Mathias Enard: Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants

41iZsXvfN4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ Heads up: this is not a review – I reviewed the novel on this blog in 2010. My review is here. I just want to draw attention to it as a brand new translation of the book, by Charlotte Mandel, a very good translator who also translated The Kindly Ones, is about to come out. So if you click on the link you’ll find my 2010 review of the book. As you can probably tell, I had a bit of a mixed opinion of the book. And it is still my least favorite Ènard. I do like it more today than I liked it then. And Énard is generally speaking a very good writer I think we all agree, more or less. And while this is not a new review, I have blogged a couple of new reviews over the past week. You can see all of them here. How did you like this book?

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Lydia Millet: My Happy Life

Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-6846-7

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.

What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.

I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.

I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.

And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.

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Cockroaches and Books

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, they are sprouting like a malignant plant and God knows there are many, many unread one – it’s not just a museum of The Things I Have Read, I keep buying books like a meth addict. And sometimes there are whole writers whose work I have surreptitiously acquired in bits and pieces but never gotten around to read. I don’t know how long I will have to wait to shuffle off my mortal coil but while I am forced to stick around, I keep digging into these shelves, adding things, replacing things, reading, reading, reading. I have no real prejudice when it comes to genre, though I obviously have strong opinions when it comes to quality. My books are in three languages, the three I read most easily, German, English and French, though I have a small brace of Russian books here. As I type that last sentence, I am left to wonder whether I have written this prose piece before, whether I have forgotten that I wrote it, whether my life or my memory of it which, ultimately, is the same thing, have folded in on each other again. My memory is notoriously bad. I write about books here so as not to forget. Between the ages of 14 and 25 I had read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” more than 6 times, as somehow, the previous readings had left no permanent imprint in my brain – and I was delighted again, every time. Sometimes I have a memory of some text or voice and it sits in some recess of my brain like an angry, cornered rat, attacking my present thinking. That is another reason to keep all these books around; I can get up and pick books off the shelves until I find the text whose ghostly memory haunted whatever I was presently reading. But primarily, these books are not about the present or the past – they are about the folds of future possibilities. These malignant plants that have taken over all the walls in this apartment and some of the floors and night stands and window sills they are the texts and books that I might read in whatever time I have left remaining. So I write and write and write, a poem or an essay per day and I read from these books, these walls of paper and how could I ever switch to ebooks: my life is here, printed and bound and sorted onto shelves. It cannot be deleted with a push of a button and neither can I. Like a cockroach, i stick around.

Jakob Nolte: Schreckliche Gewalten

Nolte, Jakob (2017), Schreckliche Gewalten, Matthes & Seitz
ISBN 978-3-95757-400-8

So I complain about translation a lot here, and if you’re following this blog, I’m sure you’re a little bit tired of it, but among the whining about infidelity, and cheating the reader etc. there is another effect that is a bit underrated. Jakob Nolte’s subpar but interesting sophomore novel Schreckliche Gewalten is a good example of that. Here’s the thing: I love Thomas Pynchon’s work to a frankly upsetting degree, but his work suffers from the same problem that other Americans also have in German translation. It’s depth of style. Somehow, in the 1960s, German translators decided that in order to give German audiences a real feeling of “Americanness” in style, there had to be a certain ease of style too, a certain “Americanness,” if you will. Which leads to some writers like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth to read much less stylistically complex than they do in English. I’m not here to debate the literary value of Bellow or Roth, but, missteps aside, it’s inarguable that they were, on a sentence by sentence level, quite excellent prose writers. They don’t read like that in German, on a sentence by sentence level. And postmodern writers like Barth and Pynchon fared even worse. Pynchon can be quite a knotty writer of prose, and for a long time, translations did not reflect the complexities of his style. But generation on generation of writers grew up on his books in translation. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, was translated by none other than Elfriede Jelinek – Pynchon’s books had the imprimatur of literary royalty, whatever the details of style. But if you are a young man whose literary proclivities lead him down the path of postmodernity, there’s a chance you won’t just have structural debts to the writers that inspired you – you’ll also have stylistic debts. And while Jakob Nolte is clearly a well read author who very clearly has a solid command of English, the most striking thought I had while reading his novel was – how it read like a poor man’s Pynchon in terms of structure, but nothing in any way like Pynchon in terms of style – and honestly, I think I blame translation for this.

But to get to the actual book at hand. Schreckliche Gewalten did very well when it came out, it was longlisted for the German Book Award, and, given the slightness of the text he read, it was likely on the strengths of the novel that Nolte was invited to the Bachmannpreis this year. And I will be honest – I did not go into the book wanting to like it. The first pages were such a drag, after the explosive early events that I dreaded reading the whole thing. But I did – and it wasn’t such an awful torture. It never improves regarding the quality of its prose, but Nolte does a few very interesting things with – not structure per se, but the way he sequences narrative passages. He moves in and out of pastiche, half the text is metafiction, the other half mixes other kinds of narrative. There’s a fascinating energy in this novel, and this may sound strange but while I don’t know that I would recommend the actual novel to anyone, I strongly recommend a translator have a look at the text and consider translating it. There is something captivating about Nolte’s book, its turns and twist keep you engaged as a reader – and while I advocate fidelity in translation, a less ethical translator could shift the quality of Nolte’s prose a bit upwards and the result would be an absolutely solid book. Honestly, Schreckliche Gewalten is quite a ride, a messy book, but I do enjoy messy books, this just isn’t, au fond, very good. In many ways, this is “precociously brilliant young man” territory, flirting with the so called polymath novelists like the late David Foster Wallace or the great Joshua Cohen. But both Cohen’s and DFW’s prose is excellent – and Nolte’s isn’t, which keeps bringing me back, like a bad-taste boomerang, to the first paragraph. What’s more, the prose is so low-key that despite the plethora of voices and quotes and paraphrases populating the novel, there’s a sense of a single specific voice behind the text – and it’s like that dude at the party who needs to explain to you why Star Trek: TNG was the best Star Trek and why Star Trek Discovery isn’t a real Star Trek show, and then he explains to you why The Wire was the pinnacle of prestige TV and why Elon Musk is right about [fill in any social issue]. That dude, you know, who begins most of his sentences with “well, actually” and appears to know a lot, but it’s mostly surface level sub-wikipedia chatter, with blind spots that you can attribute to specific bias fairly easily.

I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I should first say what the book is about: a mother turns into a werewolf, eats the father. She tells her children that once a generation, a gene carrying this disorder activates. So that would mean one of the children is doomed – except they are twins. They then deal differently with the issue – the sister stays at home while the brother travels abroad. In the end – sorry for spoiling you, both turn. My primary association was with Tournier’s masterful Les Météores (incidentally, how did the academy hand out TWO Nobel Prizes to French novelists while Tournier was alive and did not give one to him?) – but Nolte has less interest in the human condition. For Nolte, everything has a metafictional tie to narratology or typology. But he doesn’t stop there in his structuring – his twins, a boy and a girl – are separated on a gendered basis. There’s a good and a bad reason for that. The good reason is a discoursive one. It allows him to discuss feminism, by having the girl become part of a radical feminist group, and be engaged in mild acts of domestic terrorism, before getting caught up in other parts of 1970s radicalism and upping the ante. The boy meanwhile travels to Afghanistan, following typical male narratives of adventuring. While both children are sexually active, this, too follows typical patterns. There is a metadiscursive, critical element here – the gendered structure reflects and spotlights the gendered narratives that so many of the texts the book is built of are filled with. At the same time, Nolte keeps on doing this page after page, chapter after chapter to the point where you’re wondering how critical this is. He invents a female killer who is out to kill the mother, but instead begins an affair with the female twin. He writes sex scenes that are badly written porn manuscripts, and then “flips” them to show us clichés embedded in them, but these “flips” which he does a few times are so ineffective, and so transparently “clever” in a self satisfied way that they begin to grate.

Everything about the novel begins to grate at some point. There is a clever use of ethnicity, and a similar narratological use of problematic discourses on race and imperialism, but after a hundred pages of the same patterns repeating again and again, one tires of this too, and becomes maybe a tad suspicious of this blonde white young man who revels in his amusing games with fictionality and race. Particularly since he’s such a bad writer. There’s another thing. Pynchon’s best books are not just written in a dense, erudite prose, they are also endlessly inventive. Of the 350 pages here, Nolte manages to keep about 150 at a greater pace. Those 150 pages, in the middle, are where the book is most entertaining – he switches perspectives suddenly, moves in and out of characters and narratives, explains historical or invented literary facts, with just the tiniest hint of Vilas-Matas to make it just enjoyable enough – but he takes a bit to get going and runs out of steam towards the end. Everything, truly everything about this book screams “debut novel by precocious 19 year old Wunderkind novelist” – but while he’s young (*1988), he’s not that young, and this is not his debut.

And if he’s not a 19 year old Wunderkind novelist with his debut novel – what is this? My gut feeling early in the book that never really left me blames German translations of and reception of writers like Pynchon, DFW or Barthelme. This is what happens if an influential book or writer is only partially presented to their readers – as a maker of plots, say. I am sure that some of the influence of Dostoevsky, whose uneven, rough style is not always translated accurately as uneven and rough (again, German translations may be among the worst) can be charted similarly. I have also wondered whether the way Japanese and Latin American writers of late postmodernist periods have been translated into English has shaped certain stylistic pecularities of very literary young contemporary writers. But that’s only tangentially related to Schreckliche Gewalten. The book is too enjoyable in the middle to be really bad. But nobody in their right mind would call it good. At best, in its best moments, it is an interesting mess. At its worst, it is boring and boorish. Those two sides of it are not well balanced – which, in a novel about twins is, possibly, its own metafictional commentary. It doesn’t improve the book, however.

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#tddl: the winner is…

On Sunday, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. Yes, that’s right, I’m a bit late. Sue me.

If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened over the three days of readings – and I recommend you do take a gander – here is my summary of Day One., a day about whiteness and the blindness of writers and judges in the face of it. Here is my summary of Day Two, a day mostly about mediocrity and the praise it can elicit if it is narrowly tailored to MFA standards (in this country: Literaturinstitut (see this review). And finally, here is my summary of Day Three, a day which saw the competition’s best text by a country mile, and one of its worst and if you’re still completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about this year’s event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.

The five winners

So on Sunday, the venerable judges voted in a dramatic fashion. The day was full of surprises. You know what wasn’t a surprise? That the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunifaction history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. It didn’t even come in second, not until Bjerg’s MFA-by-numbers meditation on fatherhood and sad white men had its place in the spotlight.. Last year’s decision to sideline the politically interesting texts for Schmalz’s solid, but politically empty monologue was, as it turned out, a sign O’ the times. At least this year’s winner, Tanja Maljartschuk’s text, was very good, and sharp enough in focus and moral clarity, likely the second best text in a field that was, overall, stronger than last year’s.

Indeed, of the five texts I personally considered best, my three favorite texts also won three awards. Only Corinna T. Sievers, whose sharp text about womanhood, sex and the struggles of addiction confounded the judges, and Ally Klein, whose text about anxiety and panic attacks, a text which I would not have properly understood without help myself, went unrewarded.

The five writers as I would have liked them to win

Dündar did win an award – the third place Kelag award. And Raphaela Edelbauer won an audience award. Regrettably, the second and fourth place awards went to Bov Bjerg and Anna Stern respectively. I want to talk about these for a moment: most observers of the voting that led to Anna Stern award saw judges changing their vote, voting tactically – because here’s what almost happened: Joshua Groß’s bad text almost won, because Klaus Kastberger suffered some kind of mental breakdown and kept throwing his hat in the ring for Groß’s text which was politically and literarily dubious.

It was stunnning. I could not believe it – but in the end the explanation is simple enough. Despite women winning the majority of this year’s awards, the structure of the Bachmannpreis favors men. The reason women did well this year (unlike last year, for example) is that Edelbauer, Dündar and Tanja Maljartschuk have written texts that are generally considered among the best texts, across the board. Nobody could have excluded those three texts from awards. But that a mediocre writer of MFA or Literaturinstitut pabulum like Bov Bjerg not only gets praised , but also takes home an award at least three women would have deserved more, is a sign of a certain tolerance of white male mediocrity – or rather, a certain critical appreciation for a tone and style of writing, a nonchalant irrelevance.

Indeed, Kastberger compounded his sad performance when he praised Bjerg as one of the most relevant German writers of our time – which, if true, is a horrible indictment of contemporary German literature. Honestly, I don’t think it’s true, but it’s instructive that this is where Kastberger’s brain went, this is his category for Bjerg – and maybe that also explains his support for Joshua Groß. Important Male Novelist – a category he leaped to defend.

There’s another little nugget that turned up in the award’s aftermath: Anselm Neft, whose text used slurs and appropriated the voice of a socially weaker person with a language of cliché and stereotype that aimed for effect rather than depth, went on a Facebook rant about a critical voice on Twitter. He defended his use of that language and slurs and assembled a crowd of angry Germans who agreed with him. That crowd contained almost every signifcant participant in the #tddl-discussion on Twitter, plus some of the judges. Everybody agreed that it should be fine to use slurs against Roma and stupid, biased or cowardly to complain about this minor matter. Interestingly, among his supporters appear to be people involved in running the award: in the comments, he noted that someone had told him that he had only barely lost out on the audience voting, which Raphaela Edelbauer had ended up winning.

The whole sorry affair both underlined why texts like Dündar’s that critically interrogate German narratives have a steep hill to climb to win an award like this one, and why writers like Neft and Bjerg will for the foreseeable future have a shortcut to such honors. There’s no topic like the vague sadness of adult white men to win awards. That’s been true for decades, and at least on the basis of this year’s TDDL, it still appears to be true.

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