Nobel Disagreements

So the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement has been pushed up. According to a post at a forum that I used to be a member of (and that you should consider joining?), it is NOT because of a disagreement.

So the late date isn’t because of any disagreement within the Academy?- Absolutely not. It’s a purely mathematical ritual.

Well. 1) I believe in the old tabloid adage that denial of disagreement is confirmation of disagreement and 2) I’d like to think one of them went 12 Angry Men –  So here is a possible way this went down (I apologize in advance. My computer keeps dying and my email accout is possessed. This is good distraction):

Sara Danius: “So I assume we all agree? It’s another white/European/comfy writer? Who wants to write the commentary. I mean “she’s a master of short stories” was pretty good.” Academy members mumble agreement. “What about this one? We can start with the words “memory”, “Europe” and “History,” right? Ok Let’s vote.”

Voting. One “no” vote. Danius, upset: “Who did this?”

Suddenly, from the back, a rebel Academy Member says: “Well, maybe this time we shouldn’t pick an unoriginal European?”

Shock, as outrage, noises ensue. One yells: “How will we recognize excellence if it’s not white and comfortable? Vi har högt i tak but enough is enough!”

Another one takes out a color chart “But I learned that everything darker than this” -points to ochre- “is not a real writer!”

A small man yells, very self-satisfied: “WHO is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”

Rebel academy member sits silently. He leans forward: “I’m just saying, have you read these books – ?” and pushes literally dozens of non-European Nobel worthy candidates across the table. Paperbacks, hardcovers, knocking over a glass of water (and the customary can of surströmming, I assume)

This generates more outrage: “What’s wrong with you?” “How do you even pronounce that?” “What kind of name is “Tsitsi”?”

Rebel academy member keeps calm, shrugs. “Look, I don’t know. We used to do this differently, just like two decades ago. When’s the last time we awarded a Wole Soyinka? Is it Wole Soyinka? Look at all these writers. I just don’t know about this European/pale/bland/genteel fellow we picked again this time.”

Chubby academy member gets up, puffs his cigar, after dipping it into spilled surströmming. “Hey, pipe down. Le Clèzio travels a lot. Isn’t that enough? Munro was Canadian! And so easy to read! If anything we need more Europeans!”

Another one gets up: “Coetzee is African AND Australian! We are so diverse!”

Rebel academy member: “Have you read Zakes Mda, he –

Academy member interrupts him: ” – wait! Aren’t there white South Africans? Maybe this is a good compromise? Marlene van Niekerk is good!” Looks around into disapproving faces. Sits down, redfaced.

Chubby guy gets up again: “Look, buddy, I think you made up half these names. We have enough foreigners here as is. I’m telling you, I can easily tell a good European writer from one of those silly ones from half a mile away!”

Rebel takes out two printouts. “Well, I have two pages here, one from a recent winner, one from an African novelist who we’ve shunned so far, and who should have won it.” Looks at chubby guy, who’s probably a historian, you know how those guys are. Rebel academy member reads a page of Munro aloud without attribution, and afterwards reads a page of Achmat Dangor. Holds up both printouts.

Chubby guy, chomps on cigar, grinning. “Ha.” Points to Dangor. “That is clearly the better writer.”

Rebel academy member reveals the truth. Silence. A cigar can be heard dropping to the floor.

Nervous head of the committee says “Should we vote again?” This time, two no votes. The room groans.

Quietly, Sara Danius says: “I guess we need more time. Let’s send Per out and say it’s some mathematical snafu.” Everyone nods. Danius speaks into an intercom. Pauses. Presses button on intercom again: “Bring us the complete works of Philippe Toussaint. And that Romanian fellow.” Academy members relax. Maybe this will work out after all. Somebody puts on ABBA. An assistant is sent to Systembolaget to get some booze.

Again, I apologize. My Nobel Prize picks are here, by the way, if you’re interested (although they don’t, uh, contain Zakes Mda, Tsitsi Dangarembga or any of the other writers mentioned here).

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Wilson, Kai Ashante (2015), The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8524-6

wildeepsThis book is very good. Very good. Unbelievably so, for a debut. An exceptional novel. Now, somewhere to the left or right of this paragraph will be a picture of the book under review. I considered not including one, but then, upon ordering it, you’d see it anyway. The cover is awful. Tor is doing a lot of things very well, many of which involve the editorship of Ann VanderMeer. Guessing from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, cover design isn’t one of them. This book looks tacky and cheap (the book as object is nicely produced, however), but any guesses based on the cover regarding the book’s content would be way, way off. This appears to be Kai Ashante Wilson’s first novel and what a novel it is. For a fantasy novel, it is fairly short, but no line, no page, nothing is wasted within its covers. This is a truly masterful novel. Not: “a great fantasy novel” – this is a masterful novel with a fantastic setting. Look, there is a tendency to judge genre texts on a curve. That’s how I end up praising Brandon Sanderson‘s excellent work – its immediate compatriots are not Otessa Moshfegh, Sinan Antoon or A.L. Kennedy, but Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Peter Brett, and Sanderson’s intelligence, inventiveness and productivity put him above these writers. So if you like epic fantasy, read Sanderson. If, on the other hand, you don’t like it, many of his books won’t be enjoyable for you. Kai Ashante Wilson’s novel is just plain good, whatever awful ideas may have driven this cover design. There’s no “if you like this sort of thing” here because everybody except those who will only read hyperrealistic fiction will enjoy this, and those guys can go to hell anyway. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is smart, it is written with a keen intelligence, and an enormous care for words that is too rare in contemporary fiction. Wilson draws on a broad literary tradition, but closest, I think, are writers like Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany and James Kelman. Not that I think he drew specifically on those writers (the Kelman in particular is a bit of a reach), but the way his book approaches speech, dialect, power and bodies reminded me of them. As the Nobel Prize for Literature announcement is approaching (my (terrible) picks here), Wilson can remind us of what we need to be praised in World Literature and that’s not the precious little miniatures by unoriginal little Frenchmen. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wilson Harris write work that, with exquisite literary skill, interrogates questions of language and power, and unlike writers like James Kelman (who should be on Nobel lists) and László Krasznahorkai, who address similar questions with at least equal skill, writers outside of Europe can address them differently, with a different, much needed perspective, especially given the lack of imagination and empathy in European (and American) politics today. Kai Ashante Wilson is no Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but his novel makes me excited to read more. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is excellent, important and deserves a better presentation by Tor.

Already, Wilson has surpassed work by American novelists like Michael Chabon, whose Gentlemen of the Road (I talk about it a bit in my review of The Copper Promise) is a surprisingly close analog. Yet unlike Chabon, Wilson’s novel isn’t a simple version of “fun and games with Leiber and Burroughs” – he draws, with some specifity, I believe, on novels like H. Rider Haggard’s She and Beckford’s Gothic classic Vathek, as well as on the towering literary figure of Samuel Delany. While Chabon, who has written beautifully on the value of genre writing, clearly brings to bear a great love and understanding of the genre, Wilson’s achievement is greater. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a novel that manages to have a fantastic setting that is both essential, and strangely irrelevant. Yes, there is an adventure in it, with a properly suspenseful finale. There are the characters you’d expect from adventure fantasy, gruff, funny, taciturn, irate. There are characters who like to talk and characters who are mysterious and brooding. There are fantastic beasts, Gods and monsters. Yet Wilson is in no way interested in doing the “worldbuilding” that is common and expected of fantasy. The world the novel is set in feels complete and entirely coherent, but it is not alien to us. The way we know this is Wilson’s use of language and dialect. The majority of the book is written in a clear, elegant, yet ever so slightly off-kilter English. It is hard to put my finger of it, but in recent fiction, I do think Samuel Delany comes very close to Wilson’s extremely deliberate English, which carefully modulates register ever so mildly. Sometimes it switches to poetic, sometimes it is more precise, sometimes it appears to be citing genre expressions, sometimes we are offered a very modern, clear tone. Yet this is not what is most important. The clincher is Wilson’s use of AAVE, or African American Variety of English, in his novel. The novel’s protagonists are, in modern parlance, of color. They are marked as black by other characters in the novel, but importantly, while the world of the book is not North America today, the characters employ different varieties of current African American slang, from “Nigga” to what is known as “th-fronting” where /θ/ is pronounced as [f] (“stremf,” in the novel, for example, for “strength”). Writers of fantasy, or just fiction in fantastic settings do frequently use today’s dialects of English to signify something about a culture. Many fantasy writers opt for some version of faux Irish dialect sometimes, for a certain kind of simpleton. What Wilson does is substantially different. The dialect he uses is so strongly connected to a specific culture and a time (ours, some details about the dialect are rather current) that it is hard to see it as just signifying any old kind of dialectical speech. What’s more, Wilson ties it to race.

Some of Wilson’s characters speak a variety of AAVE, and they are seen as black. Black not as color (although skin color is a topic of conversation), but more importantly: black as a cultural and colonial signifier. The book’s plot is about a group of, I guess, mercenaries, paid to escort a carawan of rich people (a culture clearly Arab inflected) through a dangerous area. A significant portion of the novel is set in an Oasis, where the mercenaries are treated with disdain. Not just by the rich merchants, but also by the fort soldiers (known as “fo-so’s”) who also speak in AAVE. Thus, we hear complaints like “Naked-ass bush savages. Shouldn’t even let they ass up in here.” I reviewed, a while ago, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia fantasy novels set in a kind of African mirror image to the usual fantasy worlds. Durham, like his genre compatriots, treated class and race with a broad and imprecise brush, but the exciting element of his book was the way he upended the usual home/invader paradigms. Usually, the “normal” people are English or European, the invaders dark, black or Asian (even outspoken liberals like Tad Williams cannot escape this). So that’s what Durham did and for the genre it was set in, it was nice and well done. Kai Wilson’s view of race is closer to the complicated worlds of Toni Morrison. From the acidic treatment of race and colorism and self hate in The Bluest Eye, to the densely colored conflicts of Paradise, which famously starts with a black/white conflict but then turns interior, Toni Morrison (a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Prize, unlike that French exploitative tourist of limited linguistic gifts Le Clèzio) has written one of the sharpest treatments of race in English outside of Africa (where racism is a frequent topic among the many writers the current Nobel academy does not consider white enough or genteel enough for a Nobel prize). The world of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is, like ours, a world dense with conflict, but Wilson has removed all the nonlinguistic specifics and replaced them with an Oriental fantasy world. This is doubly important. It allows him to display some conflicts relevant to us on a canvas that does not distract us, and makes us see causalities that we would otherwise link differently; it also drives home a point about how, much like orientalism, as Said many decades ago has stated so accurately, is a way to structure knowledge about the “oriental other”, so are certain accepted fictional and linguistic strategies.

Prof. John Rickford has called AAVE “spoken soul” and closed his landmark study of it with the following remark:

“True, the vernacular has been abused. […] But we must reclaim it. We must stop importing this shame that is manufactured beyond our communities […]. We must begin to do for language what we have done historically (in some cases only very recently) for our hair, our clothes, our art, our education, and our religion […]. The crucial thing is that we hold the yardstick, and finally become sovereign guardians and arbitrators and purveyors of our culture.”

Otherness, identity and shame loom large over this novel and the focus is not just race, but also, in equal measure, queerness. I haven’t touched on it because this is a brief review I am typing during a lunch break, but queerness is important here – two of the protagonists, the most physically strong and masculine, have a sexual relationship. Wilson builds on Delany’s sexually charged fantastic fiction set in the world of Neveryon, and like, Delany, also on a large tradition of gay literature that was sometimes explicitly gay, and sometimes more implicitly so. To me, the secret-but-passionate love affair between the two men recalls novels like Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund or E.M. Forster’s Maurice. If the (recalled in a memory) moment when the two men admit their mutual attraction doesn’t make you think of Alec climbing up to Maurice’s window, I can’t help you. To get back to my point: the central concern is with otherness and self, both in terms of race and sexuality. Famously, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of alterity do not include animals (I believe there is a very readable critique by Derrida) – but scholars have used his approach to also discuss animals and animality. For Levinas, the self, the “I,” is created in a confrontation with a “Thou,” a you. Building on Martin Buber, Levinas rejects Buber’s concept of reciprocity in that encounter. The Other, for Levinas, is completely, radically, Other. The encounter with it creates both an ethical responsibility and, with E.S. Burt, a sense of self. You cannot kill, because killing is an encounter with a face (cf. Abraham & son). Not so with animals. Yet Wilson offers us something else. Not an animal, but a leviathan, something that is inherently other, so much that it is capable of shifting and changing realities. Many of the characters’ actions are about dealing with yourself, with who you are, what role you are expected to fulfill and how to cope with all of that, but the book’s big showdown is a literalization of an encounter with an Other for two people whose sense of self is complicated and tender. It asks of them to fully embrace who and what they are, and it shows how dangerous that is.

It is impossible to convey how well crafted this book is. The brevity itself is an example of formal mastery, as is the density of allusions and theoretical and philosophical ideas. The careful writing, the extraordinarily deliberate and beautiful prose, it is really all very good. The prose easily beats the one written by recent Booker nominees or winners (*cough* Barnes *cough*), for example and when I say easily, I mean it. Hard to believe that this is Wilson’s first long piece of fiction. What he managed here is enormously hard to do, and even harder to sustain, but I am hoping for great things from this amazing writer. One would hope that the label “fantasy” would not mar his reception, because this book is just plainly excellent literature, among the best novels I read this year, but the presentation by Tor certainly does not help. Not just the terrible cover, the comparison to mediocrities like George R.R. Martin (good fantasy writer, mediocre writer overall) in blurbs on the cover also suggests a bad direction. Kai Ashante Wilson is an unbelievable writer, period. He is part of a coterie of excellent young African American novelists that include Colson Whitehead, the incandescent Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson. If you’re tired of the pale literary culture that brought you Jonathan Safran Foer, “The Help,” Ayelet Waldman and a million trite MFA products, read these writers. Read Kai Ashante Wilson. He’s on fire.


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Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but if they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or  Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 95 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog.

So let’s go on to my picks. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.

ONE: Poetry  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.

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

THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably, immensely great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then there’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now.  His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.

Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.

Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird

Atwood, Margaret; Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain (2016), Angel Catbird, Dark Horse
ISBN 978-1-50670-063-2

I wrote the first sentence of this review before reading the book. Angel Catbird arrived here this afternoon, and I immediately noted down this sentence: “This is just a quick review to inform you that this awesome book exists.” So when I tell you that this book is a big disappointment, maybe you can chalk it down to my high expectations. This review is still going to be quite short, but the word “awesome” won’t be part of it, I’m afraid. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist and a very good poet and short story writer. She is not, based on reading this beautifully produced book, very good at writing comic books. Angel Catbird is a book with a great premise, it is drawn by a fantastic artist, and who among us wouldn’t like to see Margaret Atwood write a Golden Age style comic book? And yet! And yet, this book is much duller than it had any right to be. If anything, it shows us that transitioning to comic book writing is not a given, and maybe it helps us to re-examine the achievements of Brad Meltzer (who worked on Green Arrow, among others, though his work is a bit of a mixed bag), Marjorie Liu (whose new book Monstress is a magnificent read) and China Mieville. This book is so strange and bad that its failings almost make me want to recommend it. Atwood does not play it safe, and produced a book that cites different comic traditions, comments on environmental politics, on art and gender relations, all while telling a garish story told with a silliness that is almost admirably bold. For all the dismay that Angel Catbird caused me, it made me want to read Atwood write a whole novel possessed of a similar level of adorable shameless silliness. Additionally, my faith in Atwood’s skills is such that I assume she’ll eventually get better at this. Volume 1 of Angel Catbird is a mess and not a delightful mess. But it is a book of an author clearly enjoying herself, taking risks, and it is illustrated by gifted artists. If you don’t expect the next comic book masterpiece you may even be able to stave off disappointment. Finally: cats.

shelteredThe book’s greatest strength has to be Johnny Christmas’ art. He did an excellent job on Brisson’s Sheltered, a creator-owned title at Image, and in Angel Catbird he does his utmost to keep the train on the tracks and moving in a forward direction. His work, and that of illustrator Tamra Bonvillain, does an enormously good job of working with shadows, backgrounds, and giving Atwood’s characters the exactly right amount of camp expressions and gestures. As the elaborate materials show, which are part of this edition, Christmas had to be prodded a bit by Atwood to embrace the truly extravagantly camp nature of this book. His work provides a guiding light between the various impulses the script offers, and Bonvillain’s colors provide another important key. Apart from her work with shadows and silhouettes, I think it is her insistence on working with backgrounds of few details that are heavily coated in one specific color per panel that truly sets her art apart here. It gives the book a uniform look, and also lends the sometimes erratic plot a firm sense of continuity. Before reading this book, I didn’t think this would be my opinion, but Margaret Atwood got very lucky in finding these collaborators, because this could have gone so much worse. I don’t mean one of the bad artists who somehow keep floating around comic books; even a serviceable journeyman like Dale Eaglesham, for example, would have been a catastrophe, I think, for this kind of book. And I say “luck” because Atwood was, according to her introduction, connected to not just Christmas and Bonvillain, but also to the team at Dark Horse, who did an outstanding work with the book, by Hope Nicholson. In Sheltered, Christmas is asked to find a visual language for an apocalypse-like scenario of a bloody meltdown at a cult-like community, and his touch is perfect for a serious tale of greed, anger, violence and a snow-covered desolation. It is impressive that he did such an excellent job with the much less serious tale of Angel Catbird.

This one is a bit of a mixed bag.

This one in particular is a bit of a mixed bag.

The story of Angel Catbird is a light story of gene splicing, of a man awakening one day as a being half cat, half owl, half human. Of the strange existence of half-cat and half-rat communities and a fat evil half-rat villain who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the 1990s animated series Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Atwood clearly has a boatload of fun in this. Even before the feline revelations, we are introduced to the book’s conflict through the characters’ names. The main character is called Strig Feleedus, his love interest is Kate Leone and his boss (and villain-to-be) is Dr. Muroid. This sets the scene. In Atwood’s introduction she stresses how indebted she is to classic comics, from L’il Abner to Plastic Man, and in many ways you can read this debt in this book. Have you ever read a plot driven collection of classic superhero comics? I read a whole thick book of classic Dial H comics and while they are amusing in portions, after a while, it is tiresome to see all these thought bubbles explaining all the details. In the 1980s, superhero comics were incredibly condensed, panels crammed with details and text (have you ever read the original run of Days of Future Past? It all fits into two short issues.), Golden Age comics and early Silver Age ones were not as dense. There was no room for subtlety: all emotions had to be writ large on the faces of the characters and expressed in similarly unsubtle speech and thought bubbles. Atwood recreates this writing in her comic, without adapting, updating or really commenting on it. It is a fascinating comics experiment, a true pastiche – but the result is incredibly strange. The jokes are corny and generally unfunny, and there is no character development because the framework doesn’t really allow for that kind of character. This is the kind of comic, after all, where a bat/cat hybrid named Count Catula goes to sleep in a woman’s closet and wakes up with a small pink bra on his forehead. Adorable – but it can get tired real fast.

I wasn't the only one bored, apparently.

I wasn’t the only one bored, apparently.

The whole book is underwritten by Atwood’s environmental ideas. There are intermittent info boxes linking the reader to informational material by, and Atwood’s ideological purpose is twofold. On a simple level it is to inform her readers about how to treat cats (and birds), but on a larger level, we are also connected to the broader topic of science and nature. Atwood has in recent novels been very interested in postapocalyptic scenarios about how humanity and nature are intertwined, with some texts hinting at the liminal, ritualistic nature of science. It is not a complete accident that the period that Atwood borrows her tools from is the one between 1930 and 1970, a time when much that we consider modern science has been developed, in both good and catastrophic ways. Ludwik Fleck’s life and work is a strange encapsulation of that historical moment, as he was a scientist who wrote one of the most insightful books on the structure of scientific thought and the illusions and problems embedded therein, and he was also, as a Jew, interned in Buchenwald, which he survived. In some ways, one could say that the extraordinary feat of pastiche in this book serves as a counterpoint to Jameson’s idea of postmodern pastiche as a “blank parody,” a depoliticized “linguistic mask.” Atwood actively uses the pastiche here as a link to history and politics to make a point. One wishes merely that she was better at it. When Guillermo del Toro, a genius director and screenwriter, planned on writing a trilogy of novels, he didn’t do it by himself. He enlisted the help of a seasoned thriller veteran. Genre writing is often underrated, seen as less than, as easier. It is not. So many failed literary science fiction novels should be evidence of that. Atwood’s offensively dull script to Angel Catbird is more evidence of it. Read it, with caveats. Also, I think it gets better with rereads. Or maybe I just want it to be the case. Anyway. I recommend this book, bad as it is. After all, we should remember Faulkner’s famous critique of Hemingway, who, according to the chronicler of Yoknapatawpha County, stuck to the things he already knew he’d do well at, rather than risk failure by overreach. Atwood has never been a “safe” writer and if this book is a failure, it is a noble one. For a serious novelist to switch media, tone and genre so completely was certainly a risk, and I’ll take that any day over the everyday dullness of MFA routine.


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Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
ISBN 978-1-4721-0689-6

marbels coverYou know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.

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A page from “Marbles,” depicting mania and the patient/therapist situation

Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.

hyperbole1What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.

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A page from “Marbles”

I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by  Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.

cotter 4The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

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A page from Brosh’s book

Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.

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A page from Cotter’s book

Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.

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One of the many journal pages depicting an attempt to visually capture depression.

For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.

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The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.


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.)

Paul Auster & Me



A view behind the scenes of my blog


As a new novel by Paul Auster is about to hit the shelves, I noticed that I have reviewed a few of his books here. Enough apparently, to make my blog findable for people searching for a very specific/unflattering phrase (see picture). If you’re interested in my opinion, here are the links

Sunset Park: “These are the games of a tired old author, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. Auster’s writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. […] It’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards.”

In the Country of Last Things: “Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications.”

Invisible: “The staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction.[..] This novel is like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.”

The Brooklyn Follies: “This novel is a huge failure. As a movie it would have succeeded, and as a novel written by a different writer, it would also have succeeded. Auster has his strengths, and I still remember the novel’s characters vividly, but writing prose just is not one of them.”

Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley

Ștefănescu, Cecilia (2013), Sun Alley, Istros Books
[Translated from Romanian by Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer]
ISBN 9781908236067

_20160901_053838At this point in the year, this is the worst book I have read all year or at least the worst book I have finished. I mean, good God. It certainly is the worst translated book. That‘s not to say that Cecilia Ștefănescu‘s Sun Alley is wholly without interest. The author handles some structures well, and the very ending of the novel, which is almost camp in its outré dramatic pose, is nevertheless quite enjoyable. The style is dense with adjectives, but if handled by a better translator, it might have worked better. Mircea Cartarescu, after all, who positively glows in English translation, has a profound appreciation for adjectives as syntactical building blocks, as well. Not having read the original text, I cannot tell whether the heavy footed attempt at lyricism has died at the hands of the author or at the translators’ hands, although I suppose that some of the genuinely awful parts are a collaboration. A collaboration in the same way that, say, “Krazy” is a collaboration between Pitbull and Lil Jon. The results are underwhelming, is my point. There are quite a few redeeming aspects to this novel of a strange love affair between 12 year olds that comes to a head when they are adults in their thirties. Ștefănescu writes in a tradition that includes the frequently strange and fantastic fiction of Mircea Eliade, and her sense of the grotesque, of the way bodies demand room in our lives, the smell and the presence of the physical, is quite extraordinary, and her writing of a young adolescent consciousness, another link to Eliade, is the strongest part of the novel. The sections dealing with adulthood are banal at best and god-awful at worst. What’s more, you never feel that the author is wholly in control of her material. The novel is interestingly structured, but it is a structure that needed an editor to make it work on the page, to make it all cohere. I have not read a book since Gila Lustiger’s novel early last year that was so bad overall despite having so many promising parts – I mean it’s better to talk about a good book with weaknesses than a terrible, awful, no good book with good parts in it, say, a few pearls found in a large container of smelly, somewhat suspect oysters rife with salmonella. I don’t like saying bad things about European literature in English translation – there’s so little of it, it needs all the encouragement it can get. Did you know that nothing by the major Polish novelist Joanna Bator is translated into English? This however, is just a terrible product and cannot possibly advance the cause of literature in translation. Don’t read it, don’t buy it, just, I don’t know? Pretend it doesn’t exist?

DSC_2509The first issue to examine a bit closer has to be, at this point, the question of translation, because everything I know about the book has been transmitted to me through the voices of Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer. The unevenness of the text would suggest an unevenly talented pair of translators, but that is guesswork. If you don’t do a line by line comparison, it is sometimes hard to ferret out the part of the translator in a book’s failings or successes. Sometimes, you read a book and come across very odd sentences that you suspect make more sense in the original. This happened very frequently to me as I was reading Sun Alley. But let’s start with the first problem, that of sloppy editing. I do not, of course, know the process that translations undergo at Istros Books, but not infrequently, the translation created obvious problems that even a cursory editing job would have caught. Such as when one character utters “only two words,” those words being “I love you.” Now, these are actually (count them) three words, but in Romanian, the phrase is te iubesc. Two words. This is the kind of mistake that turns up in quick interlinear translations, or maybe the translator was hurried. There are a few of these and they are obviously mistakes added to the text by the translator, with the author completely innocent. In other cases, the translators chose to draw out some descriptions in the original, as when a button-up blouse with ivory buttons turns into a “bouse fastened with tiny, ivory buttons.” The main problem, however, is found in neither of these cases. The main problem is where the author’s style, which is already too ornate for Ștefănescu’s skill set, is transformed into an English that does the author no favors. The language is a bit stranger, a bit more awkward in English, which ends up producing sentences like the following: “He placed his small, young hand upon her white, smooth-skinned, fine-fingered hand, with red-painted fingernails grown slightly to reveal a pinkish semicircle.” Which, obviously, you may think is a stellar piece of writing. Worse writers have won major awards. But even if you think this is great, bear with me. I think one of the major problems of this translation is that it is enormously unaware of the, for lack of a better word, Romanian qualities of the writing. The translator keeps to structure and flow of the original to a fault without having an appreciable feel for the differences of the target language. It always feels enormously translated, with word choices sometimes reading as if the author picked the first option in the dictionary. At best it is a bit odd, at worst it turns the book into a turgid mess – and which of the two it is changes from chapter to chapter, sometimes from page to page.

cecilia_stefanescu_copThe Romanian quality of the work goes beyond word choice or awkward syntax. Another aspect that the translators are not incredibly aware of are the specific literary and textual contexts the author has placed her novel in – or rather, the translators are not aware that these references need special care and attention. At one point there’s a reference to, I believe, the Spân, a kind of trickster figure that turns up in many fairy tales. It’s used by a writer well aware of what that figure signifies to a literate Romanian, and the translators translate it in the same way, which means it’s completely opaque to the intended audience of a translation like this. I mean there are multiple solutions, among them footnotes or a more organic explanation within the text. But the text as a whole gives off an impression of total disinterest in that target audience. It’s not just the sometimes offensively bad editing (for example: place names like Constanța appear sometimes with, and sometimes without diacritics in the text), it’s also the translators who are just not particularly interested in making this text speak to an international audience. If you have read some Romanian literature (I have an overview of some strands of contemporary Romanian lit here) and are aware of various cultural and textual aspects, you can piece together how some of the text’s throughlines are supposed to work. The abovementioned Spân, for example, is part of a recurring theme of storytelling, imagination and deeply unreliable testimony and narration in the book. Adults read stories to their children, boys tell legends to girls they want to impress and kids tell other kids lies about their lives. These are themes common in world literature, but, especially in connection with adolescence, they are overwhelmingly common in Romanian literature. For example, a plurality of Cartarescu’s books are a variation on this theme, as are Mircea Eliade’s non-orientalist novels and stories, and Filip Florian’s work, as well. Yet, unlike any of these (even Eliade stressed the political aspects of storytelling in his Arabian Nights-cum-Kafka novel Pe strada Mântuleasa), Ștefănescu chose to place her novel in a space/time continuum that barely touches on history and politics, making the allusive nature of the text so much more important. While the other cases are of the translators failing to rise to the challenges of offering us an unclouded view of the text, this is a case where the two translators would have had the opportunity to either lift the text to the audience’s horizon or lift the audience to the text’s horizon. Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer, unchallenged or unprompted by the editors at Istros Books, decided to do neither.

DSC_2510Yet please, do not let me seduce you into thinking this is a masterpiece marred by imperfect translators and terrible editing. The book itself, even discounting the translation, is nothing to write home about. There are two distinct parts that overlap, bleed into each other and inform one another: one is set in the childhood of the two protagonists, the other during their adulthood. The two protagonists are Sorin Alexandru Lemnaru, known as Sal, and Emilia, known as Emi. The adolescent parts are not without interest. Cecilia Ștefănescu is good at recreating the confused, claustrophobic state of mind of an adolescent boy, who is a bit overwhelmed by boyish power games among his friends, by a misguided sense of his own intelligence and by the power of his own imagination. Ștefănescu cleverly uses her overly detailed descriptions to show us how an adolescent attention is both fleeting and hyperfocused, by moving from detailed description to detailed description without a clear sense of direction and purpose. However. if you want to read something like that, in a similar setting, but executed by a truly gifted hand, why not read Mircea Cartarescu’s Nostalgia, instead, which is an unbelievable, layered work of genius. Yet Ștefănescu has a strangeness of her own. The blurb on the back of the book calls it a “love story” but it is an odd story. We barely hear Emi’s side of it, not when they are 12, and not in their thirties. At some point she says “I love you, but in another way…” and throughout the book you get a very murky sense of her motivations to stick with Sal. As adults, we learn quickly, Sal and Emi are not a couple, they are each married to other people, but they have an affair with each other, which puts enormous emotional stress on both of them. It is odd how the novel makes you feel that Sal somehow coerced Emi into this arrangement, much as he appears to coerce her into much of the stuff they do as children. He is what we’d today describe as “toxic” – the first sexual encounter between him and Emi basically consists of him forcing himself on Emi, making her pleasure him with her hand. He’s socially and economically privileged, compared to her, and incredibly self absorbed. He needs constant validation and attention, suffering breakdowns when he doesn’t get them and he may or may not be a bit mentally ill. All of this is interesting, and the oppressive atmosphere, combined with the strange elusiveness of who Emi really is, really help build a sense of place that is both in Bucharest and in a world of its own. The sections dealing with edult Emilia and Sorin, however, are terrible. Clichéd, boring, uninteresting. The impressively ridiculous ending of the novel needs some kind of exploration of the adult couple, but surely Ștefănescu wouldn’t have needed to jettison everything that makes the book at all interesting.

The end result of all this is the rare book that is much, much less than the sum of its part. The good aspects, such as the very stringent and powerful use of physicality and the grotesque, and the curious treatment of adolescence and sexual power are drowned in a sea of strange syntax, editing and translating mistakes and severely misjudged plot developments. Overall, I think, this is in large part a tale of the importance of good editors. Ștefănescu would have needed an editor to tell her to cut these 300 pages to about 150 and get rid of some of the awful interior monologues and the majority of the adult sections, and the translators needed an editor to catch some of the easy mistakes and make them care a bit about the target audience. It is hard to blame Istros Books because they appear to do a valuable service by bringing a lot of east European literature into English, including Eliade’s early/important novel Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent. Yet no amount of goodwill towards the publisher can redeem this awful mess.


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