Svetlana Alexievich wins the 2015 Literature Nobel Prize!

Svetlana Alexievich wins the 2015 Literature Nobel Prize! Guys, let me have this one. This is the closest I ever came to getting it right. Did I wake up with a feeling Oates might win? Sure. Did none of my actual picks make it? Yeah. BUT LOOK AT THIS. I think we can agree I practically got it right. Also, I picked up 4 of her books from the library last weekend. HOW’s THAT FOR PRESCIENT. Meanwhile, if you want more than my desperate/sad gloating here’s a piece on Alexievich from last year’s New Yorker called “Nonfiction deserves a Nobel“, by Philip Gourevitch. Meanwhile, much as I was very happy about the award, the aftermath is starting to feel a bit like the aftermath of last year’s Nobel award. While last year, book journos were quick to proclaim the greatness of Modiano (I don’t agree), this year, they are wringing a kind of significance out of this award that I just don’t see. Gourevich and other reporters are understandably happy. But articles like Why Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize Is Good for Literature by Jonathon Sturgeon are unconvincing and bad. And I can see more of that to come.

Nobel Prize 2015: My picks.

So originally I planned on mostly just reposting my old 2014 picks (because I, uh, picked wrong, as always), but I did end up modifying them. I mean, look, I have become very impatient with the insistence of the Academy to elect good-but-not-great white or European writers. I always found that the best attitude is not “who should win it instead” – but “has the winner deserved it?” Because the pool of excellent & important writers who cannot all win it, is just too large. And opinions vary. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. The best writer of the bunch is probably Claude Simon, with Jorge Semprún a close second, and writers like Jean Rouaud and Patrick Modiano following behind that. Simon is an undeniably great writer (a very deserving Nobel winner), and while Modiano is not following in his footsteps, following a different literary lineage, I would argue he’s not appreciably different enough to warrant a Nobel Prize while other writers languish. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or 91 year old Michel Tournier, whose best work far outstrips Modiano’s best? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? She passed away this year and it’s a shame she never won Literature’s most prestigious award.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 94 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed, especially since it felt a few years ago as if the academy was doing a tour of all the important writers that were on the brink of dying, giving the prize to deserving and old writers like Pinter, Lessing and Tranströmer. They are the kind of significant, excellent writers that we sometimes think must already have won it. In general, as I pointed out last year, the award appeared to settle into a “sure why not” pattern of boring but unobjectionable writers.

And yet, much as I liked my ‘observed’ pattern, Modiano does not fit it. If he died unrecognized there would have been no outcry about it, nor was there a general clamoring for his election, as there was for writers like Vargas Llosa. In fact, a different pattern, less acceptable, emerges now. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog. So let’s go on to my picks.

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, however, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Ko Un. I have read his work in English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss him. I find him intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss him. Selfishly, I would root for him winning just to read more essays on his work.

TWO Like poetry, nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So as in the previous case, I will mention more than one here. #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

Four So the fourth pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. So who? Let me pick 2. There’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now. But the death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France.

David Duchovny: Holy Cow

Duchovny, David (2015), Holy Cow, Headline

holy cow 1This year I have stepped up the frequency of reviews a bit (here’s a list), and have reviewed some short/genre books. Still, I admit, this book is maybe an odd choice to pick for a review (rather than, say, read, chuckle and discard). The reason for it being both my great love for the TV work of Mr. David Duchovny, and my utter delight at just reading the plot summary for this, his first novel. So this will end up being my shortest review in years, but I would indeed like to draw attention to this delightfully nutty book. David Duchovny wrote a novel that is uneven, funny, moralizing, way too self aware and profoundly silly. It’s not as good as I hoped it would be but it’s still a great delight and I dare you to disagree. It’s a great joy to see an actor with a serious background turn to fiction and not have the book be a pale imitation of the already tired paradigm of the Serious Literary Effort. The worst example of this is Ethan Hawke’s prose, which is awful, derivative and makes you want to sue the editor. And at the same time, it’s very serious, very considered, very, for lack of a better words, ‘writerly’. Have you ever read a novel that was very obviously an MFA-produced empty, dolled up Literary Novel (I reviewed one here)? Hawke and actor/writers like him produce work like that, only with fewer critical readers involved in the process.

There should be more writers like Vollmann

There should be more writers like Vollmann

I will say that this goes beyond Hawke. I miss writers taking big risks, they don’t have to be big books (although that’s always great), but how many boldly conceived failures do you see on the shelves today? Even the big books, like Dave Mitchell’s work, tend to be on the safe and acceptable side. Writers like William Vollmann have become pretty rare. Even when writers go out and put out a big, juicy chunk of a book, they tend to frame it safely. Take Clemens Setz’ gargantuan new book. As far as I have read it so far (it’s very long), it pays for its scope with restrained, easy, nonliterary language that you’d expect more from a gossip magazine rather than a boldly imagined novel (which, otherwise, it is). So, no, David Duchovny’s novel is not the alternative, it’s not the great, bold literary statement that I’ve called for. It’s a lightweight, not really well written book that pontificates way too much, but it is genuinely silly. This could have turned out differently. You may know David Duchovny primarily as an actor, but he has a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature from Princeton and Yale respectively, and these are not James Franco’s post-fame prestige degrees, this is a genuine education. He even started on a PhD, but abandoned it in favor of a career in acting. If he wanted, I’m faily certain he could have produced a pastiche of The Serious Literary Novel. You know the kind. Short sentences, heavy looks, the kind of stuff only Richard Ford among living American novelists can pull off and even he’s no longer doing a good job of it.

setz ereader

So this is the edition that I’m reading the new Setz in, for…reasons.

So David Duchovny has the background to write a Literary Novel but instead he gives us this silly book. The story summary on the flap gives the entire plot away, and by this I mean the entire plot. There’s a reason for that – and it’s the atrocious pacing of the book. Duchovny was not issued an editor when he published this book, it seems (much as Morrissey’s List of the Lost appears to have come about without an editor), and so he gives himself completely over to the voice of his protagonist, Elsie Bovary (yup), a cow who, upon watching TV one night, discovers the unspeakable things humans do to her bovine kind. I’m not going to discuss this book in terms of its traditions, because, one, that would be unfair to the traditions and the book, which is not written to be set in a literary tradition, and mentions some of the most well known books in various chapters anyway. The second reason for this is that the Orwells of the liuterary world might not actually be its ancestors, properly speaking. If anything, the pontificating on eating meat and factory farming animals seems to fit a popular mode of unthinking veg(etari)anism, with books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals more likely to be an influence on the gestation of Holy Cow. If you have read any of those books, it won’t surprise you to hear that this portion of the novel is easily the weakest part.

holy cow shalom

The book comes with illustrations b< Natalya Balnova

In part, that’s due to the fact that the discussions of animal rights and animal feelings and welfare break with the book’s basic mode of silliness. They are serious, in a book that’s very much not so. The voice of Elsie is a delight, however. She’s spunky, if not very smart, and she is cast as the author of the book (dictating the novel to a certain Mr. Duchovny), relating to us reactions of her editor, toying with form. The novel really takes off when it introduces her two travel companions as she prepares to flee the farm to go to India where cows are revered and not eaten. Those companions are Jerry, a pig that changes its name to Shalom and becomes more Jewish as the book progresses (including a scene of the pig going to a mohel to have a circumcision performed) and decides to go to Israel for similar dietary reasons that convinced Elsie to go to India. The third member of their club is Tom, a turkey who hasn’t read up on the world outside the farm as much as Elsie and Shalom have and is convinced that in Turkey no-one will surely kill a turkey, the bird being the country’s namesake and all. Although he asks for one detail to be observed

Just as an aside, however we get there, can we not go through that country called Hungary? It sounds like a nightmare for all of us. Just the name makes me shiver: Hungary. And all the scary, hungry Hungaryarians that live there.

Again, there are plenty of fairy tales involving disparate groups of animals going on adventures, but the book merely nods to those traditions. It makes no use of allegory, really, except on the most superficial level. What follows is a silly, picaresque adventure through Turkey, Israel and India, in the course of which the three manage to unite Israelis and Palestinians, being hailed as peacebringers.

holy cow 2Look, the book is just a ton of fun, and it’s best read with one eye closed to the occasional pontification. It’s published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a highly reputable house, and according to the acknowledgments at the back, Jonathan Galassi, translator extraordinaire and current publisher of Farrar Straus and Giroux, personally encouraged Duchovny to write it. I have no doubt that this attention is similarly motivated by Duchovny’s pop cultural stature, as Frank Bidart’s endorsement of James Franco is, but at the same time, this is not a bad book for what it is. There are, for example, approximately five pages of punning and very broad Jewish humor just in the middle of it, and the book somehow straddles the divide between having animals behaving like humans, reading books, flying planes etc. and yet not being actually able to speak. Duchovny just sidesteps any inclination to explain anything, make anything more realistic. The primary question in the creation of the book appears to have been “is this funny?” and it really is, most of the time. The lovely black-and-white illustrations by Natalya Balnova and a surprisingly good fit. I will admit, you need to bring a certain sense of humor to the book, an affinity to silliness and sometimes really, really well worn jokes, but all books in a way demand things of their readers. Ultimately, with all its flaws and the silly vegetarianism and the odd pacing, I really enjoyed reading Holy Cow. And for me, that’s enough.


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Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux

Condé, Maryse (2010), En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux, JCLattès
ISBN 978-2-7096-3321-5

DSC_1546So, this feels a bit odd. En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the first novel I have read by Maryse Condé. Condé is, incidentally, nominated for the Man Booker International 2015, an award given not to an individual novel but to a whole oeuvre. She is nominated for having this large and influential oeuvre dealing with the African diaspora, questions of race, the Black Atlantic, history and feminism. I don’t think she should win it, but that’s largely due to the fact that Marlene Van Niekerk, László Krasznahorkai and Ibrahim al-Koni are also nominated, three absolutely brilliant novelists. I will say this: I can’t really comment on the broader oeuvre of Ms. Condé, because En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the only one of her books I have read cover to cover so far. It is not, let me say this outright, the best option if you want an introduction to Condé. From what I read so far, that option would be Moi, Titouba, Sorcière or you could jump right into the deep end and read her two volume historical chef d’oeuvre Segou. Lucky for you, these earlier books have all been translated into English already. She appears to be quite generously translated, overall, unlike last year’s Nobel winner Modiano (read my take on his work here), where publishers have been trying to catch up with the sudden rise in importance, interest and significance all year. So, given that this book is not the best place to start, you should take some of my broader assessment with a grain of salt. I will admit, I was not bowled over by Condé’s novel. It’s not awful, but surely awful is not what we’re shooting for with a novelist who keeps getting nominated for major awards. Much of what’s interesting about the book is structural or intellectual. The prose is nothing to write home about. I understand that the task before the novelist here was frequently to render the speech and tale of badly educated Creole and Antillean individuals into writing, but surely that could have been achieved more interestingly. There is an odd sense of disengagement between the author and her subject – odd because so much of Condé’s work in general retraces elements of her identity, asking questions that pertain directly to her personal identity. And yet, despite all this, it’s still an engaging read, the characters still come alive, and the ideas and political convictions sparke. Condé herself considers this the dark final chapter of her Segou books, but its effect is measured. Read it.

conde seguIn keeping with my earlier warning about the book and its place at the end of a long career in writing, here is one more caveat. The book’s characters have turned up here and there in other works and in the richness of its stories Condé also re-uses ideas from earlier novels. It’s not quite like reviewing Roth’s Exit Ghost without reference to Roth’s earlier Zuckerman books, but I’m sure there’s a gap between my understanding of the novel and that of an expert reader of Condé’s work. That said, there’s no obvious lacunae in the text or inexplicable artifacts demanding to be contextualized with older books. It wasn’t until I came across an interview with Condé that this connection was pointed out to me. I actually think the book’s structure might work better if you don’t know the backstory of Babakar and his mother Thècla, but I say this in ignorance of vast swathes of her work, especially Segou. This impression of mine is due to the way the book deals with history. All major characters introduced to us tell us their story in their own words. They get dedicated chapters, called “The story of X,” and this includes a chapter on Babakar. Additionally, the story briefly, in its most entertaining section, sketches the history of Babakar’s family, including his mother Thècla who is long dead when the story starts. That very brief sketch of the family history is deft and fun. It offers a magic realist take on a tale of the Middle Passage, only to allow the rest of the novel to mostly drop the magic realism in exchange for what’s probably best referred to as melodramatic/postcolonial realism. Yet that seed allows the novel to use a ghost as a literary device, commentator and cruel conscience, but also seeds all the realism with an implicit abyss of wonder. Throughout her life and in various interviews, Condé has always expressed skepticism towards terms like the “francophonie”, “négritude” and the like, a bit like Derek Walcott, who resisted the latter term as well. She does quite a bit of legwork in this novel to express both some concepts that are covered by the terms, concepts of history and community, without subscribing to some of the pathos they come from. The mild, deeply seeded magic realism here serves as a kind of emotional underpinning. Whereas Segou is dedicated to her “Bambara ancestress,” and ends with a note of thanks to various African scholars, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux stands alone.

DSC_1548Orality is a central element of the book, without a supervising narrative that smooths everything in. We do get an omniscient narrator, but the facts told us in the oral narratives are never adjusted, discussed or corrected, even when they come from people that we have come to believe to be untrustworthy. There is, after all, a strong connection of the literature of the Antilles to orality. As Condé writes in her short treatise on Aimé Césaire (1978), the Créole of the Antilles developed to allow the slaves, imported from various parts of Africa, a common language. It is, according to Condé, a case of diglossia, not bilingualism – one is a dialect recognized to have a low social status, and one meant to be used in ‘proper’ speech and writing. The simplicity of Condé’s French, one feels now and then, is meant to reproduce that simple, low octane, low register speech for a kind of authenticity. At the same time, the convoluted structure of the book, which deploys narratives as it sees fit, juggles time, memory and events in a complex pattern, appears to counteract that linguistic strategy. Similarly, Condé offers us occasional Creole phrases. She never translates them, leaving us to guess, but she also uses very few of them in the speech of individuals who you’d expect to use more of them. These structural contradictions are not unexpected in Condé’s work who has consistently resisted easy readings, and who, intellectually, must be read carefully, in order to not trip over one of her many lines of connection and thought. One rather notorious example of this kind of ‘tripping’ is an essay by Anne-Marie Jeay called “Segou, les murailles de terre: Lecture anthropologique d’un roman.” It’s not long, but a deeply fascinating attack on Condé. The main issue, and one that the essay gets most quoted for, is a suggestion of both orientalism (and even racism), and of plagiarism. Both issues are connected to Condé’s use of historians’ works on the history of Mali. Jeay lists them triumphantly and demonstrates to what extent these texts have been borrowed, and, in a second step, how racist and offensive these texts are in the first place. It’s a spectacular misreading (my own reading of it owes much to Cilas Kemedjio’s excellent book on Condé and Glissant) of a text that, after all, thanks African scholars in the back, and which uses these scholars of Western academia in order to construct an image of Africa-as-found-in-books, contrasting it with a more deeply felt personal connection and highlighting, too, the disconnection Condé herself feels towards her ancestral home. Salman Rushdie famously wrote that exiles writing about their homelands are creating fictions, in his case “an India of the mind.” So in a way, Ségou is Condé’s ‘Mali of the Mind” and her elaborate web of quotes and references are a way of foregrounding that construction.

condéThis is a disconnection that we also find in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux. Almost all of its central characters are lost far from their home, having to redefine home. The very family story of the novel’s protagonist Babakar, which I mentioned above, is a tale of the Black Atlantic, like many others. It’s laced with a bit of superstition, which in its generational sweep reminded me a bit of Toni Morrison, and recounts to us how Babakar’s ancestor ended up a freed slave on Guadeloupe. It is Babakar’s own mother, the mysterious Thècla who would, for money and adventure, choose to take the trip back to Africa, to become a teacher in Mali. She died, leaving her young son alone in the world, but not all alone. Her specter, heckling, disapproving, would haunt him for the rest of his life (at least as far as we are shown in the book). Babakar, who would become a doctor, spent much of his life in Africa surrounded by tragedy, loss, betrayal and civil war, until he, having lost everything, decided to settle in Guadeloupe, closing the circle. This is, more or less, where the novel begins. In its first pages he delivers a dying woman of a baby girl. In her last moments, the mother, a native from Haiti, asks of Babakar to bring her daughter home to Haiti, which, with the help of the woman’s last lover and his gardener, he eventually does, having practically adopted the child. That’s where the main plot of the novel unravels. The novel’s timeline ends in the 2010 earthquake, fairly open ended, which I think I can say without spoiling the book. I mean, the book is frequently compelling, but suspense has nothing to do with it. Unlike Ségou, this book doesn’t make the autobiographical connection obvious except through the author’s bio in the back mentioning her Guadeloupe origins. The Mali connection is not written into the book, that one depends on knowing more of Condé’s work. That’s not greatly relevant, however, since the book’s obsession with home and travel, with ethnic and cultural heritage and contemporary politics is obvious throughout. As a side note let me add that this is true for 99% of reviews/studies obsessing over authorial intention. Usually, if you read any text closely, its central concerns are fairly clear without knowing the author’s biography, which is likely to be more distraction than help anyway.

reading conde

Excuse the narcissism. This is me reading the book around Easter 2015.

That said, I would like to return to some of Condé’s critical writing, especially that nifty little book on Césaire. Throughout her career, Condé has resisted easy categorizations, from being considered a writer of the francophonie to concepts in postcolonial studies like négritude. The latter, for example, is derided by Condé as creating a fictional image of black people that’s merely a reaction to Western ideals, an anti-western description, dependent on and already colonized by the West. The only aspect she allows for is the capacity to survive a great deal of suffering: “Un diction antillais did: ‘An nèg pa ka jin mo.’ En français, ‘un nègre ne meurt jamais.’” In a way, Babakar’s odyssee in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux through pain and loss and his almost miraculous survival of it all is a literary reflection of that positive aspect of négritude. I may be ambivalent about her skills as a novelist, but her extraordinary resistance to easy concepts is impressive, even if it has caused a bit of a backlash, as Walcott’s decision to write in high register English has for some critics. An obvious starting point here is the novel’s insistence that Guadeloupe, not being an independent nation, but a DOM. People from Guadeloupe, according to the novel, and according to interviews given by Condé afterward, don’t have a country, they are homeless. They can say “Guadeloupe is my country” but that’s a sentimental rather than factual comment. In an interview with Francoise Simasotchi-Bronès, she even compares them to Romani, nomads, hated in the countries they live in, and the countries they travel to. There is an odd echo of that position in that essay by Anne-Marie Jeay I mentioned before, where she refers to Condé as being “black but Guadeloupian” (“noire mais guadeloupéenne”) – an inauthentic person to write about Africa, tainted by living in a French dependency. And yet, for DOM writers, France is not an easy place to call home. According to Bill Ashcroft, people and places are “transformed by diasporas” – and in many ways, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux dramatizes that transformation, by offering us multiple diasporas and showing us people disconnected from ancestral homelands, people changing in exile, people desperate to forge a link with home. For Babakar, that link is reified in the ghost of his mother Thècla, but most people are not so lucky. In the end, we learn, there is no real homeland for anyone, there are only the homes that we make for ourselves, the homes we create. Sometimes because we want to live there, sometimes because we have to make do, sometimes because of a duty.

DSC_1549This is even true for Condé. Intentionally or not, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the novel of a writer who has lived away from Guadeloupe for a long time. It’s not just her harsh criticism of the idea of Guadeloupe being a country. There are quite a few artefacts throughout the book that are odd. One of the most remarkable ones comes during Babakar’s story of his life in war torn Mali. As he returns to a town he lived for years in, only to see it having been utterly destroyed by war and strife, mostly obliterated, the author has Babakar remark: “On aurait dit que pareil à la Nouvelle-Orléans, l’ouragan Katrina l’avait ravagée.” It’s very odd, you have to admit, to have the #1 association, when finding a city destroyed by war, to say that it looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I think I would be excused to say that this doesn’t sound like Mali citizen Babakar recounting his country’s destruction and more like Maryse Condé, writer who taught for years at Columbia in New York. The decentered condition that hovers over most of the book and that has been theorized by Jacques Chevrier as “migritude” appears to also include the writer Maryse Condé. And ultimately, despite all the book’s literary shortcomings, especially as far as the prose is concerned, that’s what’s most compelling about it: it’s a book that wrestles with “migritude” on many levels, that keeps pushing ideas and narratives to center stage, including its own author’s biases. The lack of resolution, really, reflects the fluid and complex nature of the phenomenon. It’s a deeply unhappy book, but it doesn’t go for a Coetzee-style darkness. It doesn’t go for visceral brutality, it goes for inconclusive confusion. And that’s a good thing.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own

Sciascia, Leonardo (2000, 1966), To Each His Own, NYRB
[Translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke]
ISBN 978-0-940322-52-3

DSC_1574How is this for coincidence. After finishing To Each His Own, the first and (so far) only novel by the famous Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, I decided to quickly write a review. So I was taking notes on what this exquisite little novel reminded me of. I know nothing exactly like this, but during my reading various very different kinds of texts came into my head, and I’m sure I’ll mention some of them in the review. But my main association was with one of my favorite movies, one I’ve seen a number of times already, the Italian classic Cadaveri Eccellenti starring Lino Ventura. So I opened its Wiki page to maybe find a picture to use for the review, and lo and behold – I find that the movie is based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, the 1971 novel Il Contesto, translated into English as Equal Danger. All this is to say that clearly, Sciascia has an incredibly recognizable style, as far as what kinds of plots he likes and how he structures the grammar of power and corruption. Given how different the settings of the books are, even though both are set in Sicily, the underlying similarities, starting with the bleak political and humanist outlook and ending with the political passion and outrage are exceptionally striking. If the movie is any indication, however, To Each His Own is the – by far- superior novel. It manages to take various staples of 1970s noir, common especially in French and Italian cinema and combine them with a powerfully charged take on the vagaries of village life in a climate of fear and resignation. Sciascia then combines these things with a complex discussion of the role of sex and women, and an angry attack on political apathy. All of this is condensed into a short, but arresting tragedy. The novel’s language is interesting in that it often appears to wear the outward marks of translation, but that doesn’t mean I disapprove of the job Adrienne Foulke has done, because the translation artefacts that have made it past translator and editor into the book, complement the novel’s often opaque dialogue and secretive descriptions very well. If, like me, you like (love, even) Jean-Claude Izzo’s trilogy or village noirs, this is definitely for you.

220px-Cadaveri-eccellenti-posterI will admit: as with some other books I recently reviewed, I may not be extremely qualified to review this book, as I have not read an awful lot in this genre. So for me there were three main associations here, apart from the movie. There was the Marseille trilogy of Jean-Claude Izzo, especially the dark and brilliant final volume, Soléa, there were various village based crime novels (British crime fiction seems especially keen on that kind of setting, although I’d like to point out how many famous writers in the genre are actually Americans. Both Martha Grimes amd Elizabeth George, who excel when placing their detectives Richard Jury and Inspector Lynley, respectively, in bucolic British environments, are born and raised in the US of A) and, finally, and maybe oddly, throughout my reading, I couldn’t shake the memory of Clochemerle, Gabriel Chevallier’s 1934 mild mannered satire of provincial life. For a novel about murder, corruption, disappearances and sex, Chevallier’s gently humorous book may not appear to be entirely apropos, but I think if we focus on the Mafia angle, maybe influenced by what we know of Sciascia’s other work and political career, we miss the core of the book, Sciascia’s interrogation of ordinary Sicilian life and his statement on how its provincial morals and political apathy enable the larger and more lugubrious political scandals. Clochemerle‘s major conflict is the scandalous decision to erect a public toilet across the street from the local church and of course a prim, middle aged local woman leads a campaign against this immoral decision. Being set in a Beaujolais village in the 1960s, the outrage leads all the Catholics to rally behind her, leaving the local priest having to navigate the waters between morals and practicality. Much of this book is a (prude) satire on the sexual prudery of village life, featuring such archetypes as the aforementioned prim lady, the nubile young woman, the slightly overwhelmed priest, and politicians of various degrees of corruption. I mean, Chevallier has not invented this genre, it’s been around a long, long time, but it feels like a very typical (and funny) entry in the genre in that the author cut all kinds of superfluous fat from the book, offering us just the most salient bits and characters. Clochemerle feels less like a specific novel and more like a type.

DSC_1580It’s this type that we encounter in Sciascia’s novel, as well. In fact, I suppose it helps knowing the type to see the tradition much of the novel is placed in, because, as reduced as Clochemerle is, Sciascia’s approach is much more bare-bones. He offers us the central elements, and enough to contextualize them, but he doesn’t dwell on it. I admire writers who can draw up a complex background with just a few broad strokes and Sciascia truly excels at this. Like Chevallier’s book, To Each His Own is also set in a Catholic village, it also features some typical archetypes of the genre, including sexual prudery and outrage, it offers us corrupt politicians, nubile young women and disapproving prim old maids. Overlaid on this traditional narrative is a very modern story of politics and murder. In fact, it’s modern to me, but to Sciascia’s audience, it’s downright contemporary. I think the technical skill of the novel is more evident when we include the reading horizon of his audience in the way we look at the book. For the reader in the new millennium, both elements have a historical feeling to them, but that’s not how the novel works on a technical level. The frisson between traditional, homely setting and contemporary political references is very much part of the book. This is part of the reason I dwelled so much on Clochemerle – I think it’s important to see that the village in Sciascia’s novel is not just any village. Given that his audience wasn’t just contemporary, but that a broad swathe of his intended audience was Sicilian, too, it seems relevant that he didn’t merely offer them a village like the one they knew. He offered them a type that was heavily connotated with reactionary, old stories. An Italian version of Clochemerle, even though it doesn’t seem as immediately applicable, would be the novels of Giovannino Guareschi, for example. Point being. Italian readers would instantly recognize the type. I think the elliptical way the book introduces and uses a fairly large array of characters is an indication of that – it expects the readers to fill in the gaps from the tradition they know. And for political emphasis, the book matches, with what appears to be excellent accuracy, political points of view to those types.

DSC_1577I think it’s that last fact that is among the most devastating ones. The novel has two levels of criticism and story. One involves the actual story. A pharmacist receives a letter threatening him with his death for some unspecified wrong he has done. He assumes it’s a joke. The next day, he and his hunting companion are dead. A local teacher, young Professor Laurana, notices an odd detail in the letter and decides to follow up on his hunch in private. Bit by bit, he uncovers the motive of the crime, as well as the murderer and his accomplice. His meandering private sleuthing leads him down a path he will not return from alive. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the underlying principle of most books and movies in the genre. They are built a bit like tragedies, and the ἁμαρτία in this case is curiosity. Well, that, and perseverance, a moral backbone and a certain naivety. It’s interesting that the murder itself is motivated by more or less personal issues, with corruption more of a backdrop or tool to be used. The treatment of corruption is also a case of differing reading horizons. For modern readers, the fact that everyone in the village more or less knows who is the most corrupt person there, and that everyone knows that the first assumption with a letter like that is that the recipient has somehow crossed the mafia, and that even the person who executed the original murder is a well known Mafia killer, has to be striking. It’s quite stunning to what extent these things are shrugged off or used as basic assumptions for larger points. This is, however, strictly something that would strike us as strange today. I assume the Sicilian reader of Sciascia’s novel in the late 1960s would know all this. The fact that it’s backgrounded means that the criticism has to be found elsewhere. Cadaveri Eccellenti, for example, makes pretty direct and explicit attacks on the political system, foregrounding corruption. The failure of that movie’s (and novel’s?) main detective (an actual policeman, there) is directly due to the murky mire of Sicilian politics. In its final minutes, the detective finds himself posthumously saddled with much of the blame for the issue at hand. These kinds of narratives ask the reader to be skeptical, to interrogate authorities, and official narratives.

DSC_1575The same is true for Jean-Claude Izzo’s magisterial Marseille trilogy, which even offers hip hop as an alternative narrative to the established/accepted one (the first two novels are named after songs by Marseille groups IAM and Massilia Sound System), where failures should be parsed as calls to arms. Neither Izzo nor, as far as I know, Sciascia produce the kind of investigative Mediterranean noir that we know from contemporary writers like Massimo Carlotto. Izzo and Sciascia merely foreground things that are known to those willing to read the right sources and keep their eyes open, but they imbue them with clarity and urgency. Yet, despite all that, we don’t really get that in To Each His Own. The protagonist’s curiosity is informed by a sense of sexual repression (which in turn will lead him to his death), and the main culprit of the book is not “untouchable,” in fact, he panics when confronted with the possibility of being caught. The central conflict is eminently solvable, were the detective following the leads not a naive professor of literature. This means that the focus is elsewhere and I think it’s political apathy. In the very first pages we learn about what appears to be a typical political thinking process in this village (and by extension, among ordinary Sicilians of Sciascia’s time). The pharmacist who is about to be murdered doesn’t much care about politics, we find. He votes one way in federal elections, another way in local elections. His point of view is well summed up in this passage: “To get involved in politics was a waste of time, in any case; if you didn’t know that much, either you found politicking profitable or you’d been born blind.” See? Everybody knows politics is a waste of time! And yet, as we find, the group described as “find[ing politicking profitable” is doing its best to use their fellow citizens to their advantage. Even those who are not in the Mafia are at least, for profitable reasons, connected to it, and they wring the utmost from their fellow man. It’s never discussed explicitly, but the murder victim has voted, for much of the last years, for the person who ended up shooting him. He put his own murderer in the position to murder him – and since the book is set up as a type, it implies that “we” all do that, where “we” mentions the apathetic Sicilian populace of Sciascia’s time. The victim identifies neither as left nor as right, and despite different parties being discussed, including the Communist party, Sciascia stays away from left/right discussions. That is typically a sign of corrupt, apathetic political systems. An example among today’s democracies would be Romania, where, unless we refer to the radical right or the radical left, the usual left/right distinction is utterly meaningless.

All of this makes for excellent reading – and the fact that the book additionally critically examines the trope of sexual scandals, Catholic sexual repression and the role of women in modern contemporary life (there’s a whole paragraph about the objectification of women) is just icing on the cake. The writing is not always smooth, but the language mirrors well the way the professor meanders down the byways of village gossip and clues. The occasional translation artifacts somehow add to the effect instead of weakening it. The translation feels a bit sloppy here and there but it never detracts from the book. Read it. And if you know Sciascia and the genre, tell me what else to read?


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to mytwitter.)

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van

Darnielle, John (2014), Wolf in White Van, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 978-0-374-29208-9

DSC_1530I feel as if upwards of 50% of review intros that I post these days are disclaimers somehow tied to my personal bias towards an author, or fat books or genres or things like that. I mention this because there’s no way I can review this book without admitting to similar bias. It is, however, a bit contradictory. Let me start by saying that John Darnielle is the lead singer, songwriter, (sometimes) producer and all around lead person of the American band The Mountain Goats, a celebrated band that has been putting out records for decades. The Mountain Goats is one of my favorite bands, and I consider John Darnielle one of his generation’s most talented songwriters. At the same time, I think I am a bit of a snob. However much I admire Darnielle’s craft, I think I approached Wolf in White Van with a bit of condescension. Look, I admire Neil Young, but his memoir Waging Heavy Peace is fairly lightweight. It’s a lovely read (and highly recommended), but its rambling writing is nowhere near other excellent memoirs. I admire the Silver Jews, but I’m not a great fan of David Berman’s poetry. There are musicians I admire whose books I have decided not to read for now (how good is Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, once we strip away the reverence for her musical achievement? No, I’m asking. I haven’t read it yet). As you can see it’s a fairly long list and something I’ve been giving a lot of thought. So let me say that, first of all, Wolf in White Van is a very good novel. It has some structural issues, there are flaws in the writing, but it’s a very good debut novel, intricately structured, and emotionally powerful. Unexpectedly, it’s literary and wildly ambitious, telling a story about suicide, deformity, a story about survival and about storytelling itself. It’s intensely original, which is its main virtue and which covers up many of its flaws. I have never read a novel quite like it and I’m willing to bet you haven’t either. At the same time, it’s written with a kind of reckless intensity that means it’s really not for everybody, much as I dislike that phrase. The book doesn’t care to introduce you to its skewed way of thinking, or ease you into it. It’s 200 pages that are equal parts dense and loosely self-indulgent. It’s very good.

DSC_1573The story mixes various points in time, from the protagonist’s teenage past to his long hospital stay after an accident, to his adulthood. Sean Phillips (that’s his name) makes a small amount of money off a very old kind of role playing game. The so-called play-by-mail game requires the players to send their moves handwritten (or typed) to a postal address, which then returns the result of the move. If this sounds familiar, it’s also the way correspondence chess works. There are many, many varieties of this, but Sean’s business involves players taking part in a kind of choose your own adventure situation. They are presented with a long description of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and then have to decide what to do. They are not given choices, but Sean has structured the descriptions in a way that all choices fall into different but recognizable categories. Then Sean returns them the result in the mail, which is another long description. The game he invented and scripted and developed, is called Trace Italian, and it’s constructed so intricately that at the time the book is set, no player has ever completed it yet. In a not terribly subtle fashion, the game and players’ progress in it, is presented as one among many metaphors for life in the book. For Sean, writing the various scenarios and scenes of the game helped him find his footing after his accident, it’s his life’s work, and it’s intermingled with the actual events of his life.

“The unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian’s opening move – that’s me. [That player] has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he’s headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain.”

Sean never quits providing the game despite rapidly dwindling numbers of players as “most players just drift off eventually. Their focus wanders; their interest shifts.” He feels responsible for his players, for the labyrinth of moves he sent them into. The absolute nature of the game and the way Sean and many of his players are immersed in it makes the reader think of cultural histories such as the classic study by Johan Huizinga, as well ideas of similacra and simulations by writers like Baudrillard.

DSC_1529With Huizinga, whose work on the middle ages I love and strongly recommend, we have this intriguing idea of how play informs everyday life and is both a force in and an antagonist to politics and violence. The idea of play as an all-enveloping phenomenon is nicely complemented by the (much less substantial) ideas of notorious Frenchman Baudrillard and his concepts of simulations and simulacra. Look, John Darnielle sets up his novel so powerfully, so beautifully at the crossroads of ideas of how life works, and of life simulations, and he keeps mirroring motifs. There is, for example, the present tense situation, where Sean has been sued by the parents of two players of Sean’s game. These two players left the game, as far as Sean knew, they stopped writing, dropped out. At the same time, they decided to take the game into real life, treating the world, our world, our shared reality, as if it was Trace Italian. Eventually, their survival trip through this Trace Italian simulacra came up short, and they were found, one dead, one close to it, somewhere in a ditch they had dug for warmth. One of the oddest parts of the book is that there’s really no conventional plot to any of it. There are things happening, but the situations still feel stationary, and the novel’s effect mostly derives from giving us – and juxtaposing- three situations, three slices of Sean’s life at different times of his life, making us read all three from the context of the two others, forcing us to make an interpretation of Sean’s life. We have his parents, the dead couple’s parents and friends, all of whom turn up in the book, trying to read Sean themselves. In a way, in one of many motif repetitions and mirrors, the three basic situations or rather times of Sean’s life are themselves like Trace Italian move results. It’s as if we had written in after the first situation and then we got to the next point. There’s an eerie feeling to it of responsibility and necessity. Sean, for all the awfulness that his adult life has sort of turned into, never becomes maudlin, never feels sorry for himself. In another set of interpretations, it might be worth it to sorts through the book’s imaginary to find mirrors and repetitions of biblical narratives or stories, because at times, without ever explicitly committing to it, it feels like a fragmented, heightened version of a morality play, informed by a Christian, though not fundamentalist, perspective. Neither in the middle nor the last part do we really see the move, we just see the situation. The only time a scene resolves into Sean really taking a move, deciding on one option among many is the earliest, when teenage Sean decides on a difficult, and badly executed, course of action. At this point I have to warn you that I will explain that situation, which is a minor spoiler and (if you need this kind of stuff?) trigger warning in the last paragraph.

DSC_1572Meanwhile. in this review’s first paragraph, I kept calling Wolf in White Van Darnielle’s debut novel. That’s not entirely accurate. While Farrar, Straus & Giroux refer to the book as a debut novel in the book flap, the question of whether that’s really true depends on your definition of “novel”. Back in 2008, Darnielle published a volume in a book series called 33 1/3, published by Continuum. If you come across any entry in the series, I recommend you pick up a copy of its small, slender paperbacks. The series collects various critics’ and writers’ takes on classic rock, pop and hip hop albums. There is a great variety of authors. For example, Dr. Dai Griffiths of Oxford University wrote on OK Computer, Ric Menck, drummer of Velvet Crush, wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef authored an entry on If You’re Feeling Sinister. They are short books usually explaining the context of an album with a personal anecdote or with a broader comment on the time of its publication. Much what you’d expect. John Darnielle’s book, titled Master of Reality, is a novel/story about someone locked into a psychiatric institution who is allowed to keep a diary and alternates between unhinged rants and explanations of the songs on Black Sabbath’s seminal album. It’s not a novel, and it’s also not very good as fiction, much more along the lines of what my snobbish expectations had in store for Wolf in White Van. Darnielle writes songs about desperate characters, depression, and about heavy metal. In the little book about a foundational record of the genre, Darnielle offers us all three. The book is torn between filling the role of books in the series and telling a fictional story at the same time. It does well in the former, but flounders terribly when it comes to the latter. In Master of Reality, Darnielle has no good grip on where to take this teenage voice, where to rein it in, where to let it go. Unless you’re interested in the Black Sabbath album, it’s not really worth your time – but for the reader of Wolf in White Van there are interesting connections between the two books.

DSC_1528In a sense, Master of Reality frequently feels like a very early dry run for the much more accomplished later novel. In it, Darnielle stretches and pokes at this teenage character who is both knowledgeable (about the things rock-obsessed teenagers are obsessed) and naive. It’s frequently annoying and if Darnielle’s name hadn’t been on the cover I wouldn’t likely have finished it, despite my interest in the subject matter. That same teenager (at löeast the same archetype) could be said to also be part of Wolf in White Van, but only tiny portions of the book revolve around that teenage character, which is an excellent decision, given Darnielle’s inability to properly master that voice. As I said, of the novel features that character, Sean Phillips, as he is a badly adjusted adult, making a small amount of money off an odd and outdated business, and mostly living off insurance payouts. When he was 17, Sean shot himself in the face with a shotgun. On the list of efficient/painless suicide methods, shooting yourself is not rated very highly unless you’re an excellent marksman (despite its high ranking here). The most famous literary example of people killing themselves with guns, young Werther, lived about 12 hours in terrible pain until he finally died. Goethe goes into unpleasant detail on this. A solid amount of inexpertly performed suicides with guns never even end in death, just in terrible mutilations. Sean Philips is one of those unfortunate people. After his attempt, he ended up with a terribly disfigured head. There’s a chance I spoiled you by telling you this, because Darnielle doesn’t detail the “accident” that leads to Sean’s disfigurement until the last chapters. It’s also those chapters that most closely resemble the teenage voice of Master of Reality, but the author has accrued enough ideas over the course of the rest of the book that he doesn’t need to lean on that voice to add something to the text. The final chapters are mainly used to fill in gaps, rounding out the story and making the topic of role playing and storytelling that are interwoven throughout the book, much more meaningful. There are many possible paths we can follow. Sean, letting them all play out, decided on this particular one.

I have reviewed other books dealing with suicide, like Édouard Levé’s Suicide, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and A.L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting. John Darnielle adds something genuinely original and unexpected to a literary tradition, a unique and cerebral examination of choices. The difference between games like Trace Italian, as they actually exist today, and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books, is that Trace Italian is life-like in the sense of having to pick an option from contextual clues, there’s no-one that sheperds my options into three easy to read versions. There is a hopefulness to this otherwise frequently dark book: it’s the plurality of options, and the call to make a choice, any choice, and see what’s your next move.

Maybe this next move is supporting my blog? As always, if you feel like it, and like what you find here,, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Mispraising Murakami (guest post by Jake Waalk)

[So I asked a friend and frightfully brilliant writer and reader Jake Waalk to write a post on Murakami. I cannot read him in Japanese, and while I have some opinions of his work (none charitable), they are all based on flawed translations. I don’t really know his work not the contexts in which it should be read. Since Nobel season is coming up, however, I am anticipating the same, mildly exasperating hyperbole about his work. I do not even remotely have the competence to argue this point, however. Jake Waalk does. This essay is not about Murakami’s work as it is about the way we read and praise Murakami in the West. Please enjoy this essay.]

10423647_10204438039891693_2575797347110217778_nSo I had the honor of being asked to write a piece on Haruki Murakami, perhaps given the lead up to the Nobel Prize for Literature and the continued buzz around his name. Murakami’s fans are numerous in the West, as evidenced by the huge sections of his books in U.S. bookstores, an almost unheard of saturation of a translated author in the famously insular American literary scene. Japanese literature particular has always been a fringe even in the small malnourished country that is translation in United States. The tendencies in the Japanese literary culture towards ambiguousness and moral ambivalence have also meant that traditionally, Japan has been an exceptionally poor fit for the aggressively idealistic American culture. While I speak mainly with experience over the United States, Murakami’s fans have increased in Europe as well, and as such the task has fallen on me too offer up a little context on the author from, to help out my friend, mediocre poet and blogger shigekuni. The purpose in writing this brief essay is not so much to deconstruct or breakdown Murakami’s literary merit—something I am not well enough versed in his work to do anyway—but is rather to address certain issues surrounding the author’s popularity and to address his place in contemporary Japanese literature.

I start then, with a parable, albeit an imperfect one, but I ask readers please go along with me for a minute. I will use an American example: imagine going abroad and visiting bookstores, talking to readers, and the only thing anyone ever talks about is Dave Eggers. At all the bookstores Eggers’ books fill up entire shelves in translation, with only one or two other books by an American author at all, one lesser Faulkner and maybe a late Hemingway, crammed beside everything Dave Eggers’ has ever written. Eggers remains virtually the only living American author anyone in this imaginary place has ever read and will talk about. I have just outlined the experience of Japanese people with Haruki Murakami. None of this was to disparage Dave Eggers, a solid writer who has done much to invigorate the American literary scene and support the genre of the short story writer. I chose Eggers name because he is a relatively well-known middling author in the realm of living writers in that country, though one with a solid cult following and perhaps more recognized by the group of readers that also read Murakami.

The parable works, because regardless of how surprising his Western fans may find this, Haruki Murakami is a middling author in Japan, one with a mixed relationship to the country’s literary establishment, which has more often than not passed him up for major awards and rarely ranks him at the top echelon of living writers. Murakami’s Japanese critics make many claims against him; his writing is boring and simplistic in its use much kanji (Chinese characters) or that he fails to use kanji with the level of cleverness and wordplay expected of an author skilled in the use of the Japanese language as a literary tool. Murakami also comes under criticism for his political apathy, his lack of much of a moral vision one way or another, and many perceive his surreal or playful themes to be childish or the products of a shallow worldview (though it cannot be said that Murakami has no defenders in the Japanese literary community, they are just definitively in the minority). Ostensibly, the hope of the parable was to highlight a certain oddness, and even condescension present in Murakami’s popularity abroad, especially since almost no Murakami reader I have ever spoken to has read anything else of Japan’s vibrant and extraordinarily diverse modern literary heritage, from Natsume Soseki to Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Kawabata Yasunari, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobo Abe to name just a few older writers, all dead save the Nobel Prize laureate Oe (yes, for all the complaining about Murakami not having won, there is currently a living Japanese laureate whom virtually no one in the U.S. has read). And it’s not a matter of translation; all of the above authors have been well-translated into English, just good luck finding them in a bookstore, though you will find a good half-dozen Murakami books.

Modern Japanese literature is another topic—and one where I think context is most needed and most lacking among Western readers. For example, Haruki Murakami is, in my opinion, not even the best living Japanese writer named Murakami, an honor which goes to Ryu Murakami, an author about the same age, who has won virtually all of Japan’s most prestigious prizes: The Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, the Naoki Prize, two Noma awards—Ryu Murakami is both a popular writer and critically acclaimed, with several of his key works like the fantastic Coin-Locker Babies in English and yet little-known and little-read. Ryu Murakami has written about a range of contemporary issues in Japan from compensated dating, to hikikomori (shut-ins) and his work is imbued with a gritty violence and social critique of Japanese society, with an entire body of work seemingly centered around very relevant cultural issues (he’s also something of a celebrity and like Haruki has deep ties and interests in music as well as literature).

Ryu Murakami aside, contemporary Japanese literature has many other immensely talented and respected authors, including many prominent female writers. There is Yuko Tsushima, the daughter of the famous author Osamu Dazai (who committed suicide with his lover in 1948). Tsushima’s novel Laughing Wolf is available in English and offers a very unique take to a young girl’s empowerment through her elopement with the older boy she develops an interest in. The novel, which cannot be reviewed here, makes skillful literary use of The Jungle Book to create a strange relationship between young girl and older boy, that of brother and sister. It is a relationship based on a rejection of ties to the broader world of humans, forged by an affinity and connection with death: the suicide of the girl’s father, which the boy witnessed as a small homeless child. The novel is phenomenal, and Tsushima has been a consistent literary presence for decades, yet is almost untranslated into English. There is Ogawa Yoko whom I have not read, but who has won most of the Japan’s most prestigious literary awards and is often talked up as one Japan’s premier authors, by no less than Kenzaburo Oe for example. Another that I have actually read is Kaori Ekuni, a bestseller with some serious critical gravitas, whose Twinkle, Twinkle was a light, but funny and interesting love triangle between a woman who didn’t want an actual marriage, a gay doctor needing an out for his family and work, and his long-time lover. There is even the bubbly and decidedly more lightweight Banana Yoshimoto. Other names that have come in inquiring about leading Japanese authors beyond my reading are Toshiyuki Horie, and several Japanese people I have spoken to think Yasutaka Tsutsui might be the most important living sci-fi author in the world right now. Another author completely unavailable in English but quite influential in Japan is Noboru Tsujihara [note: after I posted Jake’s essay, @maorthofer corrected this on Twitter: “Tsujihara not untranslated @thamesriverwpc did Jasmine in 2012″], and the not quite-so-undertranslated Genichiro Takahashi has published many influential works and developed a strong literary reputation.

The list-making serves a very important purpose, as part of the reason I have been asked to write this essay is to explain my experiences with Japanese people and talking about Haruki Murakami, and to bring in any other anecdotal experiences I’ve already since I started living in Japan (to teach English through the JET program). I don’t particularly like anecdotes, so I am going to rush through them without lingering on anything for too long. When I did a presentation (in Japanese) for JAPN102, I chose to do it on literature and explicitly left out Haruki Murakami. When the class started discussing it, the Japanese teacher (a fortyish, well-educated woman from Tokyo), stood up and with her typical laconic bluntness said that Haruki Murakami wasn’t very important, and that I had specifically chosen (Soseki, Yasunari, Mishima, and Oe), others very important to Japanese literature and read by most Japanese in high school literature classes. When it came time to apply to JET, I mentioned some of the same authors again and highlighted my larger interest in Japanese literature and its culture as a reason for wanting to work and study further in Japan. For the JET program, the second stage entails a three person interview with the [American] program coordinator at what Consulate-General you apply for, a JET alumni, and a Consulate-General employee who is Japanese.

The Japanese Consulate-General official on my committee brought up my list and mentioned that most American’s only talk about Haruki Murakami and asked me why I thought he had not won the Nobel Prize. I gave an honest answer that Murakami did seem to embody the sort of politics and zeitgeist the committee often prefers in its picks, and I noted that he also lacks the profile in his home country that most Prize winners generally have. The answer noticeably impressed the official (and by noticeably I mean he complimented me on it), and I ended up getting the spot. In Japan, one of our prefectural supervisors turned out to have studied literature in college and we ended up talking about writers. He was ecstatic that I had heard of Kenzaburo Oe, and his English grew excited and a little fragmented as he tried to talk about a complicated subject such as Oe, saying “What he does, is genius. He is a genius. Very difficult to read, even for Japanese.” He seemed to have little interest in Haruki Murakami, and at point said Murakami wasn’t a particularly important writer. My school principal and district superintendent were also impressed that I liked Oe, who engenders a lot of respect even from some political conservatives. Both talked about books with me as best as I could manage with my limited Japanese, without ever mentioning Haruki Murakami.

Anecdotal evidence is just that, subjective and underwhelming and I would never try to position it as a powerful argument by itself, which is why I have also tried to contextualize Haruki Murakami first. However, I must also say that there has been a remarkably consistent response to Haruki Murakami by Japanese people across most of my experiences, particularly among those well-educated and having had experience traveling or living abroad. Hence my parable about Dave Eggers, with which I hoped to offer American readers a way of identifying with the sentiment of these Japanese, to offer a way to understand that sense of disconnect, oddity, and perplexion that most Japanese greet Haruki Murakami’s broad popularity in the West while almost all other Japanese writers languish unread and unknown.

This is a problem that Haruki Murakami himself recognizes, and he has been involved in projects to introduce Americans to other Japanese writers, but there is undeniably something about him as a writer that, despite a huge popular following in Japan (if only more literary and profound authors solid out million round printings in a few weeks in the United States, where almost no one seems to read outside the endless formulaic drudgery of writers like James Patterson and book club novels) has usually left him on the outside of intellectual and critical respect in Japan. Murakami himself said it in an interview, “I’m kind of an ugly duckling. Always the duckling, never the swan.” Murakami divides, and his type of very simple style with clear and minimalist sentences defies the standards of Japanese literature, where inventiveness, word play, and complexity aren’t just valued, they are considered the evidence of linguistic competence and a writer’s style. Murakami can come off as calomel to many readers and critics in Japan, and as I cannot personally weigh in on that matter with any depth, I will only reiterate that given how Japanese works as a language, this is a fair criticism.

Murakami is not, as John Wray laughably describes him in an interview for The Paris Review, “arguably the most experimental Japanese novelist to have been translated into English.” To Wray I say, read Kobo Abe, several times a serious contender for the Nobel Prize, who wrote truly bizarre, surrealistic fiction like The Woman in the Dunes or Kangaroo Notebook. Read Kenzaburo Oe, who is, in his own fashion, incredibly unique and experimental in the complex ways he twists and contorts Japanese, and his characters, who eventually morph into all-grown-up post-atomic bomb Huck Finns. The hagiography of Murakami by well-read critics who nonetheless know next to nothing about Japanese criticism is a pet-peeve of mine, and yet a recurrent theme for Murakami. The issue is that a reader can think that “the meaning of those symbols remains hermetic to the last” (Wray) or could take the position that they are nice emotive symbols used by a creative mind, but without having any meaning at all, being purely a sort of flash, glib manipulation sans a mature ideology or social commentary behind them (I am paraphrasing a central line of criticism of Murakami in Japan). And I suspect the reason for his popularity has to do more with Wray’s very next comment, highlighting Murakami’s numerous Western pop culture influences. Haruki Murakami, rather than breaking the rule of American literature’s insularity, merely proves it, because it seems that an essential part of his appeal lies in the unique appropriations of and applications of Western pop culture that make his work accessible and which follow certain in vogue stylistic conventions. All the while Murakami admittedly reads little of Japanese literature, and has a huge disconnect from the country’s extremely rich literary heritage—a disconnect which in Oe’s work is violent, deeply personal, and a matter of schism and betrayal while remaining ever present, just bubbling beneath the page just as his Nobel lecture inverted and built off Kawabata’s Nobel lecture. In Murakami this disconnect is merely a sign of disinterest.

I am not however making a final critical judgment of Murakami himself. I have only read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and I was modestly impressed by it. My critical judgment is of Murakami’s popularity in the West, and I am more interested in indicting certain aspects of the American literary community that inflate Murakami into the greatest and most unique bit of literature to ever come out of Japan while lacking appropriate knowledge and background to make that kind of value judgment. The endless times I say I love Japanese literature and am then asked about Murakami have come to annoy even me, and while I won’t use a meaningless strawman word like hipster, I can identify a big source of Murakami’s popularity is in white, educated, urban demographics, particularly younger people—what might be called the yuppie community. My indictment is more a matter of how vapid the culture of this community—one of the best educated and most culturally invested, often in admirable ways, areas of American society. For all its pretensions towards originality, novelty, and multiculturalism this community has an incredibly narrow and often discriminatory sense of aesthetics. Murakami’s popularity seems to speak to how this group gravitates to translated authors with similar styles and references to the American authors they read, and a rather self-serving appropriation rather than an open-minded exploration of global cultures and new perspectives.

Even so I can’t help but cautiously hope Haruki Murakami’s popularity in the West does good things. That even in small ways it internationalizes; leads people to other Japanese writers; that its use of surrealism and genre components helps break down rigid barriers on what constitutes “literature” and that it does help blur the line between popular fiction and the literary (a division already often blurred in Japan). Bob Duggan has one of the most balanced responses to Murakami, calling him the “Thelonious Monk of Fiction” and Nathaniel Rich has written one of the few, thorough critical responses to Murakami in America, published in The Atlantic, outlining the numerous lines of tropes, clichés, and simplistic themes repeated throughout Murakami’s novels and takes aim even Murakami’s skill with language and his “ultimately inconsequential” plots and “robotic” dialogue, though Rich like me, still takes something interesting from Murakami, and like Nathaniel Rich I will say there are some interesting aspects to Murakami’s writing even with the spotty skill—mainly a sense that Murakami is a formulaic genre fiction writer writing alone in a unique personal genre of his own invention.

In Japan, Murakami remains a second-string literary figure—something he thinks would be unchanged by a Nobel Prize—but his fan base is avid, and his writings, replete with aimless loneliness, alienation and desire, speak to a broad experience of complicated and stressful postmodernity in Japan (as do numerous other authors, some like Ryu Murakami doing it better and with greater creativity and linguistic competence than Haruki Murakami). As such there really is no middle ground; you are either a fan, hate him, or utterly ambivalent. From personal experience, I would say ambivalence is most common. There are other more worthy candidates from Japan for the Nobel Prize for Literature (the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa for instance), but Murakami remains a perennial favorite, perhaps buoyed by the often liberal English translations and the sense that he represents a novel style of writing. I feel that Haruki Murakami is a lightweight contender, and would have the least gravitas of any winner since the baffling selection of Orhan Pamuk in 2006, and many of his Western fans would do good to explore a world of Japanese literature that is so much deeper, stranger, and more complex than Haruki Murakami.


Jake Waalk is currently living in Shinano, Nagano, where Kobayashi Issa was born and died. You can reach Jake via email (jawaalk[at] or in the comment section of this post. I suppose you can also hunt him down on facebook. He’s an excellent human being and a brilliant reader. ISBN.