Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan

Russell, Ray (2015 [1962]), The Case Against Satan, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-31727-9

satan 3In a study of French Romantic poetry, John Porter Houston declared in 1969 that “[Baudelaire’s] diabolical Catholicism is […] a mode of sensibility which neither shocks nor has morbid appeal.” It is odd, then, that the same time period saw a big resurgence of fiction and movies on demons and possession, starting with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the move version (1968), and continuing with William Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and its 1973 movie adaptation. Other texts include the 1976 classic The Omen and many more. So what is it that Houston felt was so out of place in Baudelaire’s poetry? The answer has to be that Baudelaire’s sense of evil wasn’t as much religious as it was personal. A sense of guilt, anxiety and fear that made Baudelaire into the “essential modern man,” as Verlaine put it. His demons are far from the ghoulish devil that haunts Blatty’s 12 year old girl. As Edward Kaplan said, the “mal” in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal may not mean “evil” as much as it means afflicted, suffering, fallible and people are not evil but “depraved only in potential and thus responsible for their actions.” In The Case Against Satan, Ray Russell’s 1962 classic novel of demonic possession, we are closer to a Baudelairean sensibility than to the Catholic fetish of all the books and movies that followed in its wake, which were offering demons at best as an allegory for human failures and at worst, as in the work of Catholic conservative Blatty, as an ugly form of literal horror. Ray Russell’s book is, despite having a very weak ending, an exceptional effort, a true masterpiece and the best book I have read this year thus far. There are a couple of weaknesses, as far as some aspects of the writing are concerned, and the final chapter is a full disappointment, but along the way, Russell creates an elegant, smart, ambiguous book about the devil and about the evils that we harbor in ourselves as people and among ourselves as a society.

I admit: when I started coveting the book, I knew nothing about it apart from its title and the beautiful cover design by Penguin Classics. The ghoulish fetish of devils and demons that was launched by Levin and Blatty is one of my favorite genres. A ‘guilty pleasure’ as they say. I was completely surprised by the nuanced and careful book that it turned out to be. This is no fresh or agnostic take on the subject, mind you. The very first sentence, not without some levity and irony, remarks that religion has become “a pious bonbon, so nice, so sweet, so soporific” that it has forgotten about the elements of “dread, blood, awe […] and the element of terror.” There is a fairly serious (and riveting to read) theological argument in the middle of the book (where Baudelaire is invoked), and an almost soppy, mildly dubious final chapter that reduces some of the interesting complexities of the novel in favor of “a pious bonbon” of sorts, which feels more like a cheap narrative solution rather than a statement of faith. Apart from that first sentence, however, the novel isn’t much interested in decrying modern man and his objections to God. Rather, it insists on looking at the spaces where the two intersect, modern man, and the abyss of faith and despair. At its center is not empty demon puppetry, it is the tragedy of a human being and the search for truth. In fact, in many ways, Russell’s sharp way with dialogue and description would not be amiss in a crime novel, nor would you have to change much about the structure. The Case Against Satan does not read like a Catholic novel per se (although I know nothing about the author), merely the novel of a writer not hostile to religion, who uses the traditions, emotions and literary effects that come with this setting. The theological discussion in the middle, centering around the idea of evil and whether one should profess belief in evil as well as good is as much about theology as it is about the faith we have in people around us.

satan 2This is not different from a crime novel: having to gouge whether or not we would believe someone’s account of someone else’s guilt. Can a person really be this depraved or should we think the best of everyone? In the theological discussion, a Bishop lectures a priest on his worldly library, citing Baudelaire’s claim in a prose poem [Le Joueur Généreux] that the devil’s finest trick is to persuade us that he doesn’t exist. What’s interesting about that particular citation is that it turns up here and there in Baudelaire’s prose. As with many other ideas, he kept prodding at them throughout his notes and essays. One instance of it surfacing is in the various notes of Mon cœur mis à nu, some of which attack novelist George Sand for not believing in hell, for offering a “God of the Good People,” a God for those who live well and behave well, where there’s no room for the “triste monde engourdi” of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Now here’s where it gets (more?) interesting: Baudelaire describes Sand as being “possessed,” as having been convinced by the devil to offer this vision of a clean and lovely religion where nothing bad happens as long as you do well and behave well. Yet this is exactly what happens in The Case Against Satan. And the reason for bad thing happening to good people is not Satan’s sulphuric influence, it’s human depravity. In a way, all Satan does, both in Baudelaire as well as in the novel, is hide the truth from people of clear conscience and higher standing. If it doesn’t affect us, we don’t have to think about it that hard. All of this, minus Satan and God, would also have happened in a Gothic crime novel, where it would be the insistence of a conscientious detective to really take a long hard look at the facts and at the people involved that breaks a case wide open. And much as in a Gothic mystery, it’s bigotry, and religious, sexual and traditional expectations that bar clear sight. This makes the book to be not just a sibling to mystery novels, but to classic episcopal texts like André Gide’s dramatic La Symphonie Pastorale, which is also a text about blindness, devotion and power.

This case begins with a young priest, Father Gregory Sargent, who takes over a parish. He is visited by a friend, Bishop Crimmings, just as the troubling and mysterious events break loose. These events all center around Susan Garth, a local teenager, who declines to go to Church, and has mysterious seizures, or rather “fits.” Early on, we are made aware of how this vocabulary and this attitude, these basic explanations, how they tie into a social attitude towards women.

Gregory smiled inwardly. It was such a quaint, old-fashioned word, “fits.” In young women, they were often rooted in sexual hysteria.

But unlike the word “hysteria” may lead you to believe, what follows is not a condemnation of women or sex, but rather a celebration of the “wonderful, wild, untamed force” that is sexuality. In fact, Father Gregory sees this permissive attitude towards sexuality as profoundly Catholic – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the hundreds of accounts of ecstatic faith and visions. Indeed it is Gregory himself who makes that connection in a magazine article that he writes on the topic, which contains the assertion that “[a]t the supreme moment, at the highest peak, sexual artistic and religious ecstasy are surprisingly similar.” Gregory is a “heterodox,” young, troubled priest who has a bit of a problem with alcoholism and free thinking. His faith in God is unshakeable, but it is a faith, like that of George Sand, in “le Dieu des bonnes gens,” as the syphilitic French poet put it. The novel (or Satan) does not end up punishing him for his free thinking or his worldliness and his broad reading. All he does is regain a sense of evil. At no point does the book really go into the pageantry of Catholicism. The style is never ornate, the thoughts and descriptions are never ponderous or solemn. This is maybe the biggest surprise: how frequently crisp and sharp the prose is, despite some trappings of genre writing. Russell is incredibly good at using two lines of dialogue to elevate a situation beyond the necessities of plot. When the teenage girl’s father turns to her in anger and says “Now you listen to the Father here. He’ll tell you I’m right.” Russell has the daughter look the priest in the eyes and ask “Is he right, Father?” This simple turn immediately establishes the character of the girl, and introduces the topic: figuring out who’s right, what happened and who to trust.

satan 1Not on the shortlist of people to trust? Men. Her father beats the girl (“a little slap across the mouth, that’s all”) for infractions, he has the village bigot’s hate for “filth.” his village friend, an anti-Catholic pamphleteer is less interested in the girl’s fate as in his lurid tales of Catholic depravity, where he ties rumors of Catholic pedophilia to medieval torture and the idea of a Black Mass. In fact, this anti-Catholic activist has a surprisingly similar view of Catholicism as The Exorcist’s author Blatty, who is enough of a conservative catholic to have recently petitioned the Pope to force Georgetown University to comply with a set of Catholic rules instated by John Paul II. Ray Russell’s priest and Bishop are not rulebound or insistent on such rules or on a proper catholic appearance. In fact, it is the congregation that raises a bit of a stink in the book when, preoccupied by an exorcism, Father Gregory fails to uphold local customs even for one Sunday. The pressure to conform to rules and regulations is viewed as a burden, unconnected to real faith. In a moment of crisis, overcome by various forces and pressures, Father Gregory breaks down and exclaims “Is it such a sin to have a mind?” And it’s not, the Bishop (and the book) assure him and us. The true darkness in the book is not Satanic, it’s human, and Russell makes excellent use of ambiguities and his sparse but precise descriptions to uphold that ambiguity. While the final chapter is a bit reminiscent of Beyond Belief-style gestures towards the reader, it barely diminishes the skill and achievement of this book. This book is a joy to read and reread, a pleasure far from “guilty.” A tough, smart little book, and a compelling read.


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David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl

Ebershoff, David (2000), The Danish Girl, Penguin
ISBN 9-780143-108399

danish 1

I didn’t have time to take a picture of my copy but it has the same ugly movie-style cover. :/

Usually, the advantage of a novel dealing with a real life character vis-à-vis a nonfiction work, say a biography or a historical study, is the ability to gain vividness, color, excitement. To get a unique, in-depth take on someone’s psychology or the cultural context. Dealing with facts alone – and the unreliability of sources and witnesses – tends to make nonfiction a bit more spry and their narrative a bit more formulaic, given the reliance on historiographical method. That’s why books like William Vollmann’s exploration of Shostakovich’s life are so powerful, or Pynchon’s masterpiece, the sprawling Mason & Dixon. I cannot, however, imagine any nonfiction treatment of Lili Elbe, the pioneering transsexual figure, and her wife, the painter Gerda Wegener (“Greta” in the novel), be more formulaic and overall dull than David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl, which has recently been turned into a movie. I have never regretted my habit of reading a book before watching a movie based on that book as much as during the time I spent reading this book. I’ll say this: it’s not all bad. Ebershoff is a clever, talented author, and he uses the devices of fiction to interesting effect sometimes. Sometimes, his treatment of Lili’s point of view leads to stunning results, frequently, it does not. Ebershoff’s apparent fascination with the way art intersects with gender presentation is interesting, and his clear decision to forgo garish scenes of confrontation and scandal, which must have happened at various points in the real Lili Elbe’s life, is commendable. His treatment of Lili (both before transition, when she was known as “Einar Wegener”, and after) is tender and careful, which becomes nowhere as clear as in the final scenes of the book where he renders her final moments with delicacy and beauty. Ebershoff departs from the historical facts in many places (and he admits as much in his author’s note), but his main alteration leads to the book’s most emotionally powerful creation: the enduring love not just between Lili and her wife, but also between the larger family of brothers, former lovers and friends. There is a pastel tenderness to the whole book, which is something that is hard to keep up over more than a short story. Regrettably, Ebershoff lacks the tools to imbue this emotional vagueness with a literary precision and a keen sense of history. Too often, the author settles for the easy emotional punchlines, preferring to tell a nice story rather than a good one. Horrible similes and awkward descriptions crowd the book’s syntax, which is repetitive and imprecise to begin with. Although I have yet to see Tobe Hooper’s movie version of the book, it’s easy to see how the material as presented in The Danish Girl would make for a lovely and emotionally engaging movie. The novel’s prose is its biggest weakness and that kind of book tends to do well on the silver screen.


To be clear, Ebershoff does some very interesting things that wouldn’t be captured by a study of biography. One is his constant insistence on the difficulties of exact representation through art. Both Lili, when she presented as Einar, as well as her wife Greta are painters, although their styles (and their relationship to the outside world) couldn’t be more different. Einar is a painter of “quaint” pictures of a bog somewhere in the Danish province, whereas Greta paints portraits of people who sit for her. The bog is the one in Einar’s home village and he paints it from memory. The memory of his youth as a boy is so strong that the mere thought is enough to paint pictures of it. As Einar transitions to Lili, his memory, and his ability (or wish) to paint the bog fades away, a pretty way of Ebershoff connecting the increasing freedom Lili feels as she unmoors from tradition and expectations. Similarly, Greta’s portraits are also representative of her role in the novel. She is the first to paint good/moving pictures of Lili, and in the novel, for a long time, she is our only outside view of Einar’s transformation. As she loses a sense of who Lili is and her connection to him fades from the book, so do her pictures. Regrettably, as Ebershoff also removes the clarity of her outside view from the last third of the novel, he does not replace it with anything, not even with a clearer voice for Lili. If we look at the novel as a construction of representations and mirrors, this is the gravest instance of the author maybe trapping himself in his own clever construction. The vagueness and hurried nature of the final chapters fits into the construction of the novel, it does not make for good reading, however. Other instances of mirrors and changed representations are the way opera is used, through songs, physical buildings and actresses, as well as the fact that Ebershoff gave Greta a twin brother. Whether or not that twin brother is supported by historical records, in the novel he serves as an example of the insufficiency of doubles. At some point, towards the end of the novel, Greta remarks that she does not recognize herself in her brother, and her brothers physical disabilities correspond to his role in the novel as he becomes the most vocal advocate for dangerous surgical measures. There are other examples involving former lovers, but suffice to say that Ebershoff uses the characters in his drama carefully, as well as the tropes of art and representation. The results of this can be dubious, however.

The_Danish_Girl_novelOne odd result is the way that Ebershoff uses the gaze. Greta, as he writes her, is imbued with a sometimes close to predatory gaze, an adjective I use because in some scenes, her erotically charged gaze appears to frighten or intimidate Lili, especially at the time when she presented exclusively as Einar. As a portrait artist, of course, the novel assigns the gaze as an uncomplicated, successful act, to her, but it does some odd things in order to achieve this. One is the fact that Ebershoff turns Greta from a Danish woman, which she was historically, to an American woman with an outsider’s fascination for Denmark. And not just any American woman: a rich heiress from California. Instead of offering us a psychologically plausible portrait of a Danish artist who falls in love with a wisp of a man who ends up transitioning to a woman, Ebershoff appears to have constructed his Greta from literary readymades. Henry James’ Isabel Archer probably looming largest, Greta, as we meet her in the novel, owes less to the historical character and more to the trope of the wild American woman who goes to Europe and gets into some kind of trouble there. It’s as if all the work and empathy that went into Lili meant that Ebershoff had to cut corners when it came to writing Greta. What’s more, the fact that Greta’s gaze is so strong, and so supported by wealth and social status, is balanced by a lack of confidence when it comes to Lili’s gaze. Not only is she the object of Greta’s sometimes irritatingly sexual regard (irritating because it plays on a long exploitative tradition), but she consistently fails to be able to establish one of her own. Mirrors are difficult, and even a mid-novel expedition to a real peep show ends in disgrace and expulsion. Now, this difference could be used productively, one remembers, for example, Heiner Müller’s remarks on the way the peep show is a trope for the way capitalist society functions. But Ebershoff never really does anything with this. These things happen almost in the background. Ebershoff deals with his material and, really, with his own novel, as if it was a translation of sorts and he was just trying to get the basic beats right. Honestly, that would explain the prose, as well. There is so much potential in the material that Ebershoff’s quick treatment of it is sometimes genuinely upsetting. The book is both bloated and oddly bare bones.

gay berlinIt’s strange, really, how this book feels both very detailed and very broad. There is a lot of detail on Lili’s epiphanies and important moments. They are dealt with well, although, as with every other aspect of the novel, the last chapters offer only an extremely skimmed summary of events. At the same time, as mentioned, Greta is dealt with very broadly, and her many comments and monologues feel bloated because they are never part of a plausible character. Outside of the descriptions of Lili, they are chock full with sentimental bloat. And at the same time, Ebershoff barely grazes the social and political context. We get, in a very rough Foucauldian sketch, a quick recap of the various medical opinions which doctors of the time may have held regarding Lili’s physical and mental health. Yet the period, the late 1920s and 1930s, was very interesting, especially in Western Europe. Robert Beachy has given us a great account of the period in his study Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, an extremely readable and interesting book on the way opinions towards gay and transsexual identities developed in the Weimar years. Beachy’s book itself isn’t as detailed as one could wish, but it’s in pursuit of a thesis and that it does genuinely well. In The Danish Girl, by contrast, we feel no real sense of this kind of historical context. For what I assume are reasons of readability, the book is set, despite its use of accurate dates for its events, in a kind of vague time and place where unique qualities of places or years barely dent the fabric of the story. Clearly, the author’s main interest was in Lili, and the rest of the book was assembled around a series of psychological sketches of Lili, sketches moreover that are not interested in Lili’s agency or free will (she is a helpless toy in the hands of other for most of the novel), but in some interest in transsexualism that’s equal parts prurient and sentimental.

danish girl 3I would be tempted to say that Ebershoff would have been better served had he restricted himself to just that – a series of pared down sketches, highlighting the poignancy of certain situations and emotions – if not for the fact that he does manage to add something to the book which is genuinely interesting and affecting: the marriage of Greta and Lili. Greta, towards the end of the book, as she has lost Einar, and as she is about to lose Lili, describes marriage as “liv[ing] in that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” Deviating from historical record, Ebershoff paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate loyalty. To be clear, in the novel, the heterosexual woman is the one who is loyal, while Einar/Lili is merely helpless and lost, and that is obviously a problem. That said, the love and closeness between the couple was deeply affecting. Through all of Lili’s travails, Greta is the only one who consistently believes her and in her, who helps her, supports her. She is never repulsed or really disturbed. In fact, as the novel’s opening sentence tells us, Lili’s “wife knew first.” She knew her husband well enough to see that something was wrong, and she loved him enough to find out what it is and help him, even though he is never really able to articulate his feelings. In many ways, the book is just as much a paean to the strength and support and trust that a marriage can provide as it is a retelling of Lili Elbe’s life. One wishes Ebershoff had a harsh and talented editor because a sharper, clearer version of this novel could really have been impressive. Instead, we get a warm, sad, sentimental story in pastel that’s both too long and too short. Don’t read this book. Find some good scholarship on Lili Elbe. Read the Beachy book. I’m willing to bet that the success of the movie will lead to at least one big biography that will do the material justice. Apart from the portrait of a marriage, Ebershoff has nothing to add. Limited empathy, limited literary skills do not make up for the cuts in context and urgency. Lili Elbe was a pioneer. Her life and death are significant. She deserves better than this.


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.)

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Luiselli, Valeria (2011), Faces in the Crowd, Granta
[Translated from the Spanish by Christine MacSweeney]
ISBN 978-1-84708-507-8

luiselli 2It’s entirely accidental that my last review of 2015 and my first review of 2016 are both of novels by Mexican authors. Both novels are short, and both are written by skilled writers. Yet while Yuri Herrera’s novel is a masterpiece, well written, constructed and, I think, translated, the same cannot be said of Valeria Luiselli’s debut Faces In The Crowd. While certainly very clever, and often extremely well constructed, Luiselli offers a meagre dish, bereft of the flesh of story. Every word, every observation is spoken for – more than once. Similes and metaphors serve many purposes, including a metafictional one where they have to stand in for the principle of indirect speech. Writers, places, voices and observations enter the book and are immediately transformed. As a performance, this seems utterly cold and mechanical, yet Luiselli is always in control of her craft. There’s not much here, except, hidden in the folds of all these references upon references, this forest of symbols and indirection, a story of a young mother, terrified by a new experience, lost to the outside world somehow and trying to recreate a world purely intellectually. Moreover, the translation by Christina MacSweeney is frequently inconsistent, sloppy and flat in a way that makes me suspect a fault on the translator’s side rather than a failing by the author. I find it hard to critique so harshly a book that is so well constructed, but as a whole, I found the book exceptionally unsatisfying. One aspect that raised Herrera’s novel beyond other books of similar length and density is the narrative depth, the way Herrera allowed for life and myth to flood the book in all the right places. And for a pure novel of ideas, Luiselli lacks the rigor and thoroughness of, say, a David Markson, whose work the novel often reminded me of, or the supple confidence of Woolf, another obvious touchstone. At the same time, I can see this author producing stellar work in the future, given the brilliance of many of its constructions and the ease with which she assembled her book. This book is certainly worth reading, especially if you’re generally interested in poetry and modernism. It’s not a great novel, but that is a lot to ask of a short debut. It’s strange and entertaining, and through its allusiveness and density even has a bit of staying power.

The structure of the book is complex, and maybe one of the things that the author does not control perfectly. On its face, it is a novel about a female writer writing a novel. It contains three or four different kinds of sections. There is the present day narrative, which is basically a journal of the putative author’s daily goings-on, as she lives in a house somewhere in Mexico City, with her recently born second child, her husband, and a somewhat older child. Her husband is an architect who may or may not be unhappy with his marriage to the narrator/author. He also, in the first half of the novel, reads the pages already written, and the narrator later reports his remarks to us. This is not quite as in Laurent Binet’s loquacious HHhH, a novel that constantly discussed its own genesis and the author’s thought process, as well as misgivings by friends and lovers. The main difference is that -fascinatingly, really – Luiselli uses this tool of reflecting on the creation of the book without actually reflecting on its form, really. The husband’s reading is merely used to raise questions of authenticity and truth on the one hand, and add fuel to that present day’s narrative’s main concern: the feeling of loneliness and rejection that the narrator constantly feels. Never leaving her house, the narrator’s journal alludes to the Gothic tradition with all its emotional and psychological trappings, but takes care to tie other cultural and historical narratives into it, from the Collyer brothers, immortalized by the late E.L. Doctorow (Doctorow’s excellent novel on the Collyer brothers came out in 2009, Luiselli’s novel in 2011, it’s reasonable to assume that one influenced the other) as well as Emily Dickinson, or rather: the crooked cultural narrative we have of isolated spinster Dickinson. It is not until the very end that Luiselli returns to the core elements of the Gothic, after having cycled through various versions of it especially in the second half of the novel. Yet not all parts of the novel are even touched by the Gothic.

The arguably most important kinds of sections in the first half of the novel are reminiscences of the narrator’s past in New York. It is these reminisces that the husband, reading the manuscipt/journal, objects to most strenuously, mostly on the grounds of jealousy. That’s because in them, the author/narrator remembers her time in independent publishing/translation, which involved sexual congress with a few different men. The main aspect of that narrative, however, is the author’s insistence on getting Gilberto Owen, an obscure (but real) Latino poet and ambassador, who was born in Mexico in 1904 and died in Philadelphia in 1952, translated. To achieve this goal, she invents a whole backstory for the poet, including a forged manuscript of translations, purportedly by the hand of fictional poet Joshua Zvorsky (a thinly veiled allusion to Louis Zukofsky, the great objectivist poet (listen here to Mark Scroggins discuss the poet)). On the back of Zvorsky’s good name, the translations (really done by the author), achieve great success until her conscience forces her to declare the forgery. The whole affair is done in really broad strokes, as far as the literary business is concerned. It’s hard not to think of the way critics and publishers fêted Bolaño and other writers not, maybe, all too interested in the accuracy of the biographical narratives offered. Yet Faces In The Crowd is not a satire. Luiselli is not really concerned with the whole business of hyping and publishing obscure writers for Western audiences. What she’s really interested in is her imagined figure of Owen. In order to make him attractive to her publisher, she invented a whole backstory for him that involved friendships with Lorca, “Zvorsky” and other greats of early 20th century poetry in New York. This led to her wish to write a novel about Owen, which is the project that she chronicles in her journals in present day Mexico City. The sections from that novel (or Owen’s imagined life?) are more expansive and imaginary than anything else in the book, and they dominate the second half of Luiselli’s novel. In the portions of the biographical novel, we learn of both Owen’s life in New York as well as of his final years in Philadelphia where he, according to our author/narrator, suffers from a mysterious illness that makes him lose weight without actually slimming down.

luiselli 3I spent a lot of time explaining structure and plot of the book, but its real achievement is not in these elements. It’s in the way all of this works, and the way Luiselli references and uses literary history. One of the dominant images of the book is the phrase that has become the English title of the novel (the original one is Los Ingrávidos), taken straight from the famous Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro”

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The poem is referenced almost in full twice and alluded to at other times, but Luiselli does not just use the image to explain the way she thinks of lives passing through time and appearing to people at other times, her use of the poem allows us to see how Pound’s literary theories are also part and parcel of how the novel itself is constructed. Pound’s poem, which I just quoted with a colon, has also (and is, these days, most frequently) been printed with a semicolon. What’s more, there are differently spaced versions. Pound revised the poem in multiple printings and, as many essays have shown (most succinctly perhaps a 1990 essay by Chilton/Gilbertson), these changes are in step with his different opinion on how to use the image. Commonly, we understand Pound’s career at that time to make a change from a movement called Imagism to a much less influential and shorter lived movement called Vorticism. Imagism is basically the idea of letting an image or an object speak for itself. The poem was inspired by Japanese poetry and the implicit metaphors or similes in them. The question of how explicit and implicit metaphors are is one that also concerns the Luiselli’s novel, which crawls with similes, some odd, some interesting, some flat. And there are various things. There are objects that mirror or represent people, there are similes, there are metaphors and maybe allegories. Luiselli runs the gamut of indirect ways of connection images and ideas. But Pound, in making the change to a semicolon and vorticism, starts moving away from the idea of an implicit simile and towards a “superposition” of ideas. Luiselli’s book moves from the indirect idea of grappling with her past and present life and Owen’s life to the full narratives of Owen’s life in the second half. People and lives appear in the ‘wrong’ time, like superpositions, as ghosts or faded images. What’s more is that Pound said of his poem that it recorded “the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. “ In many ways, this also describes the process of the novel, as we move from a broad, tentative take on the process of writing about Owen and dealing with the author/narrator’s fascination for it, to a more fully subjective take on Owen, life and literary history.

Similarly, the author makes use of Zukofsky’s poetic tenets, although I don’t want to discuss this here before this review’s length explodes any further. It’s enough to state that in many ways, Zukofsky’s Objectivism is a variation on the Imagism of Pound, an exploration of it, more connected to history and time than Pound’s early work was. Questions of sincerity, observation and directness are raised and answered by Luiselli in a way that shows the influence of Zukofsky. Yet, while I don’t want to go into these aspects, I want to mention something else: the connection between Zukofsky and translation. The fact that we can tell that the fictional author “Zvorsky” is really Zukofsky is evidenced by the way Luiselli explicitly references the early section “A-9” from Zukofsky’s long poem “A” (which turns into “That” in the novel). But she does it with a bit of indirection, by offering us a (fictional) translation Owen made of a Lorca translation of a section of “A-9” – now, this would have been a clever bit of literary play, but Luiselli’s depth of reference exceeds simple allusions like that. Her “translation” is not a translation the way we would all understand it – it is a translation in the way Zukofsky practically pioneered it: based on sound rather than meaning, a method that has been replicated many times since (Ted Berrigan’s work comes to mind), but has only been really popularized by Zukofsky. This makes the allusion to Zukofsky work on two distinct levels: on content and method. Speaking of translation: in the first paragraph, I have made disparaging remarks on MacSweeney’s work, but her rendering of the triple translation of Zukofsky appears to be extremely well done, as far as I can tell without recourse to the original. Sadly, the translator appears to have concentrated much of her creative energy on that section to the detriment of others. The prose in Luiselli’s book, as rendered by MacSweeney, is frequently pedestrian, usually flat.

I cannot tell whether the fault lies with the author or the translator, but the early reference to Hemingway lets me suspect a combination of both. Hemingway and Carver are devils, sent to this world to deceive and trick the youth into writing flat declarative, short-limbed prose that lacks the precision of syntax and word choice that made those two writers into the masters they were (in fact, not even Carver was able to be Carver, as we know, and Hemingway had trouble maintaining his own high wire act for long). As I can tell from German attempts to translate American fiction, there is often a process of further degradation when translators try to render simple/laconic writing into the target language. I suspect that is what happened here. What’s more, sometimes the translation just seems sloppy, with odd phrases that appear to not offer us some odd phrase in the original but a mirror of the Spanish original, a frequent mistake that happens in quick interlinear translations. This should have been caught by the book’s editors, however, as well as other slips. For example, for a particularly egregious one, at some point, the author/narrator is watching a movie which she calls “Raining Hamburgers” – I had a hunch and checked the Mexican title of the American animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and sure enough, it’s “Lluvia de hamburguesas”. These are minor mistakes but they contribute to an overall impression of sloppiness and add to the meagre narrative flesh on the bones of this book.

luiselli1There are so many ideas all over the book that I have barely managed to mention even most of them. Representation, motherhood, feminity, literary tradition. I mean the whole use of the Collyer brothers, who at some point stopped leaving their apartment, inviting instead the world into it in the form of books, texts and rare objects until they were found dead in the debris, deserves a thorough analysis. In a section that pretends to be a memory, Luiselli draws on the concept of psychogeography, but her narrator, the young mother, inverts the principle. Instead of walking the world and engaging with its symbolical structure, she imposes symbols onto a world that she does not see, an outside that might as well not exist, toying with Korzybski’s map/territory binary. The very fact that the husband who may or may not leave her, is an architect. The concepts and consequences behind the idea of Owen losing weight while staying the same on the outside. I mean, it’s a long list and everything ties into everything. This process is endlessly fascinating but it does not ultimately make Faces in The Crowd a good book. An interesting book, yes, but Luiselli’s book reads like the endlessly well crafted artifact of a critic-turned-writer, although I don’t know whether that is, indeed the case. It is not enough to say this book is overdetermined. It is, in fact, so painstakingly worked that it barely resembles prose any more in its density and lack of narrative or emotional energy. It resembles a baroque poem, written to impress with its craft, to delight an appreciative audience. Only that, for a poem, Luiselli’s – or, more precisely, MacSweeney’s – language is too vague for this book to dazzle. I think Luiselli got lost in the house of her own mind and construction and this book is the result.


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