse equals that of Proust. Portraits of a Marriage has some of the most subtle socio-political observations I have encountered on Europe’s (dying) bourgeois society and post-war American society. This is, by the way, the only book by Márai in which he tackles—albeit briefly—the subject of America, the country where he lived in exile for about forty years. And finally, Portraits of a Marriage is a novel about the nature of romantic love written with the raw lucidity one finds only in Tolstoy or Stefan Zweig.
The novel has four parts, each in a different voice: Ilonka’s—the wife of a very wealthy man, who tries to unveil her husband’s secret; Peter’s—the husband secretly in love with his mother’s servant; Judit’s—the servant who has grown up (literally) in a ditch, and who will one day marry the Master (i.e., Peter); Ede’s—Judit’s last lover in Rome (where she lives in exile after the Communists come to power in Hungary), a drummer turned bartender in New York.
Although each part is very captivating, the best is, probably, Judit’s confession. It is the most intelligent analysis of bourgeois culture I have ever read, written from the perspective of an outsider, which makes it sound at times like an anthropological study. This analysis is all the more extraordinary since Márai identified strongly as a “bourgeois,” that is, as belonging to a culture entirely destroyed by the Communist regime.
If you read only one novel this year, read this! ...more
The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong (Overlook Press, 2011. Trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt)
Although I am a strong believer in the power of tThe Boat to Redemption by Su Tong (Overlook Press, 2011. Trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt)
Although I am a strong believer in the power of the imagination, I also believe that good literature can only be born in an environment that gives us the elements necessary to transmute them into something else. A (good) writer doesn’t simply copy reality, but (s)he can’t entirely reinvent it either. What I am trying to get at is this: if, in a society, all the writers are teaching creative writing, the reality they work with is, by force of circumstance, impoverished. True, this impoverishment is due to more than one factor: one could say that the sterile, aseptic lives most of us live in Western societies—spending most of our time in front of a screen—aren't conducive to creating great works of art; of course, one could also say the opposite: that a sterile environment may trigger in us the desire to create a different world than the one we live in. No matter, one need only read literature in translation from non-Western countries to realize that the flesh of the real and the touch of history do play a role in artistic creation.
Having said this, I would rather spend all my life in an office than live in Su Tong’s China where there is no escape from history. The narrative takes place, as far as I could tell (since there are no dates) in the late seventies, in post-Maoist China. The setting: a fishing village where the population is divided into the boat people and those on the shore. The main character is a teenager—and later a young man—nicknamed Kongpi from “kong,” empty, and “pi,” ass (not the most popular boy in town). The boy and his father end up among the boat people when the father, who had been a Party Secretary, falls out of favor with the local nomenklatura. His disgrace is the result of a tragic-comic situation: having been considered until then the son of a local revolutionary-martyr (that is, a young woman who had been killed by the previous regime, and as a consequence, had been transformed into the closest equivalent to a saint—she is the object of a cult and her sculpted likeness is guarded as a precious relic), he is now declared a fraud. This ritual of a fall from grace, all too common in communism, is subjected to a sarcastic scrutiny by Su Tong: the proof of the father’s claim to fame (as the martyr’s son) is the fish-shaped birthmark on his behind. Once he is declared a fraud, no matter how often does the poor man drop his pants down to show the proof, no one believes him any more. Not only that, but, after having been unfaithful for many years, he loses his wife too. And the solution he ultimately finds to his overpowering sexual urges is…to cut off his penis. Young Kongpi himself, who has inherited his father’s urges, struggles for the entire novel with his undisciplined penis, which has a tendency to stand erect at the most inauspicious moments.
This is the background on which appears Huixian, a charming, clever nine-year-old girl, who is adopted by the boat people, and who becomes the object of Kongpi’s most secret desires. The girl turns into a beautiful young woman, who, for some time, seems to have a great future as an actress performing a Communist revolutionary, until she too, falls from grace. Huixian’s character is, actually, very complex, as this woman changes from a powerful diva into a cheap conformist, and from a beautiful woman into the closest equivalent to a redneck (she spends most of her time cracking melon seeds). Kongpi’s adventures too are endless, and one could almost call him a picaresque hero. This is an extremely captivating novel, and the translator, Howard Goldblatt, deserves special credit for an impressive translation. ...more
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic (Trans. by Anthea Bell, Grove Press, 2008)
How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has an unusuaHow the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic (Trans. by Anthea Bell, Grove Press, 2008)
How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has an unusual structure: it is divided into two parts, the first one with the same title as the novel, the second titled “When Everything Was All Right” and authored by Aleksandar Krsmanovic, the novel’s narrator (and, obviously, an alter ego of Sasa Stanisic). This is not a story within a story, but rather, two twin stories, as both tell the story of a young boy growing up in a small Bosnian village in post-Tito Communist Yugoslavia.
Stanisic’s novel is not written according to the structure of a gradually thickening plot; rather, it is a chronicle of a world about to be swept off by history. The chapters focused on the life before the war seem taken from a film by the French director Tati, revealing a series of picturesque characters and their daily interactions. Aleksandar’s grandfather, the main object of the narrator’s affection, a charming old man very likely based on the author’s own grandfather, happens to be a Communist who holds some title in the local Party nomenklatura. Interestingly, unlike writers from older generations, Stanisic doesn’t seem very critical of Communism, probably because in comparison with the hell that followed, it was “all right.”
There are parts in the novel, especially at the beginning, that made me feel ambivalent about it: on the one hand, Stanisic is, undeniably, a very talented writer, and his characters are extremely vivid; on the other, there is a certain…cuteness in the description of this old world (justified, in part, by the fact that the book is written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old) that I sometimes found off-putting.
In 1991 the villagers’ life (which, in retrospect, appears idyllic) is disrupted by the unthinkable: war. Once the war beings, the narration acquires a raw authenticity that makes it (and not only in my opinion) one of the best works on war in modern literature. Although I am a strong believer in the power of imagination, I think that there are certain extreme events that one can only write about in an authentic way if one has experienced them, and war is one of them. This is not because one cannot imagine war, but because often, when representing such extreme situations, writers tend to transform them into something spectacular (in all the senses of this word), and therefore ob-scene (a spectacle made to be shown on stage). There are numerous accounts of contemporary tragedies that revel in their bloodiness, usually written by authors who haven’t witnessed them.
Stanisic’s honesty, combined with his gift for storytelling (by which I mean the telling of a story in a way bards used to do it, that is, an account informed by orality) give the novel a poignant immediacy. There is a chapter describing a soccer game during the war, when, apparently, the Serbian army and the Territorials (i.e, the Bosnian army) used to play in opposite teams during brief cease-fire breaks. Nowhere else is the absurdity of war more evident than when the soldiers stop the carnage against each other to play together, and afterward go back to killing each other. The chapter describing this absurd game, at the end of which the Serbian leader orders a bloodbath—breaking the rules of the game—is extraordinary.
If one takes into account that Stanicic published this novel at 28 in his second language, German, one can predict a great future for this young writer.
Jane Gardam’s Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) is a sequel to Old Filfth (2006), though both novels can be read independently. The Man…is written from theJane Gardam’s Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) is a sequel to Old Filfth (2006), though both novels can be read independently. The Man…is written from the perspective of Betty, married to Sir Edward Feathers, while Old Filth (Filth being an acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”) is told from Filth’s point of view.
The Man in the Wooden Hat is one of those novels that are hard to summarize because what “happens” resides mostly in the interaction between characters—a character-driven story, as they say. The chapters’ titles themselves are emblematic: “Happiness,” “Marriage,” “Life…” Indeed, the only “events” in the novel are the marriage of Eddie and Betty—preceded by her one-night adventure with Eddie’s professional rival (also a lawyer, like Eddie), and in the end, Betty’s death. Yet, this is a very captivating book, and once you begin to read it, is hard to put down. Moving between London, Hong Kong and an idyllic location in the Doneheads, the texture of the novel borrows something from the atmosphere of all these places, so the reading experience translates for the reader into the sensuous feeling of being enveloped in an alien, fascinating fabric. ...more