Dire le monde pour l’inventer

Souvent, lorsque je parle, quand je suis face à face, je m’étonne d’entendre, en même temps que l’autre, ce que je viens d’énoncer à l’instant : je me découvre. Aussi, lorsque l’autre s’énonce, peut-on quelquefois, en des moments privilégiés, devenir cet espace offert à la compréhension. Mais dès que l’attention fléchit, je bredouille, sans arriver à poursuivre un cheminement. Comme si, pour dire, j’avançais sur un tapis tendu par l’attention d’une altérité soutenue. En d’autres mots, comment pourrait-on articuler la langue dans une bouche, si ce n’est, toujours déjà, dedans l’oreille du voisin ? Et cette langue, qu’invente-t-elle d’autre que ces catégories du monde que forgent, avec ces mêmes vocables, nos fictions mentales ? En d’autres termes : parler, c’est dire le monde pour l’inventer.

Maurice Olender/Un fantôme dans la bibliothèque

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Masatsugu Ono: Lion Cross Point

Ono, Masatsugu (2018), Lion Cross Point, Two Lines Press
Translated by Angus Turvill
ISBN 978-1-931883-70-2

Lion Cross Point is a gentle little book about how to deal with violence, trauma and memory. Its author, acclaimed novelist Masatsugu Ono, offers us a fractured narrative of a boy’s past and present – and maybe his future. The novel has an incomplete set of details about the events that shaped its protagonist – because it relies on that protagonist to furnish these details. In many ways, the novel is a description of a process of memory recovery, as Takeru, the ten year old boy at the heart of the story, slowly dredges up more and more details about his past, as revelations about his family – and a ghostly apparition, serve as catalysts, telling him it is ok to share his story, to go on, to be. The book is short – and uses its space extraordinarily well. There are no wasted lines, no throwaway observations. As with all translations, it’s hard to judge it stylistically, and it has a few oddities in how it deals with Takeru’s interior monologue that could be either stylistic choices by Ono, or translation artifacts. Overall, however, the novel’s simple language works remarkably well and never lends itself to a certain blandness or coldness that many lesser practitioners of literary minimalism exhibit. I have complained about them on the blog before. This is an enormous little book, and I have to thank the translator Angus Turvill, as well as the publisher, for bringing this writer into English of whom I had never before heard. Neither, to be honest, had I been aware of the publisher, Two Lines Press, which has done a remarkable job here, on all levels.

Like an orchid, Lion Cross Point has many layers and opens itself slowly and languorously, as we read through it. As least that was my experience. Ono has an interesting preoccupation with names and places and structure, and he doesn’t ease us into the book. In fact, in some ways, reading the first third or fourth of the book is a process of learning, of understanding how to read the book and its events. In this, we follow in the footsteps of Ono’s protagonist, who slowly learns how to read his own life. How do we understand kindness if we were raised in a harsh, impoverished, cruel environment? In these situations we might be confused about the forces that make people care about us, bring us food, for example, or protect us against violence. Takeru’s examination of his life and his past slowly unearths these acts of kindness and the people who offered them, and we see him slowly move from – not suspicion, but confusion – to a kind of acceptance. It is ok. Right up to his own acts of neglect and violence, Takeru looks at his hands and his heart and struggles to accept himself and his place in the world. He’s not the only person in the book who struggles, and through Takeru’s fractured memories, we see the other people – not clearly, but outlined sharply. There’s his mother, who suffered a great deal of abuse and wasn’t able to protect Takeru and his brother. And there’s his brother, whose affliction forms a central element of the book, but is never misused by the author for easy emotional points.

As we meet Takeru, he’s visiting his family’s village over the summer. It is the friendly kindness of the villagers that serves as a catalyst for Takeru’s journey to understanding and speech and self expression, particularly a trip to a local aquarium. Twice, Takeru frames his understanding of a past event as sprung from something he witnessed in the village. One of the more interesting aspects of the translation is also tied into the village – dialect. I think we who read translations are all aware of the pitfalls of translating dialect, or not translating it. The German translation of Kelman’s masterful How Late It Was, How Late, a novel written wholly in Scottish dialect, is rendered entirely in standard German. A difficult decision, but what dialect would you pick to mimic Scottish? There are many more examples like this. In Lion Cross Point, translator Angus Turvill has opted for a clever middle ground between dialect and standard English. He uses small contractions, and “g-dropping,” to signify country dialect. The way it is employed makes the fact of dialect very clear – g-dropping is today a particularly clear sign of down-to-earth, lower-class usage of English- without committing to any specific dialect. It’s not a perfect solution (I have a personal obsession with the topic of translating dialect), but I found it an unusually brilliant and effective one. It also has the additional advantage of helping us wade through Takeru’s sometimes chaotic montage of perception and memory.

This chaos, however, is more than just a result of Takeru’s fractured and traumatized mind. There’s also, I feel, an underlying discourse about names and meaning and identity that vacillates somewhere between Searle, Kripke and Wittgenstein. Early in the novel, a character insists on the similarity of two names and what that means for the bearers of those two names. What does a name mean, what does it signify? Where do the lines between the two entities blur? Ono does this repeatedly, but with particular emphasis in two places: one is the one I just described. The purpose of that character’s comparison of names is, I think, to help Takeru find a place in the village and understand that he is part of that village’s past. Part of the cluster of descriptions that mean “Takeru,” to talk about it in Searle’s terms, have to include the surprisingly mysterious history of the village and the landmark that gave the novel its name. The other instance of this is a loose association of Haiti, the country of origin of one of Takeru’s benefactors, with Heidi, Johanna Spyris character (though in this case more specifically the anime incarnation of it) and Haiji, a classmate of Takeru. The purpose of this second chain of family resemblances is a bit more complicated, I think, but there are other cases throughout the novel that are not so obviously marked. If you started this novel with a mild irritation at the many names that are introduced in short order (some characters are introduced multiple times), these passages show you why Ono built his book around these names and places.

Indeed, the fact that Takeru doesn’t learn to read his past in a clearer and more benevolent way until he is “home,” i.e. in the countryside where his family is from, says something to the importance of places. As with other aspects, we as readers are also primed to understand this book as being centrally concerned with place by several early scenes, including a prayer to the shrine of the ancestors in the house Takeru arrives at. There is an implied preference for the countryside as a locus of understanding yourself that’s common in world literature, but has particular significance in much Japanese literature I’ve read, and so seems heightened. Family, land and self seem linked – with our current self not much more than the topmost inscription on a complicated palimpsest, and older layers occasionally shining through in the form of ghosts and visitations.

The central topic is indeed meaning, and I think both in a more abstract sense, and in the sense of memory interpretation: how do we give meaning to the various parts in our life and the people therein? Who are we? Speaking of ourselves means balancing the pain and the joy and accepting who we are. It’s okay. Masatsugu Ono’s novel is a remarkable achievement which brilliantly deals with complicated questions and always remains emotional and humane throughout. I have, in this review, skipped over many plot details, particularly of the ghostly apparition, but they rely on the same mechanisms that I sketched above, and since I think you should read this book, I didn’t want to deprive anyone of the joy of discovery, of the journey through the folds of Lion Cross Point.

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Fallow

When what you do has to do with writing and thinking and translating and writing, having a temporary mental breakdown means all your work comes to a stop. I am writing again this month, but I have no idea how to reply to a lot of emails from people I solicited last year, or friends who gave me opportunities or look at my list of places to send abstracts or poems or short stories, God knows I write a little of everything somehow.

This is not to complain although it may read like it. But as I am sitting here at my computer, looking at drafts and notebooks, the devastation of two fallow months is enormous, and translates into setbacks, and possibly other fallow months down the line. And I have lived with this for so many years, losing a week here, a month there, and it has cut deep gashes into my CV and you can’t explain this to people. If I can’t write I can’t write. I can push myself here and there, but there’s a limit.

And then I sit here, balding, tired, on a cold March night, with a cat on my lap, a weird writer-translator version of Dr. No, I guess, picking up the pieces, writing a new draft here, a new poem there. And this is how it goes. And this is why I have this blog. I don’t put a lot of work into these reviews but they help clear the mud from my brain sometimes. It is very helpful and I am grateful for every single person who reads this blog, making me feel slightly less alone in this cave of books and manuscripts and cat toys and empty coffee cups.

thank you

The Mokers

modoc. n. One of the several small dummies set up to be knocked over by baseballs at a carnival tent; hence, a stupid person.
mohosca. n. Muscle; energy used in work.
mojo. n. Any narcotic.
mokers, the. n. Despondency; dejection; the blues.
mokus. n., adj. 1. Drunk. 2. Liquor.
molasses. n. A good-looking used automobile displayed to attract customers to a used-car lot.
moldy fig. 1. A prude; a pedant; one whose views or tastes are old-fashioned. 2. Specif., a person who prefers traditional jazz to the progressive forms.

The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang. Eds. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner. Pocket, 1967.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-345-80687-1

If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.

It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.

Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.

Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.

The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.

One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.

 

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