Translatables! (Part 2)

This is the second installment of a list of books and writers who should be translated into English, but haven’t yet been. Part 1 (direct link here) listed a number of contemporary writers and books: Reinhard Jirgl’s Abschied von den Feinden, Patrick Roth’s Christus Trilogie, Hartmut Lange’s Das Konzert and Thomas Stangl’s Was Kommt.

Part 2 will feature more classical writers, and spans a far greater period of time, from a book published in 1767, to one, published posthumously, in 1967. With classical writers it’s hard to guess which writers, torn from the immediate cultural and linguistic context, will or could be successful, and worth reading. A lot of writers will fall by the wayside, such as Jean Paul, who is a stunning writer, possibly the best prose writer of his time, but whose extremely long epics of the bourgeois life may not connect well enough with the Anglophone reader. By the same measure I skipped a few extraordinary plays, such as H.L Wagner’s shocking Kindermörderin, a play about a young woman who, left by her lover, kills her newborn child. It’s in many ways proto-modern, laced with a complex social criticism, with images of violence (almost an onstage rape, the brutal murder of the child), and additionally, Wagner lets his heroine take the place that in his time, men occupied. It’s sensational, and both a challenging and engrossing read, but I’m not convinced that it makes as much of an impact on readers who have not read canonical plays like Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen or Schiller’s The Robbers. There are countless more books like that.

The four books below, however, should be translated. You’ll notice that 3 out of the 4 were written (though not published) at roughly the same time. That was one of the most fecund periods of German fiction, yet one of the most neglected, as far as translation are concerned. It’s a shame that these books in particular haven’t yet been Englished, and it’s a loss to Anglophone readers everywhere.

Part 2: Classics

Alfred Döblin, Berge, Meere und Giganten (1932)

Döblin was, above all, a craftsman, and, in equal measures, dedicated to literature and to his political convictions. His work, from early expressionistic stories like Die Ermordung einer Butterblume, to his three-volume epic about the November Revolution in Germany in 1918, touches on a vast array of subjects, and is written in a variety of ways. He is best known for the aforementioned story and his novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a mad masterpiece of a book, completely written and constructed in a montage, a technique that he had been playing around with for decades and finally perfected in Berlin, Alexanderplatz. The great amount of different registers and voices and dialects that swamp that particular book make it enormously hard to translate properly, but this one has at least been translated. Among his other masterpieces, for me, two stick out: one would be his biographical novel about Wallenstein, which provides a history of that grand character of the 30 Years’ War, imbued with social criticism and a careful awareness. Less well known than Wallenstein, however, is his gargantuan (in every sense) utopian novel Berge, Meere und Giganten. It’s set up to be a projective history of mankind. In about 600 pages, Döblin races through centuries of upheaval, and we soon notice that most of this is not earnest speculative fiction, it’s expressionistic madness. In order to make the threats understandable that the modern age holds for us, Döblin goes overboard. Civil wars, political reformations, and later, natural disasters plague humanity, until the dinosaurs (yes) walk the earth again. This isn’t a mere novel about an idea or a few ideas, this is a huge explosion of one of the best minds of German literature. One idea races the other, one plot the next and we read on, breathlessly, trying to find out what will become of humanity. This is a spectacular book, one that breaks smaller lights like Jules Verne or Alfred Kubin into pieces. It tells us about the true potential of us human beings, it’s awash with decades of thought, yet it reads like a bestseller. And below it all, the thunderous river of Döblin’s language rumbles. Break out the seat belts, get on for this ride. I mean it, you need to read this book. And I’m honestly bewildered why it hasn’t yet been translated. The scope and depth of it puts contemporary writers like William Vollmann to shame. Really. Translate it.

Additional links

Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Döblin’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Döblin’s English Wiki page? Link

Rudolf Borchardt, Jamben (1935/1967)

Borchardt is an oddity. Part of circles formed around the two masters of literature in German at the time, Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he was both venerated and hated. He was a man of contradictions, as a Jew, who had been generally read as a proto-fascist, whose last speeches seemed to hail Hitler’s arrival from afar. A renowned cultural scholar, widely praised and admired for his titanic knowledge, he, and those like him, resurrected a German tradition that the Romantics had tried to establish first, a metaphysical German-ness; this reading of his work, however, is deficient, but many people didn’t notice this, until in 1967 his long poem, Jamben, was published. It is a series of smaller poems written in a form that can be called Jamben in German, but are usually called epodes. An epode, a carmen maledictum, is usually written to abuse or vilify someone; in modern usage, by poets such as André Chénier, it has become more vituperative, more angry, more political. Chénier called the form “l’épode vengeresse”. And so it is here as well: Borchardt’s Jamben are an all-out attack on the rising wave of hate, on the new politics in Germany. They were written to the backdrop of the Nuremberg Laws, which were declared the same year. They reveal what a complex writer Borchardt was all along, and that he was content to let contradictions simmer in the literary delicacies he cooked up. Borchardt is one of those German writers with the most intricate knowledge of the German language and German literary tradition. His work, especially his stellar Dante translation, is almost unbearably complex in purely linguistic terms. That doesn’t mean he’s hard to read, but in his work, every word seems fraught with references, puns, and ambiguities; and usually, he’s uninterested in producing a finished work of art. He started lots of projects and was content to finish them in his head; accordingly, much of what he actually published evinces a certain disregard for his audience. Not so the Jamben. They are songs of anger, and although they, again, bear the full weight of German tradition, here we see him trow it at someone, writing not because he can do it, but because he needs to. You don’t need to understand, to ‘get’ German history to ‘get’ these poems. They speak, no, they sing, scream, shout, declaim, whisper for themselves. Jamben is one of the most powerful pieces of poetry published this century, in any language, and although it needs a good translator, it can and does translate to other languages. Everyone should read it. It’s inspiring, haunting, great literature.

Additional links

Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Borchardt’s German Wiki page?  Link

Christoph Martin Wieland, Agathon (1767)

This is an incredible book, and Wieland is one of German literature’s most underrated genii. Wieland had a long productive career, and there are a few standout books in his work, but the publication of Agathon shows him at his most readable, most complex best. Fresh from having published a successful novel that was inspired by Cervantes, he wrote a book that stands among the most important and most influential German books ever written. It inspired the first extant theory of the Bildungsroman, and until Goethe published Wilhelm Meister, it was generally regarded as the pre-eminent German novel. Agathon is a novel like no other one. It contains material for several other books, as it charts a young man’s search for enlightenment in the tempestuous landscapes of Ancient Greece. There are long discussions of Greek philosophy, erotic games, politics and pirates! Agathon is the work of a writer born into the wrong period of time. Like Melville, Wieland’s complexities are astonishingly modern. Here, as in other books of his, his psychology is subtly wrought and reminds the reader of modern theories of mass and individual psychology. His characters appear to be written with Nietzsche’s philosophy in mind, and it all is written to a backdrop of sin and lust that is beyond simple bawdy games. Wieland, as we quickly see, debates modern theories of sex, gender and sexuality with the language and images of his time; Schlegel’s Florentin could not have been written about it. Wieland went on to revise it three times, softening the impact, imparting upon his narrative the wisdom he won through the years, but there’s no doubt that the first draft is the best one, the least harmoniously reconciled. Agathon is fundamentally contradictory, a book defying tradition and definition. Like Jahnn, Wieland’s other books became more expansive, more complex iterations of the ideas contained in this long but overwhelmingly dense masterpiece. If you can read German read Wieland! Or translate him. Through his heavy influence on the early German novel, he influenced world literature. It’s time the world read him!

Additional links

Read my review of Agathon? Link
Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Wieland’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Wieland’s English Wiki page? Link
Buy another masterpiece of Wieland’s, Geschichte der Abderiten, in French translation? Link

Hans Henny Jahnn, Perrudja (1929)

I’ll just start with this: Hans Henny Jahnn is the single most underrated writer of the 20th century. Oh, yes, no doubt about it. He has written 5 truly great and mind-blowing plays and a few more very good ones. He has written two mind-blowing, game-changing novels. He has written a handful of mind-blowing shorter prose pieces. Of all that, only one play is still in print in an affordable edition in German. What translations exist into English barely scratches the surface of this man’s great work. It’s a shame. I repeat: it’s a shame. To single out one book of all them is hard, because all of them deserve to be read, translated, and passed around. However, I do understand if translator are careful when it comes to translating his opus magnum, Fluß Ohne Ufer, a sprawling trilogy of over 2000 pages, unfinished, and hard to sum up. Granted, it’s the best German novel of the past century, but that doesn’t make it easier to translate or sell. I understand that. Keeping all this in mind, however, I definitely do not understand why Jahnn’s first novel, the burning meteor that is Perrudja, has not been translated yet. Perrudja is, like Döblin’s novel, about the conditio humana, and about the threats that modernity has to offer the individual trapped in its machinery. But it takes a very different tack. Instead of looking forward, it looks backward: it’s gorged with myth and history. In Perrudja, there’s a main story, a suspenseful story at that, but there are also numerous smaller stories inserted into the main story, who elaborate upon the topics of the main story. Jahnn is an obsessive writer, obsessed with sexuality, religion, history, and violence, and Perrudja can be described as an epic of the body as it deals with all these elements inasmuch as they form part of our culture. It’s one of the most potent novels about how homosexuality is affected by the repressive modern society. Jahnn examines how our culture, behavior, history are permeated with violence, but his book isn’t bleak or negative. Jahnn believes in the potential of humanity for good, and this belief runs through every page of this incredible book. This is a book that will swallow you whole, a genuinely great read, and a great novel. Jahnn writes in a style that is both mythic and modern, and the result is a great, mad, colorful dream. Perrudja is a challenging read but an engaging one, a book that you can’t and shouldn’t miss. Read Jahnn, translate him. It’s shocking that he hasn’t already been translated.

Additional links

Read my review of Perrudja? Link
Buy this book in French translation? Link
Read Jahnn’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Jahnn’s English Wiki page? Link
Read Kebad Kenya, the only English blog dedicated to Jahnn’s work? Link

Please also read Part 1: direct link here

Translatables! (Part 1)


As I follow blogs and news, I see more and more mediocre writers in German being translated into English, whether it’s Pascal Mercier, Ingo Schulze or Thomas Glavinic; if we additionally consider how few German novels are translated at all, the fact that so many bad writers make the cut while so many good writers don’t almost amounts to a tragedy.

For what it’s worth, I decided to put up a list of writers or books who deserve to be translated into English, who deserve a wide audience, accolades and admiration, although they don’t, at the moment, get either beyond the borders of Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This list is made up of two times four writers/books. Four living, contemporary writers, and four ‘dead’, classical writers. Especially in the latter period there are countless more writers who deserve infinitely more recognition abroad than they have been getting (Christoph Martin Wieland and Jean Paul come to mind), but with these four writers and books it’s particularly appalling. I will try to keep my appeals short, in many cases they’re backed up by reviews I’ve already written for this same blog. This is Part 1 (here is part 2).

Part 1:  Contemporary Books!

Hartmut Lange, Das Konzert (1986)

Novellas have a long tradition in German literature, and nowhere in the world is this genre as highly regarded as here. From classical masters of the form like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Stefan Zweig, to Nobel Prize winners Paul Heyse and Günter Grass, the novella has always been given full attention, and the writing of novellas has always been a task especially scrutinized and analyzed. The best living writer in the form is Hartmut Lange, and not only does he not have the international attention that he deserves, he’s also vastly underrated in Germany, where he has become a kind of “writer’s writer”. His writing is classically elegant, complex, yet always light and readable and his books are suffused with his concern with places, history and culture, as well as age-old problems of the human heart. He is easy to read, but hard to stomach sometimes. The same applies to what I think is his best work, the novella Das Konzert, a tale of ghosts living in modern Berlin. There are ghosts killed by the Nazis, and Nazi ghosts, who have been waiting to be forgiven, in a bunker under the earth. Lange projects a ghost Berlin over the real, modern Berlin, and demonstrates concerns with responsibility and guilt; it suggests how historical continuities, and individual, cultural ones mold a national and local consciousness. There’s not a spare line in it, but Lange writes as if he had all the time in the world. He is one of our living masters. Read him. Translate him.

Additional links

Read my review of Das Konzert? Link
Read my review of his most recent book,
Der Abgrund des Endlichen? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Lange’s Wiki page? Link

Patrick Roth, Christus-Trilogie (1991-1996)

This one requires a bit of cheating. It’s not one book. It’s three books, parts of a trilogy, they can be read individually, of course, but read together they form one of the most impressive works of art written in the German language in the 1990s. Patrick Roth blindsided me, I never noticed him, but suddenly, he was everywhere, holding the prestigious Poetics lectures in Frankfurt, publishing high-profile books about all kinds of topics: novellas dealing with Hollywood, books about movies, about identity, and, of course, the Christus Trilogie. The first of these, Riverside, subtitled “Christusnovelle”, was published in 1991, the second, Johnny Shines oder Die Wiedererweckung der Toten, in 1993 and the third, Corpus Christi, in 1996. Each of them is only about 160 pages in length, but the reader emerges from them mesmerized, reluctant, as if he was dipped into a different world. Roth manages to call up two very different registers: he writes in a very archaic kind of German, meant to imitate Lutheran tone and voice, and at the same time, in a very clear and modern kind of German. Miraculously, this really works, and envelops the reader in a linguistic tapestry that seems biblical, and yet filled with an easy, glittering suspense. The first and last of the books are concerned with Jesus himself; Riverside is about two men coming up to an eremite who reputedly has met Jesus himself, avid to find out more about that man, trying to sift truth from tradition. They are soon caught up in a net woven of language and mysteries. The same thing happens to the protagonist of the third book. Its protagonist, Judas Thomas is intent to investigate the so-called resurrection of Jesus. He finds an eye-witness and interrogates her, which develops into a discussion about truth and faith, which never becomes academical, and is completely mesmerizing. The middle one is set in Death Valley, California, and is about an oddball who regularly opens coffins, demanding the dead person inside to stand up and walk (not successfully), who becomes enmeshed in a murder and is interrogated by a police woman. Three books, three investigations. Every line shows that Roth is both a gifted writer of prose as well as of drama, maybe one of Germany’s best in the business. The rest of his fictional work is surprisingly weak, compared to the ravishing thunderstorm of Christus Trilogie. But it’s hard to compare to that singular literary achievement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found an American translator so far. Everyone should read it, in German or in translation. It’s, and I don’t say that lightly, a masterpiece.

Additional links

Buy his books on amazon? Link1, Link2, Link3
Read Roth’s Wiki page? Link

Thomas Stangl, Was Kommt (2009)

Thomas Stangl is an Austrian writer, one of a whole range of promising young novelists, another of which would be Clemens J. Setz, who was recently nominated for the German Book Prize for his ok second novel Die Frequenzen, a sign of his diminishing skill that would only get worse in following years. The same year also saw Thomas Stangl nominated for his stupendous novel Was Kommt. With Stangl, the situation is different. Was Kommt is his third novel, and it’s proof that Stangl is one of the leading living prose writers in the German language, getting better with each book. Like many great writers, his work recounts his obsessions. With time, memory, and history, amongst other things. His prose went to the Austrian school of Bernhard, Innerhofer and Handke, but unlike the recently translated Andreas Maier, he is in full control of his style. He is able to make it work for him, perform the tricks he needs it to perform in order to convey his thinking. Stangl’s work, like Lange’s, examines historical continuities, by juxtaposing different time levels, and creating a gorgeous linguistic maelstrom that draws the reader into the histories and memories of Stangl’s characters. Stangl is a committed writer, committed to his ideas and to his places, there are few writers who can evoke places so uncannily and directly as he can, places as well as times. In Was Kommt, Stangl shines a harsh light on the 1970s, by superimposing one character’s life in the 1930s on another’s life in the 1970s, clearly highlighting connections and continuities, evoking a place and a period so precisely that he takes your breath away. He, like Lange, Roth, uses a rather simple vocabulary, but as far as syntax is concerned, his writing is very complex, and not an easy read necessarily. But an astonishing, mind-blowing one, that I’m sorry to see so many of my anglophone friends missing out on. If you can, read a book by Stangl. Or translate him. You won’t be sorry. If Stangl continues at this rate, he will become one of the language’s most important writers. Already he’s one of its best.

Additional links

Read my review of Was Kommt? Link
Buy Thomas Stangl’s book on amazon? Link
Buy Clemens J. Setz’ book on amazon? Link
Read Stangl’s Wiki page? Link
Read the official page of the German Book Prize? Link

Reinhard Jirgl, Abschied von den Feinden (1995)

This is a writer that you don’t have to introduce to book-loving Anglophone readers any more. Although he hasn’t been translated yet, his name keeps coming up in discussions of contemporary literature and debates over international awards like the Nobel Prize in Literature which he would richly deserve. Jirgl’s writing is indebted to such titans of modern German literature as Alfred Döblin, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson, but the power of his narratives, the violence of his set-ups and the raw emotion and the brilliance of his thinking are all his own. Like many of the best contemporary German writers, he meets history head-on, interrogating its narratives, and the language in which these narratives were constructed. Abschied von den Feinden is not Jirgl’s best book, but it is the first book where he fully came into his voice, into that style that he made his own ever since. It introduces many of his topics, and unlike his other books, it even contains an explanatory section for all the symbols and typographical deviations he uses. It’s comparatively short and explosive, a story of two Germanys, two brothers, and a woman’s fate in the debris of a ‘better society’. It’s not his best novel, but one of his best. If you can, read Jirgl. He is the best living German writer. And for God’s sake, translate his books. (my review of Abschied von den Feinden)

Additional links

Read my review of Abschied von den Feinden? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book
Die Unvollendeten in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Francois Monti’s review of that book/translation? Link
Read Jirgl’s Wiki page? Link

Read Part 2 here.

There was such speed in her little body

John Crowe Ransom: Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

The eternally underrated, great Agrarian John Crowe Ransom. Read his poetry if and when you can. It’s not all that easy to get these days, but give it a try. The above poem is his most well known, but not his best. Let him surprise you.

Ishmael Reed: The Free-Lance Pallbearers

Reed, Ishmael (1999), The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN 1-56478-225-5

Called “a great writer” by none other than James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed’s reputation always had to contend with accusations of misogyny and with the barriers that a career of writing difficult-to-place novels involves. His writing, in all his books, straddled the divide between the experimental and postmodern fiction of Burroughs, Coover and Pynchon, and the strong political convictions and concerns of Ellison, Baldwin and Morrison. Between Coover and Morrison, there never was any real room for a writer like Reed, although his talent, his gift for writing is beyond any doubt. Reed is a black writer who does not cozy up to the expectations of topics or treatment of these same topics. His acidic style eats into both white and black narratives. There are various ways this works out in his work, but in his debut novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, published in 1967, he strikes all these chords, in a simple, almost crude way. He juxtaposes images, caricatures, quotes and screams of pain in one flame-hot bugger of a novel, which is far from flawless, but it is its numerous strengths that keep Reed’s boat afloat here.

And what a boat this is. On finishing the book, you will be both exhilarated and confused. Exhilarated because it’s a grand trip, calling up literary, cultural and political references with a surprising ease, dispatching real-life politicians and writers, as well as the debris of a whole culture in quick, tossed-off surreal snapshots of an inner-city waste land. The book sings, screams and hums with voices, music and noises, and moves from one sketched, unstable location to another. It demands your full attention, and it sets your brain in motion, constantly. This, however, especially the instability of its places and characters, leads to a good deal of confusion. There is nothing that interests Reed less than providing a realistic setting, realistic characters, living an unexamined life chartered by conventions. In his attempts to break free of these shackles, however, he has in his first novel thrown the reader into a largely unstructured sea of signs and symbols without giving him any kind of dry land to stand on.

The Free-Lance Pallbearers is the work of a jittery writer, one who burns with ideas and this book is a kind of explosion of those ideas. The plot is clearly a parody of the established plots of well-received black fiction, like Ellison’s searing Invisible Man, Wright’s Native Son or even some books by Baldwin, and it’s generous with criticism of different kinds of narratives, but it doesn’t offer a counter narrative, which has the effect of setting the reader adrift in Reeds thoughts and obsessions. At the same time, we, the reader, are not allowed to seek dry land outside of the novel, reading it dispassionately, drawing up schemes and lists, foot- and endnoting it all. If we do that, we lose much of the intended impact of the book.

It is meant to confuse the reader, it is meant to confront him with his reading habits, with his easy expectations of what a ‘black novel’ could or should be. It’s confrontational, which we see right at the beginning, in the very first paragraph which gives us an idea of the novel to come:

I live in HARRY SAM. HARRY SAM is something else. A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG. SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness.

These lines are spoken by the novel’s protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, who narrates the whole book until its bitter end. He lives in a country that is named after its fat white dictator Harry Sam, who refers to his own country as “ME”. Harry Sam resides on a toilet, and the state of his bowels, the consistency of his excrement, and the quality of the sewage water below him are constantly debated in the book, they are a matter of political faith, and careers, lives even, depend on the correct replies to the political catechism active in Harry Sam (the country). I never claimed that Reed’s criticism was subtle, it mostly isn’t, especially not with regard to politics. Overt recreations of political actions, debates, “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS”, are among the least subtly satirized targets, but they are also mostly a smoke-screen for the other targets and re-enactments.

Like many writers of his time, Reed seeks to locate the political in the private and expose the workings of the former by scrutinizing the structure and functions of the latter. He does not, however, try to imagine a ‘normal’ household and use the resulting images and situations as a source. Instead he staggers, no, he jumps ahead, and projects parts of everyday life onto the grotesque canvas of politics, showing one within the framework of the other, but both seen very clearly. And vice versa: what, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, remains of regular relationships, is blown up with Reed’s satiric lens and corroded by his political thinking. It is this aspect of his work that has earned him the accusations of misogyny, because his invariably male protagonists find in relationships, especially in marriage, the mark of repression, the yoke of societal control.

The same applies to homosexuality. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed uses homosexuality as a negative trope, it denotes sleaziness, dishonesty, and, like women, is depicted as profoundly threatening to Bukka, Reed’s hapless protagonist. This kind of depiction is not an accident, it doesn’t happen, like so many other things, in passing, no, it’s the culmination of the book’s most powerful, and arguably most important scene in the whole book, Bukka’s confrontation with Harry Sam (the person) himself. This changes the speed and tone of the book, and it is this section that gives the book its shape, that determines what the book is ‘about’. That the negative depiction of (male) homosexuality is a central part of this section seems especially problematic.

However, to read Reed like this is to overlook the use he makes of Bukka, Bukka’s language, and beliefs and what these things say about Bukka’s relationship to his fellow black men, and about The Free-Lance Pallbearers‘ relationship to other novels dealing with ‘the black experience’. Reed purposefully eschews clever writing, or rather: writing that’s clever for the sake of being clever. Reed published this novel the same year that Pynchon published his Crying of Lot 49, which is a nice little tale, but considerably less well realized than all his other books. Interestingly, it’s major flaw, i.e. the bland, and obvious sequence of symbols, of allegories and tropes, is one of Reed’s main objects of ridicule, while at the same time they both make heavy use of some very similar tropes, symbols or images, for example waste, garbage, excrement.

The difference is that in Pynchon, it is a trope, one symbol in a series of them, one allusion of many, whereas Reed, as I just explained, uses it as a direct mirroring of real excrement, real shitting, one of the most private acts of them all, an act that even some married couples hide from each other. All this has an additional metaphorical layer, but it works first and foremost on a direct, almost literal level. His confrontations rely on the brute impact of his caricatures and parodies, not on an intellectual analysis of its symbolic structure. At the end of his book, no dog hangs from meat-hooks, it’s a human being, visited by his parents who demand to given their due. Bukka, as a character, is the only one who doesn’t fit all that; he’s clearly artificial, a literary ghost, a black Candide “cakewalking” through this waste land.

In Bukka, Reed has created a character that is both a reflection of the books, culture and society criticized, as well as the means to criticize them. Just as the book as a whole can be read as a send-up of the traditional black novel, the awakening of a black man to the social and political reality around him, the state he is in and the society that is the reason for this state, so Bukka Doopeyduk is Reed’s send-up of the idealized black protagonist, and of the clever, fashionable black writer at the same time. Parts Candide, parts Malcolm X (including, I think, direct quotes from the Autobiography), Bukka isn’t like Wright’s Bigger, because he is more than that, he’s Wright, so to say, himself. Bukka is the narrator of the book, but his language differs strongly from the language of everyone else in the book and he’s accordingly being made fun of. Bukka is straining to speak ‘proper’ English, full, well-turned sentences, devoid of dialects or sloppiness. He does not, of course, succeed, at least not completely; we notice this partly through a slightly deviant grammar, and partly through orthographical errors.

It is the latter that create the most direct link to the writers made fun of, since these mistakes are often silent ones, mistakes of writing, not of speaking. Bukka the writer is sometimes, fascinatingly, at variance with Bukka the protagonist. While Bukka the writer is in control of everything, since he tells it all, Bukka the protagonist is frequently silenced, even made to mouth speeches that he didn’t write and wouldn’t approve of. Bukka the writer wants to be clever but what he mainly does is suck up to the structure that is currently governed by Harry Sam. It is his distaste that we find in the depiction of homosexuality, of women, even of Bukka Doopeyduk himself. Indeed one could say that Bukka is betrayed by the narrator, in effect by himself. This is an ingenious mirroring of another kind of betrayal in the book, that of Bukka by some of his fellow black men, who have entered into “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS” with Harry Sam (the person) and give up their brother at the drop of a dime.

This is maybe Reed’s most powerful criticism, and his most well made point: how control is not just control of the body with punishment à la Surveillir et Punir, but how it’s also control of one’s own narrative, and how that isn’t a “choice” that we consciously make, but that that’s a narrative that’s written by a different writer, like us, but unlike us (to mangle a line by Wallace Stevens). Bukka is trying to order, to give shape to the life he encounters, but he, like the reader, is swept away by the waves of ideas that Reed blasts at us. There is no life except in a distanced, processed way here, but the tumble and chaos of Harry Sam (the country) could be a better attempt at conveying the exigencies, the contradictions and the cultural problems of that life. In an essay from 1970, Reed once related this joke:

I have a joke I tell friends about a young Black poet who relies upon other people’s systems, and does not use his head. He wears sideburns and has seen every French film in New York. While dining at Schrafft’s he chokes to death on nut-covered ice cream and dies. He approaches the river Styx and pleads with Charon to ferry him across: ‘I don’t care how often you’ve used me as a mythological allusion,’ Charon says. ‘You’re still a nigger – swim!’

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 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.)

BadSexbabble

Finally! and in a brand new layout! Bookbabble Episode 57 is out, featuring yours truly, Renee, Bjorn and, of course, Donny. Here is the direct link, and here is Donny’s summary

The group discusses their best reads of the year, plus some not-so-great reads as well. Also, what books best defined the past decade, given all that has happened in the past 10 years? Plus, Renee treats us to a wonderful rendition of bad sex prose, courtesy of this year’s winner of Literary Review’s 2009 bad sex in fiction award.

Lord Jesus, please I’m ready.

Vic Chesnutt died today. He committed suicide. He was 45 years old when he died. Chesnutt makes you ashamed of even thinking of suicide. He crafted a dozen beautiful records, full of humor, sadness and gorgeousness. He’s what you’d call, I guess, a warrior, a beautiful, strong soul. On days like today it’s his music I turn to, so it was a shock to learn of his departure. Rest in Peace. We will miss you.

Nicholson Baker: The Anthologist

Baker, Nicholson (2009), The Anthologist, Simon & Schuster
ISBN 978-1-4165-7244-2

Poetry is damnably difficult to write about. As Mary Kinzie has pointed out in her excellent  Poet’s Guide to Poetry, poetry criticism often turns out to be a “sort of paraphrase”, and poetry is perhaps the one genre that can bear paraphrase and even translation least of all. Poetry critics abound, who do an injustice to the genre they write about, and this whole mess has all kinds of uncomfortable links to academically reared poetry, that has resulted in poets who learned their craft at universities and returned to teach there, a closed circle of a kind, certainly. So, even poets sometimes, and critics who earn their livelihood writing about poetry don’t necessarily do well at this game. Knowing all this, I was cautious, skeptic, even, approaching Nicholson Baker’s new novel which is written from a poets point of view and it’s about poetry:

Let’s have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem, because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they are saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.

Baker has accrued quite a following, different prizes and a sizable reputation, in several languages, but not as a poet. Baker has written and excelled both at writing novels and nonfictional prose, and he has been known to blur the lines between these modes of writing, most recently in his strange paean to pacifism, Human Smoke, which is structured and narrated like a novel but consists of an enormous amount of documents and documented quotes and statements. A similar kind of mixture can be found in The Anthologist, his new novel, which is an enjoyable, intriguing and multi-layered read, written with a sure and accomplished hand.

It’s a pleasure to read, a book that you are soon loath to put down, which draws you in and, for me, didn’t really let up until you’ve finished all of it. The appeal, its draw, cannot be chalked up to its plot since there’s no plot to speak of, small things happen, but much of the interest stems from the protagonist’s strange and inconsistent voice that drives the whole book. The book starts with the protagonist introducing himself. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” And it’s an able description of the book that follows. Where a text like Human Smoke introduced fictional elements in order to tell a story, The Anthologist contains a strong streak of nonfictional elements; in fact, the nonfictional sections could be argued to provide the bulk of the book. Baker’s protagonist is a poet and teacher, who is currently trying to assemble an anthology. He professes a strong dislike for teaching, but he’s what is usually referred to as an unreliable narrator, and his distaste for teaching turns out to be one of many inconsistencies in the book. See, although he claims to dislike it, when he runs into trouble writing the introduction to the Anthology that is supposed to be called “Only Rhymes”, he imagines himself in the midst of giving a lecture, a task that appears to help, calm him, and that usually helps him to give a shape to his slightly disjointed thoughts.

This episode is a small-scale depiction of how the whole book works which contains longer slices of an imaginary lecture about meter and rhyme in English poetry, embedded in a disjointed, largely associative narrative. Paul Chowder is making up his mind. His life is falling apart and he sits down and considers it all, as it is, his current relationships to women, relatives, and to his own art. The book is written, for the most part, in the present tense, and as Chowder thinks about his life and lectures us about poetry, we can see his life change, we see how it is transformed into something different. Not radically different but slightly. It shifts, in its rhythms and emphases, and the book charts this development. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much room for the enormous amount of development and characterization that is taking place here, since so much of the book is taken up by Chowder’s lectures. And they are lectures, not just essayistic diversions. Chowder directly addresses the reader (or hearer) of the book, talking to him, reasoning with him, and above all, constantly asking him to do something, try to keep a beat, speak something aloud. I have had a terrific teacher of contemporary poetry, and Chowder’s passionate but eccentric way of teaching reminded me of him. Chowder jumps from one end of his subject to another, drawing connections, associations, in short: making a case for his thesis.

His thesis, or rather: his attempt at a coherent statement is a restitution of rhymed and strictly metered poetry to its proper place, at the vanguard of poetry. In one of many derisory statements he refers to free verse as “pretend stanzas of chopped garbage” or “plums”. His interesting but unusual ideas on meter draw on brilliant scholars such as Derek Attridge, in fact, I was tempted, at times, to pull Attridge from my shelf to check whether some of Chowder’s raves and rants weren’t taken verbatim from his work. It’s probably not particularly riveting nor, in and of itself, helpful, to recount the specifics of Chowder’s thesis here, but it’s worth pointing out that it is based on a disdain for the conventional wisdom that would have the pentameter as the ‘natural’ English meter. Open any current introduction to the art of English poetry, from Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance to Timothy Steele’s All the fun’s in how you say a thing and this will jump at you, probably in an introductory chapter and will be repeated throughout the book. Chowder will have none of this. Not only does he propose a completely different meter as the normal or natural meter for English poetry, he also proposes a notion of rests. None of this is original, mind you, but it is unorthodox, and I’d suggest that much of it, while certainly learned and most certainly not without educational value, could be read more profitably as a symptom of Chowder’s emotional states than as something that strives for objective instruction.

This is one of Baker’s many admirable achievements in the book: he’s done an enormous amount of research, on a topic that he probably wasn’t intensely familiar with at the outset, but the results feels completely organic, so much so, in fact, that we believe the book’s premise, i.e., that the whole of it isn’t Baker’s research but Chowder’s original thought. This is different from Human Smoke, where Baker caught a lot of flak for the odd political opinions he quoted. This success in The Anthologist is partly due to the immensely passionate tone that Chowder brings to the table, his fits and quirks, his bouts of anger, his long rants about Filippo Marinetti, Ezra Pound and an assortment of modernists, and his equally long raves and tributes to writers such as his cherished Sara Teasdale, Theodore Roethke (for my own comments on Roethke, see this review), Louise Bogan and Mary Oliver, amongst others. Having the ear, or having at least the willingness to apply one’s ear to a poem, or a whole poet’s work, to look for a tone, moods, for ripples on the surface of the poem, as well as a certain reluctance to jump ahead to what a poem “really means”, this has become rare, and poetry criticism (and, arguably, poetry itself) is the poorer for it. Without criticizing theoretical approaches to poetry, the utter lack of sympathetic readings of poems, the kinds of reading that used to be called hermeneutic in Schleiermacher’s days, this, I think, really hurts the whole field, draining it of a necessary energy, making poetry less of a viable and vital force than it could, no, than it should be.

Poetry isn’t made of messages, it’s made of language, and among the major modes of literature, poetry is arguably the one that is most directly, purely even, concerned with language, and with the thinking that precedes, I think, consciousnes, envelops it in folds of language; it is, I think, uniquely equipped to describe, or deal with, “the fiction that results from feeling” (to quote Stevens) and even with what spiritual content is washed ashore. I could point to a couple of poems that make this point, but novels? By non-poets? Few and far between. The Anthologist, an extended ars poetica, is one of them. Like many of the best works of literature, it achieves this through a complex mixture of direct disquisition and subtle indirection. We are never allowed to forget that the passion isn’t Baker’s, it’s Paul Chowder’s, and the form and tone he adopts is indicative of his character and related issues. His attraction to the unorthodox, is part of a general anxiety, not Bloom’s overused “Anxiety of Influence”, but a real anxiety that Chowder understands to be part of the poetic endeavor; to highlight this, he uses the image of long ladders reaching up into the skies with every poet and critic hurrying up the rungs, up, up, up, and Chowder confesses of a feeling of exhaustion, a tiredness, in the face of the arduous ascent and the competition below, beside and above him.

This anxiety, and a heavy feeling of defeat, certainly drive his expansive remarks just as powerfully as his passion for poetry. Although his voice is always strong and present, Chowder himself appears to slip in and out of his own story, as he layers it with inconsistencies. There are things that sound false, like the poetry convention hailing the arrival of Paul Muldoon, as if Muldoon was the singer of a mildly famous rock band. There is Chowder’s obsession with the question whether he will or will not get printed in the New Yorker. More to the point, there are his gaps or contradictions inasmuch as his art and his convictions as they relate to that art are concerned. He extols rhymes, but admits to write unrhymed (not necessarily free verse) poetry himself, and among the 20th century poets he seems to admire most are poets like Elizabeth Bishop and especially Mary Oliver; Oliver is particularly interesting in that she can safely be classed as a fee verse poet, a major, complex poet making brilliant use of line and meter, but she produces just the kind of poetry he seems to spurn in other poets. On a related note, for an anthologist who claims to be well read in rhymed and metered poetry, there is his dismissal of James Merrill as merely a pretty face

She would say her heroes’ names in her gorgeous juicy accent, holding her fingers together: “Mark Strand – he is simply the top.” And I would say, Okay I’ll have to check him out. Later I did check him out, and I thought, he was fine but not great. But he was exceedingly good-looking, I could see that, a real Charlton Hestonian face, one of those hellishly handsome poets. James Merrill was another and back then I lumped W.S. Merwin in with them. But that’s not right, because Merwin has genius as well as looks.

This is profoundly baffling, since Merrill is arguably the best, most dexterous and complex American writer of formal verse in the second half of the 20th century. If you are well read enough in this area to attempt an anthology of poets and poems, you wouldn’t overlook that.

But this oversight is necessary, it’s Nicholson Baker’s way of demonstrating to us the superficial nature of Chowder’s lecture; this does not mean that Chowder doesn’t, in general, know what he’s talking about, but the whole lecture, the diversions and asides, these are red herrings, facades behind which Chowder hides his hurts, fears. Early in the book Baker, in another poetologically laden scene, tells us, that Chowder is easily distracted, that he will embrace distraction, even, in order not to deal with the task at hand: rebuilding his life. He’s constantly evading his life, dodging responsibility, putting off standing up for himself as a poet and lover. Instead, he makes a big show of fighting for his literary critical convictions, proposing and defending an unorthodox theory, and he doesn’t even wait for us to ask, to think, doubt, he launches into full teacher mode. As a teacher, his explanations are marvelous, but the contradictions, the diversions, they should make us suspicious of his actual qualities as a teacher. We are his audience but we don’t really exist, for him, there’s nothing to confront or deal with, so he can talk freely. There is no voice that halts him, that checks him, forces him to double down and think, it’s just him and his game. Baker’s incredible skill makes us understand how Chowder’s mind works, but the lack of balance in the voice and the very loose and light plotting make this an easy, a light read.

The Anthologist is in love with its narrator and although it’s written by a master stylist, the indulgences that result from this affection, serve to weaken the whole book considerably. There is too much tentativeness, too much indirection, the book is content with Chowder’s little spiel. This could have been a masterpiece, but it’s not. It’s a short book that should have been even shorter, a sarcastic book that should have been more sarcastic, a bitter book that lacks bitterness. However you look at it, it’s not enough. But, and hear me right, this is a great, great read. It’s an incredibly well written, light book about poetry, and it’s a very good book about poetry. Read it, you will not be disappointed. Judging from this book alone, Nicholson Baker is a stunning novelist.

“OMG! That’s so much awesomeness!”

Holiday feelings at Irene Wilde’s great (re-newed) blog:

Back home, we enjoy a cup of cocoa, and then The Child goes off to do whatever it is that teenagers do in their rooms (it isn’t cleaning, that’s for certain), and Barbara Stanwyck is learning to flip flap-jacks from S.Z. Sakall (one of the great character actors of all time) on the television, which is still in blessed black and white. The Cat slips onto my lap and settles down. Everyone at Chez Wilde is warm and cozy. The darkness, for us this year, is something distant and abstract. Having a few minutes to reflect on that and be grateful for it is that girdle-free first breath.

Brittany Murphy RIP

Brittany Murphy died yesterday.

Brittany Murphy, the perpetually perky and slightly quirky actress who worked her way up from supporting parts to romantic leads after her breakout role in the film “Clueless,” died Sunday in Los Angeles. She was 32. (…) The 1995 teen comedy “Clueless,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” set in southern California and starring Alicia Silverstone, was a surprise hit, and though Ms. Murphy was 15 when she played the supporting role of Tai, the airhead persona stuck with her. It was her 2003 stint as the romantic lead in the Eminem vehicle “8 Mile,” she told The A.P., that earned her more recognition. (…) A diverse set of credits accumulated in Ms. Murphy’s filmography, including the tough, abused waitress in the gritty “Sin City,” a concentration camp victim in the television film “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” and the voice of an animated penguin in “Happy Feet.” She also lent her voice to the character Luann on more the 200 episodes of Fox’s animated series “King of the Hill,” and collaborated on a song with the D.J. Paul Oakenfold. “I don’t really take myself very seriously,” Ms. Murphy told The San Jose Mercury News in 2003. “I’ve never formally trained in acting, so I’m very instinctual and visceral with decisions. It hasn’t really been a plot or scheme in any way, shape or form.”

Man what a shit year.

Why did I flinch? I loved you.

James Merrill: The Mad Scene

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.

(link)

On three novellas by Hartmut Lange

Lange, Hartmut (2009), Der Abgrund des Endlichen, Diogenes
ISBN 978-3-257-06715-6

langeAmong living German prose writers, Hartmut Lange is something of an oddity. He is what you’d call a writer’s writer, not really appreciated by critics, except in what must be described as a glancing way, not particularly successful with the public, but adored by writers such as Monika Maron and many other heavyweights. But, and here’s the odd thing, he doesn’t read like many other ‘writers’ writers’ do. He is a smooth, highly accomplished writer, a creator of taut and incredibly focused little works of art, texts that, at the same time, are light as feathers. There are few writers out there than can wear their erudition and their technical finesse this lightly and at the same time stun the reader who realizes what it is that has fallen into his lap there. Hartmut Lange should be one of Germany’s most celebrated writers, he’s one of its finest writers anyway, and Der Abgrund des Endlichen (~ The Abyss of the Finite), his most recent publication, certainly confirms this. Lange, these past decades, has become primarily a writer of stories and novellas, mainly novellas, and not since the days of Paul Heyse has this country known as dedicated a writer of novellas as Hartmut Lange and in his new book, he publishes three of them.

These three novellas are very different in length, structure and even writing. While they are all excellent, they are also different in terms of quality, as well as tone. The first, and longest novella is arguably the best of the bunch, the most finely crafted of them, unlike the other two, it doesn’t need the context of the book, and could have been published on its own without a major loss. It’s called “Mathilde oder der Lichtwechsel” (“Mathilde or The Change of Light”) and is about a middle-aged school teacher, Johannes Feldmann, who suffers an existential crisis. His sense of who he is just up and vanishes. It all starts with a fin de siècle plaster head on an old gable above a modern garage. The novella is narrated by a third person personal narrator and through his, i.e. Feldmann’s eyes, we see the ugliness of that construction, of this vast area with cars coming and going, alien noises screeching, and in the middle of it all, this serene, female head, which the workers in the garage, the mechanics and even the owner, call “Mathilde”. None of the people there know or care why there is a head above their garage, what house used to occupy the grounds before that, and no-one thinks Mathilde is worth saving, it’s there, that’s all.

No-one, except Feldmann. Feldmann used to be married but they filed for divorce when she found out he was homosexual, something he hadn’t known himself for too long. Feldmann isn’t introspective, apparently, he never was, as a rule, he just does what’s expected of him, until that doesn’t work anymore, then he slinks away and tries something else. That’s the story of his life. Early in the novella, his father asks him: “Well, are you happier now?” Feldmann answers honestly: “No.” Happiness as a result of finding his ‘true identity’ is not available for him, because he has never tried to see himself as he is, he has never tried to come to terms with himself, he’s driven by anxieties, scurrying to and from work, home, to a bar and home again. Until, that is, he encounters Mathilde. He is suddenly gripped by the urge to do well by her, phoning up the owner of the property, calling the public authorities, marshaling his students in front of the garage, taking photographs and holding forth, in a strident voice. We don’t get to hear what he says, and since we hear it from him, I don’t think he hears it either. This is a gesture, an action, the details are unimportant enough to be swept under the rug. In trying to save Mathilde, Feldmann tries to evade having to hear himself. Or rather: see himself. Seeing, I think, is the central trope of that first novella, and not just seeing the head, seeing himself, as the novella progresses, the story starts to turn upon many more moments of seeing.

Such as an odd change of light in his apartment that unsettles Feldmann, and ultimately leads to his moving out and moving into a pension across the street. Or seeing people as homosexuals, for example, as desirable, as worth saving. The more we read on, the more Feldmann gets lost in observations, his life is less and less in focus, until, in one of the final scenes, we see him, observing his own house from the pension, holding his breath, looking at his own apartment, not being able to move, to act, even to think. Earlier, we learn, he had lovers, people who even visited him, stayed there, lived, for an unknown length of time with him, he had, in short, what we call “a life” and what Lange’s masterful novella chronicles is the loss of that life. There is, for the reader, at this point, a conflict between the title of the book and this novella. There is nothing finite here, on the contrary, what we see is a constant, eternal regress, the sad story of a man retreating ever further inside, away from himself, from his life. But there is, in fact, a limit involved, a consequence that Feldmann isn’t capable of considering, because he would have to consider himself first, alone and in relation to others and this he’s fully incapable of. Unlike Alexander Friedrich, the protagonist of the second novella in the book, and the shortest text overall.

This novella is called “Hinter der Brücke” (~ “Behind the Bridge”) and it’s protagonist is obsessed with Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic mystic and polymath, who contributed to almost every area of knowledge of her time and died in 1149. Friedrich is mainly concerned with her music, he listens, compulsively, almost, to recordings of her music, the door opened, letting the music glide out and onwards over the bridge behind his house. He’s not just enamored with her music, on an emotional level, but he also starts to write a serious book about her, researching her life and her work. His life is completely dedicated to her, and everyone who wants a piece of him, will also have to deal with hearing incessantly about the Blessed Hildegard. Inexplicably, his girlfriend has not left him yet, even accompanies him to a conference he’s been invited to in order for him to hold a speech about his project, and his ideas about Hildegard von Bingen. In this, very brief novella, one event quickly follows another and suddenly, exclaiming the unknowability of historical truth, Friedrich breaks down in the middle of what clearly was an impromptu speech.

Subsequently he’s diagnosed with a serious, lethal illness, and his girlfriend entreats him to take medication, to do something, anything, to save himself but he slips, like Feldmann, in the preceding novella, in a kind of trance, instead of seeing, the sense he engages is hearing, he drops like a stone into the sea of Bingen’s music. It’s a strange kind of Dionysian ecstasy, one that makes him recognize the closeness of death, and makes him come up with ideas about, basically, the synchronicity of history, ideas that imply direct, full knowledge about historical subjects. While his critical faculties made him doubt the veracity of historical narratives, in his trance, the music in a way makes him bypass these faculties, but, as with Feldmann, this doesn’t make him happy, just different. Like Feldmann, he experiences a kind of loss of self, and like him, he is at odds with those around him who represent different approaches. Feldmann’s kind of seeing is exposed, in an interesting scene, as indirect, and unclear. Friedrich is confronted with the deficiencies, the harmful qualities of his knowledge, or his use of it, by his girlfriend who, as a trained physician, tells, explains and elaborates for him the abyss that he confronts, forcing him, finally, to make a decision between death and live. All this is part of a very simple-seeming story, with echoes of Fontane, but, again, everything fits, every detail, name, it’s all perfectly arranged, as is the whole collection.

You can’t but admire the whole structure, how the sequence itself tells a story, how it makes the reader relate each novella to the title, trying to contextualize everything as he goes along, looking for connections, and similarities start to accrue, and we get an idea of how this might work – and then the final novella, “Der Abgrund des Endlichen” changes the game significantly. It’s this novella that’s given the whole book its name, and at first glance, it seems highly dissimilar from the others. It’s also closest to a genre exercise, taking its cues from mystery novels, which means I can’t disclose a lot, less than in the previous stories where I veiled the ending, but explained lots of other aspects. The basic story starts with a middle-aged man, who has, as a boy, lost his brother, who was murdered and buried in a bomb crater near some allotments that belonged to his family. The word allotments doesn’t quite fit the German equivalent Kleingartenanlage, which is an important part of German culture, signifying a petty bourgeois life style, which Germans have elevated to an art form, with an elaborate set of rules and hierarchies. While locations in the other novellas could be overlooked (but are important), this is immediately and directly significant. The hardcover edition also carries a picture of these kinds of gardens on the cover. For a German reader, this combination likely creates a series of associations, including the German reception of Baudelaire through a curiously Nietzschean lens.

Having mentioned that, let’s continue with the story. Well, that murder near the Kleingartenanlage resurfaces as the protagonist starts getting letters by a man claiming to be his brother’s murderer. The would-be murderer is adamant that the protagonist, who narrates the story from his own perspective, meet with him. The ensuing story is dominated by the protagonist’s doubts, his hesitation, and the great urge that drives the stranger to batter the speaker with letters, requests and odd looks. He’s on a search for redemption, and in a strange feeling of entitlement, he doesn’t ask, he expects the protagonist to provide him. Or maybe he’s so desperate to get deliverance that he needs to believe that the surviving brother can, indeed, deliver him. There is a point where we start to realize that the person that has most in common with Feldmann or Friedrich is the alleged murderer, and in his quest we see a distortion, and a mirroring of the previous two protagonists’ projects, hang-ups and obsessions. The third novella connects other important strands as well. As I pointed out in my review of his masterful novella Das Konzert (direct link here), Hartmut Lange’s often concerned with memory, and monuments, and history as it is reflected in objects and landscapes.

In Der Abgrund des Endlichen, he adds the dimension of individual lives, but it is not until the last novella that we recognize how deftly, and, ultimately, subtly, he has tied these curious lives to a broader cultural history. Plain names, as “Glienicker Brücke”, as the bridge in the middle novella is called, give way to more symbolic places. The Kleingartenanlage, for example, a refugee camp, and a bomb crater. In between these three, Lange summons an enormous canvas of German history, with small and peculiar touches, some glaring, some subtle, and demonstrates how the lives in the foreground and the background are interdependent. And this, if nothing else, reminds us to have a look at other, similarly significant objects and places in the other novellas. There’s Mathilde, of course, and while you may have read her as a stand-in for Feldmann’s identity crisis (or crises), it’s equally true that his search for an identity also correlates with Berlin’s search. Berlin is a city in uproar, constantly changing, moving; these days, cars are being bombed, Roma are discriminated against. It’s a city between east and west, with a beautiful and problematic past. Mathilde is representative of what is constant in that troubled and enchanting city, and the individuals exemplify change, and the traumatic and difficult nature of it.

During the past weeks I have heard many summons to translate this or that author, this or that book into English, in some lists, hacks like Thomas Brussig were named, and other hacks like Ingo Schulze have already been translated. Hartmut Lange deserves be be read around the world. He writes small, readable masterpieces. He’s committed to his craft like few other living writers, and what’s more, Lange’s light, and complex narratives are imbued with a difficult tone, a difficult, spry spirituality. There’s a certain conservative moment at the heart of it, but Lange, despite being a deeply moral writer, is also a generous one, who allows his material to breathe, to develop. He constantly prods his reader, controls his material exactly, but that doesn’t hurt the stories, or their impact. It’s hard to explain. He’s a wizard. Read him, translate him, get him out there, he deserves it, and what’s more: you deserve his books. Der Abgrund des Endlichen, his most recent book, is not even his best (that might just be Das Konzert), but it’s still a remarkable work of art.

*

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.)

Shelley (story)

Wrote this in half an hour, so be merciful. It was at a prompt by Meg Pokrass (link1, link2, and twitter)

Story challenge! Write a small story (under 400 words) using a real Craig’s List personal ad for inspiration!

I used this ad and wrote this story

I haven’t talked to Shelley in a week. She always used to call and tell me about her nights out, but for a week: nothing. She meets men on the internet and takes them home, telling me everything about it the next day. Sometimes I come and watch. Sometimes I listen in. I used to tell friends: one day I’m going to marry the Queen of Romania. I was little then, but when I saw her on the street, I knew it was her. At first I just followed her. I learned to distinguish her footsteps so I didn’t need to see her while still never losing contact with her. She works in a library, and the books she touches carry her light scent. I noticed that she gets upset when someone dirties one of her books, or rumples a page. She frowns and bites her lip. Small accidents started to happen, people stumbling down stairs, losing their keys. I became petty, stealing toilet paper, drowsing people in sticky fluids. She knew. I know she did, because one day I wrote her and she said: it’s you, isn’t it? The Queen remembered me. Recognized me. We started talking, and after a while, she called me every night. She went out with all kinds of men, but that wasn’t a problem. She’s young, why shouldn’t she have her fun? Whenever she calls, I wear just a touch of perfume, dabbed behind my ears, and a dotted dress, like the one my mother bought for me. The first time I wore it, I think the Queen knew that I was especially pretty. I heard it in her voice. But now I don’t hear her voice at all. I swear, it will never, ever happen again. Last night was different. I wore a cab driver’s outfit, and drove her and her man of the night to a nice restaurant. She suggested it, on my advice. My ex-husband runs the place and for all his flaws, he’s a magnificent cook. Something went awry. The man demanded attention, bellowing, but you don’t speak to a Queen that way. I was happy to see she didn’t answer him. In the restaurant though, he suddenly stood up, left money behind, came out, threw a wad of money on my dashboard and said: Listen, dyke. She will come out any minute now, take the bitch back where you picked her up. I shot him two days later. She called me the night after: it was you, wasn’t it? That’s the last thing I heard from her, but she will call. She has to. It’s fate.

The night doesn’t matter

Cesare Pavese: Passion for Solitude
translated by Geoffrey Brock

I’m eating a little supper by the bright window.
The room’s already dark, the sky’s starting to turn.
Outside my door, the quiet roads lead,
after a short walk, to open fields.
I’m eating, watching the sky—who knows
how many women are eating now. My body is calm:
labor dulls all the senses, and dulls women too.

Outside, after supper, the stars will come out to touch
the wide plain of the earth. The stars are alive,
but not worth these cherries, which I’m eating alone.
I look at the sky, know that lights already are shining
among rust-red roofs, noises of people beneath them.
A gulp of my drink, and my body can taste the life
of plants and of rivers. It feels detached from things.
A small dose of silence suffices, and everything’s still,
in its true place, just like my body is still.

All things become islands before my senses,
which accept them as a matter of course: a murmur of silence.
All things in this darkness—I can know all of them,
just as I know that blood flows in my veins.
The plain is a great flowing of water through plants,
a supper of all things. Each plant, and each stone,
lives motionlessly. I hear my food feeding my veins
with each living thing that this plain provides.

The night doesn’t matter. The square patch of sky
whispers all the loud noises to me, and a small star
struggles in emptiness, far from all foods,
from all houses, alien. It isn’t enough for itself,
it needs too many companions. Here in the dark, alone,
my body is calm, it feels it’s in charge.

(from Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950, by Cesare Pavese, translated by Geoffrey Brock. A beautiful, biligual edition. Highly recommended!)

Christmasbabble

This is Episode 55 of bookbabble, where we (we, that’s Donny, Lone, Renee and my drunk self) talk about prrrrrresents. Here is the direct link and here’s Donny’s summary

The group talks about Christmas gifts – books we’d like to give people, and what we’d like to receive. We covered Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many books, and a toaster. Also, find out what Doraemon and Renee’s handbag have in common (hint: it’s not the colour).

The Enzensberger/Johnson Correspondence

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus; Uwe Johnson (2009), “fuer Zwecke der brutalen Verständigung” Der Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42100-0

DSC_1543In Das Treffen in Telgte, his tribute to the literary circle Gruppe 47, Günter Grass celebrates that group and its leader, Hans Werner Richter, in depicting a meeting of writers and critics from all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is a meeting of writers that in his book becomes a virtual meeting of Baroque poets from different points within that period, writers who never actually met. This transcending of time and place is a fitting tribute to a group that was able to contain very different kinds of writers and thinkers, and that let conflicts run its course rather than try to excise them. One of the youngsters at these meetings was Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of the leading poets of his time, who published his first collection of poetry, verteidigung der wölfe in 1957, to strong acclaim, a collection which has since remained part of the post-war canon, and its writer among the leading public voices of German literature. Another was Uwe Johnson, who published his debut novel, the staggeringly amazing Mutmaßungen über Jakob (translated into English as Speculations about Jakob), which still stands as one of the best German novels written after WWII, in 1959.

That same year (incidentally also the year that Grass published The Tin Drum), these two writers encountered each other for the first time at a meeting of the Gruppe 47, where Enzensberger read a poem (“Schaum”) from a manuscript that would eventually become his second collection, landessprache (1960), and Johnson attacked the poem, with the full force of an education received in the GDR, and the conviction that criticism that doesn’t lead to change or indicate where change might be, is empty and useless. This ensued in a lengthy discussion, that was vigorously led, but in a friendly way, and it left both writers with fond memories of each other. So when, out of the blue, December 3rd, 1959, Johnson wrote Enzensberger to acquire a copy of a high-profile article the latter had written, Enzensberger replied in amiable terms.

DSC_1544

My meagre collection of 60s and 70s Kursbuch editions.

Thus the correspondence between Uwe Johnson and Hans Magnus Enzensberger begins. It ends, with the exception of a couple of tossed-off notes, in June 1968, less than 9 years later. In between, the two share one of the most fascinating dialogues I have ever had the privilege to listen in on. It has been published this year under the editorship of Henning Marmulla and Claus Kröger as “fuer Zwecke der brutalen Verständigung” Der Briefwechsel and must surely be one of the best and most worthwhile books published in 2009. It is mainly marked by their differences in outlook, although they are very similar, in so many ways. Both young writers, just starting to make a name for themselves, both, politically, leaning towards the left, both with a highly distinctive style as far as their writing is concerned. In this light, it’s all the more surprising that it is their differences that dominated their acquaintance and their friendship, and its these differences that have led to their falling out. The basic nature of their difference can be found as early as that fateful meeting of the Gruppe 47, when Johnson took Enzensberger to task for not being more obliging, direct, useful, in his criticism. Throughout the next nine years this kind of criticism will return time and again, although its appearance varies.

Johnson acts as a voice of reason sometimes, drawing attention to the effect that his friend’s speeches or essays may have or, more to the point: not have. As a writer, Johnson is always highly aware of himself, of roles enacted in societies, of how norms and pressures work. Fear is a very important part of his work or rather: anxiety. And in these letters we see a mind at work that has learned to deal with his fears and anxieties, that has become careful and measured, and in his comments to Enzensberger, at least not until their big falling-out in 1967/8, he doesn’t reprimand his friend or lecture him, he offers suggestions, alerts him to possible misreadings that may not benefit Enzensberger’s goal, a goal that Johnson doesn’t necessarily share (and Johnson is himself much less of a political and public writer), but one that he understands and he keeps pointing out how Enzensberger fails to comply with his own aims. This kind of thinking, of talking, it manifests itself in a style of writing that seems to have been taken from one of his books, it’s so complex, and so full of his strange and idiosyncratic music.

DSC_1542As Eberhard Fahlke, editor of Johnson’s correspondence with Max Frisch, pointed out, Johnson writes his letters carefully and understands them as an autonomous literary genre. He’s afraid to embarrass himself, so he drapes his writing, and the carefully woven net of his thinking over the letters, making each of them, however irrelevant the subject, a small literary gem. In contrast, while often interesting, the only artifice that Enzensberger’s letters display, is his obsession with writing everything in small type. In German nouns are usually capitalized, not so with Enzensberger, who, throughout his work, has often insisted on not doing that. The writing itself is usually readable, but never as taut as Johnson’s. This superficial mark by which Enzensberger’s letters distinguish themselves, is in line with his political and literary thinking which, while passionate, is too often occupied by paraphernalia. The political gesture, standing the right way, being perceived in the right way seems to carry more weight than saying or writing things that work, that have an actual effect. And Enzensberger quickly acquires such a clout that mere words, such as Johnson might offer in criticism, cannot sway him from his course. Enzensberger, in these letters, is righteous, he is an actor, and as such not a perfect fit for someone like Johnson, who appears to be immensely earnest.

But to focus on these differences is to overstate the weight and importance that these issues have in the short-lived correspondence of these two powerful writers. Unlike the above-mentioned Frisch/Johnson exchange of letters, which mainly focuses on questions of editing and textual criticism, Enzensberger and Johnson, at least in the first few years of their friendship, talk shop about organizing magazines and journals. Driven by the seemingly inexhaustible energy of Günter Grass, quite a few magazines are proposed, discussed and, finally, discarded. In these letters we learn about how power was distributed in the European publishing scene or at least in a part of it. We learn how these writers, prize-winning, bestselling writers at that, bargain with money, time and texts, how publishers scheme against each other and how everyone denies responsibility, passes on the buck, until everything collapses or threatens to collapse. Grass is the silent but recurring presence in all this, rallying his colleagues for ever new journalistic projects and trying to organize them to support the Social Democratic Party.

This area, i.e. editing, organizing and publishing, turns out to be Enzensberger’s strong suit. Whereas, at the beginning, Johnson was the more active of the two, who had to coax Enzensberger into doing organizational work, as the years go by, Enzensberger grows into this role as editor. When he has to close down a huge international project with French, Italian and German contributions it is, paradoxically, this decision that appears to energize him, galvanize him into action. Soon, more projects come up, and now Enzensberger is always part of the inner circle of each of them, until, in 1965, he finally succeeds, and creates the Kursbuch, a literary and political quarterly, that was to become one of the most important publications in Germany after the war. The Kursbuch unites all of Enzensberger’s areas of interest, in it book critics, philosophers, poets and prose writers found a place to voice their misgivings with the course the country was taking.

Two or three pieces of Johnson’s found their way into this publication, as well, but at that point, at the height of their friendship, where the longest and most open and eloquent letters are exchanged, the shadow of what will mean an end to that exchange, is already visible. In 1966 Johnson and his family moved to New York where they stayed for over a year, during which time Johnson’s two Berlin apartments remained empty. Trusting his friend Enzensberger, he allowed his brother, Ulrich Enzensberger, to move into one of them, and Hans Magnus’ former wife, Dagrun, to move into the other. These were turbulent years in the development of the young republic, with strong and violent conflicts between angry and impassioned students and the state which, at the time, was full of former Nazis and repressive, in many ways. Dagrun and Ulrich took part in these upheavals, the center of which was Berlin, the former and future capital of Germany, divided and surrounded by the GDR. Their engagement, so at odds with Enzensberger’s kind of thinking, led to their becoming part of a commune, and opened the doors of Johnson’s apartments to the famous Kommune I, home to a few of the most well known faces in the left wing movement of the time.

When Johnson learned that his apartment had been thus misused he was angry, not because of the commune per se, but because no one had asked him, no one had told him, and because Ulrich and Dagrun’s transgressions and behavior imperiled his apartment. The anxiety in Johnson’s life and his work made it impossible for him to forgive such a heavy breach of trust, all the more because Enzensberger evaded all responsibility and kept shifting blame on his ex-wife, his brother and even Johnson himself. In what can, at best, be described as an aloof manner, he is unfazed by Johnson’s increasingly furious and disappointed tone, and keeps trying to wash his hands of the whole matter. This conflict is exacerbated by Johnson’s obsession with doing things the right way, cleanly, transparently, in order. Increasingly, what started out as a means to deal with personal fears, and what helped him to create his complex, difficult and artful style, turns into a liability for him. In later years he will make life impossible for both his wife and his daughter and cut both from his testament. He will be so plagued by his obsessions, his increasingly paranoiac suspicions towards friends and family, in short, he will feel so driven into a corner that, when he died alone, bloated from drinking and smoking, his body will not be found for almost a month since no-one, for weeks, came looking for him, no-one cared enough.

DSC_1541This darkness, however, isn’t part of these letters, which end when the Johnson family returns and cleans up the chaos left behind by Enzensberger’s relatives.  The bitterness that seeps from these last letters and notes is sad since the bulk of the correspondence is inspiring and full of interesting information. A formative decade in literary Germany unfolds in front of our eyes, and the spectacular editing skills of Henning Marmulla and Claus Kröger, two literary scholars who wrote a commentary section that is longer than the exchange itself, have a lot to do with this. It cannot be praised highly enough what the two editors achieved here. Their letter-by-letter commentary contains extracts from speeches, poems, it contains dates, names, information and it is, above all, readable. You can go through it before or after the letters and just read it front to back. The writing is always accessible, never just matter-of-fact. Whatever your background, however well you’re read, you will learn something from this wealth of knowledge that Kröger and Marmulla have dragged up here.

As a whole the book manages to be several things at once. The letters are a great, even suspenseful read, as they chart the beginning and the end of a friendship, they depict two writers at the height of their powers, with their ideas, preoccupations and insights, and, through them, shed new light on a whole period, on debates within the literary world. It stresses a feeling of community, a shared sense of necessity, of belonging. The optimism, the idealism that Grass stressed in his Treffen in Telgte, it shines through these letters, despite (and even because of) the conflicts.

There are many more small gems that cannot all be mentioned here, like Enzensberger’s views of Johnson’s books and texts, which are invariable interesting; the half that contains the letters is short for a letter exchange, especially one that Johnson once joked would extend over two thick volumes, but this also means there is little drag here, as a reader you want to read on, to see how all this works out, and as for the second half, the one that contains the commentary, it is just as readable, but the informative aspect gains more traction here. If you are interested in the period at all, this is a book you shouldn’t miss. Johnson’s letters alone are worth the price of admission, and, unlike his longer exchanges with Unseld or Frisch, they follow, almost, a narrative here. This is, I think, what distinguishes this correspondence from many others: it reads like a well written, well constructed epistolary novel. What more could you want?

*

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.)

Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things

Auster, Paul (1987), In the Country of Last Things, Faber & Faber
ISBN 0-57-122730-9

Post-apocalyptic novels have know quite a success this past decade. Most recently, there was Theroux’ so-so Far North, Cormac McCarthy’s ok The Road and Maggie Gee’s brilliant The Flood, as well as Margaret Atwood’s efforts Oryx & Crake and this year’s The Year of the Flood. Although Paul Auster’s fourth (or second, depending on whether you count the New York Trilogy as one or three novels) novel In The Country of Last Things, was published in 1987, I could not help but to contextualize it with its more recent brethren and draw a comparison with these books, an undertaking that isn’t likely to produce a result that shines a favorable light on Auster’s book. In 1987, with some of his most famous books still to come, like Moon Palace or The Music of Chance, he’d already published the one book (or books) that will secure him a place in the American canon, The New York Trilogy. It consists of three short pieces, variations on a variety of themes, an unease with reality, with names, naming, being, identity. Although I’m not sure it’s a success, it’s definitely a powerful artistic statement, this is a man stepping out into the world and stating his intentions as a writer, it’s the one text in Paul Auster’s work that works like a key to his whole oeuvre. It may not be fully artistically accomplished but we as readers are left with Auster’s shadow in the door, his wild gaze. Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders. You may not like the book, but it’s also the one point in Paul Auster’s whole work where you can feel a kind of authenticity, a hunger, a need and a talent to write. It’s all there and we as readers can’t but admire the result. But sadly, Auster didn’t stop after finishing the trilogy.

In the Country of Last Things is, in many ways, a huge step forward, or away, from the writing that created the New York Trilogy. It is a bleak, post-apocalyptic novel about a woman called Anna Blume, who is in search of her brother William. In order to find him, she enters a dilapidated city where hunger and horror reign. Quickly she learns that finding her brother in the mess of that city would be difficult at best. The city, cut off from the rest of the country by a barrier that Anna soon learns is meant to keep people in, not to keep people out, is a total waste land. As in all the rest of his work, Auster is profoundly uninterested in depicting the place in a full-bodied way, but he does something interesting, he defines it through the actions that you have to undertake in order to stay alive there and through the book’s central metaphor: hunger. Mainly, there are two important ways to earn your keep in this merciless country, both involve scavenging. You can either hunt for anything, these are the so-called “Garbage collectors”, who purchase a license in order to roam a certain area on the lookout for anything resembling garbage that can be sold off; and there are also the ”object hunters”, who are specifically out to hunt rare, more valuable objects. These two occupations demand different kinds of skills, but the basic way you go about them, with a cart that you keep leashed to your waist, stays the same. In a way it’s impressive how nakedly and quickly Auster mounts his construct here.

The genre he sets this book in can be considered Science Fiction, an attribution that has been often contested, most recently in the spats between Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood about the question whether it is viable or even useful to call some of Atwood’s work SF. But Auster’s book, in contrast to most of the recent post-apocalyptic explorations I mentioned earlier, shares some interesting properties with the SF genre that go beyond questions of technology and believability: Auster writes badly. This is not to say that SF is badly written in general, but even among the classics of SF you would be hard-pressed to find finely crafted prose or exquisitely drawn characters. This is offset, in SF, by the enormous amount of ideas that crowd even mediocre works of the genre. For various reasons, writing SF enables writers to present a plethora of daring and interesting ideas that your common, booker-shortlisted book would take hundreds of pages to develop and then present in a careful, often veiled fashion. SF often don’t bother with all the hoopla that’s expected of the mild-mannered contemporary novel. Writers such as Tobias S. Buckell, Nebula Award Finalist in 2007, in novels like Ragamuffin, can produce solidly written yarns that crawl with concerns from freedom to identity and perception. Idea-driven literature like satire quite often forswear complex characters and careful writing in order to deliver a punch. Tova Reich’s cartoonishly garish (but amazingly brilliant & bitter) My Holocaust is perhaps the best recent example of this genre, but Maggie Gee’s aforementioned The Flood is also a very fine specimen. Examples of this writing can be found all through literary history. One of the most fascinating examples of this is perhaps John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a novelization of the progress of the spirit, which is less concerned with providing a gripping and credible story than with putting its everyman hero in a series of situation that are significant in terms of the spiritual lessons Bunyan wants to impart on his readers.

It is interesting, in this context, that In the Country of Last Things has an epitaph from Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad”, a modernized take on Bunyan’s tale. It is this tradition that Auster writes in, and his cold oeuvre can be read as an effort to be both a schoolmaster as well as a storyteller, but he often ends up just being a drag (incidentally, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s novel of poetics and poets, The Anthologist, seems eerily like Paul Auster). There are many similarities and dissimilarities to Bunyan’s line in In the Country of Last Things; of the latter, I think that Auster’s reversion of Bunyan’s thrust figures most strongly. Whereas Bunyan’s Christian leaves the “famous City of Destruction” (to quote the epitaph) to get to the Celestial City, Auster’s Anna Blume travels to a city of destruction. While Bunyan finds a series of images for a spiritual journey that everyone could be argued to be on, Auster found images for the violence, the hunger that is part of our everyday lives. Auster inserts those cleverly into situations that sound and look as if they had been transported straight from our time to that dire place, which makes for an uncanny effect. Auster’s embracing of the Bunyan line allows him to make his case and present his ideas simply and directly. There isn’t a shortage of ideas in In the Country of Last Things: in the book we have, for example, a discussion pitting ‘need’ against ‘consumerism’. If I may take up the concept of garbage collectors and object hunters I mentioned earlier: as people start to rethink what to throw away (which in turn hurts the garbage collectors), we see how use, or the lack of it, can change something into garbage. Dead people’s clothes, for example, quickly, unclaimed, unworn, become garbage.

The object collectors seem to be based on a school of thought which is clearly meant to echo (and does), classic works of sociology such as Jean Baudrillard’s highly readable Le Système des objets. How we read objects, how we construct and make use of our interiors, of the objects that make up our lives, how we experience the quotidian, this is a recurring theme in Paul Auster’s novel and he uses the brash surface of the city to shine a light on that which we recognize to be ours, to belong to our world, not just objects, but also behaviors, structures, people. The whole book is made up of small pieces, of these kinds of, well, narrative objects which can pop up sudden in the book, but for the reader, each of them is like a small, dense island of reference. Just as Bunyan, Auster ushers his heroine from one densely symbolical situation to the next, each imparting one important point that contributes towards Auster’s larger image of how close that city of literal destruction is to our metaphoric, Bunyanian City of Destruction. For example, there is a small apartment where two people live, leading a dysfunctional marriage. Auster goes out of his way to make this, although an exaggeration, a thoroughly clichéd depiction of a typical bourgeois marital household. The violence that imbues it is chilling, especially if we connect it to the general violence in the town and recognize one as being related to the other. The chill is generated through the recognition that the household could have been part of the reader’s own world, it seems transplanted to the criminal city in order to highlight connections. The details that power this recognition are all there, from the objects, to the behavior (hobbies, for example), it’s enough to build and keep a strong connection to the reader’s present.

These connections make us realize how close we may be to what happened in Auster’s unnamed country, or how we may move in that direction, but only at a first glance. In fact, reading, appreciating and understanding the first of many of these set pieces, will, for most readers, be the point where they’ll realize for the first time in the book with striking and absolute clarity, that Auster is profoundly non-committal. Hunger, a violent social force in the book, makes people less political, In the Country of Last Things claims and the whole conception of the book tries to support the point. Less political? The book could be read as an attempt to highlight the pervasiveness of politics, the fact that anything we do is politically fraught and subject to violence and fear. But Auster balks from that kind of conclusion and by cutting off the city from the main country, Auster has also bracketed off politics, or so he tries to convince his readers in the book. The intent is clear, this is about individual lives only, but in doing this, he has done his constructions, his ideas a disservice, as he’s done his source texts like the one by Baudrillard, which are highly, highly political. It’s disturbing to see him bottle all this violence and redirect the flow into less significant channels. Auster has, in his books, brought up hunger a few times, most famously probably in the book of his that I enjoyed the most, Hand to Mouth, a gloriously self-aggrandizing memoir of his early years. Hand to Mouth is swimming in righteousness and self-pity, but hunger as a need to write and the actual hunger that resulted from his lack of success, this was a combination that made for a good read. In In the Country of Last Things, his point is actually a similar one, equating actual hunger, and an actual search with an intellectual hunger and a quest for meaning in a desolated city.

Instead of reading the hurt and the need as something that exists between human beings, he chooses a radically individualist, solipsist, almost, path. In this he is both similar and radically dissimilar to Bunyan. Words, Auster tells us early on, can sustain us, if we give ourselves over to them with a strong enough belief, a deep enough dedication. Failure may lurk, and all communities that surface in the book are doomed to perish, and most, indeed, do, but one person and her writing can save herself and, in the writing, maybe, everybody else with her. A writer’s progress, we might quip. This is how the book is set up, with regard to narrator and structure. The book seems to be a letter from Anna Blume to her brother, but it isn’t completely given over to the epistolary genre. Like the Brooklyn Follies, but more explicitly, In the Country of Last Things is framed by an unnamed narrator, who narrates the writing of the letter. The book, in a way, contains the letter and thus, to a degree, also its ideas. This makes for a lot of distance, and presents yet another instance of Auster disavowing his own characters, but it also serves as a cradle of sorts for Anna Blume’s letter, which doesn’t fall into a black hole of unknowing. Who will read the letter? Will anyone? These questions are not foregrounded, although the last chapters of the book act out that kind of gesture. The narrative bracket, or cradle, cushions this, however, making the gesture visible, as a gesture, and not allowing it to affect the careful reader. This is a book written in the 1980s, in a century where we have seen many letters and diaries written into the void of the Shoah, the Gulag and similar catastrophes, with no hope or thought of future readers. Millions and millions of people had been murdered by totalitarian regimes and sent to their deaths by democracies not without trying to write down what they felt needed to be said. There was a sudden, unusual rupture between the writing and the reading (part of this, I think is what Shoshana Felman nicely described as “the crisis of witnessing” in her marvelous book Testimony) But in the 1980s we already knew these texts, we’ve read them, footnoted and edited them, we contextualized the gap that opened up at their end.

Of all the destructive events that caused these ruptures, the Shoah is probably central. And in all the disrupted narratives connected to the Shoah, Anna’s namesake, Anne Frank, surely figures among the most well know writers. The book itself suggests this connection, by including yet another piece, another object, this time about a Jewish community in a large library. Many people live in this library, which is an interesting microcosm, and yet another location created in the spirit of Bunyan. As we meet them, Jews are only tolerated there, and later in the book, we’ll see them deported, thrown out into the cold and bitter city. Anna Blume is herself a Jew and carries in her name both literary echoes (her name is pronounced ‘Bloom’, like Leonard) and dire forebodings (“gloom, tomb”, the narrator jests). Their expulsion, her identity and the general context of the book are thickly interlaced. The event of the city’s destruction, it’s ongoing process of coming even more undone, Auster connects it to the hate of Jews that is recurrent in Western civilization. His Jews are caricatures but it isn’t Theroux’ brand of racism (see my review of his book here), it’s still the satiric, Science-fictional impulse to quickly, succinctly present ideas and themes. All through the book, Auster is remarkably constant in this, but it’s always clear that he sees himself more in the line of Bunyan and Hawthorne than in SF’s tradition.

In Auster’s case, the sad fact is that his abilities cannot keep up with his ambitions. A writer like Buckell or PK Dick may not be a great stylist, not a superior crafter of prose, but these writers often work with their limitations, writing a simple, very readable style that often eschews literary flourishes for sappier phrases that, however, do deliver. Buckell may not have a wonderful sound, but he doesn’t sound awkward either. If there is one word that perfectly describes Auster’s prose, however, it’s ‘awkward’. Auster, who astonishingly started out as a poet, labors to create literary prose but his tin ear and willingness to accept cliché turns of phrase make for pages that drag on and on. He shines, now and then, but every dog has its day and I guess Auster deserves it for trying so hard. Also, much more damningly, his espousing of Bunyan/Hawthorne exposes his weak thinking and his prejudice. Ideas, in SF have become gestures, almost, and to question identity has become de rigeur, which makes SF much more predictable, but at the same time elevates even weak thinkers to a decent level if they keep to genre conventions. The SF subtext is so strong that even writers or thinkers with questionable convictions can compose books and texts that are much saner, much more in line with thoughtful and laudable concepts. Since Auster’ll have none of this, he bares himself in a way that can be worrisome.

Of the prejudices mentioned, I’ll pick just one (I mentioned others in my review of Invisible, here) which surfaces in his choice of protagonist. Now, a strong woman is a wonderful heroine in any novel, but Auster’s focus on ideas instead of characters highlights the fact that he chose Anna Blume because she is a woman, because of the weaknesses and fads, because of things like that which he could hang on her. In a really astonishingly reactionary way, he underlines difference, as the most central fact about her. The above-mentioned connections to the everyday run on a rail that is composed of a very strict sense of gender roles. He never questions it, in fact, he needs and exploits the difference between the roles and undercuts every single instance that could be read as emancipatory. Anna writes a book but it is TO her brother and contained IN a narrative that seems to be ‘the author’s’ (at least we have no better indication). A strong woman who leads a charitable home needs to be saved by men and Anna Blume just stands by and watches events unfold. Feminity is almost a defect, it’s a weakness that exposes her to male violence (but she isn’t helpless). The survivalist tone of the city highlights Auster’s misconceptions about so-called basic differences between genders. Auster uses Anna Blume as a woman, but at no point does he actually display any concern for her situation as a woman, in her culture and in this new non-culture. Almost maliciously, the book mentions at one point that a depletion of razor stocks meant that Anna and her lover needed to decide whether his beard or her legs would get shaved, and quips humorously “the legs won, hands down.” This low, old-boy’s club kind of humor is all over the book, unchecked, unreflected, strong.

Earlier, I talked about hunger as being one of the most important, even the central trope of the book. I realize I haven’t cited much evidence for this, but I’d like to briefly return to it. See, with Auster there is real hunger and intellectual hunger and while his disdain for the former smacks of a strange kind of normative thinking, the two sides of the idea of hunger have been presented before and Auster does do his own presenting cogently and engagingly, even in this book. But mentioning Hawthorne and Bunyan calls attention to a third kind of hunger, one which stays with you all through the book: spiritual hunger. I find Auster’s lack of commitments, of investment in some of the ideas he throws around exhausting, because there is nothing, ultimately, that will sustain the reader, not even Auster’s belief in words manifests itself in gorgeous prose. No, for me, it’s too draining to read writers like Auster, who ask much of their readers, but give little back. Their texts are laced with the gestures of literariness, but are executed with a willful disdain for the medium they write in or its possibilities. They write from a well established vantage point, and use materials and provisions of others without, I think, paying back in commitment and strength. Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications. It is, I think, thus that they can be best enjoyed, as a vaguely competent romp. A friend of mine scoffed at my reading of the Brooklyn Follies, claiming it to be a warm, funny novel, her reading clearly a cursory one, and thus, fitting for a reading of an Auster book, Auster being similarly cursory with his own readings and engagements. As that book, In the Country of Last Things will make a great movie, I think, if the images can be made to carry some of the weight, and transform the literary pretensions into genuine storytelling. It’s good to see Auster doing more movies this past decade. Auster is a screenwriter manqué, and I would have much rather seen the movie than read the book.

*

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.)

‘Kauft nicht beim Juden’

This, sickeningly, in the Guardian. Jesus.

Britain has acted to increase pressure on Israel over its West Bank settlements by advising UK supermarkets on how to distinguish between foods from the settlements and Palestinian-manufactured goods.

The government’s move falls short of a legal requirement but is bound to increase the prospects of a consumer boycott of products from those territories.

Until now, food has been simply labelled “Produce of the West Bank”, but the new, voluntary guidance issued by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says labels could give more precise information, like “Israeli settlement produce” or “Palestinian produce”.

Bei Dao in Bonn (2)

I’ve long been fascinated by Bei Dao’s poetry (in David Hinton’s translation) and when I saw that he would be reading from his most recent book in a small bookshop just around the corner from my apartment, with his German translator, the pre-eminent Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin in attendance, I was delighted. The shop, which is one of my favorite bookshops in the greater area anyway, they carry large amounts of translations from all kinds of countries, they also have a large section of philosophy, poetry, they don’t sell any Dan Brown though.

Herta Müller has ties to the bookshop and its owners, as do writers like Juli Zeh and Bei Dao. The shop was crammed with interested listeners and, on Bei Dao’s insistence, several bottles of red wine (and glasses) were handed around. Apparently, he used to hand out hard liquor but these days he can’t stomach it any more so we were down to red wine (and a large bowl of white bread) which was fine with me.

Here is an image from the back row. The man to the right is one of the two owners.

The reading itself was less about Bei Dao than it was about Wolfgang Kubin. Kubin is a university professor with an ego to match his profession. He translates from the Chinese, has been known to disparage current Chinese literature as bland (Wei Wei), fascist (Jiang Rong) or just uninspired, drawn-out sell-out writing (Yu Hua). He himself also writes both poetry and prose, and has lanced barbs at the lack of success he has with that work of his. He can rely on an immense reputation, however, as a translator and a general promotor of Chinese culture and literature.

Here is a (grainy) picture of him speaking

As marvelous essays like this one show, he’s very concerned about what translators can and can’t do, and about how the commercial side of publishing affects translators and translations. He is a very earnest man, but last Tuesday, with the poet beside him, he seemed dour more than anything else. He held a speech and translated every sentence into Chinese for Bei Dao’s benefit. After introducing the poet, and talking about some of his convictions he proceeded to read a few poems of Bei Dao’s in German, with the poet reading them in Chinese afterwards.

Apparently, he’s used to explicate each poem beforehand, but he was, he told us. Reprimanded by Bei Dao, not to do that again. Bei Dao maintains that the audience can figure out the poems on their own, they are not children, in need of lecturing. As a poet, Bei Dao’s work is dark and obscure enough to warrant Kubin’s wish to explain everything, but Bei Dao’s insistence has much to do with how he sees language and poetry and his role as a poet. Like many writers from so-called Communist countries, he doesn’t reject the basic ideals of his countries so much as the horrific political manifestations that they have turned into.

Here is a picture of Bei Dao reading

Bei Dao writes for the people, and his poetry, in Hinton’s translation, is a curious mixture of hermetic poetry, on the one hand with cliffs of images and metaphors that lead you onto the ice and leave you there to find your way home again, and very intense and deeply felt phrases. Bei Dao offers himself, or an image of himself in these poems, like a sketched burst of emotion, flanked by broader concerns. There is, interestingly, both spareness and abundance in his work, and it’s usually spare where the speaker talks about himself, and abundant, rich, and enigmatic, where he voices his worries, vents his urgencies.

This complicated way of reaching out, which is hard to see as reaching out, seeing as hermetic poetry is usually read as inward, is channeled through Bei Dao’s enormous literary appetite. He’s influenced by poets such as Vallejo, Mandelstam and Celan, and his work is littered with references to their works or the works of others, such as Tomas Tranströmer and, lately, Gennadiy Aygi. As he pointed out in his talk, Gennadiy Aygi is very important because of the influence he had on Russian poetry and, indirectly, on Chinese poetry.

See, one of Bei Dao’s concerns is his own language, which, as he points out, is rather young. Modern Chinese has not existed so very long, and it’s a language that’s still developing and still vulnerable. At the same time, like Aygi, Bei Dao grapples with tradition,with the formally strict poems of his own tradition, where imagery, rhythms and other structures are fixed. Aygi and other poets of his generation broke these shackles and created room for a new kind of Russian poetry, and it is this tradition that has made a lot of impact of Bei Dao.

For all his intertextual and international urge, Bei Dao writes for the people and that also and mainly means the Chinese people. He won a prize this year, and glowed with pride when he reminded Kubin to mention that that was a prize not given out by the Chinese government or a jury, but by the Chinese people themselves. As a reader of his poetry, he is sure, strong, but whenever he let his eyes stray off the page, he seemed to falter. As a poet in exile, who cannot go home again without putting himself in danger, his used to be a poetry of strength.

Here’s a picture of him listening to Kubin’s translation

Most recently, however, the sparse, emotional part of his work has seemed to gain prominence. He himself calls his work warmer today than it used to be, and his most recent book is called Book of Failure. It has not been translated into English yet, but the German translation by Kubin (Buch der Niederlage) is selling awfully well. In Kubin’s language, Bei Dao seems more directly a descendant of Celan. The darkness, the fear and the curious beauty that simmers in Celan’s poetry seems to be part of these new poems.

However, when I looked at older poems, translated by Kubin, poems I know in Hinton’s translation, and when I finally looked at Kubin’s own work, I noticed a strange thing. Kubin translates much warmer, much more emotionally wrought than Hinton. The two poles of his work I mentioned, they don’t exist in Kubin’s version, where flowery abundance always reigns. Now, there’s Kubin’s version and Hinton’s but I trust Kubin’s version less and here is why:

he admitted that he didn’t understand quite a few of the poems from the volume and that a series of images that he had read and translated as an associative cascade of words was actually a very well structured take on Chinese clichés and the workings of the language, the culture and assumptions inherent in both. In another place, he was corrected mid-speech when Bei Dao pointed out that what Kubin assumed to be a wife, was in fact a mistress, the word having changed connotations and meanings during the past 40 years. And there were a few more of those small but significant details, like the fact that Kubin’s translations read a lot like Kubin proper.

Now, I don’t know whether Hinton’s more trustworthy, but with translations there is always a big leap of faith involved, but I know that I don’t trust Kubin, so I’ll go with the English translations. I have no other indications than the ones I outlined and I realize it’s a bit like eating the salami so as to be able to pretend it’s not meat, but I can’t help myself. I don’t like what Kubin says he does, and though I don’t doubt his commitment or his conviction

All in all, the reading was a full success, a huge delight and I took home a lot. Here are some pictures I posted a few days ago.

Bei Dao in Bonn (1)

Since my mind isn’t up to more than five words and I can’t read my notes from the reading at the moment, here are just a handful of pictures from Bei Dao‘s reading in a tiny bookshop in Bonn, just around the corner from where I live (2 mins max). If you haven’t yet read any of the man’s poems, I urge you herewith to amend this oversight. In English there are several translations, most recently by Hinton and Weinberger. I can’t judge them, but for various reasons, if you are German, don’t read Wolfgang Kubin‘s German one. I will explain tomorrow why I would advise against that. Wolfgang Kubin, that’s the white-haired man you can see in one of the pictures below. The smaller, wiry, black-haired man, that’s Bei Dao.

Here is my autograph (yes, I’m a fanboy)

Here are a few pictures of Bei Dao reading. These are of him reading a speech that he wasn’t allowed to give himself when he won a major Chinese prize today. His wife accepted it and read the speech.

And this is him reading one of his poems. He’s a wonderful reader, as far as you can judge that if you don’t understand a phrase of what is said.

This is Bei Dao looking critically at his translator Wolfgang Kubin. Apparently (*sigh*, according to Kubin), Bei Dao had reprimanded him for his kind of presenting the poems. (For more on this in part 2 of this post. Click here)

“eaten out with acid”

But it proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place. Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly (…) but even then the spiritual must be felt. Miss Moore does this – but occasionally, I think, the super-material content of the poems is too easy for the material involved – it could have meant more…Genuine religious poetry seems to be about as far as poetry can go – and as good as it can be.

– from Elizabeth Bishop’s notebooks (quoted in David Kalstone’s study of Bishop, Moore and Lowell)

Harold Bloom reading Wallace Stevens

Harold Bloom recites Stevens’ marvelous poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”. Here is the video, below is Stevens’ text.

Tea at the Palaz of Hoon

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

Family Babble!!

Attention, everyone. On the most recently posted episode of bookbabble (Episode 54), my sister Nicole appears as a special guest. The babble goes in all directions, with me, Irene, Lone and Donny participating, and Rosemary, Irene’s daughter having a say, as well. Here is the direct link and here’s Donny’s summary

Marcel’s sister Nicole joins us for a chitchat about nothing much in particular (well, if you consider almost 2 hours of chitchat ‘nothing much’). We did talk about the new Twilight movie, New Moon (where Renee’s teenage daughter Rosemary made a cameo on the show to tell us the word on the street on this phenomenon), manga, Auster and the National Book Award. Also, Lone’s foray into the Copenhagen Book festival, Bogforum, and was excited to tell her tale.

David Malouf: An Imaginary Life

Malouf, David (1980), An Imaginary Life, Pan
ISBN 0-330-27004-4

In his afterword to his second novel, David Malouf, one of the best known and most celebrated Australian prose writers, states that he wanted to write “neither [a] historical novel nor biography, but a fiction with its roots in possible event.” The result, An Imaginary Life, published in 1978, is an astonishing work of art, an enchanting, challenging, and poetical novel, that manages to sound exuberant and excessive while actually being fairly controlled and shrewd, moving and in the end even dazzling the reader. An Imaginary Life is a perfectly calibrated little book about something that probably didn’t happen, for various reasons, but is more an exploration of spiritual possibilities than real, historical ones, and whatever criticism could be leveled at it from that quarter it can dodge easily. When the book was published, Malouf was a well-known poet, winner of several prizes for his poetry, among them the Grace Leven prize for poetry and the gold medal of the Australian Literature Society in 1974. He had also, in 1975, published his first novel, Johnno, a semi-autobiographical, realist novel about Brisbane society, about two friends and the vagaries of masculinity including references to a homosexual inclination. Johnno is very much a social novel, drawing its strength and logic from the environment, from the social structure that Johnno and Dante, the two main characters, are a part of.

In many ways, the contrast to An Imaginary Life couldn’t be a more marked one. This novel about a “possible event” is set in Tomis ca. 17 AD. This is the year that we think Ovid, the magnificent Roman poet, died in the exile that Augustus had sent him to. We don’t know; in his letters to his wife he mentions a serious illness and more importantly, there is no more of his work after that year, no letters, poems or anything else from the pen of one of the most influential writers in world literature. This is why we assume it’s 17 AD, but it’s all guesswork. We simply don’t know, Publius Ovidius Naso “[c]alled Naso because of the nose” (to quote from Malouf’s novel) just vanishes from history. We have no idea where his grave is or when he died and of what. His life is shrouded in mystery and what we know of it, we know through his own letters, which are both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, an unreliable witness if I ever saw one. Together with his fame, this makes Ovid a perfect candidate for portrayal in a novel, and indeed, this has been done now and then, the most recent example probably being Christoph Ransmayr’s somewhat overrated novel Die Letzte Welt. But instead of just using the dark spots in Ovid’s life and spinning a tale to fill the gaps, the unknown, Malouf, and this is why An Imaginary Life is such a full success, makes a different choice.

He decides, although he knows that Ovid isn’t to be trusted as far as historical truth is concerned, to not engage history at all. His book takes Ovid’s letters as a starting point and then it leaps out into the void. There is no point where the book displays any interest in what actually happened, but this turns out to be a great idea in that this, implicitly, does bring up the idea of truth, of construction, of delusion and deception. The story takes place in the town of Tomis, or rather: in the village of Tomis. Ovid, disgusted by the peasant lifestyle, pining for Rome, has not written kindly about the town where he spent the rest of his life after he’d been exiled. Then as now an important seaport, constructed by Greeks and constitutionally Roman when he arrived, it’s hard to believe the town to be the semi-savage village that he wrote home about (these are the base walls of the so-called “mud huts”). Malouf, and this is what strikes the reader within the few pages, reproduces Ovid’s fiction and then he uses the idea of this village at the periphery of the world, near the empire but not quite in it, to engage concepts of myth, to present an almost archaic culture that clobbers the mayor to death in broad daylight so he won’t go gentle into that good night, so his soul will leave his body not weakly, but imbued with a fighting spirit. It’s a village where a wise woman and a shaman can whip up the ire of a superstitious populace, suspicious of everything new and vaguely foreign.

So, the reader is immediately in on the fact that we don’t move in the historical Tomis, and Ovid’s life in exile, but in Ovid’s poetical distortion of it. In these letters, especially in those he had published as Tristia, Ovid doesn’t just relate to us what Tomis is like, but he constructs a narrative of his life. From these poems (and the subsequently published letters Epistulae ex Ponto) we draw all our knowledge of his life, it is to these letters that we fly when we want to find out why he was banished, how he grew up and even when he was born. And Malouf, too, draws from these texts, although his reliance on them fades as the book progresses. At first he even mimics tone and voice of them, with broad swathes of text that are addressed to some future reader, text that tells us about Ovid’s life and where he lives now. There appears, in the first chapter in particular, to be an unevenness in tone. The whole book is narrated by Ovid but the first chapter feels less narrated and more orated, acted out. There is Ovid the meek, humiliated poet who assumes no-one will read his work in the future: “Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known?” He wonders what the fate of his work is at home where it, and he, has been banned, whether he is still read, remembered, “Have I survived?”. Like Malouf’s text as a whole, which tethers Ovid’s life to his Tristia rather than to some imaginary historical accuracy and truth, Ovid attaches his self and its well-being to the texts, to his words. His body plays but a small role in the whole thing.

In other places, he is surer of himself, of his reputation and his abilities, but even in these passages, which seem so out of line with the insecure ones, there is a kernel of self-consciousness. Its roots are in Ovid’s inability to properly speak the local language and, at the same time, his estrangement from his own. His learning the language of the Getae, a Thracian dialect, becomes a question of identity. “Will I have to learn everything all over again like a child?” He really means ‘everything’. His perceptions, his connections to the world of beings and things have become unstable. The Ovid of the Tristia has claimed “ipse mihi videor iam dedidicisse Latine: nam didici Getice Sarmaticeque loqui“ (~ I feel as if I had unlearned my Latin, and learned instead to speak Getian and Sarmatian), false modesty, clearly, since the book that contains these kinds of statement is incredibly artful. As with the depiction of Tomis, Malouf, however, takes Ovid seriously, and has his own Ovid be similarly insecure and uneasy about his language and that of those who surround him. At this point, the book is a very well-written, amusing exercise in creating a characters who is very much like the Ovid of the Tristia, it’s a bit dreamy, evocative and even learned, but nothing more, until, that is, Malouf sets the plot in motion.

This happens: a wild child has been sighted in the woods, grown up with wolves. The depiction of the child (or: the Child, as it is known in the book) is amazingly well done, effortlessly creating a mental image of a human being that seems more animal than human, uncanny, elusive. Part of the ease of this creation may be due to the fact that Malouf draws on “J.M.G. Itard’s painstaking observations of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron” (to quote from the afterword again), which also gave us Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage. Ovid quickly develops a fascination with the Child, and soon becomes intent upon catching and analyzing the barbarous bairn, quite unlike the local populace which is scared by the Child, assuming it to be something demonic, possessed by a spirit maybe, neither wholly human being nor animal but changing from one to the other at will. Nowhere else in the book does the contrast between Ovid’s culture and that of the villagers become more clear. Ovid is more than just a Roman. In his thirst for analysis, for dismantling the Other, the curious, for craving clarity, not in general, but in respect to the anomaly, the deviant little demon, this aligns him with the Enlightenment, as does the fact that he appears to be an agnostic rather than religious. In the character of Ovid, the new age explodes onto the stage where the grubby, fearful old age is still active. It’s due to Malouf’s brilliance and his ahistorical approach (which brings issues like the Enlightenment into play) that An Imaginary Life can focus on just that one facet of a potentially vast topic without feeling reductive.

And it can, just as quickly, move the focus away again. An Imaginary Life consists of five chapters, roughly equally long. Each chapter stresses a different point, a different idea. Narrative momentum rarely spills over into the next chapter because of the hard breaks between them, and still the book is very coherent and suspenseful. It’s impossible to express how admirably Malouf manages to condense a tone, a set of ideas and a narrative impulse into a rather brief chapter and to assemble a book that contains these kinds of chapters but also one continuous story and a very strong coherence. And so it is that, as the child is caught, Ovid’s interest is no longer in understanding or analyzing the Child. Instead he tries to domesticate it and teach it to speak. This section takes up his own alienation towards language and puts it into a new context. The fact that he needs to readjust his relationship with objects and words, makes him open to see how someone without language, like the Child, encounters the world, cognitively, as well as to the mysticism that language holds for the locals, such as a wise woman, who

spies on me. She believes, I think, that I am some sort of rival wizard – is that what poet means to her? – who is using the child to make a different and more potent magic.

Language, perception and cognition are the frontier where he encounters those who are strongly different from him, and that includes the locals as well as the Child. By now, however, he has become susceptible to their kinds of logic, whether it’s the mysticism of the locals or the Child’s nonverbal reading of nature. Malouf’s Ovid is still firmly entrenched in that Enlightenment thinking, without hesitating a second, he Others the Child, presupposes things about its cognitive process that flow from his own oppositions and his own mental strictures. It is not until the fourth chapter, where events finally come to a head and force him to reassess his situation, that he is able to jettison, at least in part, this kind of thinking.

That we keep ending up in Ovid’s head, in the mire of his thinking, is due to the fact that Ovid’s mind is at the heart of the book. The whole book is a journey not into Tomis, not into the middle of a fascinating archaic custom, it’s an examination of Ovid himself. I said, earlier, that, in a roundabout way, this book raises questions of historical truth in regard to Ovid, the historical figure. It does that by examining his interior landscape rather than by assembling all the known facts, for, as we saw, all the known facts are largely those provided by Ovid himself, and Malouf decides to take the text and have it, the values, descriptions, the mind at work in it tell a story that the surface content, the ‘what’, cannot tell this well. As the book moves into the direction of historical obscurity, it doesn’t actually move away from Ovid, but moves from the surface of his texts (characterized by the tone and voice of the first chapter) into an almost phantasmagorically colorful world that hides within. Ovid himself used the exile and his reflections on it as a means to reflect upon himself, producing a marvelously introspective work, that, honest or not, seems authentic and strong, and Malouf follows his lead, just with a twist, designed to grant him and his readers true insight. Everything, from the village to the Child quickly becomes a trope in Malouf’s treatment. There are countless ways in which this can be analyzed and interrogated and contextualized, but the most prominent is probably the contrast between city folk and villagers, or civilization and nature, etc., with Ovid occupying different points, depending upon whether his relationship to the villagers or to the Child is in focus.

For all the imaginary events, the basic, underlying conflict, the one with roots in history, is the one between Augustus and Ovid. Ovid, in Malouf’s book, may be in conflict with all kinds of weird and unusual people on the margins of myth, but these are ‘imaginary lives’, meant to portray both a conflict within Ovid, and within Ovid’s society which, despite his relocation, is the Roman one. It’s the conflict between the stern, joyless state as represented by the Augustan empire, elegant, powerful, but somewhat unpoetical, Apollonian, and the humid, the passionately mythic, carnal, as represented by the poet who gave our culture both one of its greatest collections of love poetry, as well as one of its greatest examinations of myth, poetical, joyful, Dionysian, full of song. In the village, Ovid is confronted with that which is Augustan in himself, and the Child challenges this part of him. But the Child’s and the villagers’ lives are not the only ones that are imaginary.

Ovid’s, for the most part, is as well (it’s also, arguably, the “Imaginary Life” of the title) , and it’s hard not to think that this defense of the wild, the poetical, that is undertaken by the book, wouldn’t, in part, be a defense of Malouf, the poet, or poets in our time, in general. As Ossip Mandelstam, the murdered Russian poet, appropriated the Tristia to sing of his own troubles and to provide a gentle but powerful music for his time, so Malouf’s novel, in its allegorical, tropical construction, keeps snapping the reader back into his own time. In one of the most powerful scenes, the Child is driven almost insane when he’s not allowed to get out of the house to frolic in the snow. This burning, desperate urgency, it transmits itself on the reader, and lifts this book from being good and impressively well made to being great.

An Imaginary Life starts in an unassuming, a quiet manner. Malouf is an excellent writer, sure enough of his mind and his language that he’s never controlling, he’s a confident writer who doesn’t need to smother the reader with brilliance, he allows the reader to discover the book for himself. It’s a good read, and a superb book overall, that makes sense on many levels and will appeal to all kinds of readers. It’s a very strong recommendation, a genuinely good, nay, a great book.

*

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.)

“First of all, I don’t write fantasy.”

Wow. Terry Goodkind, probably the worst successful writer of heroic fantasy, has given an interview years ago that is currently causing Twitter to titter. The interview is hilarious. Here is a direct link and here are a few choice cuts:

they range from a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy

Weymouth, MA: In your opinion who is the most must-read, cutting edge writer publishing today?

Terry Goodkind: Ayn Rand.

to plain insults

Haddonfield, NJ: Second Question – I’ve noticed similarities between your Sword of Truth series and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series…(Black Sisterhood vs. Black Ajah; The Order vs. The Seanchan; Richard vs. Rand both discovering their powers, both have Nameless evil Gods…etc.) I’ve often voiced my suspicion that these two series might be occurring on the same world…how crazy am I?

Terry Goodkind: If you notice a similarity, then you probably aren’t old enough to read my books.

and sheer delusion

Because most fantasy is about world-building and magic, a lot of it is plotless and has no story. My primary interest is in telling stories that are fun to read and make people think. That puts my books in a genre all their own.

at least he knows his place

I think the most important author to read is Ayn Rand. Most of my reading is research for the things I’m writing about, but if I have any time to read, one of the people I like is Dean Koontz. I like his sense of life. He’s one of the few writers around today, other than me, who seems interested in writing about heroic individuals who are worthy of being heroes.