#TDDL: a summary. Part 2: The Good

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, yesterday the awards were voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

I split my summary into three parts: the writers I did not like, or didn’t like enough, my favorites, and then a third about the actual results. Here is part 1: The Bad, which you should read first.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert

Laura Freudenthaler

Egon Christian Leitner

Lydia Haider

Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

In the first summary I grouped the writers by similarities rather than by chronological order or preference. I would like to continue doing it here, and there are two obvious groups. The odd woman out is Laura Freudenthaler. I’ll begin with an admission: I listened to the story and was bored, looked at the text and was a bit nonplussed by some elements of the style and was ready to dismiss it, until one of the readers I value most suggested I have another look (because of that reader I had another look at Lisa Krusche too, but that did not help. More on Lisa Krusche at the very end of Part 1). And I was wrong. Freudenthaler’s story is an extraordinary achievement. Structurally it moves like a melody, with a devastating, literally explosive ending – and it’s a testament to her skill that a big, devastating, fiery end, after only 8 pages of story, feels earned, and not like a gimmick. Freudenthaler, like Ally Klein at TDDL 2018, does a remarkable job of making anxiety feel real. Moreover, she excels at using real scientific facts about the developments of peat fires or other phenomena of spontaneous underground combustion organically, as a way to illuminate the knowledge we have about her story. As a writer, Freudenthaler has a knack for the curious detail – like the sound of a burning fire, sucking in oxygen, and its similarity to the sound of an asthmatic person having an attack. Freudenthaler connects insides and outsides, a personal violent episode leads us into the story and a massive conflagration leads us out. It touches on political concerns, but indirectly, trusting the protagonist’s anxiety to carry us over.

Much more overtly political are Egon Christian Leitner and Lydia Haider. Both of them extraordinarily Austrian in their talk and both of them explicitly, directly and forthrightly political. Neither of them really helped their texts by reading them aloud. Egon Christian Leitner has a large body of work of largely fragmentary or rather: episodic prose about life on the margins. Unlike exploitative texts, like Bachmann participants Neft and Schutti, Leitner is always empathetic and clear about his own speaking position. The language evades simple emotive tendencies, it doesn’t try to manipulate the reader, it grounds marginalized people in the details of their own realities. Despite the clarity of the language, it’s not plain or journalistic, instead Leitner’s tone is deliberate and clean. His reading, regrettably, was offered in a monotone that emphasized some of the structural repetitions, but undersold his skills at deploying sarcasm and other forms of pointed humor. Leitner stood out, and is one of my favorites because his work felt genuinely unique – not filled with the phraseology of Bachmanntexts past, or leaning on the imagery of 1990s fiction or nonfiction, it felt almost sui generis, though particularly 1970s Austrian literature can offer further examples of work written in Leitner’s style. A similar mixture of sui generis with echoes of brilliant texts in the Austrian tradition is found in Lydia Haider’s text. Where Leitner’s text was dominated by the reasoned speaker’s voice, Haider’s story teems with voices. A text about contemporary politics, violence and right wing rhetoric, it borrows from a completely different Austrian tradition, most famously Jelinek, whose later novels and plays interrogate the violence inherent in common and popular phrases. I will admit, I am not as well read in other examples of that tradition. At the end of her presentation, Haider reads from a copy of plays by Werner Schwab, furnishing us further venues of reference and interpretation. The text is dense, and Haider’s intensely dramatic reading regrettably covered up its details – revisiting it quietly, its well-turned language reveals a skilled writer, with an urgency that’s equal part literary and political. Much of it is flashy, clearly, but the unusual language, the thoughtful engagement with a tradition, and the examination of contemporary issues lift it beyond all the texts discussed in the previous section. Both Leitner and Haider’s texts are unthinkable without assuming that these writers see themselves, as Otoo noted, as citizens as well as writers, and they present us also with an answer to some of the lazy reactions to Otoo’s speech, such as irritated (and irritating) complaint, Otoo were expecting us to learn a bibliography before or instead of engaging with the issues. What Otoo did instead, with several examples early in her speech, is ask for a literature that’s thought- and careful, that considers questions of solidarity, and that brings empathy to not just its characters, but its readers, as well. The jury could have noted any of that or other links to Otoo’s speech, which would have been especially apropos in Leitner’s case, but they decided to ignore it instead.

And finally, my favorite writer of the competition – she was my favorite before everything started and consistently my pick to win it all: Helga Schubert. Helga Schubert and Hanna Herbst presented texts about parents, and they did so one after the other. Of all the writers in this post, Hanna Herbst is the weakest, and on the level of writing, she does not reach some of Lisa Krusche’s heights. At the same time, her texts also do not evince some of the downsides to Krusche’s text. Herbst is not, as far as I can tell, primarily a literary writer – and this text, though it may become part of something larger, feels specific to a moment. Herbst’s text is gimmicky – a remembrance of a father that’s filled with small bits and bobs, frequently unpleasantly precious. If you’ll think of the music of Belle & Sebastian, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Silvain Chomet, you can guess at the tone. Through it all, the text, however, retains a genuine, a moving core, and unlike other texts in the previous section, never reproduces racism. In fact, it’s the rare text that feels carefully crafted even though it’s sometimes overrun with unexamined common phraseology. There’s a sense of a kind of writing that came out of creative writing departments in the early 2000s, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers. One episode had the father ask his daughter to bring her three favorite books to him, only to burn them without explanation, a story that Hanna Herbst manages to invest with a sense of connection and mystery – everything seems polyvalent, resonating with different energies, a good text. Its biggest disadvantage was to be presented immediately after Helga Schubert gave us a story about remembering a mother. Schubert’s text swings wildly, it can be tender, cruel, warm, violent, personal, political – it’s a rich text by a writer who has been ignored by the literary establishment for a long, long time. A psychoanalyst by training, the prose she published in the 1980s is at times staggering in its use of economy. The story “Schöne Reise,” collected in the collection of the same name, reads like Carver after Lish was through with him. And Schubert preserved this quality. Politically, Schubert had always been complicated, I recommend reading a conversation she had with Rita Süssmuth, published as Gehen die Frauen in die Knie? in 1990, where Schubert evades expectations of feminist assumptions, harshly critical of GDR society and politics. The politics of the story she presented at TDDL were similarly complicated, but ultimately overshadowed by the portrait of a difficult mother – a mother who tells her daughter on her dying bed that she wasn’t wanted, and that she wants acknowledgment for giving birth to her despite that. It’s part of the power of Schubert’s story, that she ends up outside of the hospital, giving her mother that gratitude, without rancor, or damaging resentment. And though it’s tempting to retell bits and pieces of the story which can move the attentive reader to tears, what truly sets it apart is Schubert’s stylistic sharpness. Take sentence length for example – the normal sentence here is short, but not remarkably so; yet when she expands her sentences, they immediately fill up with detail and direction. Strangely, the story never feels like Schubert had to fight to get it into this shape – she’s just this skilled. I feel obligated to state that the story is not as good as some of the 1980s work, but it’s more generous and expansive than that work.

My next post discusses the actual awards (spoiler: I’m not unhappy).

#TDDL: a summary. Part 1: The Bad

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage – and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, today the awards are voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

And boy did we have some readings. There were no truly excellent texts on the first day, balanced out by some odd walks on the Caucasian side, and then there were two to three spectacular readings on the second day, and a solid third day. I’m not going to go through them chronologically, so as not to needlessly repeat myself. Writing about everything at once allows me to be slightly less vitriolic than I usually am – seeing the arc of a year’s crop of invitations is intriguing.

One of the most significant developments was the dialogue that the texts had with Sharon Dodua Otoo’s speech that introduced the events. Otoo’s speech very calmly discussed the role of race in German literature – she spoke clearly and eloquently about solidarity, lived experience, about the room to write yourself in a white society when you’re Black, when you’re Othered, by readers, publishers, other authors. What does representation mean to Black artists? The most urgent question, regarding this year’s competition, surfaces early in the speech: do some white writers write the way they do because they imagine their readership exclusively white? What are the expectations regarding literary “speech” – Otoo cites Chinua Achebe, who declared that “writers are not only writers, they are also citizens.”

And so to these three days of readings, with one (1) writer with Egyptian roots and one (1) writer with Kosovan roots, and everybody else with less complex backgrounds. How did these writers rise to the challenge of being “not only writers, [but] also citizens?” Poorly, for the most part.

I’m splitting the post into the writers I did not like, on the one hand, and a second post about my favorites, and then a third about the actual results.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert
Laura Freudenthaler
Egon Christian Leitner
Lydia Haider
Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

This post, however, is about the others.

Let’s begin with the interesting, inoffensive, but banal – Meral Kureyshi and Jasmin Ramadan offered light texts that were written with skill and invested with some intriguing energy, but fell flat, ultimately. Both concerned with questions of gender, they differed in tone – Kureyshi read us a soft, pensive monologue about a woman’s love life. There isn’t one bad sentence in the whole story, on the contrary, it contains several striking observations and comments, but it lacks, ultimately, something to draw the reader through it. The opposite is true for Jasmin Ramadan. Author of several novels, her story is punchy – a sharp look at modern gender dynamics, written in a light, quick style, which, for this kind of award and environment, was a bit too light. Acknowledging the difficulties of calling something “literary” without qualifying the precariousness of that judgment, this text still fell short of what is considered literary, at least in this context. And there are certainly questions here, questions I would have liked the judges to ask, about representation of female writing, and of writers of color, and what the limits of our idea of literary writing mean for this kind of writer, particularly because Ramadan consistently works with the most fascinating notions of representation in her literary work. Hers was the first text, and a fantastic opportunity to tie a discussion of the text into the Rede zur Literatur, which supposedly frames the whole week. Spoiler alert: the judges did not refer back to Otoo’s speech a single time. Not that first day, nor any day thereafter. Not surprised, but still disappointed. It feels off, slotting Kureyshi and Ramadan somewhere into the middle of the field, but it is what it is.

Similarly in the middle, but for entirely different reasons, is another pair of writers, Jörg Piringer and Levin Westermann. Every year, there’s at least one poet – and it is remarkably often that poet who wins an award. Nora Gomringer won the main award, for example. Poets writing prose can be exciting. Unexpectedly, this year, we were offered poets writing poetry. And not just text that is written in short lines. In their readings, both Piringer and Westermann emphasized the structural qualities of poetry. Jörg Piringer offered a history of our current reality, connected to a metaphor from martial arts. He worked in free rhythms, but scrupulously emphasized the ends of lines, forming the poem as much orally as he did on the page. The reading was more rhythmic than the writing – a veteran of the digital poetry scene, indeed, often considered a pioneer, Piringer’s reading was impressively sharp, powerful enough to make readers read past many of the less than sharp observations of history and the present. The martial arts metaphor sits uncomfortably in the middle of a text which does not in any way reflect on the patriarchal nature of historiography, written for an implied audience that does not particularly need that kind of reflection: white, tech-savvy men. The masculine obsession with martial arts fits this pattern too well, not to mention the pronounced performance of the whole text. Still, until I reread Lydia Haider’s remarkable text quietly tonight, I considered Piringer’s poem one of the four best texts of the competition. I was never in danger of considering Levin Westermann’s text one of those. Westermann is an accomplished, widely published poet – and in his text, he shows himself to also be widely read. An early quote from a Matthew Zapruder poem cannot but make us think of Zapruder’s recent, mildly controversial book Why Poetry, a defense of poetry, which may as well serve as an explanation of why Westermann offered up this text. Other writers cited in the text include Rilke, Dillard and Jorie Graham. The text itself consists of rhythmic but irregularly metered and highly irregularly rhymed lines, making strong use of repetition and other kinds of form to produce a formally dense text, which has next to nothing to say that cannot be found in Zapruder’s text. The occasional political notes struck are bland, and drown in the incessant formal games that Westermann, unlike some late Graham, never convincingly connects to something that matters. The effect is strangely masturbatory, a display (sound, fury etc.).

Speaking of masturbatory – male writers tend to come to Klagenfurt with texts celebrating, well, themselves, in one way or another, and it’s never the stylistically brilliant ones either. Last year, an award was handed out to a navel-gazing story of a writer writing about his day walking through his city, picking up groceries (details may vary), having a series of extremely minor epiphanies, presented in the flattest prose imaginable. And the streak continues, unabated, with the next pair. Leonard Hieronymi and Matthias Senkel offered badly written stories that were largely pointless literary exercises with the sole purpose of centering the writers in question, though, superficially, their stories appear to be different. Matthias Senkel presented a story about a mystery, about an archaeological dig, written like a mosaic, composed of sections set in different periods. It tries to use scientific vocabulary to make the story discursively complex, with notes of Richard Powers and similar writers, but he entirely lacks a broader view or any sense of style. His is not the worst written story of the competition, but it’s also not too far off. His goal is one of faking layers of complexity to catfish readers into overlooking the blandness of the actual writing on the page. Some of the dialogue is downright risible, the information in the story closer to wiki-sourced infodumps than to well-digested and productively used knowledge, and the various attempts to play or toy with the reader a transparent ploy to engage in dialogue with a very specific (white, male) readership, which is curiously popular in German literature, as attested to by the popularity of the Barons of Blandness Thomas Glavinic and Georg Klein, both of whom have made a career of papering over poor writing with various kinds of metafictional games, in the case of Glavinic with some additional limp masculinity. Speaking of which: Leonard Hieronymi entered a story into the competition that read like a carbon copy of the travel stories written by Christian Kracht and friends in the earlyy and mid-1990s. It’s almost not worth discussing. Hieronymi, member of a group called “The Rich Kids of Literature” (it’s an English-language title, because of course it is), writes about getting horribly drunk, then taking a trip to the Romanian city of Constanta by the Black Sea, meeting famed Romanian poet Mircea Dinescu. There, he evokes Ovid and his exile, which he wrote about in the beautiful Tristia. In between all this he offers observations of Romania that switch between the banal and the offensive, and in the end he returns, having learned nothing. The expectations inscribed in books like this, the sense of who writes, who reads and who gets written about is stark, but at least, let me say that, Hieronymi comes close to making his politics explicit.

That’s not true for the next group of writers, Katja Schönherr, Lisa Krusche and Carolina Schutti. Let me start with Schutti, because I have very little to say about her story that I hadn’t said about her novels before. To quote my pre-Bachmann review:

Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page.

And

these books are… specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking.

I also note the sense of exploitation of marginality. All of this is exactly true for the story she presented. Tone, style, exploitation, all there. Again, someone on the margins, again, someone struggling with language. And like other Bachmann-writers in previous years, for example Stephan Lohse, she doesn’t shy away from indirectly using Blackness as a way to feed and expand her already dubious narratives of marginality. Her protagonist, in a moment of crisis, sees a documentary about Africa on TV, exclaiming “Ich bin in Afrika.” Schutti’s text is a paint-by-numbers Klagenfurt text, in the worst way. Her books sound like they should be read at TDDL, so did her story, which she read exactly this way, and she uses the same tropes of marginality to elevate her text into a borrowed relevancy. At least, one is tempted to say, Katja Schönherr’s protagonist isn’t marginalized. Just a regular white female character. But Schönherr also, almost aggressively, makes it clear that she has a very specific implicit audience. I’ll admit, it’s bad luck that her story came out when we are all so much more aware of the necessity of elevating marginalized voices, when people march to protest the disregard for Black and trans lives. Let me tell you what Schönherr’s story is about in the least judgy vocabulary: a (white) woman goes to the Zoo with husband and daughter, struggling with her life, worried she might die (she’s not ill). She sees an orangutan who picks up a sign (we are never told which) and holds it up. A conversation between various onlookers ensues, as they debate whether the apparent demonstration by the ape is right-, or leftwing, or neutral. Complaints arise that the demonstration isn’t narrowly tailored to ape-relevant concerns, and the protagonist slowly comes around to feeling solidarity with the orangutan, who, she feels, should be allowed to have its say. After the sign is abandoned, she acquires orangutan costumes and goes to the zoo with her daughter, costume-clad, with the sign, to continue the protest, until she gets kicked out. To cite Otoo, as the judges have conspicuously not done: who is this for? Who is this about? Who is included, who is not? If every writer is a citizen, and if we are to look at who the writer’s empathy is for, how do we read texts like Schönherr’s? Using the figure of public protest merely as a mirror for a white woman’s ennui and an a fear of death is deeply strange and unpleasant – and shows a profound disengagement with the reasons for such public protests, not to mention other…issues with the story. Similar problems of disengagement are displayed in the text by Lisa Krusche. Of the three in this final group, it is by far the most well written. I admit, I had to read it multiple times to engage with the tone and the writing, but there you are. That said, her story about disaffected youth, a sense of connection with an environment that in Krusche’s pen turns even the inorganic organic, and virtual spaces suffers from the exact same problem as Schönherr’s story. The same questions apply – though she masks it better than Schönherr’s plain offering. The central theoretical text for Krusche’s story is Donna Haraway’s late-career book Staying with the Trouble, in which Haraway completes a disengagement with real, tangible change, with a connection to intersectional feminist issues, in favor of a loose examination of kinship and inter-species solidarity that was a long time coming in her work. This excellent essay by Sophie Lewis explains in detail where the problems with Haraway’s book are. Krusche’s story would have been tonally off in any year of the competition, but it sounds a particularly discordant tone this year, particularly. It’s not just that the police as an institution is noted and dismissed as “maybe inherently humorous,” which, I have no words. The use of virtual spaces in narratives is especially fraught. There are copious essays noting why texts like Ready Player Go are structurally racist, and what the imagination of whiteness in virtual spaces really means. Afrofuturism has offered much pushback to these imagined spaces, and clarified why there are no real neutral visions of the future. Krusche does not engage any of these questions and offers, at the end, a general pessimism, a view of revolution that is colorblind in the worst way. It’s an unpleasant text, masked by a sometimes stunningly beautiful sense of reality, borrowed straight from JG Ballard’s unpleasant dystopias of white distress. Sophie Lewis makes it abundantly clear that Haraway’s avoidance of empathetic solutions to patriarchal and racist violence (in fact, she specifically reproduces racism in the book) isn’t a byproduct, but an essential structural component of elevating oddkins and “kinnovations” over families and the masses of humans. The same is true, though less focused, of Lisa Krusche’s text. To connect the text to Sharon Otoo’s speech: who is its audience? Who do we have empathy for? Krusche’s text is about whiteness in multiple problematic ways. Nam Le, in his sticky book-length essay on David Malouf, notes the role of the bush, the untamed wilderness, in the imagination of colonial settler writing. He writes that for immigrants, “whiteness is our bush” – for Lisa Krusche, the old oppositions are active. The bush is still the bush, dystopian, wild, decaying. The contrast even to writers like Vandermeer, with all his flaws, is instructive. A text inspired by a past that we should be learning to read critically instead.

More on the writers I wanted to win in the next post.

 

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2020 edition.

If you follow me on twitter,you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.

I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. Here are some anticipatory remarks from earlier in the week.

So what is happening?

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

This year there’s a Coronavirus-related shift online. Only the moderator is in Klagenfurt, Austria. Everybody else joins via video. The readings are pre-recorded, while the judging happens on live video. Since everything is on a three-ish second delay, this might get messy.

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you are fortunate – you can now purchase it in a bilingual edition here and I *urge* you to get a copy. Incidentally, the German judges were still slightly upset about Otoo’s win the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win, but she did win second place. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury. So of course, 2019 went even worse. None of the adjudicated awards went to someone challenging the order of things. Here is my summary from 2019. It was depressing.

So what’s happening this year?

Somehow, the organizers came up with a brilliant idea. Each year, a writer introduces the events with a so-called “Rede zur Literatur” – a State of the Literature speech. This year, they gave Sharon Dodua Otoo the reins, who delivered a brilliant speech on Wednesday night (read/see it here) that managed to be trenchant and measured and relevant all at the same time. She ended it by mentioning some important Black German writers – none of whom have been invited this year, or last year, or the year before. Because of course not.

As for this year’s field – it’s…interesting. Not for diversity reasons, that’s still clearly off the table – except for Jasmin Ramadan, a writer with Egyptian roots, and Meral Kureyshi, born in Prizren, it’s as white as you’d think. That said, there are two writers this year who count among classic writers in their or any field. Most important: Helga Schubert. Schubert has been an important writer for all my life. She wrote a bona fide classic nonfiction book about female complicity in the Third Reich, the still-powerful Judasfrauen. She also writes short stories which are so unbelievably well made, I cannot help but have the highest expectations for this year. The other is Jörg Piringer, who is an important figure in early digital poetry. I have written reviews of the work of Meral Kureyshi (which is good) and Carolina Schutti (which is not), linked below.

I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots.

Thursday
10.00 Uhr Jasmin Ramadan
11.00 Uhr Lisa Krusche
12.00 Uhr Leonhard Hieronymi
13.30 Uhr Carolina Schutti
14.30 Uhr Jörg Piringer
Friday
10.00 Uhr Helga Schubert
11.00 Uhr Hanna Herbst
12.00 Uhr Egon Christian Leitner
13.30 Uhr Matthias Senkel
14.30 Uhr Levin Westermann
Saturday
10.00 Uhr Lydia Haider
11.00 Uhr Laura Freudenthaler
12.30 Uhr Katja Schönherr
13.30 Uhr Meral Kureyshi

 

 

 

#TDDL 2020 – some anticipatory remarks

This is less like a full post and more a note – I know this blog has been mostly dormant these past weeks, but the annual deluge of posts regarding the Bachmannpreis is about to hit the blog. The Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (TDDL – the days of german-language literature) are about to begin.

This year is different in multiple ways. Due to Coronavirus, the event is largely online – there is no audience, and the writers and judges are not crammed into a sweaty tent in Klagenfurt this year.

Another change – each year the readings are inaugurated by a longer speech, the Rede zur Literatur. Last year, we were offered a narratological note involving Wrestling metaphors. That year’s speaker was Clemens Setz. This year’s speaker is Sharon Dodua Otoo. You know what I think about her. There was always heightened significance to her choice, particularly given the extraordinarily privilege-blind judgments in the past several years, which increasingly sidelined interesting and/or non-white writers in favor of an insular view of what good and praiseworthy literature can and should be. Here’s my commentary on last year’s results.

So giving Sharon Otoo the reins to, in a way, define the framework for this year’s discussion, was always going to be interesting and necessary, particularly given some of the publicly uttered resentment towards her. However, if anything, this year’s long overdue discussions of the role of race in policing, public policy and health care, not just in the US, but also in Germany and Austria, have further emphasized the pivotal role of this year’s speaker. The field of writers (more on that Wednesday-ish) this year is barely more diverse than last year’s, with some really dubious choices, politically and literarily.

At the same time, in publishing, some truly amazing books have come out (or are about to come out) which challenge the narrow idea of literature propagated by the #tddl judges. Cemile Sahin’s Taxi and Olivia Wenzel’s 1000 Serpentinen Angst, for example, are two of the best German-language debuts to come out in years and years, and books like Deniz Ohde’s Streulicht are on the horizon.

Who knows, maybe this is the year when the Bachmannpreis judges truly reckon with the diverse realities of writing and living in Germany, and do not retire to their bleached, boring, insular view of literature and culture.

A Darwinian-Ovidian Tale

“There are four young friends wandering about in an underground world full of the debris of the past. One of the young people is called Donatello. The story involves a delivery to an unknown address. It is centered on a father figure. What is the text? Both the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Marble Faun. (…) Like the film, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel (…) is a Darwinian-Ovidian tale of a creature halfway between man and animal”

– Barbara Johnson

#tddl: the winner is…privilege?

So, man what a bummer this day was. Yesterday I wrote “what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.”

This absolutely continued in the award voting. In my German language commentary I wrote a 1000 word mini-essay on how these awards exemplify the typical Bachmann-text and I cannot summon the energy to do it a second time. But the main thing to understand is this: there are always typical Bachmann texts, and texts that are different. If your text is good enough, it will make it onto the awards list even if it doesn’t fit the mold.

There was no room for exceptions this year. The special kind of voting leads to every award coming down to a two-text runoff ballot, so for four awards you can have up to 8 texts competing – and since the shortlist (voted on before the beginning of the public awards voting) consists only of 7 texts, you’d assume all texts get a look-in. Not so. Each of the four runoff votes involved Yannic Han Biao Federer’s text, until it won the fourth award. The winner is Birgit Birnbacher’s text – excellent and fitting for Klagenfurt. Leander Fischer’s and Yannic Federer’s catnip won second and fourth place respectively, and Julia Jost won third place. The only other text that made it into the runoff election was, bizarrely, Daniel Heitzler’s absurdly bad story. Although both Sarah Wipauer and Ronya Othmann had made it to the shortlist, neither of which even received runoff consideration, not to mention an award, which is enduringly strange.

It felt like a circling of the wagons around the cultural capital that is amassed by the gatekeepers represented by the Bachmannpreis-jury and the whole unsavoury theoatre surrounding it. “We are important and the texts we like are important” seems to be the message. As all people of privilege in Germany and Europe and the world are circling the wagons, whether it is men, or white people or the financially dominant class, afraid of losing that privilege, this group of critics, professors and academics replicates a process that is happening everywhere, shutting the door hard on difference. But what today’s awards also make clear is that a solid portion of the public is no longer behind them. In this small microcosm, this is represented by the public vote – which went to Ronya Othmann’s important, excellent text, who thus won the fifth, public award. This tension, the closing of doors by the gatekeepers is regrettable, but what’s most remarkable that the two best writers of the competition are two young women, who have not even published one book of prose – and thus represent an exciting future.

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

 

 

 

#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Yannic Han Biao Federer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher, Daniel Heitzler, Tom Kummer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For day one click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

There was a strong sense on Tuesday of what the gatekeepers of culture want to be written and published and what they would rather wasn’t. Yesterday had two excellent texts, Sarah Wipauer’s story, which is clearly top of the class this year, and Julia Jost’s. There was one mediocre story by Andrea Gerster, as well as one badly executed, but interesting story by a very talented writer and then, there was a mess of historical revisionism, with a dose of literary cliché. There was no clear sense, as there often is during Bachmannpreis-competitions of texts that fit a mold and texts that don’t. Day two had it in spades.

The first text was written by Yannic Han Biao Federer, a writer with a perfect biography, who has won several literary awards, and has very quickly become part of the cultural gatekeepers himself with his work at the Literaturhaus Köln. Biographically, he appears to be straght from central casting: academical background. work in journalism, work in cultural institutions, awarded some key prizes, and debut novel with one of the leading literary publishers in Germany. No wonder his story, taking almost no risks, offers such a flat take on personal narrative. There are small metafictional twists, slow, detailed observations, and just enough relevance to save the story from utter blandness. It’s not that Federer’s text is bad – it is not. It reads like a chapter from his novel (review likely forthcoming here) – a consistency which points to strong literary control and skill. The blandness is not accidental: Federer’s story is carefully, and skillfully designed to be bland. One is tempted to read the story and the environment its read in in terms of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, in that the (sub-)field of Bachmannpreis is a very specific field. The judges, as well as the audience consists of people of varied background. Academics, successful writers, journalists, people who have or are working as gatekeepers in various cultural institutions. It’s a big field, but also narrow in that they all share a similar sense of references. They have all read this kind of text before. This is like New Yorker poetry, where, dependent on who is editor of the poetry section, the kind of poetry that gets published almost becomes its own genre which you then can see turn up in all kinds of other journals and places. Reading and rereading Federer’s story, it becomes clear that its very specific kind of dullness – it’s a kind of writing that develops when you write a lot of submissions for places, and have to be aware of word count. There is no description that is wrappped in one, two fitting phrases, it’s all extended to the point of maximum ennui. Despite the author’s Asian heritage, which is also mentioned in the story, there’s also a sense of whiteness about the whole thing – or rather: privilege. This was highlighted by two things: the enormous praise by the judges, and by the next story to be read.

Ronya Othmann was on the mound next and immediately hit us right between the eyes with a fastball. A story that couldn’t be more different. Not drowning in descriptions, she used the names of places and people to carry a lot of the descriptive weight, it is a story about how a young yazidic woman who lives in Germany comes to terms with the genocide committed against her people by the IS. Othmann, trained in an MFA, uses this training to make sharp observations about what temporal and geographic distance means. What language means. How do you speak about something that has never been widely or fairly represented in the media of the languages you use to speak or write. The violence against the Yazidis has often been framed in terms of a broader war against the IS – the complicity of the Turkish government, clearly stated by Othmann, never really plays a role in these narratives. What’s more, there is an obsession with particularized, sexualized violence in the media – what does this mean for a young woman, whose family is only alive due to a quirk of personal history. Without being able to migrate (or having a car), her family would have suffered the same fate as all teh murdered and raped people of her ethnicity who stayed behind. Witnessing survival has a long and harrowing literary history, and has perhaps been best described by Primo Levi. There are many survivors of the Shoah who did not really survive – they stayed alive, until they couldn’t any more. People have been writing about this for decades and it is remarkable and laudable that Othmann found new and fresh literary ways to examine this same issue. She discusses quite specifically the question of how to comprehend the fact that she and her family are alive. Are they alive or have they merely survived? Othmann struggles with the binary language between life and death. It is not an accident that one of the best and clearest books on suicide, which attacks the morally freighted binary of life and death has been written by a survivor of the Shoah, Jean Améry. Whereas Federer’s text turned on a metafictional chuckle of bourgeois life in Cologne, Othmann’s text turned on the question of identity. Othmann uses several layers of writing: there is the typing up of recorded conversations, journal entries, and of real actual travels. The story ends with the narrator seemingly shedding the ambiguity of language, coming up right against questions of reality and speech. A remarkable story – not without flaws, but executed with enormous skill. The first sign that Othmann might be in trouble was the Twitter commentary. The twitterati, among them people with some cultural influence, reacted – oddly. There was a worry (yes, worry) that one would be guilted into…what? praise? attention? I feel that if you read a story about genocide and your primary comment is – “Oh no, I’m being morally blackmailed” – I feel I cannot help you. What is this “blackmail” you speak of? Blackmailed into caring? That’s such a remarkably white statement – and it was sort of echoed by the judges. Hildegard Keller felt she couldn’t properly criticise the text’s deficient grammar with a Yazidi survivor sitting right there. I mean, how dare she just turn up and tell a story that is unpleasant. What happened to the long meandering descriptions of mint-colored walls? I mean, the nerve! Other judges decided to re-open the very well trod paths of debates on witnessing and fiction, on truth and literature. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on the topic. Frankfurt, for example, has a whole frigging professorship dedicated to the topic. What’s the need to re-legislate the topic? I mean literally yesterday, for inexplicable reasons, a judge decided to use Imre Kertesz’s searing work as a comparison for Silvia Tschui’s German nonsense – Imre Kertesz addresses the topic in his work! To be honest, I am not sure it’s plausible NONE of them were aware of this. The longer this discussion went on, the more it seemed like they needed an excuse not to engage with the text. The unwillingness to have a literary discussion about a text, which is written with such excellent literary skill (if anything, one of its flaws is that you can see the MFA training a bit too clearly in it) struck an unpleasant note this fine Friday morning.

The final text this morning combined two things: being palatable to the judges and exquisitely written. A absurdist-but-relatable story about a woman who’s relatively poor, struggles with a life that is less than she and others hoped for. She takes smaller jobs to not preclude the possibility of writing A Novel, but what sounds like depression, family struggles and other issues prevent her from giving her life a shape that she would be satisfied with. It’s a ramshackle, unfinished, unformed life, like many people still lead it today. Suddenly, a cabinet appears mysteriously. Birgit Birnbacher, already one novel under her belt, writes this story with enormous skill – it is much funnier than I made it seem, it is cleverly structured, addressing racial, gender and other concerns, even metaphysical ones, without ever having to strain. It’s not quite as flawless as Wipauer’s tale, but that’s in part because where Wipauer sticks the landing perfectly, Birnbacher stumbles in the last sentence. If this was a poem, every reader would tell her to just strike it and be done with the whole thing. That seems like a minor flaw in a major, excellent story, and it is. Birnbacher joins Wipauer and Othmann among the favorites to win it all. The judges, meanwhile, agreed. Praise was unanimous and detailed. There was no sense of “we have a thirty-something woman in front of us, how can we discuss a story about a thirtysomething woman,” meanwhile. One wonders why.

Birnbacher’s story concluded the morning readings and the good portion of the event. The two afternoon readings – hoo boy. The first, a story by Daniel Heitzler, is hard to talk about. I mean you’ve all heard of Poe’s Law, right (definition here) – this was a perfect literary equivalent. On the surface, this is just a very bad story. A very bad story, structured badly, drowning in adjectives and adverbs, mindlessly run through a thesaurus, like that high school essay we’ve all seen (“Students: Stop. Halt. Discontinue. Terminate. Cut it out with all the thesaurused smart-person words in your essays.”). I remember, on a literary forum that I’m not entirely sure still exists, someone once explained to me that Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending wasn’t a cliché-riddled mess, but specifically invoked the clichés involved in talking about death. There was nothing in the text that suggested that, except that forum member’s goodwill. I mean, the books Barnes has published since have disproved that theory, but as an approach, it stuck with me. It’s a literary Poe’s Law: an awful literary text is indistinguishable from a very good parody of an awful literary text, if there’s no wink in the parody. Sometimes the sheer skill involved provides the wink: Robert Coover is probably the best example: his parody and homage to Louis L’Amour-style WEesterns, Ghost Town, or his homage to Noir novels in, uh, Noir, are written with enormous skill. On the “wink” side of things is maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is hilarious. Not his best book, but Barth incorporates winks into the style he parodies. There is nothing, nothing of the sort in Daniel Heitzler’s story. The best we get is a comment in the intoductory video that he’s a fan of American postmodern literature, especially Beat and David Foster Wallace. Sure, nothing bad has happened with young devotees to DFW’s work. Sure. You know I was once at a meeting of the DFW society at a conference where they had a roundtable dedicated to salvaging the bad reputation of DFW’s work, created by his acolytes and the unsavory facts that had come out about DFW’s own misogyny. So faced with a young man, essentially subscribed to a problematic literary tradition, the judges decided that the text could not possibly be this bad – it had to have been done on purpose. i have thought long and hard on the fact that all the judges except one insisted on reading the text this way and I think this goes back to the assumption, shaken by Otoo’s nonchalant interview after her win: “we are smart and important people. A writer wouldn’t dare come here with a text this bad. Ergo, it has to be good.” That this judgment appears to be solely a creation of the subfield of Bachmannpreis thinking becomes clear once you look at the unanimous rejection of the text on Twitter.- there wasn’t a torn opinion. Nobody read the text and thought: oh this is intentional. Personally, I have limited patience for intentionally bad writing anyway. If you make me read ten pages of bad prose that you artfully and cleverly shaped to be this friggin bad, I still have to read ten pages of bad prose. There’s a masturbatory quality to this kind of writing, and let me tell you, I have never seen it practiced by female writers. I feel that says something right there.

I don’t know what to say about the final story that I didn’t already suggest even before he read. Read my original TDDL post for notes on who Tom Kummer is. Kummer is a kind of inverted mirror of Federer, the first guy to read today. Kummer is also a production of gatekeepers’ goodwill, but not by following all the rules and pleasing all the right people. He did it by projecting an image of being “the last Gonzo writer” (snort), a literal quote. The bad boy of literature. He turned up, and read a story in a kind of faux-Clint Eastwood drawl that sounded sleazy and unpleasant. His story, about a limousine driver was unpleasant and bad. For someone, who became infamous faking exciting interviews with celebrities, his dialogue was dragging and boring. The story was entirely without ambiguity or tension. Everything was stated plainly and then, for the people in the back, re-stated. The story is unpleasant start to finish, from some lazy racism to literary and explicit misogyny, as well as the weirdest description of a father caressing the naked body of his child i have ever seen. The protagonist’s dead wife re-appears as an octopus-like monster, the only other woman, an accomplished researcher, is, wait for it, an antifeminist who produces a drug to further male sexual enjoyment, because, no kidding, we have too long been interested only in female lust and pleasure – which, I mean, she has never seen any porn or TV or movies, I assume? Or commercials? I mean, what? And for some reason, this turns the protagonist on to the point of considering sexually assaulting his passenger, a thought that he discards after a long struggle. There are no, zero, zilch redeeming qualities in this story, but its invitation shines a light on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Writing a story about genocide gets the judges to equivocate and stay distant. Writing indirectly about rape, on the other hand, raises no red flags. Tom Kummer and Yannic Federer, each in their own way, offer a take on what privilege means in German-language literary culture.

So it’s a day where two of the competitions two best texts so far get sandwiched by an odd duo. At the end of the day, the four best texts are, in this order. Sarah Wipauer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher and Julia Jost.

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”

#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Katharina Schultens, Sarah Wipauer, Silvia Tschui, Julia Jost, and Andrea Gerster. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Ah, what a day, what a day! Five women, two science fiction stories, murder, Nazis, and divorce proceedings. I’m telling you, things were on fire! Well, maybe not so much on fire as occasionally slightly warm. Tepid maybe? Look, honest to God, a clear favorite emerged today, reading a story without any recognizable flaws, and a runner up turned up as well, also very well executed, mostly, and the rest, well, tbf, there are five slots to fill every day, not everyone can be a winner.

The first reader was Katharina Schultens. Schultens is an exquisite poet, and what’s more, a poet of the kind that should be easily transferable to prose – long, looping sentences, complex rhythms, all of that. What’s more, there is a strong vision behind the text she read. Not everything became clear – it is an excerpt from a novel, but it appears that the text is a Ballardesque vision of a future (it is set two hundred years after 1984) after some ecological collapse. Regrettably, one would have, given the very real ecological threats today, hoped for a more relevant kind of catastrophe, say, speaking of Ballard, something like The Drought; instead her vision veers towards the post-human, with Vandermeeresque landscapes threatening deformed or changed descendants of humanity. She’s not just somewhat apolitical regarding our very real ecological crisis, which is a bit problematic – but in addition, completely (apparently) randomly, she uses the heat of Africa as a metaphor, which seems a bit tone deaf given that any ecological disaster would hit countries in Africa harder than, say, Germany, so if you are steering clear of politics, maybe not lean into the Africa-as-metaphor too much, yes? I mean, it’s white blindness, I suppose. And then there is the confusion and dullness of some of the fiction. Speculative fiction that takes such a big leap needs a proper story telling backbone – which this text, very specifically, does not have. There are great, meaty descriptions of situations and things, and there are rail-thin, meandering sections of what you’d have to call plot? It is very odd, how strong talent and strong vision somehow leads to a mediocre text.

The second reader was Sarah Wipauer. Wipauer’s text, almost irritatingly, has no flaws that I can see. Last year, a hole was discovered in the ISS – seemingly drilled from the inside though it wasn’t clear who drilled it and why – it necessitated an unscheduled spacewalk to plug it from the outside. As far as I can tell, it is still entirely unclear what happened. As a writer, Wipauer is intrigued by space stories, and by the quirks and oddities of small news stories, and she took this event and turned it into a ghost story set in Austria. There’s everything in it that  you could possibly fit – provincial history, medical oddities, and Wipauer appears to be able to manipulate syntax at will to fit the story and the individual voices in it haunting these events. Towards the end the story tightens even further, including social pressures regarding class and gender. There is not one word too much, and the story wraps up beautifully. No matter what the rest of the days bring – this has to be one of the five best texts.

It is with text three that things started going off the rails. The author, Silvia Tschui, appeared to present at first a bucolic story (an excerpt from a novel), written with tight craftsmanship – oh how I was mistaken. It became clear real fast that #1, she pursued a kitsch kind of writing, offering a cliché depiction of a childhood on a farm, with mild doses of violence, lessons, and the kind of dialogues that someone who grew up in the city assumes are spoken in the countryside. So far so dull, but then the story took a bad turn. I mean, excuse me, for not immediately assuming the worst – but it’s true: bucolic clichés have a special function in literature, especially German literature. Farmers are often used to show a nation’s real backbone, and attacks on farmers are the way the political right tends to frame foreigner invasions. In Germany, the so-called conservative revolution was particularly enamored with that figure – the work of Hermann Löns – in particular the 1910 Wehrwolf – was used as inspiration (Löns died in 1914), and many books in the 20s, and particular 30s, repeated and enlarged these motifs. In the early-to-late oughts, German literature added another trope, that of Germans-as-victims. The Germans in today’s Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary fled the approaching Soviet army and often lost everything. Tschui’s text connects the bucolic motif with those revisionist stories of victimization. They are all the rage in German TV shows and movies. In Tschui’s text there are German farm boys scared of an Enemy who is sudden, cruel, mean, and is connected, in the broader narrative of the novel, to a East European mythical figure, that the Germanic boys have been told to be afraid. The (post)colonial aspects of German/Prussian occupation of Poland have not been discussed as broadly as they should have, but this text reads exceptionally exploitative, with an almost archetypical and racialized sense of an Other. As a result, the text was both literarily bland and politically dubious. Did this come across in jury discussions? Except for Hubert Winkels’s fairly clear words, the other judges steered fairly clear of the text’s issues. Honestly, what would you expect?

The afternoon readings were less eventful overall – the first story, a story from the Austrian countryside by Julia Jost, was very well done – mostly. A story about an Austian childhood, with pedophile priests, knives, Nazi heritage and more. The story is written with enormous energy and humor, clearly, CLEARLY the second-best story of the day, magnificent in many ways – though the ending is a bit of a dud – the writer had to tie up all her plot points so it becomes plodding real fast.

And finally, the final story – a banal tale of child custody and motherhood – the story itself isn’t necessarily banal – we are quick to label women’s stories as banal because they don’t conform to masculine hero narratives. And indeed, there are issues in the story here and there that piqued my interest – but the story is told with no literary energy, no skill beyond the routine of a prolific novelist. She needs to get from one end of the story to the other – and by Jove, she will get there. Choice of words seemed almost random in its banality.

On Friday the readers will be

10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.

If you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.

I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. CLICK here if you want to read a summary of Day One.

So what is happening?

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).

So what happened in the past years?

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.

Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury.

So what’s happening this year?

Michael Wiederstein is a bit of a caricature, it seems to me. I noted his invitee Verena Dürr and the dubious discussion of her text back in 2017 (go read it here), and this year he really, REALLY brought his F game. In the most dubious field of writers since I started writing about the award, he made the…ah, just the most exquisitely bad choice of all. His invitee, Tom Kummer is famous. Now and then there’s a famous writer – John Wray is an example. Tom Kummer isn’t famous for being a good writer. Tom Kummer is famous for being a plagiarist. Caught not once, but multiple times. For falsifying interviews first. For cobbling together texts from his own and others’ older texts. For falsifying quotes and using incorrect details. He was given chance after chance after chance.

German and Swiss tastemakers have decreed: this man deserves more chances. He is precious. He is our gonzo hero. The usually very good Philip Theisohn called Kummer’s elegy to his deceased wife – like all of his work of questionable originality – “moving.” What it is, most of all, is fucking awfully written. There’s a bad tendency in German literature to look at some American writers – Thompson, Salter, Hemingway – and see their simplicity as simple. All of this is facilitated by translation, of course. I love Hunter Thompson’s work. Thompson was a fantastic writer. Not always, not in all of his texts, but his stylistic sharpness and moral clarity are rare in literature. Philip Theisohn cites Kummer’s admiration of Thompson in writing that “Kummer, the last real gonzo, was led by the conviction that a world of lies doesn’t deserve truth either, only more lies, which led to his infamous fake interviews in Hollywood.” – #1 there are still New Journalist writers out there, and the masculinist veneration of “Gonzo” has always been suspect to begin with. and #2, if you ever read Thompson with dedication and care – he primarily cares about the truth. Post 1974-Thompson is a bit complicated in his approach to the self in his work, but the use of fictionalized self, and using your own perspective as a distortion to better see the truth has a profoundly moral impetus with Thompson, whatever other faults he had (he had a lot) – there’s none of that in Kummer, and even Theisohn knows better than to claim otherwise. Kummer, his deceptions, his toying with truth and originality never had a goal beyond the celebration of one Tom Kummer. This navelgazing white masculinity is all too common in literature, and at least half of the TDDL field often suffers from that; and Michael Wiederstein, the juror, is the perfect embodiment of this white male navelgazing element in German literary culture. Da wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört.

The rest of the field is also a bit dubious. Among the writers I have read in preparation, Ines Birkhan is very original but very bad, Andrea Gerster and Yannic Han Biao Federer seem flat and dull. Lukas Meschik is prolific, somewhat interesting, but boring. And then there are the three writers I have the highest hopes for. Ronya Othmann and Katharina Schultens are very good poets – Othmann in particular writes exceedingly well and should be immediately seen as a favorite, based on potential. And there’s Sarah Wipauer, who has not published very widely, but she has a blog here which contains short, exquisite prose, and I have read texts unpublished on- or offline, which are similarly exquisite. Wipauer, Othmann and Schultens, in my opinion, lead the field here, by quite a solid margin.

I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots. You’ll see the whole thing kicks off with two of my favorites on day one, in the two first slots.

Thursday
10.00 Katharina Schultens
11.00 Sarah Wipauer
12.00 Silvia Tschui
13.30 Julia Jost
14.30 Andrea Gerster

Friday
10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

Saturday
10.00 Ines Birkhan
11.00 Leander Fischer
12.30 Lukas Meschik
13.30 Martin Beyer

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

Celan’s friends

I saw today that Stephen Mitchelmore has tweeted about a possible publication of an English translation of Celan’s Collected Posthumous Prose. The book, a thick, dense tome, is indeed wondrous, some of it in French, some in German, some in Romanian. The translator is Pierre Joris. The connection of Joris here is interesting, I find, and I want to say a word or two about Celan, his friends and his published correspondence.

There are so many volumes now of Celan’s correspondence (the only one I’m lacking is the one with his wife, because it is an expensive French “coffret” – and I assume the German version, though much cheaper, is translated and what would be the point of that) – but they all – every single one – have the same shape. Celan meets people with kindness, sadness and enthusiasm. He’s clearly difficult, but an extraordinary and intense person. Then, mid- to late career, fatigue sets in. Everything starts when Yvan Goll’s widow – Claire Goll – starts a public campaign that smears Celan as a plagiarist of her husband’s work. It is enormously untrue, but damages Celan immensely. And it’s not just the publicity and Goll’s loud attacks – there’s also the dubious reaction from his friends.

German critics, then as now, have a complicated relationship to Jewish literature. Henryk Broder has defined it as the difference between dead and living Jews: Germans feel guilty about dead Jews – but they will leap at the opportunity to attack living Jews. As a survivor of the Shoah, Celan straddled the line. When he entered German cultural life, his biography, in connection with his astonishing work, insulated him, gave him praise, protection and a certain status in German culture. But the Goll Affair exposed how precarious his situation was. Celan felt under attack – as a person, as a poet, as a Jew. And suddenly he found himself among Germans. Barbara Wiedemann’s valuable edition of documents around the Goll Affair show that the most engaged of his friends were Jews themselves, like Peter Szondi (a brilliant philologist and survivor of Bergen‐Belsen, who drowned himself a mere year after Celan’s departure, and 7 years before Améry’s ‘suicide, another survivor of the Shoah).

If you look at the letters, you can see the exact point where Celan turns to suspicion. It hams his relationship with Bachmann, whose sometime-lover Max Frisch had no empathy or understanding for someone not as securely ensconced in a country and culture as Frisch was, and it ends several others. Surrounded by Germans, Celan sees how tenuous his sense of home and security is. Like Peter Szondi, he looks towards Israel as a home. There is very little in his work that comments on Israel, but several passages in the collected prose refer to Israel. In his poem “Denk Dir,” written during the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, he describes Israel as “dies wieder / ins Leben empor-/ gelittene / Stück / bewohnbarer Erde.” (~ “This piece of land, suffered up into existence”). Like Szondi, he never moved there. Szondi’s motivations for not doing so may mirror Celan’s – Szondi writes in a letter to Gershon Scholem that he felt “at home” for the first time in Israel and that it was “unbearable,” this feeling. He was no longer able to be comfortable, after 40 years of alienation, genocide, and then living among the people who engineered that genocide. Celan’s relationship with Israel was certainly extraordinarily complicated, but he was clearly, unequivocally, a defender of the Jewish homeland.

Now, to get back to the English translation of the Collected Posthumous Prose. Pierre Joris is, in many ways, a typical representative of the Anglo-saxon left when it comes to Israel. His focus is on Palestine, and he is vocally, loudly, pro-BDS, a virulently antisemitic movement. To see his name next to Celan’s work gives me the shivers, but somehow, it feels fitting. Celan grew to be suspicious of many of his friends, aware that their relationship to the – for him, existential – questions of Jewishness, security, home, was different from his. Joris seems not atypical among his friends. Celan – like Améry, like Szondi – was ultimately dependent on the language of those who, a few years earlier, wanted to murder him and his family, he was dependent on structures partially built by murderers and lived subject to laws carried out by former murderers. The chancellor of Germany in the last years of his life was a former Nazi party member. Living in the language of Germans and among Germans, building a sense of home and language, informed much of his work. It is cruelly fitting that even in translation, he is dependent on the language of people with antisemitic sympathies.

Marie Kondo Lite

At least in my corner of Twitter, the new Marie Kondo netflix show has caused ripples of upset – less about the suggestions regarding cleaning your apartment she makes, and more about how those suggestions apply to books. To a bookish person, the basic mantra – hold up something and see if it sparks joy, if not, chuck it out – can apply to pillows or knick-knacks (though even there there is resistance), but surely not to books. As Ron Charles notes in his exasperated complaint about Marie Kondo’s show and book(s), she says holding it up does not include reading from that book, because that might muddle your opinion. I mean, God forbid that reading a few sentences might spark joy that seeing a cover might not. Strictly speaking, I share that upset opinion, and my apartment, with all of its walls lined with books, bears witness to that. Similarly, I also understand the other side of this, given that I know that romantic partners may have had a hard time accepting the vast sea of books. Certainly, my decision to hold on to a lot of books is indulging a personal sense of memory, loss, words, a very personal sense of comfort and a quiet sense of pleasure. It ties into other personal habits that are difficult to square with partners, like my penchant for nighttime writing and constant reading.

That said, everything changes eventually. This past year, due to space issues, I had to cull some books. This week, among many others, I got rid of a book I have owned for almost exactly two decades – for some reason, I bought Thomas Lehr’s bildungsroman Nabokovs Katze when it came out in 1999 and have kept it around until today. I carried it from apartment to apartment, from one corner of Germany to another one and finally to Bonn, where I have lived too long already. So this week, I took the book from where it was on my shelf, I looked at it, and considered why I own the book – the answer is: because I own it.  Back when I read it for the first time, I disliked the book, and the one time I reread it since, I liked it even less. As a reader, I never had a ton of patience for these flat autofictional titles where some masculine erotic fantasy is offered as a lazy masturbatory replacement for introspection. And I have less patience for this nonsense today. There’s a well regarded Spanish writer that an acquaintance of mine translated into French that I tried real hard to appreciate, but this writing, particularly with a connection to cinematic knowledge or background, is so common, and boring and dull, and I don’t need that kind of thing in my life. What makes it worse, Lehr is stylistically dull dull dull despite inexplicable critical praise for his style. So out it goes.

This is my Marie Kondo rule adaptation:

  • Did I like it?
  • If not, is it interesting?
  • If not, is the book as an object worth keeping (rare/beautiful book?)?
  • If not, is the book worth keeping as a memory support?
  • Is it part of some collection?

In the case of Thomas Lehr’s voluminous meditation on a masturbatory boyhood and lazy cinema references, the answer to all of these is no. The only reason I own this specific book is because I have owned it for two decades. Which is no longer acceptable given the danger of being crushed by my own books. I own too many books to keep one on the shelves that fits none of these categories. Bye bye.

Paris Bookshops

Last time I was in Paris I went to (and recommended on the blog) a bunch of bookshops. This time I wasn’t there for a conference so I had time to visit more, but I would only recommend three of them. They are from left to right (click to enlarge): the Librairie Vendredi at the top of rue des Martyrs, Le Monte-en-l’air, nestled between a church and the busy rue Ménilmontant, as well as the queer-themed Les Mots à la Buche, just around the corner from tourism hotspot rue des Rosiers. At the bottom, all the books I bought, minus one that I cannot currently locate.

Diversity: #tddl and the Tin House workshop

If you follow this blog, you may have seen my complaints about Anselm Neft’s reading on the second day of TDDL and its aftermath on social media, where Neft defended his use of racist and sexist slurs because of his use of a specific voice. Of course, his “friends” came out in support of literature and against “censorship” and attacked his critic. So far, so German.

But as it turns out, Neft’s awfulness is maybe part of a larger political moment. I recommend the most recent episode (Jul 19) of the excellent Still Processing podcast. To summarize: apparently, during this year’s Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Wells Tower, an established author, presented a text which sounds eerily similar to Neft’s: like Neft, Wells Towers appropriates the voice of a marginalized person, a homeless person in both cases, and uses this set-up as an excuse to be offensive and insulting to other margínalized people. Apparently, there was an intervention there, particularly after a night of reflection.

This is also an indicator of the different ways in which the two counties deal with this moment. No such reflection appears to have helped Neft and the various supportive voices in the German-language literary community.

Again, I recommend you listen to the July 19 episode of the Still Processing podcast.

#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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#tddl: Day Three: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Things are coming to an end. Day Three closed the active portion of the Bachmannpreis with a thoroughly interesting set of texts. Tomorrow prizes will be awarded. At least one of today’s writers should win one, as we have seen the best text of the competition (as well as one of the worst) but we’ll get to that. Meanwhile, here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here. The writers today were Jakob Nolte, Stephan Groetzner, Özlem Özgül Dündar and Lennardt Loß.

It was a short day, and not overall as annoying as some previous days – apart from one very bad text, there were two meh texts, one fantastic text, I did not run out of white wine and also I took a nap which is always lovely.

Jakob Nolte, whose novel I’ll review soonish, started the day with a story that seems a bit boring and written slightly sloppily, but upon reading his novel it appears to be written in – his style, I guess? That does not make it good though – it was mostly boring and uninteresting. A couple of crooked metaphors, odd grammatical choices etc. It’s a perfect middle-of-the-road text. Not good enough or bad enough to create excitement, but after day one started with death, and day two started with anal sex, starting day three with a mostly meaningless story about a woman on a beach wasn’t such a bad change of pace. The racial politics of the text were a bit dubious, but so is Nolte’s work generally. His novel uses various people of color to provide meaning and depth to the tale of ethnically German twins born in Norway, which is the whitest possible constellation. In comparison, the story wasn’t that bad.

In a sense the whole day was slowly building to Dündar’s excellent text, as the second writer, Stephan Groetzner, produced a humorous, clever and satiric text about – look, I’m not entirely sure. The text was partially set in Moldova and in Austria, and in its Moldovan sections it sidestepped the usual German tendency of filling these texts up with local color that always feels at best a bit exploitative (see Nolte, Jacob) and at worst a bit racist (see Neft, Anselm). Instead, the text was filled with Austrian terms – from local Austrian myths to Austrian vocabulary – specifically signposting his intentions by having models in Moldova have vegetable based nicknames, all of which were words that only exist in the Austrian variety of German. Groetzner is German, and this rubbed Klaus Kastberger the wrong way – mind you, this is the same Klaus Kastberger, who last year listened to a story about service personnel of color – and urged us to re-learn how to deal with servants.

Thank God the next text was brilliant. Özlem Özgul Dündar presented a brilliant text. A chorus of mothers, echoing various writers from the German tradition (I particularly heard Jelinek, but I am biased) presented the facts and emotions around an unnamed calamity, where neo-fascists burned down a house inhabited by foreigners. The most likely reference is to the 1993 Solingen arson attack, but other elements appear to be referencing other arson attacks that happened at the same time. I say “neo-nazis” but the people involved in the Solingen attack were largely “normal” young men, some with solid background. And in other arson attacks, like the one in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, which happened around the same time, a whole mob joined the attackers. Dündar’s story touches on many of these beats, and also provides a harrowing and moving account of what it feels like to have been there, to have died there, to have survived it. Her textual means were precisely attuned to the needs of the material – and while the text was presented as prose, it showed the author’s background in playwriting and poetry. An enormous text – slighly marred by some of the reception, as some of the judges, in particular Michael Wiederstein, who grew up near SOlingen, appeared to have no great interest in neo-nazis.

There’s a weird thing in Germany where this country has an obsession with Nazis in the period between 1933 and 1945, but attempts to blank out the topic of Nazis after that period, especially Nazis that were born after the war, or even later. That explains why Wiederstein, Mr. No Historical Memory of Events Happening After 1990, invited Lennardt Loß, whose awful, awful text, an excerpt from a very likely lamentably awful novel, is centered around an old Nazi (a “real” Nazi) and someone who was part of the RAF, the left wing terrorism that was particularly active in the 1970s in Germany. There are so many distasteful things about the text, from the dumb use of parallel guilt between someone supporting the RAF and an actual Nazi – but the text itself, with its stilted dialogue, miserable prose and misshapen structure, was almost as offensive on a purely aesthetic level. Loß, with no particular interest in history outside of Wikipedia entries ended day three on a bad note.

I mean it’s a fool’s game to predict the jury but Dündar’s text was so goddamn good that only a moron wouldn’t vote for it to win, but we’ll see.

#tddl: Day Two: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Boring

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Corinna T. Sievers, Ally Klein, Tanja Maljartschuk, Bov Bjerg and Anselm Neft. . You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For a summary of the first day click here.

The day started with a text about a nymphomaniac female dentist, in a story by Corinna T. Sievers. With a few exceptions here and there, Sievers’s style was exceptionally clear and sharp, mostly, again, with a few exceptions, allowing the writer to modulate events and tone with some ease. Oh, and the story was largely pornographic. The scene ends on a slowly and carefully described blow job, performed by the dentist on one of her patients. This was not a surprise. In the novels I’d previously read of hers, explicit sex scenes were the rule rather than the exception. But it’s worth a closer look. These are novels about child abuse (in fact, two out of three novels broach the topic), crime, alcoholism, dysphoria. Two out of the three feature middle aged female protagonists who are struggling with the pressures and expectations placed on them in some way or another. To note one in particular, the widely acclaimed novel Maria Rosenblatt: it takes up the stucture and language of crime novels, with frightening ease, and inverts many of its assumptions. How does the story change if we turn the boozing detective who fucks around into a woman? How do other elements of the story have to stretch and adapt? Reviews of the book all mention its sexual explicitness – by comparison, just among the books I reviewed this week – I can assure you, despite the incredible flood of penises in Stephan Lohse’s novel, no review focused on the homoerotic or queer centering of male genitalia – we’re used to dick, as described by dudes. So far, each novel makes specific, different use of the explicit sexuality that appears to be Sievers’s hallmark – so if this writer is so clever what’s the point with the story as presented at the Bachmann-Preis? To understand you have to look at the complicated history of the Bachmannpreis. In the very first instalment, in 1977, Karin Struck presented a story involving female bodily functions and was severely upbraided by one of the critics: nobody is interested in the thoughts of a woman who menstruates! By contrast, a few years later, Urs Allemann took an award home with a story about a man who admits his pleasure in sleeping with infants. And there is one more possible contextual allusion: in her introduction, Sievers mentions Martin Walser as a writer she admires. On the one hand, yuck! On the other hand, a few hours after the reading, I had to think of the year Walser’s daughter, Alissa, presented a half-incestuous atory about a woman who uses her father’s money to purchase sex and then talks to him about it. Walser also took home an award – with a story that had possible autobiographical implications. Now, Sievers is, by profession, a dentist, and choosing to present a story about dentistry, when she had not done so in any of her previous novels, seems strategic, implicating her audience in the performance in a way that she could not have done with a written story. Her slow, strangely paced reading contributes to that theory. And there’s more: the reaction to the text, particularly by the male jurors, some of whom, like Klaus Kastberger, joked that they would want to get an appointment at her practice, “though we should talk about the price,” appears to have justified most of her literary choices. The story, much like Raphaela Edelbauer’s story that opened the first day, had significant problems, but, like Edelbauer’s text, on balance more good things than bad things and in my opinion had been the second best text presented at the competition thus far.

This assessment didn’t change after the second text of the day, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Ally Klein. Klein’s story did not appear to be any good – bad imagery, a surfeit of adjectives, flabby structure, more like a pile of excited descriptions than a serious piece of fiction. But as I browsed twitter, I came across a series of tweets by Sarah Wipauer, a writer who suffers from periodical and incapacitating panic attacks and as a sufferer of this affliction. She immediately recognized the symptoms in Ally Klein’s text. She was not just moved to tears, but brilliantly explained how the very deficient seeming nature of the text, like its images and adjectives and banal seeming prose was actually further evidence of its literary treatment of specific symptoms, and what seemed vague and imprecise was, in reality a well-made, precise text about this particular affliction.

The morning was brought to a close by a story by Tanja Maljartschuk. Maljartschuk has published multiple award-winning novels in Ukrainian – she has never published a longer narrative originally written in German. That said, her story was absolutely enjoyable. The most classically written story so far, written with professional routine, it is a story about a migrant who is constantly in danger of being picked up by the police, and an older woman with dementia. Their paths cross, as a strange combination of acts takes place, in a scene of biblical and literary allusion, the protagonist steals some money from the old lady, but ends up washing her feet, as he is, at the story’s end, arrested, with certain doom in his future. The benign theft has echoes of two texts in particular – there’s the encounter of Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s classic novel – and a sequence of scenes from Clemens Meyer’s debut novel Als wir träumten, where a whole group of impoverished, disillusioned young men steal from an older woman, but also take care of her, in a strange sense of symbiosis between two disadvantaged groups. Much as in Lohse’s racist text from yesterday, this echo connects racial and class issues, but unlike Lohse, Maljartschuk connects the two levels with skill and ease. If anything, the story is too well made, hiding its skill under a clear, startling veneer. By far the best story of the competition so far.

The two afternoon readings were kicked off by Bov Bjerg. I don’t have a ton to say about this one, in part because my initial and also my second impression are/were wildly at odds with the audience reaction on Twitter and the jury’s enthusiastic reaction. I’ll write a review of his bestselling novel Auerhaus one of these days and will use the opportunity to go into more detail. What it is, is a very well made story about a father and a son, about depression and the fear of your child inheriting your own suicidal ideation. I may not understand panic attacks, but boy do I understand that fear. I want no child of mine to grow up suffering as I did and do. And on some days that does translate to: I want no child(ren). That said, the story is incredibly flat and boring and banal – incredibly so. It’s not its simplicity. I love well made simplicity. But I think the right comparison here is with the Maljartschuk story that preceded it. Both texts were well made, but while the achievement of Maljartschuk’s story is that of an experienced writer who has worked on their craft – the “well-made” aspect of Bov Bjerg text is that of MFA-taught well made writing. I have complained about the MFA-taught slickness before, particularly about the two major MFA mills in Germany, the Literaturinstituts in Leipzig and Hildesheim. I believe that the positive reaction to the story and the inability to see the exceptionally formulaic nature of its achievement (in other words, it’s literally institutionally well-made not literarily well made) is connected to the way the literary critical system in this country is set up – with Leipzig and Hildesheim producing a specific kind of writing, influencing the critics’s sense of the literary field – and in turn, the critics’s expectations shaping what is taught as a “well-made story” in Leipzig and Hildesheim. In a sense, this story was made for this stage, in a terribly boring cercle vicieux. This is not a bad story by any means, just an awfully dull one, the wrong kind of well made, with a fundamental expectation of universality that is typical of white men, which is why the lack of diversity this year is such a problem.

At least with the day’s final story, written and presented by Anselm Neft, we were back on more reliably German ground, as Neft appropriated the experience of marginalized people, used racist slurs against Roma, absolutely crowded his text with clichés and sloppy prose, and was generally not so much an embarrassment to the proceedings, but a solid representation of a year of this award with the largest percentage of German writers of recent years (Edelbauer was the only Austrian writer on the list this year). I admit, reader, I fell asleep during the story. I reread it later, but honestly, it wasn’t even offensive enough to keep yours truly awake.

Tomorrow’s group of writers is odd. I have no sense of who I really want to win the award. Tomorrow starts with Jakob Nolte, whose well received last novel is actually pretty bad (review forthcoming), and Stephan Groetzner, who reads exceptionally obnoxiously. God knows.

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#tddl: Day One, the Great White Nope

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Raphaela Edelbauer, Martina Clavadetscher, Stephan Lohse, Anna Stern and Joshua Groß. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

The day began with the writer I was most excited to see. Not because I thought it was the best writer in the competition, but because Raphaela Edelbauer‘s book is such a lovely accomplishment and yet I had no idea how she’d approach the writing of fiction proper. One of her book’s strengths is a sense of how the languages of fiction and science and history are connected – and in her text she achieved much of the same thing. A text that ended up being about the terrors of history implicated both science and the people who partake in it. How we deal with nature and how we deal with our fellow human beings – at the same time, the parts of the text that were fiction proper were not nearly as good as the nonfiction sections. Edelbauer does not have a mastery of the first person narrative yet – indeed most disappointingly, she does not bring the same attention and care to the first person fiction narrative that she brings to the nonfictional work. The prose in the latter is multifaceted and complex, while her first person narrative frequently falls flat. The text overall had a curiously conservative and polished feel despite the author’s young age – the skill in the nonfictional passages still meant that the text ended up being an above average achievement. What a way to start the day!

Particularly since the second author of the day was Martina Clavadetscher, whose novel I loved, and who brought prize winning cachet to the competition. Her text, on the printed page, looked like her novel, short, poetry-like lines, and occasionally poetry-like rhythms and small rhymes even. In the early goings, her text about death and the predicaments of the female experience, was dense with well turned phrases and potential. Quite soon, the text flattened out into – I guess, boredom? As it turns out, Clavadetscher appears lost in the short form – she was unable to impose any kind of real structure on the text, which meandered from paragraph to paragraph. On the way to the end it shed all of the well turned phrases from its beginning and picked up a large assortment of empty clichés. A big disappointment.

Stephan Lohse’s text on the other hand – hoo boy. Lohse’s debut novel, published last year, had an underlying, but underdeveloped queer narrative that was among the strongest points of that otherwise middle of the road coming of age novel. His story is about two poor marginalized white boys – and as in his novel, he has a very good handle on the male teenage experience. The best part of the story is an interesting though underdeveloped queer facet. There’s a twist here though – the main character identifies with Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba – although in a key paragraph of the novel Lohse complicates this and it’s worth explaining in detail: when during a class discussion children pick who they want to be when they grow up, he answers “black.” His teacher – the only non authorial voice of authority in the text – defends him against the derision of his fellow students: being black isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s about how you feel on the inside, whether you are “dem Wesen nach ein Schwarzer” – whether you are a black man on the inside. Like some nightmare James Schuyler had in the 1930s, that’s that in the story. The rest of the story is split between a conversation between the two boys and infodumps about the life of Patrice Lumumba. At its core the story is a story about marginality and struggling with marginality by appropriating the language and experience of another race, but the author never undercuts the basic assertion of the teacher in the story – and is unpleasantly comfortable with giving the boy, who just goes by Lumumba, numerous lines where they boy uses a form of Bantu as a way to fill in the gaps of his white experience.

But while authors can be blind to these kinds of faults in their work, the panel of literary professionals that judged him should have seen and noted the issues. Nora Gomringer came closest by noting that the story is a bit delicate (“heikel”). As for the other judges, they continued their sterling performance from years past by just sailing past the racial or even, really, class issues of the text. New judge Insa Wilke even saw this text as a significant contribution in a current progressive conversation about race – and if you believe that I have a racially dubious bridge to sell you. But as it turns out, her own invitee had his own problems in this regard.

First however, after the much needed break, was Anna Stern. Her first novel was a mess of names and structure, and though her second book was much clearer and more readable, her text was a messy, unstructured chaos that read like a first draft in literally every single sentence. Most of the audience on twitter admitted to being confused, although in text we did not pass, riverrun, past Eve’s and Adam, but merely through the crucible of a text of modest means and no proofreader.

The day was brought to a close by Joshua Groß. I had previously read three of his books though not reviewed here. Groß’s writing is an update on 1990s pop writing, particularly on the German tradition of the writers around Christian Kracht. Groß uses ironically refracted misogyny and an affected lightness of tone and inconsistently applied contemporary references to write a pop cultural tableau without the depth of his forebears. In his 2014 novella Magische Rosinen, his protagonist is a “rapper” who travels to Brooklyn a lot – he’s no Patrice Lumumba, but there’s an uncomfortable sense here of a white bourgeois writer of enormous privilege to use the terms of black culture to fill in the margins of an ultimately meaningless contemporary identity in our social media age. And it’s not just Groß – young privileged white German writers have seized on this moment to explain why they feel so uprooted. Simon Strauß, Botho Strauß’s son, has just published a novel about youthful nihilism that veered – like its author – sharply right. Strauß, like his father, has written a book and essays that align him with the rise of the far right in all areas of German cultural and political life. Joshua Groß’s project – such as it is – appears different, but it’s only different to a point. He’s also very happy to work on shaping white German identity by means of appropriation – and as some of Christian Kracht’s career has shown, the line between this kind of party nihilism and right wing celebration is a precarious one.

I haven’t even mentioned the actual text Groß read yet, but it’s a forgettable riff on American culture, particularly on mechanisms and events surrounding an NBA game in Miami. The text is replete, as all of Groß’s work, with misogynist staples and clichés etc etc etc. The most notable part of it is the defence of the text by Insa Wilke, the judge who invited the author to read. Wilke appears to believe the text is cutting edge, giving a much-needed update on 1984’s panopticon. In doing so, she not only ignores Thomas Mathiesen’s 1997 coinage of the synopticon in his classic essay “The Viewer Society” (and its web 2.0 updates, for example Doyle 2011), but also literally the whole body of pop literature and the body of work of writers like William Gibson and many others. It’s baffling, but it is evidence that the Bachmannpreis, over the past years, has turned into a search for the Great White (literary) Hope, and the racially troubling texts in the last three years are no accident, and the praise for texts like Lohse’s and writers like Groß isn’t either.

Raphaela Edelbauer’s text is the best of the bunch so far, but apparently, Lohse is the frontrunner. I mean who the fuck knows.

Dire le monde pour l’inventer

Souvent, lorsque je parle, quand je suis face à face, je m’étonne d’entendre, en même temps que l’autre, ce que je viens d’énoncer à l’instant : je me découvre. Aussi, lorsque l’autre s’énonce, peut-on quelquefois, en des moments privilégiés, devenir cet espace offert à la compréhension. Mais dès que l’attention fléchit, je bredouille, sans arriver à poursuivre un cheminement. Comme si, pour dire, j’avançais sur un tapis tendu par l’attention d’une altérité soutenue. En d’autres mots, comment pourrait-on articuler la langue dans une bouche, si ce n’est, toujours déjà, dedans l’oreille du voisin ? Et cette langue, qu’invente-t-elle d’autre que ces catégories du monde que forgent, avec ces mêmes vocables, nos fictions mentales ? En d’autres termes : parler, c’est dire le monde pour l’inventer.

Maurice Olender/Un fantôme dans la bibliothèque

The Mokers

modoc. n. One of the several small dummies set up to be knocked over by baseballs at a carnival tent; hence, a stupid person.
mohosca. n. Muscle; energy used in work.
mojo. n. Any narcotic.
mokers, the. n. Despondency; dejection; the blues.
mokus. n., adj. 1. Drunk. 2. Liquor.
molasses. n. A good-looking used automobile displayed to attract customers to a used-car lot.
moldy fig. 1. A prude; a pedant; one whose views or tastes are old-fashioned. 2. Specif., a person who prefers traditional jazz to the progressive forms.

The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang. Eds. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner. Pocket, 1967.

Schweblin’s Poisons

This is to add a short note. In my review of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream, I wrote, ignorant buffoon that I am:

It’s a sense of evil lurking in the very ground – and Schweblin makes it an ecology issue, by connecting it to some unnamed barrels with some unnamed fluids. Some of the symptoms line up with radiation poisoning. […] But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is.

So I asked Argentinian academic Magdalena López and apparently it’s about a pesticide illness connected to the recent flood of transgenic crops, specifically transgenic soy, in Argentina. Here is an overview by Walter Alberto Pengue of the problematic trend of Argentina’s transgenic crops. Deutsche Welle has an article about protests related to the poisons, called “Pesticide illness triggers anti-Monsanto protest in Argentina.” Notably, the symptoms described in the article fit the ones in Schweblin’s novel pretty well.

“When he was four years old, he came down with the illness that left him temporarily paralyzed,” she recalls. “He was admitted to the hospital. They told me that they didn’t know what was wrong with him.”

And finally, to round things out, here is a 2015 article by Vice, titled “Argentina’s Soybeans Help Feed the World But Might Be Making Locals Sick.” I hope these suggestions make up for my initial mis-/ill informed blunder in the review. If you haven’t read the novel yet, you should!

Man Booker, man.

so this is what we got this year. as if to remind me to stop caring about awards, this year’s Booker has arrived with a list that starts with Paul Auster’s colossal turd. I know, I know, it’s the alphabet. This year, as most years since the ill advised inclusion of US literature in the Booker roster, the mixture is the usual. Commonwealth super heavyweights (the Smiths), Commonwealth solid lit (Barry, Roy, Shamsie), Commonwealth mediocrity (McGregor, Hamid, and if I may add: the constant praise for Hamid is a mystery to me), and Commonwealth writers I don’t know. PLUS super famous and brilliant American writers. Yes, this is not Saunders’s best work, but Saunders is one of the world’s best short story writers. This is not Whitehead’s best novel, but I consider Whitehead a complete genius. this seems a bit unfair for the Commonwealth part of the list. Ah yeah. And then there’s Paul fucking Auster.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Autumn by Ali Smith
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

On Liking Short Novels

I don’t, as a rule, like short novels, but since I started to add a few short novels into my reading diet in recent years I have become strangely appreciative of these books. I, generally, prefer think, juicy slabs of books, whether it’s the literary mammoth by William Gaddis, or the somewhat dull bricks Robert Jordan used to write. I still can’t really read short stories. I take a while to find my way in a book and the whole reading process of short stories baffles me. Short novels I never took to before for similar reasons. There are exceptions – Jean Rhys is one of my favorite writers, and all her novels are short. Similarly, I’ve admired Paula Fox for a long time. But overall, seeing a low page count always discouraged me from reading a given book. And I think that’s changed. And as I grew to like them I noticed that they are darn hard to write.

I have always considered a more baroque, expansive style easier to maintain with middling skills than a bare-bones simple style of writing. You can hide infelicities, and inaccuracies in the thicket of prose, whereas Hemingway inspired an awful mass of books written in a style that is called “bleak” or “sparse” or “dry” – but is mostly sloppy and bad. Hemingway’s own early stories, which inspired this writing, sing with potential, allusion and complexity. They are dense and their words are extremely well chosen. This is, in my opinion, enormously hard to maintain at a high quality. Even writers who have managed to excel at this, never do it for a long time – remember Richard Ford when he wrote Rock Springs? Take a look at the bloated excess of Lay of the Land. Or take a look at Hemingway’s final two novels (I like late Hemingway, but not for the prose).

The same, it occurred to me this morning, is true for short fiction. Well executed short fiction is exceptionally rare. We can’t all be Hemingway and, indeed, we can’t all be Kafka. Short fiction in my opinion needs to deliver on the same things as long fiction: characters, plot, emotion, i.e., the meat and potatoes of all fiction. But while you can get a bit lost in longer books, and see structure as a rough scheme, every structural inadequacy comes to the fore in short fiction. And writers seem to be aware: there is an odd tendency to over-structure short novels, to really make use of the increased attention. It leads to dull, overly intellectual books that read more like a pitch for a possible novel, rather than the novel itself. And I’m not against intellectual novels, I am a card-carrying fan of David Markson, after all, but that, too works better when greased with the buttery softness of excess words. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, boiled down to a hundred pages would be much less exciting. And the worst thing is that there is an ungodly amount of talented, but not great writers who offer short novels in a minimalist style, setting themselves up for failure not once but twice.

Having such strong opinions about bad short novels has however led to a real, true appreciation for short novels that use their limited canvas very well. I have been wondering whether I have overpraised novels like Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Warren or Point Omega, just because they are so extraordinarily good, on what I consider exceptionally challenging terrain. I think I may just develop a particular love for short novels. I would still always pick the monumental, backbreaking novel over the middling 200-300 page version, but now I also glance at their slimmer siblings at around 100 pages with a kind of terrified interest. Chances are, they turn out bad, but OH how great they are when they are good.

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes

Campbell, Sophie (2017), Shadoweyes, Iron Circus Comics
ISBN 978-0989020725

Sophie Campbell is one of my favorite people in comics. She’s been publishing comics for a long time now, sometimes as artist and writer, sometimes “just” as artist. It’s been a while since new work written by her has appeared in print: that’s all the more reason to celebrate Iron Circus Comics’s new reprint of her Shadoweyes comic book, originally published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2010. Trust me: you want to read this. Sophie Campbell’s art is gorgeous, the story and ideas are cohesive, moving and complex. If you are tired of the usual stories about vigilantism and superheroes, you might like this one. Campbell best and most well known work is the sharp sequence of graphic novels called Wet Moon, of which 6 volumes have appeared so far, and in some ways, Shadoweyes is its polar opposite: Wet Moon is conscientiously realist – offering a story about real lives in a way that isn’t usually presented in comics. Campbell’s characters are queer, of color – and colorful, struggling with money, sexuality, love and other issues, with a palpable physicality that similar books, like Terry Moore’s classic Strangers in Paradise, lack. In fact, if you follow Campbell’s work, the topic of physicality, of change, is tied into her examination and interrogation of feminity. Shadoweyes reads like an early attempt as synthesizing all of her themes in one powerful image: of the young vigilante who turns into a kind of alien monster, without losing any of her humanity. It’s about the inevitability of some physical change and about the way we deal with it. I’ll be honest though: the main reason you should read this is because Campbell is an amazing, gorgeous artist, and while her black and white work is great, her work in color is beyond description. This new edition of Shadoweyes is in full color, which the original wasn’t. Coloring assistance is provided by Erin Watson, who does a great job.

Campbell’s art, particular when colored, is transformative. She is an artist who takes care of the little details: hair, clothes, smaller accessories are rendered with a focus that is unusual, because Campbell, I think, truly understands how dependent often people’s identities are on what we might call these little things. In her own books, her excellent writing may overshadow sometimes the enormous lifting her art does. There are two titles that appeared in the last 5 years that should change your mind on that: one are the two trades of Glory that appeared from 2012 to 2013. The writing on the book, by Joe Keatinge, is very good, though a bit rushed by the end (had the book not been canceled I think the latter half of the story might have fared better), but it is Sophie Campbell’s art that truly lifts this title to a higher level. Keatinge took a character invented by Rob Liefeld and turned her complex and humane, giving her a tragic, moving character arc. None of this would have mattered if not for Campbell’s approach to the main character. You can always recognize a panel drawn by Campbell within seconds, and many characters in the book are very Campbellian: soft shapes, big eyes, unique hair style. But Glory, the main character is not human, her physicality, as established by Liefeld, is the one of an overpowered superhero: but Liefeld drew her as a pin-up (click here for Liefeld’s Glory), her physical power implicit in the actions, not her physique. Campbell’s Glory’s power is evident in her size, her thick, muscular body. Glory is tall, muscular, yet also feminine, and her life and emotions are extremely carefully designed by Campbell. Glory is a warrior and so her body is drawn with ripples of scars – what’s more, the big, muscular female in comics is often de-sexualized. Not so with Campbell who created Glory to be fully rounded, the various possibilities of life reflected in the various aspects of her physical appearance. There is a physical change that Glory goes through, as the story develops, and all the changes flow from the same, unwavering sense of aesthetics that is the artistic mind of Sophie Campbell.

Now, Glory is gorgeous, but extremely bloody and brutal. Sophie Campbell’s next major collaboration, Jem and the Holograms is neither of those things. Like Glory, Jem is a reboot of older material, in this case an animated series about a rock band that has the power to transform into anything they want thanks to a supercomputer named Synergy that can create life-like holograms. Not every part of this story makes equal sense, but why would you dig deeper when the story on offer is fun? That’s all equally true for the comic book, written by Kelly Thompson, who has used this book to jump to a very active writing career in comics, with art by Campbell (and colors by M. Victoria Robado). It’s odd to me that Thompson is the breakout star of the book when the major advantage of the book is Campbell’s art. The animated series has Jem’s band be in a constant conflict with a rival band called The Misfits (no, not those Misfits) and Campbell creates a clear design for both bands that is both believable and realist in its use of clothing, hair and other accoutrements, and at the same time absolutely, gorgeously fantastic. In Jem and the Holograms, we find Glory’s flowing hair again, the long limbs, but this time they are woven around music. The conflicts here are personal rather than apocalyptic, but we follow everything with rapt attention because of the world Campbell has created. Some of the writing is weak, some of the plot could have been better managed, much of it moves from bullet point to bullet point with an almost mechanical abruptness, but I dare you to be bothered when the delivery method is this glowing yet sharp and precise art. It’s not even the story itself that’s at issue, after all, Campbell had a hand in it, it’s the smaller details of writing that left me underwhelmed, but the art, truly, makes up for everything. So why isn’t Campbell the breakout star with her own book right now rather than Thompson?

The reason may lie in Campbell’s vision that is one that exceeds simple narratives of physicality and identity. In her books, people are damaged or change and then they live with that change. Sometimes people are not who we (or they) thought they were, but they push through that, adapt, move on. There is no simple episodic ‘back to the start’ for Campbell. The zombie tale The Abandoned ends on a complicated note of betrayal and unknowable future, ending at the story’s messiest point, and similarly, the limb lost in Water Baby remains lost, and the trust between some of the book’s characters is damaged. We change, we move on, that’s a pattern that keeps recurring in Campbell’s books and that isn’t that common in comic books. Plus, as a trans artist, Campbell’s voice isn’t as easily amplified as that of other unique comic book writers of today like Brandon Graham, about whose developing universe I’ll write something one of these days, or Matt Fraction, say. I will talk about Wet Moon in more detail some other time, but the fact remains that it is a complicated, untidy book – the comics industry, for all the genre’s potential for undermining simple narratives, is often remarkably conservative. Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise was a revolution, simply for writing a plain story about regular female characters, dressed and behaving like regular female characters. Wet Moon, with it’s more physical queerness is a more difficult proposition. These days most (all?) work that Campbell publishes (I can’t figure out which trades of TMNT contain her art, regrettably) is pencilwork for other writers and I suspect she has become most well know for her work on Jem and the Holograms and Glory. To these people, I recommend Shadoweyes without reservation, because it’s spectacularly gorgeous, combining, in some ways, two kinds of art that Glory and Jem split into two different directions. But Shadoweyes is more: it is also an unbelievably well told story about identity. In some ways, Shadoweyes serves as a key for some of Campbell’s other work, as it connects, through its intersex character Kyisha, the way preternatural transformations, common in superheroes and monsters, are a metaphor for the way people born into wrong or conflicting bodies deal with their identity. That’s not a popular topic, and not an easy one, but you can even find it in books Campbell didn’t write, just drew. That’s because her art is transformative. You should read her work. Start with Shadoweyes. It is good. Then read everything else. I promise you will not regret it.

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#tddl: the winner is…

Today, in an unusually brief voting round, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened in the past 3 days: I did a bit of daydrinking, I have a horrible sunburn from today’s Pride, my cat doesn’t like her new food, and, oh, yeah, three days of the Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (TDDL). Here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my summary of Day Three and if you’re completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.

That said: only TWO of these texts are worth keeping around (though some of the lesser texts will become parts of novels and collections): the stories by John Wray and Jackie Thomae. They are not equally good, but both are complex and interesting on the page and are worth rereading. John Wray’s story in particular is excellent. It is by far the best piece of prose in this year’s competition. But, as I said in my commentary on Day One:

Based on the text alone, he should win the whole competition, easily, but with the insurrection of the small minds and literature gatekeepers, one never knows.

And indeed, they picked Ferdinand Schmalz to win the big prize. Schmalz is part of the German literature business, he gives off, as we say in German, the right smell (der richtige Stallgeruch). He is a playwright, he knows all of these critics, if not directly then by a degree of separation no higher than two. And his native language is German. Klaus Kastberger’s huffing and puffing about not getting enough respect from these foreigners on day one truly showed the way. Wray won second place almost unanimously, which almost read like an admittance of guilt by the jury, who was really pulling for an insider but couldn’t credibly have placed Wray worse than second.

Which also explains why Eckhart Nickel won third place. His text is not, by any honest measure, the third best text. At least Schmalz’s text-cum-performance was really something, almost flawless for what it was. Nickel’s story was well made, but uninteresting au fond. Nickels biggest advantage was the fact that he is German literature royalty, a founding member of the Popliteratur scene, some of whose members went on to become influential titans of German literature. He definitely has the right smell. I suggested yesterday he might have a chance at getting one of the awards, but that’s because a similar writer had won a third award before, and because this resentment towards upstarts and foreigners had been in the air since day one. The reactions to the (much better) texts by Jackie Thomae and Barbi Markovic were sad and an indictment of the jury.

As was the fact that it took until the fourth and last award for a woman to win something. The field is split 50/50 between men and women, and on my score board, the four best writers were also similarly split 50/50. In a way, we were lucky Gianna Molinari won that fourth award because on the shortlist was, inexplicably, the unspeakable text by Urs Mannhart. Mannhart and Nickel were both nominated by Michael Wiederstein, who is exactly the worst person you want to be influential in judging literature: well off, white, male, and unaware of his privilege to a pathological degree.

There was also an audience award, but I’m not discussing it. A bad text won it, but the real issue was that Barbi Marcovic’s text, one of the three or four best ones in the competition, was temporarily blocked from public voting due to ‘technical’ issues. Icing on a very unpleasant cake.

And you know what? I have a pile of books by writers from the competition, and am slowly sobering up, and next year, you know where I’ll be? Right here: in front of the livestream, following the next, 42nd, Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur. Did I get upset at this year’s awards? Sure. But you don’t stop watching basketball just because the fucking Warriors won the Finals like of fucking course they did.

Below is my list of posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol
#tddl, Day One: the Wraypocalypse
#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse
#tddl, Day Three: The Nopocalypse

#tddl, Day Three: The Nopocalypse

Things are coming to an end. Day Three closed the active portion of the Bachmannpreis with a thoroughly underwhelming set of texts. Tomorrow prizes will be awarded. None of today’s writers should win one, but we’ll get to that. Meanwhile, here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here. The writers today were Eckhart Nickel, Gianna Molinari, Maxi Obexer, Urs Mannhart.

I’m not going to dwell overmuch on this damp squib of a day. Two of the texts were good, but not as good as the four texts I already highlighted, and two of them were bad, but also, somehow, in an underwhelming way. The day came, passed, I ran out of alcohol, etc. Well, let’s get on with things: to the crapmobile!

Eckhart Nickel wrote a story that one of the judges correctly connected to Adalbert Stifter (I have a bad? review of his masterpiece Indian Summer here), but that, in the end, had more in common with that German master of awful short stories, Bernhard Schlink. This was regrettable because Nickel, who is German literature royalty (outside of Wray the “biggest” name in this year’s lineup) started his text with extraordinary skill. From top to bottom, the technical execution was clean and nice, but the payoff was uninteresting. In the ease and skill of execution he reminded me (despite no overlap in plot or themes) of last year’s third place winner Zwicky. It was the best text today and while I’d rate it a distant fifth overall, it’s the only of today’s texts that should be in a prize discussion at all.

Gianna Molinari offered a text based on a real life case where an unknown refugee fell from a plane and died, nameless. In her attempt to give him back some dignity, she uses photos, and a careful examination of the workers who found him and the way the state dealt with him. I liked much about the story, but not so much the story itself? Regretfully, she reminded readers of the many writers in German who did much of this better, particularly Sebald and Lenz. The story was so directionless and boring that the audience, when the writer took a sip, applauded in apparent relief for the story to be over. Alas, no dice.

Maxi Obexer – man. So Molinari did make use of the experience of a refugee to write a German story (to apply for a German story award), but she did it with care: she was interested in that person. Maxi Obexer however also wrote about the refugee crisis, but the story was blind to the author’s own privilege, degraded other foreigners, appropriated the difficult experience of thousands to tell a small story that moved a persona very similar to the white author, who had teaching gigs in Georgetown and Dartmouth, front and center. Obexer is talented enough for the writing to be solid, and smart enough to include some good observations, but the overall feeling was creepy and unpleasant. It came really close, as a story, to offer the same blindness as the jury did yesterday. She also kissed a girl.

Urs Mannhart closed out the day and the competition and, I mean, I don’t know what to say. Molinari and Obexer both used foreignness as a trope and foreigners as props, but Mannhart told a story about wolves and men and rugged nature and horses that was set in an unnamed country (Kirgizstan?), overloaded with foreign names, occasional flat out racism; the worst aspect of the story was the undeniable solid skill of the text. Written in a 19th century adventure novel tone, it had no obvious stylistic problems or weaknesses. Except, you know, for the, uh unimaginative racism and toxic masculinity.

Tomorrow, awards will be handed out. There will be a first award, the Bachmannpreis, a second award, the Kelag Preis, and a third award, the 3sat-Preis. There’s also an award voted on by the audience. As I said yesterday, the only two writers who are on an almost equal footing in competing for first place are John Wray and Ferdinand Schmalz. Barbi Markovic, Jackie Thomae and maaaaybe Eckhard Nickel should be competing for third place. That’s not to say that this sad spectacle of a jury will vote this way. I think that the unbearable Verena Dürr stands a real chance of beating one of the better texts. And the audience is a real wild card. My ideal order is Wray, Schmalz, Thomae. Fingers crossed?

#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse

So Day Two of the Bachmannpreis ended. Here is my summary of Day One. Here is my general post about the event. As I said yesterday, I’ll assume your German is not fluent enough to follow along, but if you want, you can read all the texts here. Today was exhausting to watch. Yesterday, we had 4 bad texts and one excellent one. Today we had 3 good texts and two awful ones. But if yesterday’s theme was the one of the adult competing with the children, today was the day of horrible jury discussions. I barely stressed the role of the jury yesterday, but each text is allotted roughly an hour: 25 minutes reading, 30 minutes discussion and a 5 minute short introductory film curated by the writers themselves. Sometimes, the jury discussions are about taste, about interpretation, issues like that. Sometimes, like today, they betray blind spots of the jury. Class and race are such blind spots. The jury, consisting of German, Swiss and Austrian critics had such a horrific performance today that I was embarrassed to be German myself (not that there isn’t recurring occasion to feel such shame). But first things first: the writers reading today were, in this order: Ferdinand Schmalz, Barbi Markovic, Verena Dürr, Jackie Thomae, Jörg-Uwe Albig.

Ferdinand Schmalz opened proceedings and it seemed like the day was going to be much better than yesterday. Schmalz is a nom de plume, and appears to be a character. The whole reading was like a performance. A little pork-pie hat, unwashed hair and an excited voice: a reading that elevated a text that was already pretty good. Everything in it worked as needed, sounds, rhythms, plot. This text wasn’t as good as Wray’s story yesterday, but it was good enough that I wouldn’t be upset if it did win the award. A fantastic, greasy, behatted, positively Bernhardian beginning to day two.

Next up was Barbi Markovic, who I had been looking forward to. Markovic, a writer from Serbia, had been doing interesting things with language and literature for a few years now and I was rooting for her. However, the text wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It was good, it was interesting, and it was relevant, but it needed a good and gentle editor. The story itself, about a family found dead in an apartment, was clearly a metaphor. For what? Well, maybe the way nation states relate to each other or for the way smaller states are subjugated in larger, vaguely totalitarian confederation. The fact that the author is Serbian and her work circles around Serbian topics, seems relevant here. However, one of the judges, Michael Wiederstein, who comes from the area where I currently live, but lives in Switzerland now, proclaimed that texts should not be seen in any such contexts. “I don’t care that the author is Serbian!” he exclaimed, squinting with Germanic self righteousness.

Rough visual approximation of the jury discussing Verena Dürr’s text.

Lucky for him, the next writer was Verena Dürr. Dürr is, I think, an experimental poet who uses the dry and repetitive language of rules and handbooks. As it turns out, when turned into a prose narrative, this is horrifyingly dull. She offered a text about art dealers that was basically a list of expensive objects and of high culture associations. Everybody I follow on Twitter was stunned by the bland and deathly dull nature of the text. It was well made, I mean truly carefully and very precisely done. It’s just utterly uninteresting. However, the real gem was the jury discussion afterwards. Suddenly, judges who complained about a lack of relatable characters in Markovic’s story barely found enough breath to praise this shiny polished turd of a prose narrative. Michael Wiederstein exclaimed how he had so many art dealers among his friends and he was going to show them this story! Suddenly, the possibility of identifying literature and experience appeared, bright (dare I say white?) and shiny on the horizon. Everybody broke for lunch, and I hoped for a better afternoon.

In the afternoon, everything went from bad to worse and I suddenly found myself running out of white wine. Next person up was Jackie Thomae, a writer of color from East Germany. Her story was light but precisely written. It was about a young man of unnamed background who is read by his environment as a Muslim. It’s not relevant for the story which ethnicity he is, because the story’s theme is how his identity is constructed by the power relations around him. He works for a company called Cleanster that offer cleaning services. This is the seventh time working for the company; he’s got a routine, but he’s not a ‘pro’ yet. As he enters the apartment, a few things go wrong and he ends up only partially cleaning the apartment. Wracked with guilt and shame, he flees, onto the next job. The woman who contracted him to clean is unhappy and slips into a strange discourse about how of course these young Muslim men cannot expected to clean, I mean they learned a totally different set of gender roles in their culture. The text is not subtle about its topics: how whiteness and class intersects and constructs subjects in our society. Thomae is incredibly clear about it. It’s a strong story, very clear, very relevant, the writing unflashy but calibrated perfectly. Well, as it turns out that’s not how the jury saw it.

Reading some of the books by this year’s Bachmannpreis-candidates.

No. The jury collapsed in their own Germanic whiteness to an extent that should be part of a curriculum in a critical whiteness course. It was almost like a performance. Klaus Kastberger, who teaches in Graz, said: “we have to learn how to use servants again properly. They used to have rules for that and how we are lost without the rules.” He also asked to be explained the foreigner’s motivation because it wasn’t entirely clear to him. Why would he be intimidated by a washing machine (the story, again, incredibly unsubtle, says, literally: he didn’t want to break another expensive machine that he could never pay for). Meike Feßmann said we need to have a discussion about his cultural background and how it influences his actions, echoing, partially WORD FOR WORD, the statement of the white woman in the story who, in case that wasn’t clear, wasn’t supposed to provide a how-to of white behavior. The protagonist takes selfies “to impress the girls,” but somehow that didn’t reach Hubert Winkels, who thought it was a picture to impress the relatives “in Bosnia, Senegal or wherever” (IN BOSNIA, SENEGAL OR WHEREVER). TWO different judges used the phrase “clash of civilizations” to describe what happened, and Michael Wiederstein, he with the many rich art dealer friends, thought the ‘moral of the story’ was that people should clean more themselves. Kastberger repeated that this was not how you treated servants, that in the 19th century Austrian monarchy, servants were treated much better and we should learn from that and I think it was at this point that I may have lost my mind, my hearing or suffered some other collapse. As a German poet (and, I guess, critic?) I felt such intense shame for these people of similar overall background, I think I may have had an outer body experience.

Jörg-Uwe Albig then closed the day with a strange masculine fantasy, overwritten and undercooked. It is fitting after all that happened that the day ended with a writer called “Jörg-Uwe.” His story is about a man who was left by his girlfriend, has an exoticizing fantasy sequence in Ethiopia (because for Germans, somehow, going to Africa to find yourself is a thing. Yes, I know, Henderson the Rain King exists but, you know, Bellow, he of the “show me the Zulu Tolstoy” was a racist). In Africa he sexually assaults a church (yes, yes, don’t ask). I’m not sure what happens at the end because I stopped caring.

In summary: after today, I think, by rights Wray should still be leading the pack. I think Schmalz, Markovic and Thomae would all deserve one of the two other awards, but except for maybe Schmalz, they didn’t really challenge Wray’s claim to first place. And after today, I think Wray is damn lucky he’s white.

#tddl: Day One, the Wraypocalypse.

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Karin Peschka, Björn Treber, John Wray, Noemi Schneider and Daniel Goetsch. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Karin Peschka started the day with a text set in a post-war devastation, with a protagonist just called “Kindl” (“the child”). The writing is intentionally simple and stark, with vast sequences of dull, repetitive description that urgently required culling, and some occasionally very strong images. Peschka’s text was very weak, relying too much on the setting and the protagonist to carry the rest of the text; it was derivative, most of all. Yet, in hindsight, with all the other terrible texts behind me, it wasn’t that bad. At least it was competent and occasionally interesting.

If you’re wondering how to properly watch the competition: like this. On TV, with twitter on the laptop and a coffee mug full of cheap white wine. At least that’s how yours truly does it.

Björn Treber, a very young writer with just a few small publications under his belt offered an unusually brief text, basically a long description of a funeral. It read like an overnight improvisiation before the deadline to hand in the text. There was nothing at stake, nothing interesting, no tension, no direction, no discernable stylistic interest. There were hints of interesting directions, but Treber never explored them. He’s clearly not untalented, but this read more like an early early draft that you’d bring into a writing workshop, to tease out the hints in it of identity, heritage and existentialism. It did not read like a story offered at Germany’s second most prestigious literary award.

John Wray was third, and boy did he save the day. You know, this felt like seeing LeBron playing against a high school basketball team. After Treber’s story that was barely acceptable as homework in a creative writing class, John Wray offered a modulated, shifting story that touched on culture, history, literature, power, gender and race. It told a story that is impossible to summarize, but one that reflects on its own structure, its own language, that touches on realism, science fiction, historical fiction and the current taste for dystopian writing. In it we had a barely-successful writer from Brooklyn, a sister with a mental illness who imagines a story, an ornithologist whose encounter with natives is a paraphrase of turn of the century anthropology, a fascist leader and more. There is a prominent nod (I think) to Alfred Korzybski in there and many other writers. All of this in just a handful of pages that took 25 minutes to read aloud in a slow, somber voice. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story’s movements and turns couldn’t be made to fit the Chaucerian form of the Madrigal (the return of the original rhymes made me think of that). All of this was made without any kind of literary arrogance – you could tell the skill and the exhilaration of the writing throughout but it also reads extremely light. This is not just the best story of the day – but one of the best stories, in the way it is condensed and shaped, I’ve read all year. Everybody broke for lunch and I refilled my coffee mug with white wine and ate some crackers.

This is my cat’s reaction to hearing Noemi Schneider read. I have to say, I agree with her on this!

After the break, 35 year old Noemi Schneider read a text that was, in sound, skill and attitude, a text I’d have expected of a precocious 20 year old. In fact. Young Ronja Rönne read a text in a vaguely similar vein last year. There’s a lot of irony in it, playing with language, expectations etc etc. but it is also just plain terrible. There’s nothing redeeming about the text in any way. Amateurish, flat, and boring, it also left a bad taste in my mouth because Schneider is not above toying with exoticism to flesh out aspects of her characters’ relationship to reality. That’s not new: in her recent novel, she similarly used foreignness as a metaphor, and an asylum seeker as a prop to tell a story about Germany and family relations in this country. Awful, unpleasant and bad. Suddenly, Peschka’s story didn’t seem quite as awful.

The final reader was Daniel Goeltsch, who, look. It was the last reader, first day, maybe that’s why he seemed insufferably dull, but BOY O BOY was he dull. A story about postwar Germany that was so terrible and dull that the discovery that it is an excerpt from a novel made me recoil in shock. Weaponized boredom, is what it was. Lazy imagery, terrible writing about physical intimacy, wave after wave of irrelevant description and, I think?, plot? I don’t think Goeltsch is all bad. I started reading his novel Ein Niemand an hour ago to review it on the blog and it’s not bad? I think Goeltsch needs a loving but mean editor. This story didn’t really go anywhere, it was written in the most plodding dull German I can imagine this side of Martin Walser, and I was so disinterested, I barely paid attention to the jury squabbling over the text.

I don’t know if Wray will win the whole thing. The judges seemed to believe his text was too good (I wish I was kidding) and they still licked their wounds over finding out, post-factum, that last year’s winner, the brilliant Sharon Dodua Otoo hadn’t heard of the competition before. As one judge groused: “at least he’s heard of us before, unlike THAT PERSON last year. He knows there are smart people sitting here.” That person? Exqueeze me? You mean last year’s runaway winner? Anyway, that might count against him. Plus there’s a real heavyweight to come, Barbi Markovic, a genuinely excellent writer. However, Bachmannpreis gives out three awards, and Wray should win one of them easily. Based on the text alone, he should win the whole competition, easily, but with the insurrection of the small minds and literature gatekeepers, one never knows.

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol

imageIf you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little smelly book cave.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists.

Last year’s winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there seems similar in quality, minus Otoo and Tomer Gardi whose novel I’ve also reviewed.

The great exception is John Wray. John Wray is an American novelist with Austrian roots who writes in English. I’ve interviewed John Wray on Bookbabble years and years ago. See here. Really, listen. He’s luvverly. On this blog I reviewed his debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep and his third novel Lowboy. His second novel, not under review, is also quite excellent! I’m interested in what text he will be reading. Below is the full list of authors. If you check their publications, you’ll see a sad and unsurprising number of white German language writers writing about immigration and/or people of color from a very Germanic perspective. If you’ve read Jenny Erpenbeck’s awful recent novel, imagine that, but worse. And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list:

  • Jörg-Uwe Albig
  • Verena Dürr
  • Daniel Goetsch
  • Urs Mannhart
  • Barbi Markovic
  • Gianna Molinari
  • Eckhart Nickel
  • Maxi Obexer
  • Karin Peschka
  • Ferdinand Schmalz
  • Noemi Schneider
  • Jackie Thomae
  • Björn Treber
  • John Wray

Bachmannpreis

Tournament of Books 2017

So I’ve been both busy and sick this year and somehow, it wasn’t until I was looking up reviews after I posted my own review of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton that I noticed that that this year’s Tournament of Books is already over and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won a very impressive victory. The ToB is one of the most entertaining and unique items in the Book event calendar. A literary March madness: in 5 brackets a selection of recent books are pitted against each other and a judge picks the winner in each bracket. The championship round then unites all the judges as the book with the most votes takes home the trophy.  The great advantage (and sometimes source of frustration) is that it is absolutely the luck of the draw, not just who you encounter in your bracket, but also what kind of judge is asked to render judgment on any given bracket. Thus, due to idiocy, a few years ago, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help beat out John Wray’s masterful Lowboy. This year, in the most spectacular bit of idiocy yet, All the Birds in the Sky beat Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  More details on the way the tournament works here. For the second time in several years, I actually reviewed one or two of the books in the tournament. I have linked them in the list of the brackets below. Ok. Here you go, the brackets of this year’s ToB:

Judge: Kirstin Butler
The Underground Railroad
v. Black Wave

Judge: V.V. Ganeshananthan
The Vegetarian
v. All the Birds in the Sky

Judge: Steph Cha
My Name Is Lucy Barton
v. Version Control

Judge: Susannah Cahalan
The Mothers
v. High Dive

Judge: Will Chancellor
Moonglow
v. Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

Judge: Caille Millner
Homegoing
v. Sweet Lamb of Heaven

Judge: Lili Loofbourow
The Nix
v. We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Judge: Pamela Ribon
Sudden Death
v. Mister Monkey

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.

Marcel Beyer wins award

büchnerMarcel Beyer, one of Germany’s 5 best poets, one of Germany’s 5 best novelists and a damn good nonfiction writer, has just won the Büchnerpreis, Germany’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. I mean he should have won it a decade ago, especially if you look at some past winners (Arnold Stadler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, FC Delius and Martin Mosebach all number among past winners of the award), but this is well deserved to say the least. All of his fiction has been translated into English, and it is uniformly excellent. I’ll try to have something new on him up one of these days but in the meantime, I’m a bit perturbed that the only thing on my blog I can link to is my very bad review of his very good novel Kaltenburg. I feel it should be mentioned again for readers who only know his novels that Beyer has always written poetry as well as fiction and he is one of the very very few writers who excel at both. I have read (despite not owning) his last collection multiple times and the constant excellence of Beyer’s writing through the years that never flagged, never got bad or complacent, is just stunning. 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. This recognition by the German Academy for Language and Literature is long overdue.

Tournament of Books 2016 Winner?

I was a bit busy and forgot to check on the Tournament of Books. Here is my earlier post on it. So Villanova won March Madness and in the much more important Tournament of Books? Paul Beatty’s masterful novel The Sellout which I’ve read but haven’t gotten round to reviewing yet. So here is the link to the Finals matchup, which The Sellout won by a fairly wide margin.
Here is the brackets of this year’s ToB again:

Fates and Furies
v. Bats of the Republic
judge: Maria Bustillos

The Sympathizer
v. Oreo
judge: Brad Listi

The Turner House
v. Ban en Banlieue
judge: Miriam Tuliao

Our Souls at Night
v. The Whites
Judge: Syreeta McFadden

A Little Life
v. The New World
judge: Choire Sicha

The Book of Aron
v. The Tsar of Love and Techno
judge: Doree Shafrir

A Spool of Blue Thread
v. The Story of My Teeth
judge: Daniel Wallace

The Sellout
v. The Invaders
judge: Liz Lopatto

Brecht on Döblin

As a kind of followup post to this brief text (textlet?) I posted earlier, I wanted to share my translation of one of my favorite literary oddities. In 1941, at his 65th birthday party, Döblin told his guests of his recent conversion to Catholicism. Many famous writers, exiled like Döblin, attended the event. Bertold Brecht wrote a poem about what happened, called “Peinlicher Vorfall” – “Embarrassing Incident.” For those interested in it, here is the poem in my (awful) translation. I tried to make it scan a bit like the original but I’m not sure it worked. The long lines are there in the original, as well.

Bertold Brecht: Embarrassing Incident

When one of my most cherished deities celebrated his 10.000th birthday,
I came to honor him with all my friends and brightest students
And they danced and sung before him and recited verses.
The mood was emotional. The celebrations neared their end.
It was then that the celebrated deity stepped onto the artists’ stage
And declared with a booming voice
Right in front of my friends and students who were drenched in sweat
That he’d just had an epiphany and had henceforth
Become religious und he put on with unseemly haste
A moth-eaten priestling hat,
And then he kneeled lewdly and intoned,
Shamelessly, an impudent Church hymn, thus grievously insulting
The irreligious feelings of his audience, among whom were impressionable youths.

For the past three days
I have not dared to meet my friends and students
face to face, so great
was my shame.

Tournament of Books 2016

Last night, reader emailed me (and so can you) that this year’s Tournament of Books is under way. The ToB is one of the most entertaining and unique items in the Book event calendar. A literary March madness: in 5 brackets a selection of recent books (mostly novels although I’ve also seen story collections nominated and there’s poetry in the bracket this year, I think?) are pitted against each other and a judge (from book journalists to novelists like Jeff Vandermeer and Celeste Ng) picks the winner in each bracket. The championship round then unites all the judges as the book with the most votes takes home the trophy.  The great advantage (and sometimes source of frustration) is that it is absolutely the luck of the draw, not just who you encounter in your bracket, but also what kind of judge is asked to render judgment on any given bracket. Thus, due to idiocy, a few years ago, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help beat out John Wray’s masterful Lowboy. More details on the way the tournament works here. For the first time in several years, I actually reviewed one or two of the books in the tournament. I have linked them in the list of the brackets below. Interestingly, I have mentioned a different Paul Beatty novel in the Oreo review yesterday, and I’ll link my Luiselli review although the book in the tournament is actually the Mexican novelist’s sophomore effort. Ok. Here you go, the brackets of this year’s ToB:

Fates and Furies
v. Bats of the Republic
judge: Maria Bustillos

The Sympathizer
v. Oreo
judge: Brad Listi

The Turner House
v. Ban en Banlieue
judge: Miriam Tuliao

Our Souls at Night
v. The Whites
Judge: Syreeta McFadden

A Little Life
v. The New World
judge: Choire Sicha

The Book of Aron
v. The Tsar of Love and Techno
judge: Doree Shafrir

A Spool of Blue Thread
v. The Story of My Teeth
judge: Daniel Wallace

The Sellout
v. The Invaders
judge: Liz Lopatto

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto

Chapman, Maile (2010), Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-09042-1

Suvanto1Intentionally or not, several of my recently reviewed books on this blog have had this in common: they were well constructed intellectually and sometimes lacking in narrative or emotional power. Yet in all those cases, there was something that saved these books from being tiresome exercises in postmodern mastery. Not so with Maile Chapman’s debut novel Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, which is a dull, cold example of everything that people dislike about MFA produced literature. And when I say people, I mean me. In some ways, Chapman’s novel is the polar opposite of the other MFA novel that I reviewed negatively on this blog. Instead of fake emotion and ornate sentimentality, Chapman offers us the other extreme, smooth, cool surfaces, an impartial narrator, trained, if I read her acknowledgments correctly, on the Greek chorus (there’s a terrible novel by Blake Butler that has similar aspirations), and a disaffected, alienated set of protagonists who hurtle slowly (yes) towards a dark catastrophe, which, of course, is never really illuminated so as not to lose the oppressive air hanging over the story. This kind of writing is enormously hard to pull off, and only few novelists I have come across have managed to do so successfully. Maile Chapman is not one of them. The book is both dull and too busy, bland and overdetermined. It’s setting is both historical and set in a world seemingly outside of history. The main reference of the book appears to be Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, as well as Euripides play The Bacchae, although the first one is something I infer from the text itself, the latter is explicitly mentioned in paratextual artefacts. The former is a common reference in these kinds of settings, the latter is a bit puzzling, and in connection to the book would require some serious interpretative work, which this book does not deserve in any way. I regret paying money for this book and you shouldn’t invest money or time on a book that writes about illness and disability with the eye of the panoptikum. The plot centers around a sanatorium in Finland, and I am willing to wager that any novel you’ve read set in a sanatorium or Finland blows this disappointing, flat, almost unreadable book out of the water. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a bad book.

Suvanto2Why, you may ask, did I persevere and finish it, if it’s so obviously bad? For one thing, I always finish books, even if it takes a while. The other thing is that the novel is so oddly bad that I kept hoping for later sections of the book to redeem earlier ones. It’s not until the book’s denouement follows the most expected lines possible that I gave up on it. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a novel about women. Women in a Finnish sanatorium somewhere in the mountains to be more precise. The main interest for the narrator and the reader is the wing containing rich women, many of them American. One of the focal characters, and ultimately the tool employed by the author to pull off the reveal/hide trick at the novel’s end, is also American, a nurse that is increasingly overwhelmed by her duties, the Finnish winter and her colleagues as the novel progresses. The book is set in the 1920s, but it stands at an odd angle to history. It’s the 1920s, so any reader will assume a connection to the 1920s novel Magic Mountain that is set in the years before WWI in a sanatorium in the mountains. But Thomas Mann connects his book to the broader flow of history, ending his book with the thunderstrike of the breakout of WWI. Chapman’s book could have been set in a different period or on a different planet or even just an unmarked hospital space. Instead, it’s eerily specific, but doesn’t really use that specificity except for color. And then there’s the book itself, the object ‘book’, I mean. There are gorgeous photographs on the front and the back and on the inside of the cover page, as well. They are not however of the sanatorium described in the book. They are, I think, of the Paimio Sanatorium, built by Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, who, according to Wiki, was driven by “a concern for design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art; whereby he […] would design not just the building, but give special treatments to the interior surfaces and design furniture, lamps, and furnishings and glassware.” That the pictures are of that hospital is probable given that the copyright of the photos is held by the Alvar Aalto Museum, and that Chapman mentions, in her acknowledgments, that she had “extensive tours of Paimio Sanatorium.” If you followed the link above, however, you’ll have discovered that Paimio wasn’t finished until the 1930s (a historically much more interesting time).

Suvanto4So Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is set in a hospital like Paimio Sanatorium, but not in it. So it’s a hospital with a bit of history and reputation, not a brand new place, but we’re supposed to imagine it in the style of a later period? Look, it’s entirely possible that I overlooked something, but details like this are all over the book. Chapman both commits to and sells out on specifics. The book is set in Finland, and the difficulty of learning Finnish, or at least Swedish is foregrounded a few times, and Finnish words crop up all over the novel. Yet the author never makes any real use of the linguistic distance between most of its American protagonists and the Finnish people around them. It could be any language and any region, as far as I can tell. It could be a fantastical science fictional language for all that it makes a difference. It appears that the main reason for all the Finnish in the book is the Fulbright year the author spent in Finland, and the MFA-sanctioned idea that the use of other languages provides an interesting element for the dynamics of a novel. At least we don’t get that other MFA idea of making that ‘other’ language an Asian or African one. A recent, well-crafted, but MFA-bred German novel by Andreas Stichmann, Das Große Leuchten, appears to give in to that specific unpleasant instinct. So this is not politically or culturally dubious as simply baffling. Almost everything in the book, including setting and languages and culture, is used primarily to provide an interesting surface, but as a reader, one tires enormously fast of this. Do something with this, is what one is tempted to yell at the author. Don’t just paint the walls, put something into the rooms. The worst of all the surface games is the book’s use of female physicality and illness. Part of the book’s literary heritage is the Gothic novel. The hospital is large, some goings-on are unexplained and the vastness of the house and its events leads some inhabitants, at a late point in the book, to expect ghosts. But part of the Gothic novel has always, in my opinion, been a confrontation with the Other, and that Other often manifested itself in physical ways. Lust, hate, greed and their impacts on the human body is a constant topic, as is the use of the female body as a malleable object in all of this. There is a whole range of literature on the Gothic as a a genre negitiating masculinity and feminity. Patriarchal violence is common in these texts.

So, theoretically, the fact that Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is centered around various female discourses could be interesting; similarly, the constant presence of the female body here is intriguing. While Gothic novels often contain a veiled hostility towards feminity, engaging discourses of decadence, and various female engineered threats against masulinity. I think Chapman very carefully and intelligently engages these discourses. There is a woman with gonorrhea, a nod to the topic of (sexual) decadence, but in the context of the novel, where it’s mostly stripped of men, it becomes a question of personal injury and shame. Chapman doesn’t shy away from all the levels of female corporeality, although most of the time it’s some variety of able bodied corporeality. Still, within that limit, we get discussions of pregnancy, of bodily fluids, of the changes in women’s bodies as they age. We get frank discussions of the fear of women to be exposed to their husbands, exposed in frint of male doctors or just plain exposed. Compliance, the central issue of the last book I reviewed, is important here as well. Since it’s the 1920s, there’s an even higher premium on compliance, and the final catastrophe breaks out because of bottled up fears and frustration. The book teases its readers with all the possibilities of these constructions. It just adds one after the other and this is the main point that kept me reading – I expected, I waited for the writer to really do something with all this material, to make everything add up to something, to use one of the forms she kept piling up to break out of the traditions. After all, both the Magic Mountain (with its inversion and continuation of the Bildungsroman), as well as the Gothic novel are more or less ideologically clear, they wouldn’t fit this sympathetic use of female bodily functions. And yet. And yet, the final twist, the last part of the book where the plot picks up the pace a bit and all the various threads of the novel are combined into a brutal and mysterious ending – it is exactly what you expect to happen after reading about a third of the book.

Suvanto3This is really the oddest feeling – in a book that appears to be so invested in so many potentially incisive cultural, sexual and political areas, there’s ultimately nothing really at stake. As a reader you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the writer to connect it, to do something. And it never happens. Here is another example: the novel is written by someone who appears to be clearly cognizant of some contemporary theoretical ideas. Much of the book can work as a riff on some ideas in Michel Foucault’s work, especially those where he discusses institutions of exclusion and inclusion, where he writes on hospitals and prisons, for example. At the same time, it shares none of the self critical, politically trenchant insights. In Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, everything is decoration. Well, who knows, that might be part of Alvar Aalto’s design philosophy. What really, ultimately, sinks the book, however, is not the flatness and inconclusive nature of its ruminations. It’s the terribly bland writing that transports all of it. Written in present tense, maybe to mimic the narrative choruses of Greek drama, the style is simple. Clearly aiming for distanced elegance and clarity, the writing is, instead, flat like the drywall behind my desk. A whole bunch of uninspired, declarative sentences without any real sense for rhythm, urgency and compression. This is depressingly common, and all too often, it’s being read as beautiful. What happened to us as readers? Is this a very late impact of Gordon Lish’s inspired work on Carver that has, in lesser hands, turned into trite declarativeness? Why is it always the Hemingways and the Lishes of the world that inspire authors to copy their methods with less inspiration and understanding? Why doesn’t a writer with a baroque style get copied by lesser writers who try to write ornate prose? I suppose this also connects to my misgivings to the MFA style. It’s almost as if it’s a genre now, this kind of writing. Simplicity without condensation is just dull. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is the worst book I have finished this year and the only one I regret reading.

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193, avenue Louise

193 yourcenar I was in Brussels last weekend, spending time and money on relaxation that I don’t really have (you can contribute to my relaxation fund, you know. The lack of time, well, that will sort itself out eventually). Of course, I undertook a pilgrimage to this address:

L’être que j’appelle moi vint au monde un certain lundi 8 juin 1903, vers 8 heures du matin, à Bruxelles (…) La maison où se passait cet événement (…) se trouvait située au numéro 193 de l’avenue Louise, et a disparu il y a une quinzaine d’années, dévorée par un building.

This is from Marguerite Yourcenar’s autobiography. Sadly, not even a plaque reminds visitors that one of the Great Greats was born here. I have since started to reread my copies of her work and might write something on her great Flemish novel soon.

Book News (updated)

querkus

You see marked the inaccurate facts (bottom) and the dubious hiding away of the translator (right) in the Quercus announcement, marring, what is otherwise a joyous occasion.

If you don’t follow me on Twitter, two bits of news regarding soon-top-be-published books may have escaped you. One is the upcoming publication of an English translation of a Mikhai Shishkin novel which is apparently “Shishkin’s Ulysses“. This exciting announcement is only marred by the fact that Quercus calls it Shishkin’s first novel, which it apparently is not, and they chose to squirrel away the translator’s name in a tiny, expandable box in the margins of the page.

soleSecondly, and this comes without a link to Twitter, Mircea Cărtărescu’s new novel will be published by Humanitas this month. It is called Solenoid and will be about 850 pages long. That’s right, eight hundred fifty pages. There’s the cover to the right. And given his ascendancy to critical darling in France, Germany and the US, there’s a chance it gets translated quicker than Orbitor did. I don’t think I can get my Romanian to literary reading levels any time soon, but there’s a *chance* someone else might write a review of the book for me.

Listen to me read?

So 1) I’m still available for readings (contact me?), but also, and more importantly,  2) there’s a recording of me reading some of my poems, both published (in my book) and unpublished ones, here. Click, listen and enjoy (or not). If you’re  still interested in my book, click here for a peek at some poems. Here is a review (pdf) of the collection by Wolfgang Ratz. Here is the publisher’s page where you can order the book, if you want.  Or email the publisher directly at order@edition-mantel.ch. Order it for a Uni library if you can do that. That last point is in bold because it’s really important to me. I have one last copy that I have not given away and I can mail it to you for that purpose. If you like the poems and want to review them I can email you an electronic copy? I will say, however, that the work Inés Mantel and Jessica Mantel did in designing and printing this book is unbelievable. As a book, it’s so gorgeous that I’m almost embarrassed that all that’s printed within is my poetry,

Have a lovely sunday.

Svetlana Alexievich wins the 2015 Literature Nobel Prize!

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

Nobel Prize 2015: My picks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mispraising Murakami (guest post by Jake Waalk)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KENNEDY WHO?

In case you missed it (because I also missed it) A.L. KENNEDY JUST PUBLISHED A DR. WHO NOVEL. Sorry for the all-caps yelling. I can’t help it. GOOD GOD. Apparently she picked the Fourth Doctor (which, yeah, that would be her Doctor). If you follow this blog you know I am a huge fan of her work. This is wonderful and entirely strange news. I am speechless (sort of). Maybe I should repeat it: A.L. KENNEDY JUST PUBLISHED A DR. WHO NOVEL. Doctor Who- The Drosten's Curse

Grigorcea, Bachmann and Germany’s Next Idol

tddl If you follow me on twitter and you wondered about the deluge of German tweets on Friday and Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I was live-tweeting the strangest of events.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists. Actually, poets tend to do well. Lutz Seiler, one of Germany’s leading and best poets, won the competition in 2007, and his first novel wasn’t published until last year. This year’s winner is the extraordinary Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, daughter of one of Germany’s greatest living poets, Eugen Gomringer, and an excellent and influential poet and slam poet in her own right. She hasn’t published fiction yet, but her extraordinary feel for language allowed her to sway enough jurors to her cause. At 37 years of age, she’s I believe the oldest of the three prize winners.

One of the two other prizes voted on by the jury went to Dana Grigorcea, whose debut novel Baba Rada I’ve reviewed recently in anticipation of her reading. She read an excerpt from her forthcoming novel which is extremely different from her debut novel, as far as I can tell from the text she read. It’s a much more detail oriented, carefully sculpted, sober text about a childhood and adolescence in Bucharest, just as the country went through its own pangs of change and maturation. No wild metaphors, murders or insanity in this book, but from what I can tell, it’s the same exquisite writing.

You can, if your German is up to it, see videos of all the readings and jury discussions from this year’s TDDL here (though I’m not sure how long they’ll be available online) and you can find all the texts as .pdf files here.

Thank you Mr. Setz

Due to the size of my audience and my irregular posting times I don’t get a ton of review copies (last one I got was the new Gila Lustiger novel, read my review here). This arrived last week and it’s lovely. Review forthcoming (after I finish my reread of Die Frequenzen, meanwhile here is my review of his debut):setz2setz1

Günter Grass (1927-2015)

grass buttThere are very few writers in recent decades that have had such a rapid decline in reputation as German titan of letters Günter Grass who died Monday morning. After his death became public earlier this morning, many of my friends, well read students, writers and academics, didn’t manage more than a shrug in reaction to the news of Grass’ death. Grass’ career, since winning the Nobel Prize in 1999, has been marked by a shift in politics, and significantly worse writing. The first volume of his memoirs, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is, in my opinion, the only truly excellent piece of writing he had published between 1995 and his death this weekend. The rest of it – subpar poetry, atrocious novels and negligible prose – was often popular, but lagged behind even the worst of his earlier efforts. Yet literary decline alone is not enough of an explanation: for most of his literary career, Grass had also been politically active, including active campaigning for the center-left party SPD and its chancellor Willy Brandt. Many of his books bear the marks of a politically active mind. He wasn’t able to keep the politics of his day out of his books, leading to excellent novels like Kopfgeburten or Der Butt, which directly discussed and reflected on elections and policies. However, after winning the Nobel Prize, Grass, never one to eschew populism, increasingly sensed that a certain nationalistic brand of right wing rhetoric had crept into mainstream discussions and had become acceptable in polite company. Like his fellow traveler Martin Walser (not to be confused with Robert Walser, the Swiss genius), Grass played with tropes of nostalgia, nationalism and antisemitism, to an ultimately alarming degree. When he died, the crooked noises of his blaring populist trumpets had drowned out the memory of his much more sublime earlier work, in part because in the minds of many readers, late career Grass reminded them of the populist portions of his earlier work that had always been present. That’s why a shrug and an imprecise sadness was the main reaction among many of my friends and colleagues, despite the death of an enormous writer who was influential not just for German but world literature. Writers like John Irving and Salman Rushdie have acknowledged their debt to Grass’ voluminous oeuvre and among the highly praised writers of today in this country, few are untouched by his influence.

grass gesammeltFor most of my reading life, Günter Grass had been one of my favorite writers. Yet even I had conflicting emotions when I heard the news. despite Grass’ presence in my reading and writing life. Not just Grass the novelist, but also Grass the playwright, and, most importantly, Grass the poet. It’s not as well known or remembered today, but Grass’ first publication in 1956 was a collection of poetry and art, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner. His status as an broadly talented artist came from the place he was in after the ravages of the war. Born in Gdansk, he voluntary enlisted in the army in WWII and later was a member of the Waffen-SS. Contrary to many former soldiers or SS members, Grass (admittedly late, in 2008), was clear about the fact that he was not seduced, that he was a willing, even fanatic participant, but it was an experience that, he also claimed, cured him of all authoritarian impulses for the rest of his life. After the war, he became a stone mason apprentice and more generally an artist. Throughout his life, he had never really stopped being a well rounded artist. He was a painter, sculptor, a poet, a novelist, an essayist and an editor. If you’ve ever seen one of his books on the shelf, whether in German or in translation, the cover picture is one drawn or painted by Grass himself. I keep repeating these things because with Grass, they are not minor details. Grass was an unbelievably talented artist. He was not a novelist who dabbled in other genres or areas. I can’t properly judge his art (not my field of expertise) but I can certainly vouch for his poetry. Throughout his career Grass wrote poems and while his later poetry was never quite as good as his early work (true for many poets), he had kept his gift until the mid-1990s, when it, with his other gifts, slowly left him. I would not be who I am as a poet and writer today without Grass’ early poetry, and its influence was fairly wide spread in German literature generally. His gifts were so lavish that he started to write almost occasional poetry, poetry with lewd or odd subjects, poetry that was incorporated into novels, most notably Der Butt (The Flounder, 1977), which contains poems extolling the practice of going to the toilet as a group activity, among other subjects. I insist on this because writers so profoundly gifted in so many areas are very rare and for many decades, there was good reason to count him among the world’s foremost purveyors of literature.

tin drumIt was Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), his very first novel that indelibly established his importance and skill. It’s part of the misleadingly called Danzig trilogy as all three of the books are set in Danzig/Gdansk. The term is misleading because, with a few exceptions, most of Grass work is either set in or refers back to Danzig, which is Grass’ Yoknapatawpha County. In her essential study of Grass’ work, Irene Leonard pointed out that “Danzig was a German microcosm. In Danzig, events in the Reich were repeated in slow motion.” Additionally, Grass makes all his characters into members of the petit bourgeois class, Kleinbürger in German, this being the class with the highest density of Nazi supporters. This obsession makes him give background characters, when they reappear in his later works, more petit bourgeous professions than they were said to have when they first appeared. It’s important to know that this shifting of truths is not an exception, it’s the rule in Grass’ work, starting with his debut novel. Grass is almost obnoxious in his insistence that not only are his narrators unreliable, he himself is not a reliable source regarding his own books and he crafted a prose intended to have a life of its own. I can’t speak for translations, but in German, Grass writes exactly the kind of prose that you’d expect from a masterful poet – he is highly attentive to even the most minute elements of his writing. A Grass sentence is instantly recognizable: Grass has a specific way of using objects and adjectives in his sentences, by omitting pronouns, stacking and shifting adjectives. He paraphrases and dismembers official jargon, figures of speech, commonplaces and sources such as Heidegger or Weininger. His fiction was first written by hand, then typed into a typewriter, then typeset by the publisher. In all these stages, it was continuously edited and refined. In Grass’ work, especially in the latter two novels of the Danzig trilogy, we are made to witness a writing that is highly cerebral and attentive, and yet also compulsively readable. It’s a visceral joy to read Grass, and that’s not just connected to his obsession with physicality, whether that’s young Tulla Pokriefke’s thin body or the rich physical multitudes of cooking, eating and crapping in The Flounder.

nuveau roimanGrass’ influences are complex and varied. The most immediate influences are the nouveau roman for their use of surfaces and objects, the great poet Arno Holz (who almost won the 1929 Nobel prize) for his use of adjectives and Alfred Döblin for almost everything else. Döblin combined for Grass (and many other German writers) the influences of European avantgarde like dada or absurdist literature with the impact of Joyce and Dos Passos, all of which is wrapped in a strong dedication to narrative and readability. Other influences on Grass are Swiss classic Gottfried Keller (especially Der Grüne Heinrich), Goethe and a whole array of novelists ranging from Laurence Sterne to Grimmelshausen. From all these influences, Grass learned how to deal with narrators and reliability, how to use objects in order to fragment narratives of reality into episodes or scenes that are then co-determined by the presence of the objects arranged in the scene. Public language, molded into Grass’ syntax, becomes one more objects among many, all of which often ends up overwhelming the stories’ subjects. Grass as the author is intentionally elusive, pushing the text away even from himself. His is a writing heavy with symbols but on close reading, these symbols tend to shift, displace, elude. To an incredulous American interviewer he once said “Symbols are nonsense – when I write about potatoes, I mean potatoes.” At the same time, he was aware and adamant that as the author, he did not have final authority over the text, especially once the book was written and he got rid of his notes. The author as a dubious witness – it’s more than an application of Tristram Shandy to the shambles of post WWII Europe. In the light of his autobiography, it also reflects a profound mistrust of grand narratives. A writer with a social and humanist conscience who is aware that in his youth and young adulthood, he unquestioningly and voluntarily followed and fought for the Nazi regime in general and Hitler more specifically, this kind of writer can end up with a poetics as Grass’: distrustful of narratives and distrustful of himself. Even in Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, doubt creeps in. Characters from the novels are given a voice, sowing doubt in the memoirist’s mind.

grass krebsAll of these things are already present in his first books. Die Blechtrommel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, a person of stunted growth, who writes down the book from within a sanatorium, a “Heil- und Pflegeanstalt”, the “cloisters of modernity” as Elias Canetti referred to them. According to its internal logic, Oskar wrote the book between 1952 and 1954, the book ending on the eve of his 30th birthday. There are two levels of story, one, Oskar’s life from conception uo to his 28th birthday, the other, the two years in the sanatorium during which Oskar writes down the book. There is no external authority verifying the truth of the events presented – in fact, it’s Grass’ own oeuvre that ends up factchecking his early books, confirming and denying various ostensible facts told us by Oskar. Oskar’s honesty is not the most importanr part. It’s his insistence, his obsession in marshaling the past to come back and give a record of the small and large crimes and sins that happened. The word “sin” is not randomly chosen here: Die Blechtrommel, is a book suffused with a sense of religion, reflecting Grass’s Catholic upbringing. Even more openly religiously influenced is the second book in the trilogy, the novella Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961). Numerous studies have shown that Grass carefully crafted the book to fit quite a few German theories of the form (ours is a nation obsessed with the genre of the novella, cf. Hartmut Lange for the probably best living practitioner of the form). For a writer enamored with excess and the fullness of story, this novella is remarkably strict and lean. It’s probably Grass’ most ‘perfect’ book, the one least flawed (we all remember Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel). It’s an exceptional achievement, and an unbelievable example of an already fantastically good writer rapidly developing and maturing. Katz und Maus tells a story of characters that we’ve already met. One has to imagine the Blechtrommel as opening a fount of stories that are all interconnected and that correct and discuss each other. The crowning achievement of this early work is Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963), which examines and interrogates guilt and complicity by putting on a virtuoso display of how to employ and undercut various forms of narration. It’s separated into three parts, using multiple kinds of voices, genres and perspectives, hiding and revealing identities, zooming in and out of smaller stories in order to discuss and illuminate the greater stories at length.

grass tänzeI discussed the Danzig trilogy at length for two reasons. One is the importance of its ideas, characters and methods for Grass’s later work that would continue to go back to this well until Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk, 2002), which is almost indistinguishable from parody. The other reason is that these 3 books, as well as the unexpected but excellent Das Treffen in Telgte (The Meeting at Telgte, 1979) are the most likely to endure. They are least shackled to the political events of the day. I don’t mean to say that those four books are Grass’ best work, but they are Grass’ most accessible work for an audience living at least a decade after the books were published. His very next novel after the trilogy, örtlich betäubt (Local Anaesthetic, 1969), published at the height of student protests, questions ideas of revolution and change, using history as a way to make sense of the present, not as a way to look at and interrogate the past. It’s also the first book not to include the writing situation as part of the story, even though its narrative setup is not dissimilar to Katz und Maus. While that one was constructed as an Augustinian confession in a very narrow sense, örtlich betäubt is basically a confession/rant delivered by a patient to his dentist (one is reminded of Peter Brooks’ precise analysis of the culture of confession). The present in question that’s being examined was the tail end of the Kiesinger administration. Long before Merkel, Germany was once, for three years, governed by a coalition of its two largest parties. The chancellor of that coalition was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member (who, like Grass, joined with enthusiasm). Other former members of the Nazi party included the foreign minister as well as the economics minister. This may explain the novel’s sense of gloom and doom, especially since Grass, a typical social democrat, did not believe in radical change either (Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!). The next novel, similar in intent, if differently structured, picks up at this point and ends in the election of Willy Brandt, the great hope of Germans center-left intellectuals.

grass brandWith those two novels a new era of Grass novels begins that use not just the past, but also myth and fairy tales in order to examine a political issue of the day, whether that’s feminism (Der Butt / The Flounder), demographics (Kopfgeburten / Headbirths), environmental concerns (Die Rättin / The Rat) or the German reunification (Ein weites Feld / Too Far Afield). They all have their specific strengths and are often powerfully written and elaborately (and cleverly) constructed. They were not, however, as well received by critics, in part because their political content offered critics an easy way to dismiss the books without engaging with their extraordinary literary power. It’s not until 2002 that Grass scored another major success with both critics and audience. That book was Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). Now, by 2002, Grass work did not have the same potency as it had even 1995. His collection of short prose, Mein Jahrhundert (My Century, 1999) was uncharacteristically flat, by then, he hadn’t published a new book of poetry since 1993. Im Krebsgang was short, hurried and flat – it turned out that Grass’ high octane style didn’t work when it wasn’t powered by a writer working at the top of his game. It seemed -as I mentioned- like a lazy parody. It’s success -somewhat analogous to the lack of success of the earlier books – was due to politics. In 2002 another important and popular, if deplorable, book was published: Der Brand by actor and historian Jörg Friedrich. In it, Friedrich goes on at length about the hardships of the German populace during the Allied bombing, producing a heated amalgam of facts, fiction and some terrible turns of phrases (like “the bomb holocaust”). Grass’ novel about a German civilian ship, sunk by a Soviet submarine in the last weeks of the war perfectly fit the sudden craving in Germany of narratives of German victims. Starting roughly in 1999, a subtle (though increasingly less so) historical revisionism had created this need for counter narratives that emphasized German victims. Apart from the very good first volume of his autobiography Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion, 2006), the rest of his work published in the oughts was similarly bad. His collection of poetry Letzte Tänze wasn’t even a parody any more. It’s just a mostly inconsequential book of newfound righteousness and old man horniness. The nadir, finally, of Grass’ literary production was his poem “Was Gesagt Werden Muss” (“What has to be said”), a poem about Israel that is full of modern antisemitic rhetoric.

grass grimmThe young Grass used to take these phrases and twist them into art and truth. Old Grass just regurgitates right wing rhetoric. In the years between Im Krebsgang and the new “poem”, he had given numerous ill informed interviews. Famously, he invented the fact that 6 millions of German soldiers had died in soviet camps, a number clearly intended to balance the 6 million Jews Germans had murdered. His use of German myth and tradition in connection with present day concerns in his last volume of autobiography Grimms Wörter (no translation yet, 2010) suddenly didn’t seem smart and literate any more as it was in the 70s and 80s and more reminiscent of right wing nationalist nostalgia. As his work and reputations slowly disintegrated Grass pressed on, gave interviews, published more individual poems. More, more. Despite his misguided politics in the last decade of his life and his waning literary skills, he was still animated by an urge to say something, to contribute something, to do something. For me, there’s nothing worse than a writer without obsessions and urges. Günter Grass had both in spades and the best of his work ranks with some of the best literature published in the last century. It’s tempting to judge him in the light of his poor last decade. As someone who has been reading Grass for 20 years, who has read all of his books, most of them multiple times, I don’t want to do that. Today we mourn the passing of a Great Writer. Mourn with me. They don’t come along very often.

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“…the Oglalas are my tribe.”

So in my Jason Aaron review, near the end, I go on a bit of a jag about representation and about the comparative flatness of Aaron’s “Rez” compared to his Southerners, and today I came across this apparently fairly famous review/essay by the fantastic Sherman Alexie.

Of course, Frazier writes all of this with transcendent talent, with compelling metaphors and gorgeous description, and I was moved. But something troubled me, and I realized that Frazier and Big Crow had never met each other, that he knew of her only through other people’s stories and newspaper clippings. […] Does he ever admit that somebody from “the rez” has a different life experience than somebody who is just writing about the rez? Does he understand that the title of his book should have been “On Their Reservation?” As he could be accused of objectifying Big Crow, he is also guilty of objectifying the entire Oglala Nation. He claims ownership of the tribe when he states, “By blood and circumstances, I can never be an Oglala; but by long-standing affinity, the Oglalas are my tribe.” I pray that all of you understand the power of Frazier’s use of the possessive “my tribe.” I hope that you realize that an Indian and a white man can both use that possessive and mean two entirely different things.

La Place de l’étoile – translated!

79cover-smallWell, not all of it. Pepe Karmel over at AGNI online has translated the first few pages of Modiano’s amazing debut novel into English. If my awful review has convinced you to take a look, go there now. According to them, Pepe Karmel was the first to translate 2014 Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano into English. AGNI, which apparently also (mainly?) has a print edition, is published at the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University.

1300 pages of genius

So this just came out. I will return my copy due to not being able to afford it, but it’s still awesome. 1300 pages of genius. Roth, despite all the praise he has received, is still one of America’s underappreciated novelists, and Call It Sleep one of the major masterpieces published before WWII. This book collects his late novels in one volume for the first time and it’s gorgeous, and gorgeously produced, as well.

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The Man’s Book

From the flap of this odd find:

The Man’s Book. (…) Action, suspense and thrills are the essential qualities of all the stories which are selected, from the pick of all the publisher’s lists, by an all-male editorial board who know the kind of tough, hard-hitting reading that men prefer. By its policy of providing vigorous, virile reading of high quality, in fine bindings at low cost the MAN’S BOOK SERIES has deservedly become the outstanding publishing triumph of recent years.

I haven’t started reading the book yet, because after this introduction, what else can the book be but a letdown? DSC_1130

Panama

“Where are you going?” I asked
“Thinking of going to Panama.”
“Why?”
“It’s the last place I saw you.” She pressed her beautiful hands to her face and said, “In Panama I’m married. I have a man and he’ll stand up for me through thick and thin. Everywhere else I’m in pieces.”

– from Thomas McGuane’s novel Panama (review forthcoming soonish)

Argentina bans unhealthy books

Here’s something you won’t read everyday: The Argentine government has severely restricted the importation of books due to human health concerns*:

That’s right. According to the government, it can be dangerous to “page through” a book that has high lead quantities in its ink. “If you put you finger in your mouth after paging through a book, that can be dangerous,” said Juan Carlos Sacco, the vice-president of an industrialist organization that supports the measure.

The government claims that this is not a ban. However, since each buyer has to demonstrate at the airport’s customs office that the ink in the purchased book has lead quantities no higher than 0.006% in its chemical composition, the result is that all book imports into the country are stalled.

*(following that link will lead you to an unpleasantly partisan right wing site, so be warned.) (Via)

Vergebens erhub sich Satan wider den göttlichen Sohn

Visited Klopstock‘s grave today (photos later). Took the opportunity to start a reread of his magisterial Messias. Ah, poetry.

Sing, unsterbliche Seele, der sündigen Menschen Erlösung,
Die der Messias auf Erden in seiner Menschheit vollendet
Und durch die er Adams Geschlechte die Liebe der Gottheit
Mit dem Blute des heiligen Bundes von neuem geschenkt hat.
Also geschah des Ewigen Wille. Vergebens erhub sich
Satan wider den göttlichen Sohn, umsonst stand Judäa
Wider ihn auf; er tat’s und vollbrachte die große Versöhnung.

Oh Mann Ammann

Eine traurige Nachricht, ein echter Verlust. Der Ammann Verlag schließt seine Pforten. Hier ist ein Interview mit dem Besitzer und Leiter des Verlages, Egon Ammann und hier ist die Pressemitteilung.

Zum 30. Juni 2010 wird der Ammann Verlag seine publizistische Verlagsarbeit beenden. 1981 von Egon Ammann und Marie-Luise Flammersfeld gegründet, erreichte der Verlag sogleich mit seiner ersten Publikation, dem Erzählungsband »Die Tessinerin« von Thomas Hürlimann, internationale Aufmerksamkeit. Für das Frühjahr 2010 bereiten wir unser letztes Programm vor. (…) Die Gründe für diesen Entschluss liegen im fortgeschrittenen Alter der Verleger und in einer Marktsituation, die für Literatur zunehmend schwieriger wird. Ein Verlag mit dem Profil des Ammann Verlags ist eng an die verantwortlichen Personen gebunden und kann ohne sie nicht fortbestehen. Marie-Luise Flammersfeld und ich haben gegeben, was wir zu geben hatten. – »Alles hat seine Zeit.«

(via)

Paolo tells all!

Paolo Giordano, rising star of the Italian literary scene, who has recently published his debut novel, La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi, to thunderous acclaim, winning the 2008 Premio Strega, answers a few readers’ questions on the World Literature Forum (where I can also be found). Here is the link to the thread where questions, even of a frivolous and private nature (“Paolo, why are you so pretty?”) can be asked and where they will be answered by Giordano during the next few weeks. You need to register first, but it’s worth it, anyway. The reason why Transworld Publishers staged this event is because they will publish the English translation of the book (The Solitude of Prime Numbers) during the coming month. I’m currently reading the book and will post a review next week when I’m finished. It isn’t the first event of its kind at the WLF. Upon the publication of Niccolo Ammaniti’s The Crossroads, its publisher, Cannongate Press, already had its author answer a few questions here.

Cut up and Tabulate!

David Nygren twittered an idea, “about writing a novel in an Excel spreadsheet.”, experimented a bit and invented, with help from Nick Name, the Novexcel. Here’s how that looks:

Instead of writing a complete novel in excel form, he wrote a story first:

The first worksheet of the Excel file has the “raw data,” the story itself (8 columns x 30 rows). The easiest way to read it is to click on the first cell and then use the arrow keys to move to the next cell you want to read. The second sheet has a line graph that gives graphical representation to the “Character Intensity of Thought Units” (CIT Units) for each “Action Segment” in the story.

The raw data is formatted to print nicely, if that’s your thing. However, I encourage everyone to read the story in its electronic format. I’ve turned on “Track Changes,” thereby cordially inviting you to collaborate with me on this short storyspreadsheet. Make any changes you feel are appropriate, and then send your version of the short storyspreadsheet back to me at david [at] theurbanelitist [dot] com. I’ll be able to highlight any changes you made.

I keep reading texts and essays by people advocating cutups, but this is a first (for me). The possibilities of this are endless. via

Wordslaughter

This year’s Tournament of Books is under way. Don’t miss the carnage, and 2666’s inevitable win. Here is the first round:

2666 v. Steer Toward Rock
judged by Brockman

Netherland v. A Partisan’s Daughter
judged by Kate Schlegel

The White Tiger vs. Harry, Revised
judged by Jonah Lehrer

Unaccustomed Earth v. City of Refuge
judged by Mary Roach

Shadow Country v. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
judged by Anthony Doerr

The Lazarus Project v. The Northern Clemency
judged by Monica Ali

A Mercy v. The Dart League King
judged by Jonathan Eig

Home v. My Revolutions
judged by Witold Riedel

The Lizard of Oz: Rachel Ingalls’ “Mrs. Caliban”

Ingalls, Rachel (1983), Mrs. Caliban, Harvard Common
ISBN 0-87645-112-1

There is a risk to this: burdening a book or poem with the weight of a classic work of literature, especially if the work is as iconic as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The shorter the book, the more frivolous, usually, the reference, in my experience. None of this is applicable to this novel, which wears the reference lightly and plays with it, with ease and joy. Rachel Ingalls is a writer unjustly neglected by the reading public, her work is largely out of print, including this novel, probably her most famous book. Mrs. Caliban was published in 1983, but not a single phrase or scene in it feels dated. Having just finished it, I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm, to put my pure and utter delight at reading this novel into words. Everything about this book fits, every word, every image seems perfectly calibrated. It’s intellectually rich, it’s use of intertextuality is fascinating and challenging, but above all else, it is a great read that races through a fantastic spiral of events, dragging the engrossed reader along. The book is frequently very funny, often rather sensual, but, au fond, as when we hear the protagonist say to her 6-foot lover, “Larry, you’re all I have”, it is a profoundly sad novel, a sadness that, lucky for us, never turns to bitterness.

As is to be expected, no one in the novel is actually called Mrs. Caliban. The protagonist is called Dorothy, which naturally recalls the Wizard of Oz. She is a housewife, whose life feels empty to her. Her husband, Fred, is frequently claiming to be working late, but Dorothy suspects him of actually having an affair; Fred has had affairs before and currently he is distancing himself again from his wife, not touching her more than necessary, moving the beds apart. This last distancing happened after, after an accident and a miscarriage, the pair suddenly found themselves childless. The accident had brought them together for a short period, but the miscarriage had driven them apart. As in so many cases, the husband, irrationally blamed the wife for what happened. Marriage is portrayed as an imbalanced relationship, where the wife is more of a servant than a sensual human being. It’s not just Fred. Estelle, Dorothy’s best friend, finds out that two men are proposing to her in order to acquire a housemaid, already seeking sexual satisfaction on the side with other, younger women. This strange piece of dialog illustrates Dorothy’s need well:

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn the corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.”
“With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.”

Up to now, Mrs. Caliban has intermittently shown signs of curiousness: the radio seems, for instance, at times to interact with Dorothy, when the radio program is interrupted by a speaker who imparts, sotto voce, soothing messages for her. One day, however, a strange (even stranger?) message, in a loud voice announces breaking news. A giant green sea monster, called “Aquarius the Monsterman”, has escaped from the “Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research”. Since her special messages so far had all been delivered in the same tone of voice, Dorothy decides that this has really happened. This broadcast starts off a novel which is preoccupied with a constant flickering of fantasy and reality, and Ingalls displays no interest in telling us what’s real and what isn’t. The fantastic events become more pronounced when “Aquarius the Monsterman” suddenly arrives on her doorstep, turns out to be called Larry and to speak English. Both name and language have been forced on him by the researchers at the Institute, who performed gruesome experiments on him, torturing the poor guy and even abusing him sexually. For the rest of the novel, however, we’ll only know him as Larry.

Larry is something of an antithesis to the world around Dorothy. In contrast to our pop-cultural expectations he does not have an unpronounceable foreign name, which the savvy researchers have shortened to Larry. He was given his name because in his home culture:

“We don’t give names… Everyone knows. We recognize each other.”

The whole culture seems far more intuitive, people do “the same things” and look the same., it seems less like a humanoid society and more like a tender, well-oiled machine, such as nature may appear to be at times. Larry is very tender, careful. Apart from webbed toes and frog eyes he appears to look like any (good looking) man. The fact that he is stark naked quickly awakens Dorothy’s desires, which lay dormant for a long time:

He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“Of course.”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“Show me.”
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”

She proceeds to have sex with him quite often, everywhere in the house. The novel never describes the sexual act, but shows its reflection in the changes in Dorothy, who becomes happy, relaxed, who suddenly starts to take an interest in life again. She learns what Larry is prepared to eat and what not, she learns about the way he was treated in the Institute. Automatically she assumes multiple roles. She is protective, as of a child, she caters to him as she caters to her husband and, most importantly, of course, she has taken him as her lover. At night he hides in the guest room or drives around town (she teaches him), and whenever her husband is gone, Larry comes out. Events spiral out of control when he kills five louts in self-defense, who attacked him with knives and broken bottles. The media immediately points to the dreaded monster; clearly, he’s no longer safe in her house, people will notice and tell on her. She must get him back to sea, which attempt leads to the cataclysmic finale.

Many of the references to “The Tempest” are obvious, I’d think, but there is a twist to it all. Larry is both Prospero, the man who comes over the sea and leaves again at the end, and Caliban, the native ‘alien’, who is taught the ‘civilized’ culture, who is perceived to be in need of teaching (incidentally, he does not only learn language. He watches a lot of TV and starts, suddenly, to imitate a dancer in a commercial. After learning the performance he asks Dorothy what it means. She replies that it’s just a dance performance and considers telling him about the cultural moorings of dance, but thinks better of it. After a while, twoscore pages later, Larry proclaims to have understood what it means. We are never told what Larry’s groundbreaking insight is, but clearly, using his limbs in the semiotically fraught way of dance is a language, as well, and Larry recognizes this immediately, and learns). Since Larry is, as I mentioned, a representative of the forces of nature (He seems, at times, as naïve and helpless as Prince Myshkin, but their naivety is rooted in completely different circumstances; indeed, it’s rather Dorothy who is a weathered, numbed descendant to the Prince, I think), one may see the world where humans built their cities as the island where Prospero’s rule has wrought many changes. Dorothy, the best candidate for ‘Mrs. Caliban’, supports such a reading. The very name “Mrs. Caliban” is ambiguous. Fred, her husband, is clearly in no shape to be the noble savage, but at the end, Larry and Fred, somehow, have merged in her racked mind: asked about her husband’s name, she produces the name “Larry”. This suggests that it is only at the end of the novel that she has become Mrs. Caliban.

This issue of naming and reference is fickle. Ingalls interrogates two large constructs, both concerned with power and disenfranchisement. There is gender and its intricacies, the relationships between men and women, the roles both automatically assume and the difficulties of breaking out of such a role. Both Dorothy and her best friend Estelle try, and both, in a way, fail at it and both are tragic failures, because we can see it coming. The depressing, claustrophobic domestic situation of Dorothy is emblematic for the world and society she lives in and it takes Larry for us to see that. I say: “for us”, because all the characters are restricted to their world, they are never afforded the opportunity to actually reflect upon their roles and relations. The second large construct is only hinted at, and it concerns the idea of enlightenment and progress. Larry and the Institute are two factors in this discourse, but the criticism does not only strike at blind belief in scientific progress: when a news report about the five dead teenagers moves Fred to rant about the ugly, giant monster, we get more than a whiff of the amount of prejudice and racism that is part of this society’s structure. The fact that the community appears to be completely ‘white’ only adds to the claustrophobia. In order to to this in the brevity she has chosen, however, Ingalls is forced to project very conventional, strangely unproblematic sense of corporeality. It questions many conventions, but bodies just exist and are all functional human bodies. I said ‘strangely unproblematic’ because, after all, we encounter a 6 foot sea monster which has never lived with humans, which doesn’t speak normally, which is irritated by the movements of dance, but this is all taken in stride. The strangest part about this is sexuality.

While emphasizing the needs of sexuality for Dorothy, the novel is less explicit about the effect this has on Larry, who has never had sexual intercourse before. In a way, Dorothy makes him into a man, but we never learn whether this effects any change in Larry. After all, we aren’t even sure Larry exists at all. The uncanny messages that we learn about on the very first page, introduce a sense of surreality. In the sense of Brian McHale’s excellent explication of postmodernism, this is a highly postmodern novel which at no point expresses an interest in finding out what’s real and what’s not. There are parts of the story that conform more to what we conventionally perceive to constitute ‘reality’ and parts that conform less to that, but Ingalls is constantly mixing up her elements. Certainty is not for us, and it’s neither for Dorothy who, in the final chapter, scrambles to hold everything together even as life and fantasy fall apart. In a way, Dorothy is caught up in a Cyclone but she can neither return to Kansas nor land in Oz, so she’s in a state of limbo. Thinking about this I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s famous essay on the Wizard of Oz where he points out the difference between the Kansas of the book and the Kansas of the movie version. If I do not misremember him, he emphasizes the fact that the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz movie is not a realistic Kansas, as the one in L. Frank Baum’s book is. It is a curiously warped version. In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy may be living in a country which is the dark twin of that Kansas.

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Short Circuit: Ilija Trojanow’s “Autopol”

Trojanow, Ilija (1997), Autopol, dtv
ISBN 3-423-24114-4

While not conceiving or constructing it first, the Autobahnen, the German highway system, is still considered to be one of Adolf Hitler’s lasting achievements by many Germans, not just revisionists. In his second novel, “Autopol”, Ilija Trojanow digs deeply into the tar to excavate a horrific dystopia, published in 1997, on the heels of his widely praised debut novel “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (1996), as part of an Internet project, as a “novel in progress”, published in small, hyper-linked installments. Since then he has been traveling the world and went on to published multiple travel accounts of India, Bulgaria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mecca, he has also been writing essays, managing his own small publishing house (all of his books, incidentally, were published elsewhere). With all that, it took him 9 years to finish his third novel, “Der Weltensammler”, which I’ve reviewed here. “Der Weltensammler” is, as I said then, a masterpiece, frightfully aware and complex, a mature work in every way, a warm, full-bodied read. “Autopol”, in contrast, is short and very lean, almost angular; it’s also considerably less complex, serving its ideas up hot from Trojanow’s excellent mind.

When it was finished and, finally, published in book form, for a while readers had the choice to read the paper copy of it or the hypertext online version. All I had was the book itself, and while I can see how the novel would have worked as a hypertext, I do not have the option of reading it as such any more, since the online version has disappeared. Contrary to my expectations, ordering all the bits and pieces and binding them into a single book may have rendered the whole enterprise less interesting, rather than more, but that’s purely speculative, of course. The actual book on my desk is certainly worth reading and recommended. It’s a science fiction thriller, told in very small chapters. There are dialogs, conventional narratives, photographs, copies of press clippings, and an official memorandum. The plot is rather conventional, but cutting up the narrative and offering several voices the opportunity to tell the story makes for a quick and varied read. The novel consists of three sections; while the basic mixture of formal genres within each section stays roughly the same, the headings change. This may appear to be an inconsequential change, something that could be seen as simple trickery, but “Autopol” not only relies heavily on such changes but it also draws much strength and insight from them. It’s power is not, after all, derived from the writing itself, but from other elements: scenario, ideas, and formal tricks. The writing, I’m sorry to say, is weak, though it is never actually bad: somehow Trojanow always manages to be at least functional. He conveys what he has to in a decent style without the stylistic embarrassments that plague so much of current German fiction.

The basic idea is simple: a political dissident, Sten Rasin, is imprisoned in a huge prison colony, the eponymous Autopol, where criminals are dropped into to disappear; Rasin subsequently stages a large-scale prison escape attempt, in the course of which hostages are taken and people are killed. In Autopol, there is no rehabilitation, it’s a place where those end up whom the society wishes gone. Thus far, nothing new. The structure of the prison, however, is novel. It’s not a region or a place or, God forbid, one of those prison planets so ubiquitous in SF movies. It is a system of highways, a closed circuit that is cut up into four sectors, each of which has four rest stops. In between the rest stops, cars ceaselessly circulate. These cars are the prisons, and their drivers are called pilots, since the cars are apparently meant to be a mix of high tech buses and modern trains. The rest stops are solely meant for the drivers. Prisoners only get off the buses when they are sick or dead. They eat, sleep and live on the road. This system, closed off the the world bustling on outside, has developed a dynamic of its own. It is not run by the government, it is run by a company; the judiciary has almost unchecked powers to drop people into the abyss that is the Autopol and neither the company nor the people outside care. As it turns out, by now, even if they did care, the system cannot be effectively supervised by the people. Criminals are not just abandoned in the prison; by dropping them into the closed system of the Autopol, they are dropped out of the “open” system of the society outside.

This scenario will evoke several unpleasant historical and cultural associations in most readers. There are roughly three layers of significance. The first, and most unpleasant, is the most obvious one. In my first sentence I mentioned the Führer, and the Third Reich is a central reference here. One of the most salient associations, I think, are the cattle wagons used to move Jews through Europe to their fatal destination. As with the Autopol, the railways were a kind of closed system, with most onlookers pursuing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regard to the prisoners. The context here is different, of course, but Trojanow is concerned with the frightening ability of a society to cast out its members without looking twice and asks how this ties into our notions of narrative. “Autopol” dwells quite extensively upon the intricacies of speech and discourse, partly by using different genres, as mentioned, partly by the inclusion of an undercover journalist, who is determined to ‘get the truth’. This is the second major reference, equal parts Natural Born Killers and Katharina Blum. Journalistic ethos and narrative truth are both important parameters here, and questions arise as to how the media shapes our understanding of the world etc. If this sounds unspectacular, it is.

This part of “Autopol” is tedious and repetitive. Much of the resulting boredom is due to Trojanow’s decision to set the novel in a world very similar to the one he lived in then (1997 Germany). He restricts the SF elements to the Autopol. This, of course, makes some of the novel’s predecessors such as Böll all the more obvious, and severely restricts the scope of its criticism. That’s something that we often find in fiction writers who turn to the tools of SF for inspiration, but shy away from going all the way. So ’tis with “Autopol” as well: by restricting the amount of SF elements, Trojanow loses many advantages the genre offers. This restriction is clearly intended to generate immediacy, to make the criticism more directly relevant to today’s readers, and, in this, the novel definitely succeeds. Trojanow is a very good writer, too good not to make this book work at least at one level. His decisions, i.e. opting for sound bites rather than longer prose sequences, and for immediacy rather than complexity, mar the novel, I think. As it is, it is highly readable, well executed, but never rises beyond “good”. Good, but, I fear, forgettable, like a good, strong drink.

A drink, that only speaker/readers of German are able to enjoy, so far. As of today, only three of Trojanow’s books have been translated into English. Adding “Autopol” (or his debut novel!) would not be the worst of ideas. Get to it.

Wild at Art: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich”

Keller, Gottfried (2007), Der Grüne Heinrich (Erste Fassung), Deutscher Klassiker Verlag
ISBN 978-3-618-68023-9

This extraordinary novel, translated into English as “Green Henry”, is generally acknowledged to be one of the great novels of World Literature (we’re not getting into Canonization etc. here, a’ight?), and while I find ranking literature difficult, especially over a large period of time, after finishing “Green Henry” I could not but concede the justness of such a categorization. Please take heed: there are two editions of “Green Henry”, one published in 1854/55, with Gottfried Keller, at 33, still a young, energetic man. The second edition was published 25 years later, its author a settled, paunchy old man. There are significant changes between the two editions and much of what distinguishes the first edition has been changed in the second, especially the dark ending, “dark as a cypress”, as Keller himself put it. I advise anyone who considers reading this book against reading the second edition first. Alas, I have not been able to find out which edition the English translation is based on.

“Green Henry” is not a perfect novel, far from it. Compared to so-called perfect novels such as FMF’s The Good Soldier, this one is almost a formless, youthful, overcooked piece of prose. Keller was writing and drafting the novel while the presses were running, his publisher taking the drafts straight off his hands. Immediately after publication, Keller expressed his distaste with the outcome of his work. He planned and drafted this novel for over ten years, assembling odds and ends, shifting parts to and fro. The only thing that stayed constant over all these years was the basic idea and the ending. When explaining why he did not discard the novel instead of trying to revise it into a bearable edition, Keller said that there are parts of the novel which he cannot explain, which he cannot reproduce. There are parts of the novel that “one can only have once, and only give once”, as he wrote. After finishing the novel, the reader will feel himself able to point to phrases, chapters, scenes the writer may have meant. I think this says a lot about the book and the impression it makes on its readers.

The plot is not particularly noteworthy, per se. As a classic Bildungsroman it follows the general rules of the genre. It follows Heinrich Lee, a young man from Zürich, through the first stages of his education, academical and sentimental, up to the dark last pages. One of many remarkable aspects is the structure. After some pages Keller inserts an autobiographical récit. It is referred to as a “Youth history” (Jugendgeschichte) in the novel and makes up roughly half of the length of the complete novel. This section is written in the first person singular; the narrator is Heinrich himself and throughout the rest of the novel he carries the manuscript of the Jugendgeschichte everywhere with him. When he, in the later stages of the book, travels back to Zürich, poor and disgraced, he owns nought but the clothes on his back and the manuscript that contains his Jugendgeschichte. The beginning and the rest of the novel is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, who is, true to the time, quite judgmental, but he is just judgmental enough to balance the cocky voice of Heinrich which has accompanied us for such a long time. The novel as a whole sometimes feels like one of the long, elaborate dreams related during its course, but it feels eerily balanced. Characters move in and out of it; the Jugendgeschichte starts at the beginning of one volume and ends in the middle of another; the third person narrator is sometimes annoyingly interested in Heinrich’s thoughts and feelings and sometimes he barely registers the existence of these things in Heinrich, but it all, miraculously, seems to cohere. And it’s Keller’s voice and thinking that makes it cohere, not the plot, not the writing and certainly not Heinrich.

Heinrich is driven by an ardent wish to become an artist; he has considerable talent and finds at home in Zürich several teachers to help him on his way. When the Jugendgeschichte sets in he is without a father. His father used to be a famous and brilliant man, and his fame is both a help and a hindrance for Heinrich in his days in Zürich. Heinrich’s mother is a dear, caring, thrifty woman, one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered in literature. She manages their household money, pays for Heinrich’s lectures and, when he’s of age, endows him with enough money to enable him to move to Munich where he intends to pursue a career as a professional artist. The Jugendgeschichte suffers from having a first person narrator, because Heinrich (the protagonist) is a typical teenager, a know-it-all, who pities himself almost as often as he envisions a golden future; the fact that Heinrich (the narrator) wrote the Jugendgeschichte shortly before leaving for Munich, casting judgment upon his younger self, is making it worse.

There are two basic concerns in the Jugendgeschichte: art and love. Heinrich is a typical teenage boy who vacillates between pining for girls, which includes writing poems and drawing pictures of and for the loved one, and acting cool, in order not appear vulnerable towards the girl who obviously cannot feel anything for him. Granted, my own youth may have been a particularly pathetic specimen (which I still hesitate to turn to for in my writing, no matter how much I’d like to tap that source) but not much appears to have changed, once you subtract obvious (positive) changes in a society’s mores, such as teenage sexuality and the influence of Christian thought on your average thinking teenager. In this, we never see Heinrich grow up. In his infatuations and affairs with girls in Munich, he never stops being his teenage self. If a Bildungsroman charts a maturing of the main character, not just an education, “Green Henry” violates that rule. His behavior towards the first girl in his life and his behavior towards the last girl are strangely similar. Heinrich, called nicknamed ‘green’ because of the green clothes his mother sews for him, remains green for all his emotional life. He’d rather evade confrontations than talk or sit through them. If he has the opportunity to not open himself up to hurt, he will take it. As someone who can understand the logic of that, I could have told him that hurt is not easily put off one’s tracks; someday, it will catch up with you. Heinrich has this lesson driven home to him again and again yet he doesn’t learn, he remains green Henry.

It is completely different with art. Art, for Heinrich, is a continuous learning process. First he learns from teachers, then, upon visiting relatives in the country, he starts to learn from nature. The Jugendgeschichte is crammed with Heinrich’s ruminations about what real art should and should not do, it discusses the relation between art and nature, between copying a picture and creating one oneself. Time and again we see Heinrich torn between the easy solution of drawing an idea, a cliché ridden image, with no connection to the natural world, and what he sees as the ethos of art, trying to provide as truthful a picture of nature as possible. We find that his relatives in the country, even his peasant uncle who has not seen much art in his life, can easily spot the artifice, the ‘wrong’, the dishonest kind of art. All this is spread heavily throughout the Jugendgeschichte, and honestly, it is tedious. As mentioned, we have two Heinrich’s in the Jugendgeschichte, Heinrich the protagonist and Heinrich the narrator, one more self-important than the other, and their combined education add up to this huge amount of lecturing. The tediousness, however, has a specific function in the novel. We’re supposed to feel the stupendous amount of youth that lords over all of Heinrich’s actions so as to feel him growing in the second half of the book.

What’s more, the layers of learning and failed learning open a dialogue with other books in the genre; in fact, the total collapse of Bildungsroman education in books like Jakob von Gunten are prefigured in the enormous tediousness here.

And, in contrast to Heinrich’s emotional life, his understanding of his own creativity and his art really matures and grows. His career as an artist never takes off because Heinrich isn’t willing to make it work, but at the same time, cut off from his home, cut off from nature, he digs deep into his creative urge and instincts. He understands, what works for him and what doesn’t. In a clear contrast to the Jugendgeschichte we barely see him drawing, painting, reflecting. What we get are dreams, where the cultural history of his country and the angsty swamps of his unconscious play out, we see him try to wake up after a year of doing nothing, try to tap into his creativity again, breathe into himself. In a pivotal scene he sits down to draw but he produces an abstract painting. His friends ridicule him, but neither they nor Heinrich himself can help being affected, if only for a moment, by the power of the painting, which is subsequently discarded. It does not fit the idea of good art, and good art, then and now, is equal parts accomplishment and market value. Heinrich admires crassly commercial artists, who are able to make any idea or sujet work with little effort: they just put their usual spin on it and it sells and sells and sells. Heinrich, on the contrary, is still searching for the perfect means to express himself.

Much of this novel seems run-of-the-mill, after all, it’s 1854, some of the most important and well known Bildungsromane have been written and provide a subtext for the novel: Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Wieland’s Agathon or Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs. Keller clearly has no ambition to innovate, per se. And yet the novel pivots on an interesting angle. This novel turns inward, to look not at the world or literature it turns inward. The way that the Jugendgeschichte is strewn over the 4 volumes in which the novel was published originally is significant: Heinrich’s quest is clearly also a formal imperative for this novel, which doesn’t present one long, convoluted plot as a series of skirmishes or battles with Heinrich’s art or himself, and he loses all of them. How ironic that, midway through the novel, he is to win the only actual fight he is in. Heinrich’s character makes us doubt his accounts in the Jugendgeschichte, too often Heinrich appears to exonerate himself from tougher charges; so while we read about his youth, we are constantly doubting the veracity of the Heinrich’s reports of the events relayed to us through his voice and when we watch him bumble through Munich, we are armed with the discussion of nature and artifice, shaken by the long dream sections which sometimes appear to be seamlessly blending into reality, and we start to doubt the evidence of our own ears, which makes for fascinating reading, although you don’t HAVE to read the novel that way. It doesn’t force any reading on you; you are perfectly free to read it as an example of the Bürgerlicher Realismus (bourgeois realism, a genre that dominated especially German 19th century novels in the second half of that century (Same time next week this blog will feature a review of another famous specimen of that genre, Wilhelm Raabe’s popular novel “Der Hungerpastor”)). Fact is, it drew me right in and especially the first and last third just flew by. Highly recommended (but only the first edition, remember!).

Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist

Whitehead, Colson (2000), The Intuitionist, Anchor
ISBN 0-385-49300-2

I may be experiencing a streak of luck lately with books I read for fun, but this right here is another excellent novel. It’s Colson Whitehead’s debut, published in 1999.Whitehead has since published two other novels to general praise and won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, and reading “The Intuitionist” it’s easy to see why. It is a very well-written, completely original novel about racism and elevators. It’s not perfect but it need not be. “The Intuitionist” is very good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It makes use of a fascinating kind of allegory: the protagonist is an Elevator Inspector, and the story is set in the Elevator inspector milieu, in a society which roughly corresponds to 1950s America, I think, featuring scenes at Elevator college seminars, in Elevator libraries, at Elevator inspector conventions, not to forget that Elevator inspecting gets done now and then and quite a bit of Elevator theory is relayed to us,including something that is most certainly a kind of Elevator deconstruction. The Derrida of Elevators is called Fuller, and although he’s been dead a while, he has an important part to play. I wager there isn’t a Derrida in actual Elevator inspecting practice. Although Elevator inspectors certainly do exist, it is not an academic profession, and I certainly doubt the existence of Elevator inspecting theory. Elevators provide an extraordinarily original allegory for a whole category of class concerns, but there is a danger. Racism and topics like that can be perceived as ‘dirty’, unpleasant, but clothing them in a clean allegory may help your rhetoric but it often reduces the inherent urgency of a topic like this. Colson Whitehead is smart enough to recognize that.

On top of this ingenious construction, he has crafted a suspenseful thriller. The plot is wonderfully complex and, true to its genre, only unravels slowly, as the protagonist finds out about intrigues and secrets hidden in every nook of the Elevator inspecting milieu. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black woman to become Elevator inspector. Inspector Watson. As someone who, in the center of power, is relegated to the peripheries, she is made to be the fall guy in what at first appears to be a union dispute. Two factions fight for the leadership of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and as elections approach, they will use any means necessary to secure an advantage. A pair of elevators recently inspected by Watson suddenly free-fall and crash. Although nobody has been harmed, this is a terrible accident that makes headlines and puts Watson’s faction at a disadvantage. In an effort to clear her name, Watson follows up on different shady leads, has a run-in with the mob, reveals a few secrets and falls in with a bad guy. The book, as far as genre is concerned, is a cross between the bookish thrillers of Dan Brown or Elizabeth Kostova and the detective novels of Chandler, but it is, of course, far more than that.

To understand the way the allegory is weaved into the novel, I think this passage, early in thew book, is significant:

For the first time it occurs to Lila Mae that someone might have been hurt. “That’s impossible. Total freefall is a physical impossibility.” She shakes her head.
“That’s what happened,” Chuck reaffirms. He’s still looking up at the ceiling. They can hear some of their colleagues whooping outside the door. “Forty floors.”
“Which one?”
“Number Eleven, I think.”
She remembers Number Eleven distinctly. A little shy, but that’s normal in a new cab. “The entire stack is outfitted with the new Arbo antilocks,” Lila Mae argues. “Plus the standard reg gear. I inspected them myself.”
“Did you check them,” Chuck asks tentatively, “or did you intuit them?”
Lila Mae ignores the slur. “I did my job,” she says.

In this innocuous passage several important references are hidden. Arbo is an elevator manufacturer, one of the two giants of the trade. The other is called United. The important reference, however, can be found in the dichotomy between “check” and “intuit”: the two aforementioned factions fundamentally differ in their approach to elevators. One of the factions prefers a hands-on approach, to look at the wiring and the mechanical parts of the elevator to check it. They are called the Empiricists and the current Chairman of the Department of Elevators is an Empiricist. The others intuit, they feel the Elevator, they try to sunder elevators and elevator-ness. They are called Intuitionists, and Fuller, the Derrida of elevator theory, is the founding father of that discipline. Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist, of course. Interestingly, one of the premises of the novel is that this approach, mad as it may sound, actually works. In fact, the Intuitionists can boast better results and Lila Mae Watson is the best of them all.

The fact that the narrator calls Chuck’s reference to Intuitionism a slur, when it could also be read as a factual question, since, after all, it’s what Watson actually did, points to the fact that it is actually the precarious balance between these two ways of reading Chuck’s words that defines many conflicts in the book. It is not surprising that Lila Mae Watson, the woman on the margins, chooses this discipline. And a secret, not revealed until late in the novel, about the founder of Intuitionism, further expounds upon that intricacy. Empiricism is more than the received and dominant doctrine. It is also the ideology of the dominant power paradigm, reflecting the society’s axiomatic values. So, in a black-and-white reading, Empiricism (as defined in the novel) is white, male, commonsensical, anti-intellectual bullshit. This is reinforced by passages like the following:

See, the Empiricists stoop to check for tell-tale striations on the lift winch and seize upon oxidation scars on the compensating rope sheave, all that muscle work, and think the Intuitionists get off easy. Lazy slobs.
Some nicknames Empiricists habe for their renegade collegues: swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis.

One of many strengths of this novel, however, is that such a reading, tethered solely to those in power, does an injustice to the actual intricacies. Watson is the only black Intuitionist, and her guild turns out not to have clean hands, either. For one thing, the novel reflects upon the intricacies of center and periphery, not opting for the easy way out. Pompey, the first black inspector, attacks Watson two thirds into the book:

This is a white man’s world. They make the rules. You come along, strutting like you own the place. Like they don’t own you. But they do. […] I was the first one in the Department. I was the first colored elevator inspector in history. In history! And you will never, ever know what the hell they put me through. You think you have it bad? You have no idea. […] You had it easy, snot-nose kid that you are, because of me. Because of what I did for you.

Problems of identity play a central role in the novel, questions of blackness (Whitehead has clearly read Aimé Cesaire) for example and questions of class, inasmuch as income, erudition and related issues are concerned. The extent to which corporate America was inimical to the young black men and women, to which it has pitted one isolated African American against another, to which it has silenced black voices to better hear the white screech.

Now here’s where the academic dispute becomes salient. It’s clearly intended as a satire on the academic world. In chapters that sketch Watson’s professional career, we are availed of large batches of elevator theory and we are clearly not supposed to take any of that seriously. In fact, as we will find out later, some central textbooks were expressly written as a joke. Personally, however, I think this is not just satire. Communication is a central issue in the novel: I think an especially important reference here is Henry Louis Gates jr.’s theory of the Signifying Monkey. Gates’ theory rests upon the assumption that African Americans have a way of communicating which is all their own, which creates a nonviolent way of coping with oppression and the oppressor, of opening a channel of communication among the silenced. In “The Intuitionist”, all the black characters ‘signify’, in Gates’ understanding of the term; in fact, Intuitionism is, partly at least, most certainly the practice of reading and concentrating upon a subtext in order to order one’s understanding of the whole. All this is wrapped in a light package.

This book is very easy to read and it is enjoyable on a very basic aesthetic level. The language is certainly rich and assured, although, as is expected of a debut novel, it hits a few shrill notes now and then. As I said before, Whitehead manages the genres he’s using very well: it is a suspenseful thriller, until the ending, which is a disappointment but not necessarily because of Whitehead’s ineptitude. On the contrary, I think Whitehead is slowing the book down deliberately at the end, to let his points sink in. He is clearly not interested in letting the reader breeze, untouched by his thinking, through a thriller set in a strange elevator world. He wants, no, he makes us understand what we have been served. And one of the last points we are made to understand is that it is no surreal fantasy world, after all: “The Intuitionist” presents a world that is almost a mirror to ours, a city that is like ours, just with elevator theory. It’s Gotham City, with elevators.

We are never told which city the City actually is, but like Gotham, we are pretty sure the city in question is supposed to be a distorted version of New York. And so, last but not least, “The Intuitionist” can be read as an ode to New York, since, among other things, the City is described as the one which the whole world looks to where elevators are concerned. It is a precarious city, and New York is a precarious city, the city of integration, but also a city of race riots, a city of chances and death traps. When Watson, after the underwhelming finale, decides to start anew, she stays in New York and we accept this: where else would she go, but to Gotham City? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. “The Intuitionist” shows us a society that is under a heavy strain by racial and class conflicts, that is on the brink of eruption, with the tired, poor, huddled masses leading this revolt; and it shows us a way out, not the way of assimilation, but the way of intuition, of communication, of finding a voice, and hearing the muffled voice behind the thick metal doors.

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Mouthfuls

Recently I discovered not just the fabulous blog A Literary Cocktail (anything that encourages drinking in style and on a regular basis is lovely) but the affiliated blog Bookbabble, I found it necessary and remarkable to point out the book talks posted there (among others, Irene of the Literary Cocktail partakes from time to time). Here’s the latest:

Visit the Widget Gallery

Flotsam: Stephen Marche’s “Shining at the Bottom of the Sea”

Marche, Stephen (2007), Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, Riverhead Books
ISBN 978-1-59448-941-9

Mark my words. Stephen Marche will be enormous, one of the greats of English language literature, if his second book, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, is any indication. This is is an excellent book. Well conceived and well executed, this is a book the kind of which is rarely encountered. It is a book of fictions that is itself a larger fiction that touches upon many interesting and necessary issues. Before I lose myself in the alleys of my mind, let me tell you: I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is doubtless among the best books I’ve read during the past months, and Stephen Marche may well be becoming one of my favorite living writers, if he can sustain this quality in his future work as well. This book has many ancestors but perhaps none so obvious as Borges and the divine Nabokov, author of a book that is quite similar to Marche’s masterpiece, in several regards: Ada, or Ardor. It is also heavily informed by theory, especially poststructural and postcolonial philosophy. Marche quotes luminaries of the fields in question such as Homi K. Bhabha or Jacques Derrida, but the work is never bogged down by these references and I will try to steer clear of Derrida and Bhabha in this review as well.

“Shining at the Bottom of the Sea” has a lot to say but it does it in a light and enjoyable manner. The fat sweaty man of theory that so often rolls upon the unsuspecting reader in books concerned with postcolonial issues, is luckily completely absent here, although the basic premise and structure suggests elsewhere. The book claims to be an anthology of writers from a former British colony: Sanjania, a Caribbean island. It is completely fictional, as is everyone of the 21 (unless I miscounted) Sanjanian writers included in the Anthology. Stephen Marche pretends to be merely the editor of the volume, who provides an informative preface and a glossary of the writers included in the anthology. The anthology contains Marche’s preface, an introduction by Leonard King, the most famous living Sanjanian writer, three sections of stories and one section of literary criticism by Sanjanian critics and others (including a letter by Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos). The scholarly parts of the anthology are (formally speaking) perfectly annotated and bibliographed, most references, of course, being completely bogus.

There is a caveat here: this is a careful book that does not sweep up the reader in a ravishing feat of storytelling, although Marche certainly would have the chops to pull this off. No, many stories here not terribly engaging nor are they supposed to be: most stories take less up less than ten pages, and the reader is not allowed to settle into them before he is thrown out again by the scruff of his neck. Some stories we are sad to leave, sad stories about love and death, pride and humiliationsome, I’m sorry to say, just pass us by. It’s a credit to Marche’s powers as a writer that we don’t feel this as a loss, it all adds up the big picture. Because this is, after all, what the pattern of stories is about. The stories manage to convincingly recreate a whole culture, the culture of a fictitious country, no less. With the very first story, the very moment Marche steps up to the plate, a swashbuckling history called “The Destruction of Marlyebone, the Private King” by a “F.R. Fisher”, we are captured by Sanjania. This story is three pages long but it packs the punch of a dozen more pages at least.

This story demonstrates many of the strengths of the whole collection. It never descends into low trickery, it does not fiddle with orthography or funny accents. There is a fine line between representing a voice and slipping into racism, and funny orthography is frequently amusing, but not necessarily evocative, certainly not in and of itself. Marche avails himself of an English that is predominantly modern, even in these early stories, supposedly written at the beginning of the 20th century (we’ll return to this in a moment), but he puts a peculiar spin on it, creating a tone that is all his own and that, after a few stories, we will recognize as “Sanjanian”. There are small tweaks on the syntax, but the larger part of the tone is carried by composites such as “oceanshrouded”. Marche fits these words snugly into the fabric of the stories, they never feel odd or like curios, instead we as readers accept that this choice of words is part of the rhythm of Sanjania. Marche’s success works on two levels, this one, the immediately pleasuring power of his writing is one of it.

The other level is cerebral. There is, as would be expected of a project like this, a double bottom to it all. This book is so carefully, intelligently, yes, slyly, constructed it provides hours of cerebral entertainment, even before we come to the “criticism” section. After all, in the first third of the stories, we have yarns that read like 17th century stories, or 19th century Romantic recreations. From the biographical notes, however, provided for each writer, we learn that they, as previously mentioned, are contemporaries of modernism. The style is clearly anachronistic, even within the fictional framework, Mr. “F.R. Fisher” undoubtedly intended it as a stylistic throwback. It’s propaganda, reaching back to one’s cultural roots to strengthen one’s cultural identity against the colonizer, in this case, the “Britishers” as they are often referred to in this book. A second detail that most will immediately remark upon is the very name of the island, since it refers both to the largest and most well known British colony (India) and to the odyssey of the Zoroastrians who fled what is know today as Iran and trekked all over Asia until they settled in India, where they are known today as Parsi.

This kind of cultural fluidity with a strong inner core that travels well (see Clifford and others) works as well for Sanjania. Both culture, that is, cultural travel and identity, as well as geography, literal and metaphorical, play an important role. In a central story, “Flotsam and Jetsam”, a bookseller expounds upon his theory that Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was written by a Sanjanian and is set in Sanjania. Travelers, i.e. people, ideas and books, are just so much flotsam and jetsam, thrown into the river of time in distress, with all the stories expressing a yearning for the time when the shipwrecks of old Sanjanian culture sailed under full sails (yes, with all the problematic issues associated with that). Again, not to be too repetitive, but the very fact that I can write this attests to Marche’s evocative capabilities, evoking a culture that does not even exist, and doing it in a light and readable manner to boot.

All of this raises numerous questions about culture and colonialism, not least because Marche’s method works from an English core, a colonial norm, everything here reaffirms the strength of the culture of the colonialist, and displays the maze one is sent to when one seeks out one’s own cultures central ideas with the tools provided by the colonialist. It also shows to what extent we’ve all become cultural colonialists, to what extent we’ve become readers who have, theory be damned, accepted certain framings of the story. Marche’s book does a merry jig in our frames, toys with them, by constructing a world without representing an actual world, solely with the constructs we use. He is a jester, laughing at us: this book does not evoke a world in the sense of representing it, it just taps our convention of how a world is to be evoked, read, (re)presented. Marche does not hit us over the head with these ideas, he lets us realize them, as we glide through a sea of stories, flotsam, all of us. This is a very good book. Read it.

Rationality: Beryl Bainbridge’s “Harriet Said…”

Bainbridge, Beryl (1977), Harriet Said…, Fontana
ISBN 978-0-00-614650-6

“Harriet Said…”, was written in 1958, in fact it was the very first novel Beryl Bainbridge wrote but, as it happened, when a publisher in 1972 finally agreed to publish it, it was the third of hers that was published. Bainbridge has since gone on to become one of the most renowned British novelists of her generation, but these days, several of her novels are out of print, including “Harriet Said…”, which is a big shame. This is an excellent novel, almost flawless; it is also a short novel that contains several other novels’ worth in its pages. It’s a sweet recollection about childhood, a complex evocation of interpersonal dynamics and a dark meditation on the emptiness in the souls of three families, that continues to build momentum until it ends in a climax that provides no resolution nor relief to the helpless reader. Since the book is extraordinarily well written, I almost could not resist reading the whole book in one sitting.

Part of that is the writing, and the eerie way that Bainbridge conveys the irreality of childhood experiences. Thinking back, haven’t we all got memories that appear to be, somehow, less than ‘real’? Language has always been an able medium to convey things like these; to my sensibility it seems that language, as our mediator between our synapses and the world outside, is uniquely qualified to express different ways of worldmaking, of perceiving what we are up against. Writers like Beckett manage to convey this without having to resort to manhandling language the way Rushdie does. Rushdie’s a writer on the adult side of the spectrum who tries to duplicate the other side. In contrast to him, Beckett seems to operate from within language. Apart from a few peers, the only batch of writers who also achieve this effect regularly are writers of children’s literature. They have to appeal to a child’s way of making the world, and they realize, like so few ‘adult’ writers do, to what extent children -and we- are, to use that old phrase: at the mercy of language.

Beryl Bainbridge’s book, however, balances on that divide between these two writings. One, which is conscious of our part in making the world, and the other, larger, adult one, which just accepts the world as a given (see, Rushdie molds the given into shape. He derives his effect from the contrast with the conventionally perceived way of worldmaking). In a way it is a novel on the adult side of the divide, looking over the fence at the Beckett side, if that makes any sense. Details are hard to provide. Odd phrases,words, transitions that sound exciting, and then on the other hand, imagery that is quite explicitly surreal, like this passage that could be the intro to a scene in a musical:

An old man on a bench further along began to whistle between his teeth, tapping his stick on the ground. When the red red robin goes bob bob bobbing a-long…A row of thin knees jerked up and down, a row of polished boots clumped in time to the tune. Any moment now, I thought, Harriet would fling her arms wide and sing at the top of her voice. She was probably only waiting for a tired chorus of old women in shawls and tattered skirts to dance over the stones, massive bosoms a-bobbing, before she began.

The writing is a source of joy. It seduces the reader from the very first page. Novels where the very language keeps surprising the reader are rare. This is one of them. Despite all this, I had to stop to catch my breath and continue reading it the day after. The plot that thus affected me revolves around three families, or rather: two girls (best friends), an old man, and their respective families. The two girls’ relationship is what powers this novel. One of the two is the first person narrator; the other’s the eponymous Harriet. The title is an apt description of the dynamics between the two thirteen-year-olds: the protagonist listens and acts, while Harriet speaks. Harriet appears to know her way around the world: she explains how best to treat their environment and, more significantly, she explains how to read it. The narrator keeps a diary but Harriet dictates her the entries.

Harriet knelt upright, drew out a box from under the dresser, opened it and handed me the diary. “We’ve neglected it,” she said as I took it. “I’ve lots to write about.” (…) Harriet gave me the pencil and lay on the floor again. “Put; ‘She has been away in Wales.” I began to write and kept my face averted, trying to be neat and quick at the same time. “ She has been away in Wales. What next?” “Put, ‘I have been here alone’.” Harriet’s voice was muffled against the carpet. “And that you have become more intimate with the Tsar.” It was always Harriet who dictated the diary, but it was in my writing in case her mother ever discovered it.

More significantly, it’s also from her perspective, not Harriet’s. The idea behind this is the fact that, in case of failing memories, a diary is the best evidence as to what events transpired, and Harriet, as the smarter, more mature friend, is better qualified to be in control of such an important task. She does not, however, stoop to picking up the pen herself (w/ one exception). She’d rather dominate the narrator, getting her to write, as she is also getting her to do fuck and murder. As events unravel, the narrator appears to be coming into her own, mostly through contact with the old man, Mr. Biggs, who is referred to as “the Tsar” by the pre-teen couple.

Early on, she thinks that she has fallen in love with the Tsar, despite the fact that she clearly does not know what it is to be in love. Harriet advises her on how to woo him, which explains why the narrator’s attempts at seducing the old pedophile quickly evolve into cruel games of domination. The narrator is an apt pupil, and is slowly developing a sense of self esteem, as she nudges the old man about. However, this self-esteem is highly unstable since she proves to be completely helpless where direct manifestations of love are concerned. She is unable to deal with situations where Harriet’s instructions are not helpful; there is a reason for the inadequacy of Harriet’s instructions in that area: when it comes to love, Harriet herself meets her limits. Thus, the two of them stumble through a sequence of events, fumbling for the right moves both in the literal as well as the figurative dark. Their helplessness and the lonely despair of Mr. Biggs make for a dense spiral of events.

There is a terrible tension in the book, which is getting worse and worse the further the novel progresses, until it approaches horror, of the kind we know from novels like Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child”. The kind of horror that arises from what dwells within us, not in our souls or dross like that but what hides within our communities, what dire things our social structures can beget. In other words, the horror is not in what the characters do. Like in many novels on, for instance, the Third Reich, terror is, partly in the readers’ recognition of the irrational rationale at work, the fact that we are never in the dark about their irrational rationale and can recognize it and fit it all too well into our world. Partly, we also find terror in the fact that these two girls can use their hometown as a place for cruel experiments without anyone noticing, anyone caring, any repercussions. These two girls are daughters of the enlightenment, and the events that unfold are not at odds with that tradition. This is our good ol’ friend, the instrumentelle Vernunft, dontcha know. And here we have two girls, defenselessly exposed to rationality.

This is an extraordinary novel, suspenseful but poetic. It is well written and conveys to us both the joy of childhood and the terror of the evil in our midst. It is highly intelligent and complex, but it remains accessible and readable at all times, if one can stand the darkness. It’s easier than in the aforementioned “Fifth Child”, but that’s because the light writing mitigates it. A most remarkable book, highly recommended to anyone.

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Enemy Action: Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”

Fleming, Ian (2002), Goldfinger, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-200204-9

This is one of dozens of new editions of the James Bond novels. It’s safe to say that everyone will have seen at least one of the movies made on the basis of the novels and stories penned by Ian Fleming, former Navy commander. Most of the movies have clearly ascended to the rank of classics by now, and so have the novels. Since I suspected that their classic status was conferred upon them not by virtue of literary quality but on account of the influence that these novels exerted over not just British but world literature (and influence, as we well know, does not per se make for good reading) I have not read any of these books yet. So, on a whim in December, I went and bought Goldfinger, since that always used to be one of my favorite movies. This book took me ages to finish and bored my socks off. It’s not a complete disaster, though. There are a few interesting issues in the novel.

The first issue is racism. Ian Fleming’s novels are infamous for being both racist and misogynist, to such an extent that these things had to be toned down in the movies, and we’re talking about a series of movies here that are both racist and misogynist, so that’s quite something to say. The novel appears to disappoint these expectations right at the beginning: when the character of Goldfinger is introduced, a decadent, rich, greedy man with a name that is close to stereotypical Jewish names, Fleming directly addresses his readers. He points out explicitly that Goldfinger is not Jewish, but Latvian. Clearly Fleming knows what his antisemitic readers would expect or assume. He does not interrogate these attitudes or assumptions, he does not criticize them in any way, he merely acknowledges their existence. That is enough, however, to issue this book with a peculiar context. It tells us, or suggests to us how to read certain other passages, such as this one:

Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.

Since Fleming knows that he can rely on the less savory instincts on the part of his readers, the explicit way this is formulated points to the fact that the important part of this passage is not the racism but “in Bond’s estimation”. This is especially relevant, since some other prejudice, concerning both women and homosexuality, is brought up in a casual manner and not reflected at all by the narrator.

Thus, this racism is part of Fleming’s characterization of Bond. The agent with the license to kill is shown to be a rather simple, old-fashioned conservative, with a distaste for the modern world, with its streaks of decadence and the tendency towards cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Bond, the tireless traveler, who speaks multiple languages and can handle several countries’ cultural customs, is a well-garbed nationalist, a leftover imperialist, who mourns his country’s demise and is slowly but surely turning into a cultural pessimist. The less than favorable depictions of Americans attest to that. He is linked to his enemy, Goldfinger, by their mutual distaste for modern paper money, if they need to have it at all. Bond hands away huge amounts of money without blinking an eye and Goldfinger doesn’t actually care about the monetary value of his gold, he craves gold both as an object and as a means to achieve something. Build a house, train servants, win. There is but one major difference between the two, as constructed in the novel’s black-and-white world: Goldfinger’s a commie.

Goldfinger, published in 1959, at the end of that era of American politics known as McCarthyism. The basic methodological idea of McCarthyism corresponds to the basic methodological idea of the Inquisition: the accusation is the best proof the prosecution needs. The accusation is enough as it is. The epistemological method of the novel at hand works in the same way. Once the idea that Goldfinger works for the Soviets is lodged in Bond’s brain, it immediately turns to fact. He came up with the idea by pure conjecture, there was nothing pointing in that direction that would have justified coming up with that connection, yet as the novel progresses we find out that, yes, indeed, Goldfinger is a commie. Clearly the novel shares certain ideas about communism with luminous contemporaries (well, almost) such as McCarthy; it turns these common ideas, that even today are shared by center and right wing politicians, into personal faults of Goldfinger.

The novel is not well written, by any measure. It is, however, interestingly constructed. Its concept of truth and proof is not the only aspect worth mentioning. Another one is its use of suspense and action. The novel is plainly not interested in block buster action. There is plenty of that, but it’s crammed into surprisingly few pages, especially when we consider the amount of space that is devoted to a simple game of cards or golf or a meeting of thugs and gangsters. All of these scenes, and many more, are not about action but upon the suspense that is culled from a so-called battle of wills. I forget which famous writer (Clausewitz? Bah who cares.) said it, but it has been said that a battle is decided the moment it starts. This is the case in Goldfinger as well. In the game of golf or in a demonstration in Goldfinger’s mansion we see battle lines drawn, we see troops marshalled, we see two generals facing off. The actual fighting is decided the very moment the troops embark. When Goldfinger tells his foe:

Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

he is saying that even the first two events, a game of cards and the aforementioned game of golf, have been enemy action already. My tolerance for boredom is rather low, so I won’t be doing it, but it’s certainly worthwhile to read through Fleming’s oeuvre in order to monitor it for these battle lines, for the net of suspicion and subterfuge before the first shot is fired. If you have limited time for reading, I cannot recommend this book, but if you can spare the time, it is certainly worth a peek.

And then there were none: Robert Coover’s “Gerald’s Party”

Coover, Robert (1985), Gerald’s Party, Grove Press
ISBN 0-8021-3528-5

Ros was famous for her breasts

When Robert Coover published his great and grandiloquent novel Gerald’s Party in 1985, he was a well-established voice in experimental American prose fiction. The two books he is still best known for, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, had already been published and praised. In a way, this explains the boldness with which “Gerald’s Party” strides onto the literary stage. It wears its theoretical commitments on its sleeve. The narrator and various characters frequently give voice to various theoretical concerns that shape and inform this novel. And, in contrast to novels like Ana Historic, it is a resounding success. We walk away from this novel with the feeling that we cannot say anything about it that the novel does not say better, in a more subtle or brilliant way. The novel dissects theatricality, performativity, sexuality, fairy tales, gender roles, genres and other things, and by making its points in a very obvious manner, it dissects the very act of dissection as well. A cerebral novel like this can be a rather joyless affair, a trudge, a mind-numbing effort. Gerald’s Party isn’t. The reason for this is the writing. There are few writers like Coover: every word in Gerald’s Party feels necessary, no word appears to be substitutable with another.

Saying that the book is excellently written is not saying that the novel is written consistently, it slips –or rather: hops- from register to register. Also, despite the appearance of dozens of characters and the prominence of dialogue, there’s no real trace of what is often referred to as ventriloquism. The characters’ voices in the novel, as they start to crowd the narrow confines of 313 pages, become more and more interchangeable. The author’s nimble fingers are always present, most obviously in the many poetological passages commenting upon the structure of the novel. There is for instance, the following, from a monologue by a painter who tells us why her project has failed (“Gerald’s Party” can well be regarded as a successful attempt to scale the artistic heights the painter abandoned):

“I meant to have a lot of doors in my painting, doors of all sizes, some closed, some partly open, some just empty doorframes, no walls, but the various angles of the doors implying a complicated cross-hatching of different planes, and opening onto a great profusion of inconsistent scenes, inconsistent not only in content but also in perspective, dimension, style- in some cases even opening into other doors, mazes of doors like funhouse mirrors – and the one consistent image was to be Ros. […] But I could not handle it. Too many doors at once, you might say.”

This passage could have been voiced by most characters (except the drunk ones whose speech is slurred. Interestingly, the level of intoxication is the only possibility to tell people apart until this, too, near the end of the novel becomes less of a helpful, too). Apart from the basic artistic principle, there are a few details from this monologue that also fit a poetological reading, most notably: “the one consistent image was … Ros.”

Ros, you see, is the victim of a murder that sets this novel’s cogs in motion: “None of us noticed the body at first” is the first sentence of a novel that, partly, follows – or rather imitates – the conventions of a genre that can be called the “salon mystery”. It involves a party with several characters, a murder and the appearance of an inspector, who solves the mystery by listening to all party guests still alive and finding out ‘whodunit’ (it wasn’t the butler). The inspector is mostly fiendishly smart, like Christie’s elegantly mustached Belgian Hercule Poirot. This genre is so well known that it has been made fun of several times, two of the most hilarious film versions surely being Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death” (1976) and Blake Edwards’ “Pink Panther” (1963). One is, indeed, wondering, what drove Robert Coover, a writer clearly well acquainted with pop culture, to do another send-off in 1985. The answer’s easy: Coover is not actually writing a parody.

Coover is using the form of the salon mystery to comment upon issues that, incidentally, can form a part of genre specimen, and this includes parodies (most parodies, you’ll find, adhere quite strictly to the conventional rules of a genre, since they derive much of their humor from these rules), he is not commenting upon the form. “Gerald’s Party” is a multi-faceted wonder of a book. For one thing, it is a novel concerned with decadence and depravation. We find that numerous people engage in sexual acts, some of them aborted, some not, some of them consensual, some not. This is a veritable moral pigsty, which, at times, may leave a distinct smell of Rome, burning, in some readers’ nostrils. After the first murder, several other people die, yet in this cesspool of a cocktail party, few people care about dead friends or lovers, unless the act of killing provides a spectacle that rivals sex. In contrast to that, we have a few scarce traces of honest, vulnerable love. There are, for example, two people trying to gauge the love they have for each other. This strain of true feeling is clearly at odds with the party at large.

As is rationality, the backbone of the mystery genre. This genre which is concerned with finding the correct (read: one) way of reading the world is subverted here by introducing a multiplicity of attempts of reading or making sense of the world. The most basic element of the genre and the one which all parodies I personally know focus on, including the two named, the Inspector, is almost completely isolated. His trajectories hardly intersect with party proceedings, something that becomes apparent early on:

Inspector Pardew, absorbed in his examination, noticed little of it. Under the glass slides as a makeshift magnifying glass, he peered closely at the wound, poking and probing, muttering enigmatically from time to time. He picked Ros’ breast up once by the nipple to peer under and around it, but he seemed disinterested in the breast itself – if anything, it was an obstacle to him.

The detective, Inspector Pardew, does not mingle with the crowd, he slips in and out of the novel and when he, true to genre conventions, steps in at the end, to present us Ros’ murderer, his solution is not tied to any plot strand. I said it subverts the genre and Pardew is the clearest evidence for this. Where mystery novels usually attempt to parse the world and its inhabitants for evidence, gathering knowledge to find out “whodunit”, “Gerald’s Party” is completely disinterested in the “real world” within the book. The events related by the book point outside the book; this book has two layers: something that is supposed to be a ‘real world’, where inspectors, murders and these things occur. This is hidden, however, under a thick carpet of words and intertextuality, the second world within the book.

There is logic within the first of the book’s worlds which is buried by the party and its events. This is made plain by the fact that Inspector Pardew, who insists upon the interconnectedness of all events, who appears to have no clue as to the actual events at that party, arrives at a successful conclusion at the end, finding out, after all, ‘whodunit’. His conclusion is puzzling to us readers: we have nothing apart from the events related by Coover, the cheeky bastard, to go on, all we have is the carpet. And like a luscious oriental weave, Coover’s book is an artificial construct that hides the world where Pardew’s perspicacity works its magic. This paradox of, to borrow that famous phrase, blindness and insight, i.e. the impossibility of reading the world from any one point of view with any degree of objectivity, is woven through the whole book. Since Pardew is the only one who is honestly attempting to understand the world, at least the one he has access to, the other instances of that paradox resemble tropes more than earnest attempts.

The first trope is introduced through a cameraman, who appears on the scene early on, and whose readings of the party are scrutinized by partygoers at the very same party on a small TV. We learn that the moving pictures he produces, and, by extension, moving pictures in general are unreliable; they are, indeed, readings and not objective depictions. The pictures are affected by the interest of the camera man, by the interaction with the observed and by the way the image arrives at the viewer. An image can be recorded, looped, repeated, stored and manipulated and the viewer is none the wiser for it. The trope of the camera is a representative of the reader, it is Coover’s tool to show up the reader’s arrogance who scans the page thinking he/she understands what’s written on it in a thoroughly objective way, when all he/she does is create an image of the text his mind the exact form of which is dependent on much more than mere sight.

Coover, however, offers other tropes as well. The strongest of these is theatre: the party guests are all part of an art crowd, who converse about the plays and movies they have acted in or directed. Ros has starred in pornographic art, she is the one who connects everything within the book. Lovers and fellow actors occupy the same slot in the memory of things past, and the more the novel progresses, the more art and life merge, to the point where the living room is transformed into an impromptu stage. Although the stage is volatile and vulnerable to intrusions from real life, the lack of an audience transforms all of the party guests into spectators and points to the roles all of the characters are acting out, that we all, in effect, are performing. These roles, Coover suggests, can take different shapes and draw from different sources. There are the obvious things, such as the fact that Gerald’s wife or Alison’s husband are never named, they –and others- are only referred to by the roles they are allotted in society.

The real fun, however, is to be had once we find that texts can be structuring principles as well, fairy tales, for example. The novel plays an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with fairy tales such as Snow White, drawing you deeply into the novel, as you play along. And yes, we are playing along. This is a novel that constantly reflects upon the way it is made, about the effect it has on readers and about the situatedness of its readers. This means that it is highly dependent upon its readers coming from the same cultural context as the author. For all the explaining it does, a surprisingly large part of it is subtext that is understood intuitively. Beni, one of the actors at the party, exclaims: “But she’s not one of us […] she wouldn’t understand”.

This is true for most of this novel as well. If it does not fit your sensibility, you will not like it. The prose is great, no matter what your aesthetic allegiance, but this is a novel of ideas and they need to work for you. This is a warning: this novel is not for everybody. That said: I think this book is stunning, a full success, and the writer clearly among the best writers currently at work. The way he controls tiny nuances and wields the heavy hammer of theory at the same time is inimitable. Books like Marlatt’s disaster of a novel show how hard it is to make an endeavor like this work. Even for Coover: although my read started off with enthusiasm, delight and sheer pleasure in Coover’s craft, after closing the book the prevailing feeling was of exhaustion. A good exhaustion, but tiring nonetheless. It’s tiring, as well, to the novels characters. Those who aren’t killed, leave the party by and by, returning the house to its previous, conventional state. As we turn the final page, however, we are informed of an emptiness at the heart of that structure. All the party guests, all these voices that sound so alike, disappear and we find that what is left is less than we expected. Isn’t it always? When the lights go out and the guests leave, who is left?

Kapitalismuskritik

She showed me a photograph: it was Ros on her hands and knees, looking over her shoulder at her raised bum – or rather, not a bum at all, but a rich banker, a snowman capitalist with greedy black-button eyes on each pale cheek, a carrot-nose stuck in her anus, top hat perched on top, and a wet bearded mouth about to ingest a shining gold rod.

from Robert Coover’s novel Gerald’s Party

Shadows: Yasushi Inoue’s “Der Tod des Teemeisters” and “Das Jagdgewehr”

Inoue, Yasushi (2008), Der Tod des Teemeisters, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-46025-2
[honkaku bō ibun, translated by Ursula Gräfe, not yet translated into English]

Inoue, Yasushi (2006), Das Jagdgewehr, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-45845-0
[ryōjū, translated by Oskar Benl, translated into English as The Hunting Rifle]

Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro (1977), In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books
ISBN 978-0-918172-02-0
[Translated by T.J. Harper and E.G. Seidensticker]

These are two novellas by one of the most highly regarded Japanese prose writers in the second half of the 20th century. I am completely unread as far as critical writings on Japanese prose are concerned, which is not an understatement, so excuse all and any foolish comments that may be obvious and/or superfluous. The Hunting Rifle is Inoue’s first publication, published in 1949, the Death of a Tea Master’s one of his last publications, published in 1981.

Reading the first one puzzled me inordinately. The Hunting Rifle is a strangely seductive work of art. It is reduced to a few significant pieces of dialogue, a few episodes. I started to read it as a love story, but my expectations, schooled by reading countless works of genre literature, were soon disappointed by the way it was executed: it is not an actual love story, it’s a retelling of a love story at a distance, or rather: it is a story about love, if that makes any sense. The story which forms the framework is about a writer who turns an observation about a middle-aged man with a hunting rifle into a poem, published into a hunter’s magazine; the poem, which is extraordinarily beautiful, closes by saying that the rifle presses all its weight into the back and soul of the lonely man wearing it, and that it’s radiating a blood-specked beauty that never appears when the rifle’s targeting something living. Clearly, the poem is critical of hunting, and consequently the poet is astonished that a hunter’s magazine would print it. Shortly afterwards, a man writes him, sure of being the middle-aged man described in the poem, and sends him three letters, asking the narrator to read and then burn them.

The three letters, which the narrator then ‘presents’ to the reader, tell of a forbidden affair between Saiko and her cousin Joskuke, both of whom are married, an affair, which, as we learn soon, ends with Saiko’s suicide 13 years later. The letters are from Saiko’s daughter, who was handed a journal by her mother just before the mother kills herself, and writes a long letter to “Uncle Josuke”, which becomes more and more condemning. She condemns the affair as amoral and thus demonstrates the constraints of the society which led to the affair being covert and doomed; additionally, her righteous – and partly justified- indignation creates an atmosphere that helps the reader to better place the events which are more fully related by the two other letters. The second letter is from Josuke’s wife, Midori, who tells him, among other things, that she has long known about the affair and asks for a divorce. The third and final letter is written by Saiko, who thanks him for having loved her so much for 13 years, and expresses, at the same time, a deep and devastating loneliness; it is a passionate letter yet very composed and cold.

Between these three letters we find events described that have led to four people being lonely, cold, even when passionately in love. There is a deep yearning for love, for company, in each of these letters, although Saiko’s daughter’s in a different way. They are hunting, for love, for composure, for dignity. In an episode related in Midori’s letter, Josuke aims at her back while both sit on a porch. She says she noticed even though Josuke put the gun away quickly. The chaos and violence of life does not reach these characters, the things they do follow careful, pre-established lines. And Saiko’s suicide is an old, known way to end such an affair before it is troubled by violence; and yes, suicide is not violence, as in The Death of a Tea Master, suicide is shown to be an adult, well-considered decision to endow one’s life with a shape even to the end of it; or rather: especially at the end of it. That illicit affair brought disorder into their lives, even if it was just a little, and Saiko’s final action is shown as an attempt to-re-order it. Inoue finds beauty in the spare and in the darkness in people’s minds.

I was reminded of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s short but breathtakingly beautiful essay “In Praise of Shadows”, which praises traditional Japanese architecture, where simplicity rules. As he makes abundantly clear early on, this simplicity is a superficial one, it may and often does hide complexities, but the surface, inside and outside the houses, is clean and spare. It is not the cleanliness of modern glass-and-steel architecture, it’s an aesthetic that involves changing surfaces like wood, which glitter with age the older a house is. The shadows, which are praised, are those left in a room by the angle of the light falling in. Shadow and darkness are not the absence of light for Tanizaki, they are the most important element. It is in shadows that we can contemplate ourselves best, it is light that disturbs our inner order. Thinking and aesthetic meditation are described as almost incompatible with modern fixtures. This passage may illustrate what I mean:

On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that “darkness seen by candlelight.” It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.

Tanizaki mourns a style long gone, a style that cannot compete with the comfort central heating, electric lights and enamel toilets can provide. He feels an alienation of sorts towards that new world, he considers it a part of Western culture. If we Japanese, he says at one point, had invented these things, they would not be as corrosive to our culture as these Western objects are.

Maybe having read both of these books prepared me well for my second Inoue novella, “Death of a Tea Master”, maybe that’s why it did not irritate nor puzzle me at all. It is a beguiling, melancholy historical story retracing the mystery behind the self-inflicted death of a famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū, which soon turns out to be a meditation on the tea ceremony and those who take part in it. Maybe, however, it was different in the latter novella, since it wears its aesthetic heart on its sleeve, by following up both on the story as well as on the aesthetic background. When I closed its covers I found myself moved, entranced, and saddened. I felt the impulse to prepare a careful cup of tea, which is the strangest effect a book has ever had on me.

The Tea Master is a book that extends over a period of 32 years, from 1590 to 1622. It is a period of turmoil that sees the death of a generation of tea masters who appear to be the guardians of a certain culture, and their passing clearly signifies a change within that culture. The span of time encompasses the last throes of the Sengoku period, a time of upheavals and violent conflicts, which was ended by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful daimyo, as regional warlords were then called. Hideyoshi unified Japan by subjugating the other major clans or by entering into alliances with them. It was Hideyoshi who asked for Rikyū’s suicide by seppuku, the ritual suicide mostly undertaken by the retainers of defeated warlords, either voluntarily or not. This novel, which is supposed to be a modern edition of old, unedited journals of a 17th century monk by the name of Honkakubo, charts this monk’s attempts to find out why Rikyū killed himself. And surprisingly, ‘because Hideyoshi told him to’ is not the answer.

As the Hunting Rifle seemed to be a love story, the Death of the Tea Master appears to be a mystery yet applying our genre expectation to this novel would make for as disappointing a reading experience as did reading the Hunting Rifle as a love story for me. As the plot, which covers 32 years, extends over as little as 167 pages in my edition, there are huge gaps and jumps. Honkakubo does not search for the answer to the mystery, at least not in the world around him. His search does not necessarily involve an interrogation of people and evidence, what McHale, if I remember correctly, refers to as the epistemological quest, which distinguishes the modern from the postmodern. Honkakubo makes use of information if and when it comes and the use he makes of it is singular: as he is handed a document that belonged to the late tea master, asked for his expertise, he finds that the document contains thoughts on the tea ceremony and spends weeks, carefully copying it down, meditating. During the 32 years he is invited by a few other monks and tea masters because he used to be a student of the late Rikyū, and has a few elliptical talks with them about Rikyū and the tea ceremony in general. They are elliptical because Honkakubo is reticent, quiet, polite. Even when among people who may cast light upon the mystery, he does not pursue a line of questioning that may enlight him. These people he meets are far more inquisitive yet they must consider him a dissatisfying conversationalist, because he is reluctant to share his interpretations of events during the last years and months of Rikyū’s life.

Even as more and more facets of the great tea master’s life enter the picture, his death remains a mystery, because outside events cannot shed light on it. Only as Honkakubo immerses himself in meditation, praying at Rikyū’s shrine and contemplating the tea ceremony, he gains an idea of what happened. Generally, asking for someone’s suicide meant killing them as surely as would thrusting the tanto into their bowls with their own bare hands. There is, however, a major difference. It is, after all, a self-inflicted death; in this case, Honkakubo and others are additionally wondering why Rikyū did nothing to alter Hideyoshi’s opinion. As our rulers today, the daimyos of Rikyū’s time were prone to bouts of anger now and then. Asking for a retainer’s suicide apparently was often a rash act, and the retainer was expected to ask for forgiveness and mercy afterwards. Rikyū would, it transpires, almost certainly have been granted mercy. Instead, he went to his death without complaint.

The tea ceremony is offered as a possibility for understanding the reasons for this. Rikyū was one of the first important tea masters to practice the art of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of simplicity, intimacy and modesty. I briefly discussed Tanizaki’s essay on architectural aesthetics earlier and the culture the loss of which he laments, is basically one dominated by wabi-sabi. In one of the most intense scenes in the novella, the tea ceremony is described as an encounter with death, with the tea drinker submitting to the tea master’s power. Although the tea master, who grinds the tea leaves, boils the water, cooks and serves the tea, may seem like a servant, he is actually the one person who is in charge of a ceremony which is apparently of high spiritual importance, because drinking the tea is not important; one has to drink it in the right way. People bow their heads under the yoke of ceremony, of convention and their tea master’s actions. Seppuku, the ritual suicide, is, in a way, quite a similar procedure, only here the warlord or emperor calls the shots. It may be that by refusing to ask for mercy, Rykiyu is refusing his lord the power which seppuku usually grants him.

This, however is but a personal interpretation. The novella itself does not decide upon any single reading. Instead it tries to make the cultural and personal context, in which the novella’s characters move, as clear as possible. It is not asking the reader to follow up on its clues to find out who did it; on the contrary, it invites the reader to meditate upon death and power and may, in some perceptive readers, awake a sense of self which we may be alienated from by modern times. This corresponds to the Hunting Rifle in a curious way. Behind the sad and cold story that is offered to us, love, not necessarily reciprocal love, is presented as a way to awaken your self as well. The Death and the Tea Master never allows for us to construct dichotomies, oppositions, it asks for our thoughts on death and autonomy; similarly, The Hunting Rifle asks us to consider our attitude towards love. Saiko relates an episode from school, where girls in class distribute a sheet of paper with two questions on it: “do you want to be loved” and “do you want to love”. In a way, the book is about the characters’ own hypothetical answers to this question and about the effect this has on their lives. Both of the novellas seem very distant from us, culturally, yet that distance beckons us to step closer. Tanizaki writes, near the end of the essay, and he could well have been describing Inoue’s method:

I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.

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New it ain’t: Lydia Davis’ “Varieties of Disturbance”

Davis, Lydia (2007), Varieties of Disturbance, FSG
ISBN-13 978-0-374-28173-1
ISBN-10 0-374-28173-4

“Varieties of Disturbance” is Davis’ sixth collection of short prose. Davis is one of the most honored and praised writers of her generation and a certified genius. She is also known as an accomplished translator, having translated Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust, among others. Praise for her work seems to be ubiquitous, something I’ve only found out, strangely enough, once I started my reading of the “Varieties”. This book is advertised and praised as innovative, “rule-breaking” (back cover), with some, like Charles Baxter, claiming that Davis “is reinventing the short story in our time”. Ahem. Baxter is, I believe, mistaken (but it’s not his fault, we’ll come to that), since this book is nothing of the sort.

I have to admit that I have never before read a book like this. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is a good book, although the qualities of its stories is not consistent. Sometimes Davis heads for short time effect instead of letting her prose work out the ideas she has set them on, for example in the story called “Tropical Storm”:

Like a tropical storm
I, too, may one day become “better organized”

Or in a story called “The Busy Road”

I am so used to it by now
that when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.

I will say this: The book is highly enjoyable and I don’t regret having read it. This is one of its two main strengths: the writing. Davis is an assured writer. She changes seamlessly from register to register, is in full control of her phrases’ cadences. This book is mostly extraordinarily well made; what’s more, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily well read writer. She has dipped her quill deep into the inkwell of literary history, evoking writers and imitating different texts and styles. There are a few explicit references, chief among them a cutup/reworking of Kafka’s letters and a lame but, again, well-executed story that follows a traveler’s reading of Beckett on a road trip, but most of them aren’t. Davis is an ironist, however, and a true ‘postmodernist’, she rarely uses these styles, most of these stories are about the style they are written in. Thus, even when she writes in iambs or adopts the impish yet sharp tone of Lewis Carroll or Dr.Seuss, she never ‘stoops’ to their level of play, she keeps her distance, basically retelling a style as one would a story. A good example for this is the story “Jane and the Cane”.

The aforementioned story involving Beckett is, in part, symptomatic of a certain weakness of that collection: its strength rests on the power of Beckett’s words, not on Davis’ words and the best result of reading it is being sent back to yr own shelves to explore the grand Irishman’s words again . It consists of a complex interweaving of, for example, the trajectory of travel on the one hand and the trajectory of reading on the other. The story tells us how words and events are processed, how reading a text and reading a trip can be similar and what the givens in these two instances are. Contrary to what many critics seem to believe, however, ‘complex’ does not equal ‘good’. Just because a reader may feel he’s in over his head, the book isn’t suddenly a success. This effect is well known from critical reactions to so-called obscure writers. I have read more than one defense of Derrida that showed how little the defender understood of his subject (and I believe Derrida’s actually right); also, there are other writers in the postmodern section that I have not yet read that are praised by people who clearly have trouble understanding basic arguments, among them, most recently Ward Churchill.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is often intellectually tingling, quite like a crossword puzzle or a philosopher’s digest, There are short pieces that sound extremely deep and intellectually charged, I’ll quote two of them to illustrate the point made in the previous paragraph. The first one’s called “Index Entry” and touches upon all sorts of things, among them language in general and naming in special:

Christian, I am not a

The other one’s called “Suddenly Afraid”:

Because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn

Again, it’s almost a waste of breath to sum up its concerns, it’s all so plainly there. On the other hand, the simplicity and clarity is a merit of Davis’ work, I am just not sure how highly I would weigh that merit.

To sum up, Davis achieves sounding complex not by being a good thinker or good reader but by having read a large amount of good thinkers and writers. Her work draws from a huge bulk of sources and never shies away from flaunting this. Critics may erroneously declare her innovative, but the writer in these texts never pretends to make it new. Davis is postmodern in the best sense of the word. A similar effect is aimed at in a consummate story about a walk which a male critic and a female translator of Proust undertake. The critic is, we learn, dismissive of her work, preferring an older, less faithful but more poetic version. An episode on the walk these two take reminds the translator of an episode in Proust. She proceeds to quote the passage in both translations. Again, a similar set of questions and problems is raised as in the Beckett story, again pretty unsubtle, in a way that does not allow the reader to read it in a different manner. That happens because these stories are very spare, Davis unerringly going straight for the philosophical jugular of her pieces. She is rather disinterested in what is usually referred to as plot, if each story is taken on its own. However, over the course of the collection, things happen, people are described, interiors and exteriors are evoked, the works. “The Varieties of Disturbance” covers a large terrain, yet still keeps within the enamel confines of domestic life, roughly speaking. We find epigrams on the small humdrum tragedies of everyday life, as well as longer faux-academic studies of, for example, the letters a class of schoolchildren send a sick, hospitalized classmate. Davis’ writing which, while always competent, sometimes even dazzling, actually works best in sober contexts, like said study, or, in one of my favorite pieces, an account of the procession of maids passing through the household of a writer by the name of “Mrs. D.”. This is one of my favorite pieces because so much that is characteristic about the book is gathered here. Sobriety, pastiche, and subject. What subject? The domestic space. The titular disturbance is the disturbance of the private order, of our daily patterns. The title story dwells a little on the issue, I’ll quote the last third:

When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother’s refusing my brother’s help and thus causing disturbance in me greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generically not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance, different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.

Make of that what you want. I think this part illustrates the merits and demerits of Davis’ work very well, although the writing is not typical, and from your reaction to it you may gauge the possible reaction you may have to the whole book.

I did say earlier that this book does not break new ground yet I also said that I have not read a book quite like this before. Where similar books concentrate on one or two sorts of adaptions, this one crawls with influence, we mentioned this earlier. At every single point the reader hears other writers. The most significant reference are probably works like Lichtenberg’s enormous Sudelbücher, his collection of aphorisms, essays and other texts. I know that the word aphorism is these days connected to all sorts of weak writing. Lichtenberg’s work, on the other hand, contains narrative episodes, thoughts and finished essays on literature and science. Lichtenberg was a true polymath, another word that has been applied to too much less worthy books these days, much as I love David Foster Wallace, he is often like a fish out of water when tackling science in non-fiction. Other writers and texts that come to mind reading Davis include Thomas Bernhard and books of his like “Der Stimmenimitator”, or short prose like Kafka’s, Beckett’s, Barthelme’s or Barth’s, it’s really a long list, and this is off the top of my head. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is unlike any of these books, because it resembles all of them, in part, without the original fire or brilliance. It’s a weaker collage of others’ styles, a weaker collage of others’ ideas, written by a very good writer. So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. If I change the title of my inane master’s thesis and add the words “a novel” to it, I promise a novel the kind of which you have never before read. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.

“The Varieties of Disturbance” is written in one voice, even when being punny, alliterative, iambic, this is the voice of one person. The book explores what I have called the enamel confines of domestic life. How children, maids and mothers shape our lives’ rhythms. This is the interesting part, the affecting part, the part that sets this book apart from similar texts. This it what makes it re-readable, watching the prose explore the nooks of this voice’s life, watching how babies, dogs, brothers cause little and big disturbances in her life. All the ideas about language and theory, none of them are new, nor particularly riveting. Yes, it’s fun, but that part of the book is like “Kill Bill”. New it ain’t. Read the book if you’re up for a bit of intellectual fun, do not read it if you want something special or new. Although your time is better spent with any writer named in this review, it’s not badly spent with Lydia Davis. Did I make sense?

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Fittings: William Gaddis’ “Carpenter’s Gothic”

Gaddis, William (1999), Carpenter’s Gothic, Penguin
ISBN 0-14-118222-9

William Gaddis was probably one of the most celebrated writers in the English language in the latter half of the twentieth century. At his death in 1998 he was considered a major American writer despite having only four (a fifth, Agape, Agape, was posthumously published in 2002, as well as a collection of essays, The Rush for Second Place) novels to his credit. Two, JR, which is concerned with the world of finance, and A Frolic of his Own, which pokes fun at the law profession, have won the National Book Award. His chef d’oeuvre, the towering, enormous The Recognitions is the only one I have personally read, so far. Difficulty and, as trite an observation though it may seem, length, is one characteristic all three of these novels share. Carpenter’s Gothic, published in 1985, the third of his novels, is not very difficult and slim to boot. Thus, it’s no small wonder it has been given short shrift by many readers and is considered B-grade Gaddis.

For B-grade material, however, this is an amazing prose masterpiece. Even if every other novel by Gaddis were better than Carpenter’s Gothic, that’s no skin off CG’s back. This is a wonderful, extraordinarily written book. The plot is the least of it, yet it’s an grand plot with colorful characters that is generic yet consistently engaging. I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog how hard it is to make good genre books while trying to be ‘literary’. Dozens of boring books attest to that fact, for examples a few of Chabon’s genre forays, such as “The Final Solution”. Gaddis, however, has his generics down pat. The characters alone attest to that: the female protagonist, Liz, is a young beautiful heiress to a huge, evil conglomerate. She and her brother are not paid their full share though, they are paid from a trust fund. The conglomerate’s chief executive is also the one who controls the trust fund. His daughter is Liz’s best friend and richer than her, thanks to her father’s shady dealings.

Liz’s husband Paul, who may or may not have married Liz for her money, is an irascible media consultant for Reverent Ude, an evangelical priest, who is himself engaged in some shady affairs. Paul is a Vietnam veteran, who has come out of the war without decorations but with a lot of psychological damage. He is no Travis Bickle, though, Paul’s a functioning part of society. In fact, I personally thought that his psychological limitations are quite some help in his job. And he is very good in what he does, although he may not be the brightest bulb in the box. With everyone around him engaged in subterfuge and intrigue, Paul appears to grasp only a fraction of what is happening. Speaking of which, we should not forget the third major character, Mr. McCandless, a former teacher, who owns the house Liz and Paul are currently living in. His own background is a mystery. When asked by Billy, Liz’ brother:

“I mean what are you, some kind of geologist?”

He answers vaguely

“Yes. Yes you could put it that way, now…”

He may be involved in shady dealings, secret maps, clandestine knowledge about ore mines in Africa, or he may not. From these three characters a story is spun that gains speed as you turn the pages and comes to a violent and turbulent climax.

There are all sorts of tricks and games Gaddis plays with us. In a novel with an evangelist and his media consultant, the only fundamentalist ravings we get to read are McCandless’, who is a fervent atheist. They are amusing to read, and the only actual monologue we get served. Any bit from these rants is quotable, so I just use an early one:

Think I made it up? Like the name on that book there? You think ignorance isn’t dead serious? Red dirt, rolling hills, a rail line, trickle of a stream and a town grows up there, great trees meeting overhead down the main street and some civilized person names the place Chemin-couvert. A generation or two of ignorance settles in and you’ve got Smackover, a hundred years of it and you’ve got a trial like that one, defending the Bible against the powers of darkness they are doing more to degrade it taking every damned in it literally than any militant atheist could ever hope to. Foolishness bound in the heart of a child but the rod of correction shall drive it out so they whale the daylights out of their kids with sticks.

Another great topic is ownership, how things and people are owned, held and used, Paul, who barely owns anything, makes a point of holding and using as many things as possible, trying to pay/invest as little as possible in/for them so they appear to be his, largely a self-deception which starts with not paying the rent for the house and ends with trying to hold (on to) his wife, as he holds her breasts. Sexuality, per se, is repressed, there’s not much sex or open eroticism in the house, which also extends to the aesthetics. We only learn at the close of the novel that Liz is staggeringly beautiful, only after the events have started into their fateful gallop we even learn she’s a redhead. Once desire is freed, however, it starts to ooze and burn and takes ahold of every major character. As in The Recognition, authenticity and repetition is a major topic again. The very title refers to this. Late in the book, McCandless talks about the house which is built in a style called “Carpenter’s Gothic”:

Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from the outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface -yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork. That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, and the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions.

He continues and later refers to the house as a “patchwork of conceits”. This could be said about the novel as well, in two ways. One is the plot. As typical of the genre, the plot is virtually “a patchwork of deceits”, i.e. a plot stitched together by all its characters’ trickery and subterfuge. The way this is realized, however, brings us to the second way. Gaddis isn’t content by merely writing a great Gothic novel, he undercuts expectations time and again, sometimes by playing with themes. Sometimes, though, he uses his most powerful tool: language. The book, to return to metaphor is well referred to as a patchwork of conceits, because sure as hell it is not a melting pot of conceits or something like that. All the intrigue is relayed to us in dialogue that almost never meshes. People talk and talk yet they don’t communicate. Liz is the medium of this sort of antisocial behavior, she endures other people’s plots and talks. Plots intersect yet they don’t meet and even after the explosive finale the major strands appear to be ‘pure’.

This novel continues Gaddis’ work with dialogue that he started in “The Recognitions” and brought, as as I have read it so far, to full bloom in “JR”. The novel is largely dominated by the things people say, the things they do are often relayed to us via dialogue, and this dialogue is so well written that it doesn’t need the tired formula many prose writers rely on, the “he said sadly” structure of introducting/framing speech. Gaddis’ dialogue doesn’t need this, he uses punctuation in order to convey pauses and speed, not in order to adhere to any dull rules of punctuation. His characters’ words double up, speed up, are pitched higher, lower, so we almost hear how they say it. His is an extraordinary control of other people’s voices. Many things have been written, especially in the 1990s, on this or that writer’s ‘ventriloquism’, writers like DFW or David Mitchell. The effortlessness of Gaddis’ casting voices, compared to the heavier-handed works of his younger acolytes, is humbling. The whole book seems to be written effortlessly. It’s a quick, fun read, written with a master’s hand who took on a genre and made it his. The boards and structures of the genre are there, but the fittings are Gaddis’ and the heart of the house, it’s soul, is his as well. And no one could have done a better job on either of them.

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Daphne Marlatt: Ana Historic

Marlatt, Daphne (1997), Ana Historic, House of Anansi Press
ISBN 0-88784-590-8

DSC_0646I am not sure how to approach this rather short review so excuse me if I digress. It appears that in the last two decades a certain kind of philosophy has turned into “theory”, and many of its adherents seem to believe that within “theory”, philosophy’s rules no longer apply. Mentioning “gender”, “class” or “race” is quite enough, or dropping the name of enough canonized theorists. Thus, essays that do “theory”, often resemble lists of books and writers, containing barely a shred of actual argument. This is not restricted to any kind of theory, it can happen in a deconstructive reading of Dickinson as well as in that unbearable book on Merrill by Gwiazda. When non sequiturs become the main structural principle of an academic work you know you’re in trouble. The only thing that matters in such books or essays is the amount of texts mentioned and the degree to which they fit that book’s idea of “theory”. I have read a review of a biographical study of Elizabeth Bishop where the reviewer’s main complaint is that a passage in the book in question is plausible but “undertheorized”. Huh. I bet it’s also badly argued since the point is tough to argue (the necessity of biographical readings for understanding Bishop’s work) but that’s beside the point.

To return to the novel at hand. It has been praised quite a lot but if you look at the blurbs on the back, you can just imagine the reviews. “Theory” reviews of a “theory” novel. For this is what “Ana Historic” is. The writer is clearly well versed in theory of all stripes. Narrative, gender, power. It never drops the requisite names, but otherwise it’s like a big checklist and most readers will have all the right bells ringing in their heads (Foucault! Butler! Etc.). Often complex novels will make readers think of theory, some writers seem to be eerily conscious of the philosophical implications of what they write. The complexity of Beckett’s or Melville’s prose, Merrill’s poetry etc. will make reader’s minds reach for the thinkstuff. Then there are the less subtle writers, the most brilliant of whom is probably Heiner Müller, who write after or during the advent of theory and whose every scene or line betrays that knowledge. But it’s still exciting, interesting, which is more than I can say about Marlatt. Marlatt will, from time to time, stop and insert blunt pieces of theory, explicitly pointing out some presuppositions in the narrative as the gender roles or power structures. At times this reader had the impression of reading an analysis of a text that never appears on its own. This would have been interesting as well.

DSC_0648However, Marlatt is devoted to be a spoilsport. After doing some analysis she lapses into ‘regular’ writing again, interspersed with some tedious poetry (Marlatt must be an awful poet, if this text is any indication) and, less and less often, “theory”. She is not a good stylist, her prose is flat and uninteresting, sometimes I even had the impression of it’s being intentionally dull. Her being a spoilsport can be demonstrated by opening the book at random but this passage is among the most telling. IT starts out well enough:

not, not…all these elements knotted into the text.

The reader may sigh with slight annoyance, but more often he will chuckle with goodwill. Everybody likes puns. But how does she continue?

not, not…all these elements knotted into the text. silent k. for what? kiss. xoxoxo in code. kisses and hugs. omitted.

See what I mean? Sometimes this book appears to be committed to make this book as straightforward and uninteresting as possible, sussing out every ambiguity or pun and uncurling it. And from beginning to end it’s always the same dull style. And this despite a really good plot.

It’s a book about a woman in our time reimagining the life of a woman in 1873 who is mentioned in brief in some official records. Her notes and imaginings reflect on the way that those who write determine who is remembered and whose story is told and that the circumstances and the society around you determine who writes and who doesn’t. It’s about the power of naming things and people and about the lack of personal choice one has in a society. The book turns out to be a meditation on the limits of writing and thinking as a woman in this culture and language that is still dominated by men and their structures. It is about repression and about discipline, today and then. About questions of power and how they’re interlaced with questions of sexuality. And it does all these things, it bears repeating, in the dullest way imaginable, although, near the end, ten or twenty pages really moved me (the end, again, is awful, awful.).

DSC_0647There is a basic difficulty in judging a book like this. It is based on the difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal society and a female writer writing in a patriarchal language, and I, a white male, am bound to misread it. The axiomatic canon I use in judging this book may be wrong and not applicable to “Ana Historic”. But then, the question is, what sort of system is it that Marlatt is submitting her book to. If it’s theory/philosophy, it’s not well argued and not original at all, there is not a shred of originality in the whole book, apart from the research plot and the plot is not part of the system. Or is it literature, then the flat writing and the terrible boredom is an important and damaging issue. I have, however, intimated that Marlatt may be an intentional bore. Make people think not like the book, maybe Brecht all over? I get the feeling Marlatt is trying to somehow straddle both systems and is relying on her poetical muscle to make it all work, since she was, when the novel was first published, a noted and acclaimed poet. Also, Marlatt, as many current practitioners of so-called “theory”, seems to believe that you only have to say enough of the ‘right’ things and say them often enough, to make her text work.Sadly, it doesn’t work, none of this. This plot deserves a better writer or a better thinker. It is not well served with Daphne Marlatt.

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Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude

Hamilton, Patrick (2007), The Slaves of Solitude, New York Review Books
ISBN 978-1-59017-220-9

This is another one of the ‘lost’, i.e. out-of-print classics which have been republished in the nifty NYRB editions and thus made available to the reading public. “The Slaves of Solitude” was originally published in 1947 and its plot is set in 1940s London. The novel is, at 240 pages, a quick and enjoyable read, a novel as funny as it is moving. The protagonist, “this slave of her task-master, solitude”, a middle-aged former schoolmistress with “a healthy complexion –too healthy for beauty-“, by the name of Enid Roach, who is once, to her chagrin, referred to by her Christian name, but is usually known as “Miss Roach”. As she concedes herself, her former occupation has endowed her with certain character traits and being called “Miss Roach” seems to fit her character best. The novel charts a few weeks of her life in a boarding house by the river Thames, “some miles beyond Maidenhead on the Maidenhead line”, from her point of view (mostly, I’ll return to that) and containing her sarcastic, enraged, bitter and tentatively enthusiastic attitude towards her fellow boarders and her environment as a whole. It is so funny, you’ll laugh out loud often enough not to read this book in public and moving enough that you genuinely care about Miss Roach’s feud with two fellow boarders and quietly cheer her on.

However, despite all the hardships Miss Roach seems to be suffering, she does not appear to be in need of being cheered on. She is a stubborn person, trudging on and on through a blizzard of slights and insults, both real and (possibly) imagined. She reads her environment like a wayward book, looking for battle lines. Who is against her? Her arch enemy at the beginning is Mr. Thwaites (who reminds me of certain characters one meets on chat boards from time to time). He is a Daily Mail reader, which is saying quite enough about him. He adores, in a way, Hitler, nurses a diffuse hatred against communism or Russians; he disparages women unless he wants to get in their pants and he loves to hear himself talk. He considers himself to be supremely witty and at dinner he lets loose a barrage of phrases and words he considers witty and smart. He also considers himself to be quite suave and cosmopolitan (although he is a patriot of the most disgusting stripe) and toys with French phrases (that he barely understands) as well as with dialects, producing nuggets like this “”Yes…I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said – of Yore”.

There are other colorful characters, a historian named Miss. Steele, who sits at a separate table and from time to time throws in some partisan comments which Miss Roach usually takes to be supportive of her. There is also a former actor who sits at another separate table and barely says anything. Some lodgers, among them two American lieutenants, leave the establishment which used to be a tea-house. It is with one of them that Miss Roach tries to lighten her loneliness, but it is an attempt that is doomed from the start. His kisses merely confuse the former schoolmistress, as we the readers are apprised of her changing perception of the city around her which changes from blackness to darkness and back again. Incidentally, the use of colors and the naming of them is a fascinating part of this novel’s complex language. Confusion is Miss Roach’s main trouble, as she is constantly trying to sort other people’s comments into a black-and-white scheme, i.e. trying to find out who is against her and who is supportive of- of what? Of her opinions surely not, since she rarely vents her exuberantly worded rants. Her low mumbles at the dinner table are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Her rants and her confusion reach a high when her friend, a German called Vicky Kugelmann, called “Koogel” by Miss Roach’s landlady, whom Miss Roach had always considered to be somewhat ‘under her wing’, turns, so to say, against her by being suddenly, surprisingly, upbeat and popular. With men, mostly, including her lieutenant and the evil Mr. Thwaites. Suddenly, Vicky appears to be less of an Anglophile to Miss Roach and more of a covert Nazi. Her endearing use of outdated 1920’s English starts to be unnerving and almost unbearably obnoxious. There are whole pages of rants about vocabulary in the latter half of the novel which are among the most hysterically funny passages of the book. Although these suspicions and rants are indicative of a not very endearing character trait, a smallness of character, every line of the book proclaims Miss Roach’s generosity. This smallness is a way to defend herself, another way to cope with loneliness. Being a slave of solitude, she does not appear to have a choice. Her choices are made, larger and smaller ones. When a bomb destroyed her home and she left her school she ended up in her present lodgings in as unplanned a manner as her relationship with the lieutenant sours when Vicky intrudes upon it. It is only in the grand, cataclysmic finale that she starts to get ahold of herself and her choices and it makes quite a difference.

Mr. Thwaites’ game is domination, plain and simple. He attacks people by asking loaded questions, such as the very first question he poses our heroine when he inquires about “your friends”, the Russians. Miss Roach never said nor implied anything to justify that but every time that question is asked she is pushed into the defensive. As the novel proceeds he finds more and more ways to play his game. Questions of power are asked a few times in the “Slaves of Solitude”, the very title of which implies, well, servitude. This one may seem to be a servitude to one’s self, one’s loneliness, but the book demonstrates how often lonely people slip on the yokes of other people’s whims and opinions to escape solitude. Letting yourself kiss by some greasy American soldier, who may or may not take you to his home after the war, letting yourself be insulted and attacked by an odious Englishman rather than skipping dinner or tea time or spending it alone. She drinks quite a lot, although she knows when to stop and doesn’t usually enjoy drinking, but she drinks because she sometimes enjoys it. If you have once lifted the veil of solitude or if you have seen a way to go about lifting it, you will try again, and you will endure quite a lot. As London and the world fall apart, so does her former life and she becomes, by and by, conscious of her detrimental bonds with her ‘friends’.

As many other novels over which the dire shadow of alcoholism hangs, it is dominated both by humor and tragedy. Other outstanding novels in this vein are Jean Rhys’ electrifying masterpieces or the books of A.L. Kennedy, most notably Paradise. I wonder about Hamilton’s other novels. This one, enjoyable though it is, feels blunted. It’s rather nice, actually, which, subtly, changes the brand of humor we’re dealing with in this book. It is not the type of gallows humor we would expect with the ingredients we readers are served here and the good thing is, we notice this early on and relax. This novel relaxes its grip around the reader but it doesn’t do this for lack of focus or brawn. It allows us to laugh, laugh hard, to then, finally, freeze when we realize that this comedy, with tragic undertones, is set against the backdrop of last century’s huge tragedies.

Posh Spice: Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers”

Amis, Martin (1984), The Rachel Papers, Penguin Books
ISBN 0-14-007001-X

This is a quick review. Published in 1974, this is Amis’ first novel and the third of his I’ve finished. The other two, Time’s Arrow and Information, were stupendous achievements where Amis proved himself among the best stylists of his age, at least judging by the narrow diet of books I am on. I was fascinated that two so different yet excellent novels could have been authored by the same cranky Brit. Then, some five years ago, I stopped reading Amis, for fear of being disappointed or for lack of motivation, I really can’t say. Now, the Rachel Papers. In a way, picking a good writer’s first novel is an excellent means of warding off disappointments since the very fact of it being the first means you have to make allowances, for youth, inexperience. So, no, I was not disappointed. On the other hand, the Rachel Papers never achieve the power of the other Amis novels I read. This novel is not consistently interesting, funny or well written. It is, at times, all three of these, but not for longer than two thirds of this rather short book.

The novel certainly is worth reading, if only for the first half which is riotously funny. I spent much time walking around my workplace and reading sentences and paragraphs aloud to virtual strangers. The humor is not for everybody, the main character, Charles Highway is a posh, snotty, selectively well read (I’ll return to this) fuck, who is the younger version of a certain type well described as ‘geezer’, who is part of every single norm in society (white male heterosexual etc.) and who regards any deviations as slightly suspicious. Hence his brand of humor.

I spent the night in a state of mild, run-of-the-mill delirium, sweating quietly as my mind wobbled and raced and swerved: and with morning, came the unshakeable, indeed serene, conviction that I was a homosexual. It all added up: I had had, it was true, one queer experience (a smegmatic handful of queer experience in my primary-school cricket pavillon); I was a soprano, a first soprano, often taking descants, in the choir; I was as yet a virgin, and I had to lie my unpimpled head off to my friends about how I wanked as often, and with as much piston-wristed savagery, as they said they did. Clearly, the minute I was off my arse, I’d be getting it on the bus to Oxford and hawking it there to the friendly undergraduates at Magdalen. In puzzled preparation I read the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A.E. Housman, and (for what little it was worth) E.M. Forster.

Did you laugh? Grin? Raise a disapproving eyebrow? These are some of the reactions this novel tries to elicit from its readers, smugly, I may add. The main reason why it drags at times and why many readers will leave it less than satisfied is its smugness yet this is also part of the fun of reading it.

To the plot. Charles Highway, a young man from a thoroughly bourgeois household, relates his life and his efforts to get into Rachel’s pants. Rachel is 20, which qualifies her for that desirable category: an Older Woman, since Charles is only 19, a few hours away from becoming 20. The book is largely composed of reminiscences and reflections. It’s a pretty straightforward coming of age tale and as many of them are, it is somewhat dated. The main difference to the generic treatment is Charles’ character. Charles is smug. Yes, many of the main characters are smug. Not like Charles, though. He is a frail boy, often sick, who has few friends, but is decently well looking, frightfully smart. His frailty leads to neurotic obsessive behavior. Before he meets people, even if it’s just the few minutes it takes to walk someone home from the train station, he plans every word. Before people come into his room, he carefully arranges every detail. The amount of dirt, the records and books on display and other things are carefully calibrated to achieve an effect. He worries and circumspectly tends to his pimples.

Many men (i.e. former boys) will nod and say: yeah well what’s so particularly neurotic about that? I did the same thing then. Well, in all likelihood, not quite the same thing. Charles plans his words not by thinking hard: he assembles a dossier. He tends to his pimples and draws up tables and charts and he has journals for all aspects of his life. The titular “Rachel Papers” are literally all papers and journals and ‘documents’ that chart his endeavors to bed Rachel including plans and the like. Charles does not like to think for himself, he surfs on a crest of received rules and traditions. He judges people according to his society’s prejudices and it works embarrassingly well. And when he sits for his O levels, his essays are a collection of others’ ideas and judgments, although, judging by the book, it’s a very well written collection.

Despite all this, the novel is highly generic. Yes, Charles Highway is an extraordinarily enjoyable character but that’s about it. Everything else is pretty run-of-the mill. The way the story is narrated is unusual enough, but the writer clearly does not have the chops to do a great job of this yet, so what could be innovative falls flat and is merely amusing. That is quite enough for a book, however. The Rachel Papers is no masterpiece, but I enjoyed it every bit of the way. Funnily, what you are left with is not a feeling of exhilaration, and Charles Highway is too flat a character to not vanish into thin air the moment you turn the last page, but you feel the author’s smugness. Behind the last page you can see Martin Amis grinning arrogantly. The book exposes Charles Highway’s arrogance as youthful and premature, it casts judgment on his casting judgment on everybody in his papers yet it supports the basic drift of it.

Thus, the book seems very cold, aloof and so does his author. Having an unbearable author is never the book’s problem or else we would be bereft of many great works of literature and philosophy. Here, however, the reader is constantly being talked down to and the more the book proceeds, the clearer this stance becomes and the more it gets on one’s nerves. The fact that the book contains two Charles Highways, one’s the protagonist and the other’s the author is not its main flaw, but that the writer’s unable to make the book succeed in spite of this is. The constant self-congratulation is like a solid brick wall between The Rachel Papers and a really good book. Still. A recommendation. It’s a barrelful of laughs and it’s extraordinarily well (if intrusively) written. And while the smugness of the author may be a hindrance, the smugness of the protagonist is an attraction, it adds spice to the dreary olla podrida that the genre has become.

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Field Work: Ilija Trojanow’s “Der Weltensammler”

Trojanow, Ilija (2007), Der Weltensammler, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-13581-8
[Translated into English by William Hobson as The Collector of Worlds (Faber and Faber, 2008)]



As an introductory remark of sorts: when Trojanow’s novel was translated into English, his name was strangely transliterated into “Ilya Troyanov”. Strange, since he, although he is of Bulgarian descent and has lived both in India and South Africa, is German. Thus, they needed, in a way, to transliterate his name back into Bulgarian and then transliterate it into English. Funny thing, when his travel books on the hadj and the Ganges were translated in the “Armchair Traveler” edition, his name was stated correctly (here’s a longish discussion of this) So, this is just me being a pedant, but if any of you wants to go out and buy the book I thought you should know this. Speaking of which: you should read this book. It is among the best German novels I read in 5 years and certainly the best German novel I finished this year.

For me as a reviewer there are two ways to approach this book, because on the one hand it’s highly readable and evocative, a novel of adventures and exotic places, and on the other hand it’s a very smart book about narratives, orientalism, colonialism etc. It makes many of its theoretical points in a quiet manner, sneaking theory onto the reader’s mind, so to say. However, just in case, if I forget to mention this again: this is a gorgeous, fragrant, compelling novel that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. It is a very well written book. With so much of contemporary German literature in a stylistic slump, Trojanow’s clean, complex prose, which is elevated yet highly readable at the same time. It is functional prose, in the very best sense. The language needs to shoulder a huge story, a brilliant narrative structure and evoke three different locales without detracting from either of the three, which is just what it does, providing, additionally, chunks of gorgeous prose scattered all over the 523 pages of my edition.

The novel, consisting of three sections and a coda, follows the life of famous explorer, translator, poet, soldier, sufi Richard Burton. The novel is no biography, it does not claim accuracy. As the author himself says, it is “inspired” by the life and work of Burton and at times strays far from the path of biographical fidelity. The most intriguing experience for me was the fact that I was left not with a desire to read a ‘proper’ biography of Burton but to delve deep into Burton’s own writing. Der Weltensammler is at least as much about the cultures it writes about and the difficulty of writing about culture and biographies as it is about Burton the person. The novel may seem conventional, but any closer reading will reveal it’s anything but. In dealing with three periods of Burton’s life, as a soldier in the British army in India from 1842–1849, as an incognito ethnographer/pilgrim in Medina and Mecca in 1953 and as an explorer, hunting for the sources of the Nile in central Africa with Speke from 1856–1860, it examines the very acquiring knowledge and the product is an eminently readable book that appeals to a vast readership. Reading the novel you can see not Burton’s but Trojanow’s mind work. Each of the three parts is constructed in a different way although they share certain basic properties. They all consist of two strands of narrative: one’s the Burton narrative, written by a third person narrator, sometimes Burton, sometimes omniscient. The second is, let’s say, the informant. The detective. The storyteller. All of these. As the novel proceeds Burton’s voice is more and more muted. Instead of leading us, step by step, into Burton’s mind, we withdraw more and more and see knowledge, doubt and the world as perceived by multiple points of view take center stage. From the very first chapter the voice of the native dominates Burton’s. Der Weltensammler has been criticized repeatedly for failing to render Burton the person in a satisfying way, which is puzzling since the novel clearly has no intention of ever doing so. Reproaching it for failing in an endeavor it never undertook is, to say the least, boneheaded.

The first section treats Burton’s time in British-India where Burton is portrayed as insatiable as far as knowledge and languages are concerned. He takes a teacher and learns several Indian languages, among them Gujarati and Hindustani, as well as studying in-depth Indian culture and religion. He takes a lover (a temple prostitute) and when he is moved to a largely Muslim part of the country he learns their religion and both Persian as well as Arabian. He starts to practice the Muslim faith as a means of mingling with the common (enough) people in disguise. He develops an opinion of how to deal with civil unrest and uprisings and although the reader may have the notion of meeting a tolerant and open man, Burton recommends draconian measures. In the end a scandal and bereavement lead to his leaving the country precipitously, “on sick leave”. This is the whole story. Trojanow, luckily, completely abstains from trying to sound the depths of Burton’s soul, from attempting to find out Burton’s motivations.

The only helping hand he lends the reader is the voice of Ramij Naukaram, who becomes his servant, his mediator between the foreign country and Burton. Naukaram’s voice is recorded because, at the outset of the novel, he seeks out a lahiya, a writer, to write down his story in order to compose a letter of application. Thus, the story is narrated by the third person narrator and Naukaram, who is frequently asked by the lahiya to clear up confusions. The lahiya, it turns out, is as much of an author as he is a human recording device and by and by he fills in narrative gaps in the story. As Naukaram’s audience, he clearly represents the readership of the novel and as an inventive writer he is just as clearly a stand-in for the author. He helps us make sense of the story we are watching unfold. How much of Naukaram’s story is self-serving? How much is, later on, anti-Muslim prejudice? What is the truth? When does it turn to fiction?

Thankfully, there is remarkably little of that popular literary parlor game: letting the native puzzle about white/Christian rituals and customs. This usually contains two elements: making fun of the native’s naiveté and criticizing our own culture. Barely anything of that here. By using Burton’s voice to explicate the British and Christian elements and leaving Naukaram to explain the parts of the story that involve his own culture. Thus far, he seems to be the common figure of informant, something, however, which is both subverted by the fact that his strand contains an Indian recording an Indian, and by the fact that we get a lot of grumbling about the low morals and despicable religion and behavior of Muslims. Naukaram cannot understand why Burton would choose to become Muslim, even for a disguise. We get an outside view from the inside, so to say.

The second part is even more complicated. There is again the Burton strand, yet the second strand contains more elements. Instead of having one man relate a story to a second man, it mostly consists of three man debating Burton’s identity. The three men are the Turkish governor, the Sharif of Mecca and the Kadi. The occasion is Burton’s publication of the “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah”, wherein he details his pilgrimage in disguise, something which is, if undertaken in bad faith, heretical and blasphemous. The Turkish governor, who appears to have called the meeting, is worrying about something else, however: whether Burton may have been a spy for the British army, paid both to reconnoiter Mecca, Medina and its environs and to sow unrest among the people under Turkish rule. The three of them proceed forthwith to debate this back and forth. In order to arrive at a satisfying conclusion they call witnesses and engage in theological discussions. Here the Burton strand often appears to be a commentary upon the discussion of the three, by depicting situations described by the witnesses from Burton’s angle. There are many details hidden beneath the folds of this construction, some revealed, as in an afterthought, late in the sections, such as Burton’s subterfuges to measure and draw Mecca without anyone noticing. Burton slips on and off the page like the Dervish that he claims to be while traveling. The extent to which identity is subject to interpretation is demonstrated brilliantly, as we see Burton’s honesty being debated.

The third part is the least exciting yet not less enjoyable. This is the part where Burton’s voice finally takes a back seat to the commentary. Here the commentary is, in a way, an insider-outsider-insider, a black slave who ‘returns’, so to say, with the Slave holder culture clearly imprinted upon his mind. The fact that Burton is so subdued here may be due to the fact that Burton is here as ‘himself’, he is not trying to pass himself off as someone he’s not. As the novel clearly demonstrates, however, it is no longer his choice, he has become his masks. This does not lead to a harmonic melting-pot kind of character, however. In his conflicts with the different kinds of ethnicities and religions (and Speke as Brit is but one of them) the difficulties and the possibilities of intercultural communication become clear. Nonetheless, we should never forget that Burton was a soldier and a fighter and although the novel accords little weight to these aspects of his personality, he is, as the title says: a collector of worlds. He had a voracious hunger for other cultures, and although his seniors doubt his loyalty, the Burton represented in the book has his loyalties straight. Everything, from his way in assessing political situations to his attitude to gathering knowledge is clearly routed in his own culture (there are a few telling differences between him and Speke that sent me to look up something in Foucault but I shouldn’t go into these details). The book demonstrates the bonds that knowledge as we see it, are for us and how little, at the same time, we can afford to forgo it.

All this is contained by the Burton described in the book, who is so well contained by the strands of narrative that he never towers over the events and places. Fittingly, the coda is reduced to the one aspect of his person that is never before properly focused on: his beliefs as a Christian. A small investigation is launched to determine whether Burton merits the Catholic burial his wife insists upon. The smallness of the grave serves as a perfect metaphor for the provincialism that Burton tried to escape by trying to become a Weltbürger, a citizen of the world. That he didn’t become one and merely became a Weltensammler is his tragedy and, to an extent, ours. Putting on the news tonight, I sighed quietly.

Nope. Not even funny. Paul Auster’s “The Brooklyn Follies”

Auster, Paul (2006), The Brooklyn Follies, Faber and Faber
ISBN 0-571-22499-7

Since this review is going to end with a strong recommendation to never touch the book, do not get this advice wrong. Preferably, do not read the book. If you have to, here’s what you do: after finishing it, pick up immediately any other Auster book on your shelf. Since The Brooklyn Follies is quite an atypical book to start your Auster reading I’m guessing you have one. So, pick one of them, preferably a current one, Oracle Night, Timbuktu, Book of Illusions, any of these. Read a page or two, somewhere from the middle. If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice a funny thing. The whole of the Brooklyn Follies is based upon a single conceit. This is a book purportedly written by Nathan, who is clearly supposed to be an idiot. It hinges upon the idea of a good writer using the voice of a bad writer. It is full of Nathan’s grandiose phrases, his self delusions, his sense of ‘humor’. As a writer, Auster is not prone to subtleties. He might as well have highlighted the important phrases with magic marker. And yet the book is terribly written from the first line to the last, which is where my advice comes in. Well, we’ll return to this in a few moments. Let’s first look at the book from a different angle.

Nathan, an oafish retired insurance salesman, is writing a book recording his life’s follies. He moves to Brooklyn, expecting to die in the near future. He has recently fought cancer, successfully, in all likelihood. He has been born and raised in Brooklyn, so, in anticipation of his physical demise, that’s where he returns. In Brooklyn he meets his cousin Tom, whose promising career has ended up behind the greasy wheel of a New York cab. We, the deplorable readers, are apprised of his downfall from wunderkind to cabbie in a chapter called “Purgatorio”, which on the one hand continues the sad tradition of using Dante’s wonderful poem for hundreds of bad or worse similes (most recently encountered in the blurbs of my German edition of Wassili Grossman, but I digress). This is of course Nathan the self important oaf speaking, but this sort of thing isn’t exactly rare and after a few dozen of these, it begins to grate. But I digress again. On the other hand, the chapter, like most chapters in the book, is stocked with descriptions like these: “It wasn’t that he had ever wanted a great deal from life, but the little he had wanted turned out to have been beyond his grasp”. My little pet philosopher here stole a few peeks now and then and retreated groaning after a few seconds.

Back to plot. Both these men come with baggage. Nathan has a daughter from a marriage that ended when the wife presumably had to listen to him once too often. He had a falling-out with that daughter and his worries about righting his relationship with her at what he (still) thinks is his life’s sundown provide a constant talking point throughout the book. Eventually he buys her an expensive necklace and writes an abject letter of apology since, you know, there’s nothing better to charm a woman than generous and groveling men. And wouldn’t you know, it works, the daughter returns to his fold crying, asking (at his knee, one presumes) for his wise words. Speaking of wisdom, the book contains a few excellent descriptions of itself. The best comes early, just exchange “she” for “he”:

It’s a rare day when she speaks in anything but platitudes – all those exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas that cramp the dump sites of contemporary wisdom

I digress. Back to the two unhappy campers. Well, Nathan, as mentioned, starts recording his life’s idiocies in what he labels the “Book of Follies” (at a particularly inane moment, a discussion between him and Tom, who majored in literature, is recorded, where Nathan complains of digressing so much and Tom tells him (do I hear swelling strings?) that he’s now becoming a real writer. Bah). Into that book also go whatever idiocies he commits in the course of the events of The Brooklyn Follies (yes yes I know). That’s that.

Now Tom. The mere fact that Tom is unmarried is apparently no reason for the author (which? Yes, I’ll come to that) not to issue him with a woman to care for. In Tom’s case, it’s his wayward sister, who cavorts from bed to bed and man to man and gets into trouble at every corner. Funny thing. The only promiscuous person in the book is a woman, she gets punished for it (by life) by ending up in the most evilly pure environment Auster (Nathan?) could think of, a Christian fundamentalist sect. In the end, having returned to the fold, she is chaste and happy. These are, spoilers, I guess I should have issued a warning, but really, it will not actually spoil the book for you, because there are many other plot lines in the course of the book. And here we encounter the one strength of Auster and this book in particular: he creates great characters. Not in a realist novel kind of way but in a Tim Burton movie kind of way. I may be influenced by watching the first season finale of Pushing daisies in the background right now, but plots and characters would have made, at the hands of the right director, a wonderful movie. There are so many scenes I could point to. It would be a warm movie, uplifting, something to watch again and again, in full, warm colors. A really, really great movie. Conceivably. The trouble with writing is, well, writing.

Thus, instead of reveling in the plot and characters, we get stuck with dour old Nathan and his dour, mostly younger friends. The whole point of the book is humor. His spiel with Nathan’s voice, Nathan’s preposterous grandiosity and his constant jocular joking is supposed to be funny. And funny books are sometimes not overwhelmingly well written, so there’s a loophole, right? Nope. This book is not even funny. I suppose it could be another one of the book’s follies that the narrator manages to fumble every single joke. Even if he starts off well, he does not know where to stop and follows every phrase or sentence with humorous potential with a dull paragraph of dour earnestness. As I say, I have an idea why his wife wanted to leave him. And then there is Tom, who enables Nathan to include pages and pages of dull and idiotic patter about literature. It’s not that he’s factually wrong most of the time, because he isn’t. The tone is that of an overeager underachiever with a book by the typewriterslashcomputer, typing up the details on Kafka nice and tidy. He makes a few tiny mistakes but the bulk of it is correct, factually. The whole of this is often used for a kind of adult, pseudo-academic humor. And, dull as this is as statements on literature, this, too, is not even funny. There is a doubly intended funniness here, one by Nathan and the other by Auster and none of the two works.

This two-faced dullness is what I will discuss now that this review is coming to a close. Clearly, Auster is trying to use Nathan’s qualities as a hack for humorous purposes. There is a complicated system of reference connecting The Brooklyn Follies to the “Book of Follies”, since the author never steps out from behind his curtain. From first to last sentence it’s Nathan’s book. So what do we do with the clearly marked badness? Who do we send the check for bungled storytelling to? Who do we sue for wasting our time? Is Nathan playing with his readers, a bad writer trying to seem a worse writer, by the ham-fisted way of doing it exposing himself as the former? Is the whole story a machination of Nathan? I have hinted at this before. Is Nathan a sad old man trying to concoct a life more interesting than the one he actually leads? Well, as they say, we only have the book, and it says nought. There are no hints that I found that would point in such a direction. So why do I call Auster a bad writer? Is there evidence in the book that it is not all Nathan’s voice? No. But here we return to the beginning of this piece. Take any of his recent books and you will find a huge amount of the same sentences, the same *coughs* humor, the same sameness. It’s Auster’s voice all right, with very cheap bits of “Nathan” tacked on a few times. 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, if somewhat uneasy at the heavy stench of sexism (Nathan’s?) pervading the book, writing prose just is not one of them.

So, I’d like to say I tried Auster’s method and created the voice of a believably self-important hack, but if you look at my other writing here, that’s just me. Same with Auster.

Cheese and Squeeze

Annalee Newitz at i09 presents Ten of the Kinkiest Science Fiction Books You’ll Ever Read. This one’s my favorite

Set on a planet of psychically-gifted people who embrace sexual diversity and peace, the series is focused mainly on sexual slavery and war. Our heroine is a prostitute (a noble calling on her world) who holds the “high couch” of her town – basically, she’s the sex duchess. Unfortunately she’s always being kidnapped or taken to other worlds where she’s tied up, forced to have degrading sex, and (of course) has lots of tearful, shame-faced orgasms. Silly and pulpy, the first novel in the series is basically a swashbuckler with kinky bondage thrown in between sword fights. Also, there is a giant flying cat.

Hidden: Brian Evenson’s “The Open Curtain”

Evenson, Brian (2006), The Open Curtain, Coffee House Press
ISBN-10 1-56689-188-4
ISBN 13 978-1-56689-188-2

In fact it is impossible to comprehend the actions of the murderous Lafferty brothers, or any other Mormon Fundamentalist, without first making a serious effort to plumb their theological beliefs, and that requires some understanding of LDS history, along with an understanding of the complex and highly fluid teachings of the religion’s remarkable founder, Joseph Smith. The life of Smith and the history of his church may be considered from myriad perspectives, of course . And therein lies the basis for the Mormon leadership’s profound unhappiness with my book.

(A Response from Jon Kracauer to his critics)

This book is hard to describe without spoiling it for the reader. It’s a tightly wound tale of horror, although not in the sense of the recent wave of splatter movies. Its brand of horror is akin to the brand of horror in Doris Lessing’s terrifying The Fifth Child. There are murders in the book, dismemberments, stabs, cuts, and strangulations, yet the novel is far from grisly. The blood is decorative, ritual. There are numerous rituals in the novel, rituals, however, which are an integral part of the horror. There is, in the middle of the novel, at the point where events really take a steep downward turn for the protagonists, a strange marriage ceremony. Strange to me, but apparently a faithful depiction of a Mormon wedding ceremony. It bears remarkable similarities to Salman Rushdie’s masterfully dense novel of partitions, marriages and Pakistan, Shame. In Rushdie’s novel, it was a delightful, tender, erotic episode where two people find each other not only despite rituals, but find ways to use them for their own ends. In a way, in The Open Curtain, a similar episode is described, and this time, too, the ritual is put to individual use, or as one of the characters puts it “we pulled a fast one on God”. Evenson, a former Mormon, presents us these rituals with painstaking –and ultimately frightening- accuracy. It is important since Mormonism provides the backbone of the story.

The story is basically based on two historical events. One is the murders by the Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan, who killed their brother Allen’s wife and child in order to purify them. The victim, Brenda Lafferty, was thought to support Ron’s wife in her decision to leave him when he insisted upon marrying multiple women. Mormonism’s ties to violence are notorious, mostly connected to the so-called blood doctrine. Here’s wiki’s neat summary:

In Mormonism, blood atonement is the controversial concept that there are certain sins to which the atonement of Jesus does not apply, and that before a Mormon who has committed these sins can achieve the highest degree of salvation, he or she must personally atone for the sin by “hav[ing] their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins”. Blood atonement was to be voluntary by the sinner, but was contemplated as being mandatory in a theoretical theocracy (see Theodemocracy) planned for the Utah Territory; it was to be carried out with love and compassion for the sinner, not out of vengeance.

In 2003, Jon Kracauer published a non-fictional account of the Lafferty story, Under the Banners of Heaven, which included a fascinating account of the aforementioned violent history and spawned indignation and changes in certain rituals. The book is also one of the pre-texts of Evenson’s tense coil of a horror novel. The actual incident that spawned the novel, according to the author, is William Hooper Young’s murder of Anna Pulitzer. The great thing is that the New York Times has digitalized a huge part of their archives. As the protagonist digs through the articles, we have the opportunity to do the same. This is from the September 20, 1902 article:

Capt. Titus, Chief of the Detective Bureau, announced at 10:30 o’clock last night that Mrs. Anna Pulitzer was murdered by William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young, the famous Mormon leader. The murder, said the chief detective, was committed in the apartment of Young’s father, at 103 West Fifty-eighth Street.

The Open Curtain takes a troubled teenager, Rudd Theurer, from a Mormon community, who digs up the case of William Hooper Young for a school project and at the same time discovers he has a half brother, Lael. From this situation Evenson spins a tale of violence, religion, deceit and madness. Rudd comes from a troubled family although we are never filled in as to what constitutes that trouble. His dead father towers over the first half of the book, as he is the one who connects all the strands of the story. The plot ingredients here would make for a fat, long, complicated novel, psychological in a convoluted way. And this is just the beginning. The novel becomes more and more complex as it progresses at a prodigious speed. It starts with memory of a murder and progresses to actual murder, as the events unravel. Murder, he wrote? Make no mistake, this is not a mystery: there are no surprises for the reader, who soon gathers how the novel is going to end. The Open Curtain is a terrifying novel, precisely because we know what is going to happen.

One of the central tropes of this novel is doubt. Doubting the evidence of yr own eyes, doubting God, yourself. Names become pratfalls: Lael, a male name often assigned to girls, meaning “belonging to God”, is often mispronounced as Lyle, the main difference being the first syllable that changes from being pronounced lay to being pronounced lie. Things like thus abound, most significantly the main character, Rudd, whose name derives from the Old English meaning “ruddy-skinned”, in other words: red-skinned. This provides a link to one of the most frequently cited instances of Blood Atonement, the 1887 Mountain Meadows Massacre, undertaken by a group of Mormons disguised as “redskins”, i.e. Native Americans. Instrumental in that slaughter was John D. Lee, whose manifesto is frequently cited by Rudd, who finds that his father had added copious annotations to it. This is just a mild hint of the complexities in The Open Curtain.

Mainly, however, it is about spiritual awakening, religious experience, a concern throughout the book. “God”, as one of the characters pronounces, “has drawn a curtain between myself and heaven and there is no parting it.” This is straight in the middle, ironically, since this novel is about breaking open boundaries, ripping open curtains, having madness fuck your old tired separations. In a way this novel is about strong religious experience, but the further open the curtains are, the darker the room becomes, until the concluding third of the novel, a masterpiece of describing a darkness within a soul or a mind. This novel is about the power of religion, even in those who do not think themselves religious. Religious upbringing or knowledge of intimate religious ideology can be enough to propel your forward on a path into the night. There are no farmhouses near that path and no possibility to rest once one embarks upon it. The dread the reader feels upon watching the characters hurtle down that path stems from Evenson’s mastery in drawing characters and setting situations and moods. Except for the teacher a character I felt slipped from his control, everybody is fleshed out and real to the extent necessary. So are the moods. There is humor, banter, as well as dread, irritation and fear, in the necessary doses. Because, above all, it is an accomplishment in that it does not waste a word. It is first and foremost a thriller and it succeeds within its own genre, a rare feat for literary forays into genre.

It is a superbly well crafted thriller, which is not weighed down by pretension. It has a serious side to it as well, showing what can happen if the violent elements in our culture suddenly surface and create a huge swirling vortex of madness. I will close with a remark from Evenson’s afterword:

A few years after the Lafferty murders, the Mormon temple endowment ceremony was changed in significant ways. The most significant changes to my mind involved the deletion of the “penalties,” a portion of the ceremony in which each temple participant mimed out stylized ways of being killed if they were to reveal temple secrets. Many temple-going Mormons saw this as a positive step: I tend rather to see it as a further repression of Mormonism’s relation to violence. Changing the ceremony hasn’t changed Mormonism’s underlying violence; it has only hidden it.

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Katharina Hacker: The Have-Nots

Hacker, Katharina (2006), Die Habenichtse, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-45910-2
[Translated into English as The Have-Nots by Helen Atkins, Europe Editions]

It was with trepidation that I picked up this novel, an gift by a dear old friend. It won the 2006 German book prize, besting as good a novel as Ilija Trojanow’s Der Weltensammler. Whence the trepidation, you ask? Whatever books may be published off the radar, the body of books that constituted critically acclaimed German contemporary literature is a sad affair. Look at the 2006 short list. Both the Schulze and the Walser are so bad that I’d rate that year’s jury worse than this year’s Booker Jury. Dito other fêted writers. Judith Hermann? Pascal Mercier? If you listen closely you can hear me shudder right now. Oh, maybe I’m just picky. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Die Habenichtse is an excellent novel. Hacker may be somewhat sloppy with her prose at times, but more than makes up for it.

Oh, but what is it about? This basic question is hard to answer satisfactorily. Not that the plot is that convoluted or hidden, but this novel is necessarily about plot. A rough sketch of the plot could read like this: after 9/11 a Yuppie couple, he working as a lawyer, she working as a designer, move to London because the husband, Jakob, has been offered a job there. Dull alienation ensues, like straight from a mid-80s suburban novel. There are all the routine trappings. Man works too much, gets caught up in his work and his colleagues, wife (Isabelle) is lonely, consoles herself with a lover. The lover in question is a drug dealer. The dullness of this plot does not reflect badly on the novel though.

Katharina Hacker is an excellent writer, always in control of her matter. The plot, as we see quickly is one more tool in her nimble fingers. The novel is stuffed with these devices which directly evoke distinct references and feelings to the literate reader. There is the fact that it commences with 9/11, or that the law firm hiring Jakob is mainly concerned with the restitution of property stripped from Jewish fugitives by the Nazis.

Wir müssen hineingehen, sagte Jakob. Er bückte sich und hielt die Blumen, die gerade von seinem Rollkoffer rutschen wollten, fest. Isabelle? sagte er, wir können hier nicht stehenbleiben.

There are alcoholic parents, a brutally killed cat, a mistreated child and some highly erotic passages. And all of this in about 300 pages. The novel moves at an incredibly speed, hitting the reader with its images, characters, ideas, never letting up. This effect is all the more pronounced by the intricate construction: Jakob, Isabelle, the neighbor’s child Sara, Jim the dealer, their stories are told in interweaving chapters. What for? There is no conclusion where the different threads come together to produce surprise or shock. The structure does, however, emphasize the complexities of the novel, by emphasizing the general applicability of what may seem like particular problems. These problems are not hard to guess, they are not alluded to, the reader is bludgeoned over the head by them.

Thus, we turn again to the question of what the novel is about. A hint is found in Jakob’s ruminations upon researching details of the Shoah, buried in heaps of books, Bajohr, Friedländer and a shelf full of others. In a telephone conversation Jakob vents his shock

Ich habe mich noch nie so sehr mit Deutschland beschäftigt, sagte Jakob am Telefon zu Hans, – ich frage mich, ob ich all diese Bücher in Berlin hätte lesen können. –Warum nicht? sagte Hans empfindlich, und Jakob las ihm eine Passage aus Friedländers Buch […] vor, wie Kinder einen Juwelierladen stürmten im Juni 1938, wie sie ihn plünderten und ein kleiner Junge dem jüdischen Besitzer ins Gesicht spuckte.

There we have, in a nutshell, the reason why the novel is set in London. The distance to Germany allows the novel to treat Germany and its past without having to resort to the olde dance, the guilt game: y’know. Germans were victims, too, you can’t collectively blame Germans, and are we not nowadays grown out of the whole thing? It’s sickening, and Hacker brilliantly sidesteps the issue by having Jakob realize the extent of the disaster and also, time and again, the fact that it was man-made. We did this, and freed from Germany, Jakob awakens to that fact. Not just past Germans, he is also made aware of the hidden stashes of anti-Semitism in present Germany, and of the ways Germans hide behind alibi actions like, for instance, restituting property without truly coming to terms with what exactly caused Germans to persecute and industrially murder European Jewry.

Alexander Mitscherlich’s classic study of collective German repression, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern becomes relevant in this context. The question “Und gibt es ein deutsch-jüdisches Zusammenleben? Ich bin gar nicht sicher” („Is there a German-Jewish cohabitation? I am not sure at all.”) is well asked given that in a city like Cologne right here, there is strong resistance against a Jewish museums while a couple of old geezers are allowed to host a major anti-Semitic installation on one of the most prominent and central places of Cologne. There is a strong and pronounced bitterness to many of these issues. The 9/11 reference at the beginning merely quietly contextualizes them. The Twin Towers make virtually no appearance once the book leaves the introductory passages and it’s a better book for it. Hacker knows which cards to play and which not to play. Thus, the novels feels heavy, but never heavy-handed (unlike this review).

In the meantime, in the present private disaster strikes the protagonists, especially, Isabelle and Jim. Here we return to what I called a dull plot. It is only dull if we expect a standard plot, if we expect to be moved or engaged by what shapes up to be, among other things, an unhappy love story. Victims, guilt etc are transposed to the private realm and then projected back again. The novel reduces everything to power structures, never more so than when it treats in-depth Isabelle’s affair with Jim. Hierarchies become painfully obvious. Gender hierarchies, economic hierarchies, even questions of anti-Semitism are transferred into the private realm. As I said, the writing is somewhat sloppy in places. It almost seems as if the writer isn’t particularly interested in crafting precise or poetic prose. Nothing about the rest, though, is the least sloppy, in my opinion. The novel is perfectly constructed, thoughtful, it works equally well on multiple levels, and, above all, and to counter the dry way I have been approaching it, it is endlessly entertaining. The speed, the writing and the pathos combine to form a truly great read, in my eyes.

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A Horrifying World

“It was a horrifying world, but it was a real one. How many of us can say we’ve made a new world out of the things that terrify and move us?” At least a few of the women writing horror today can say just that. And there’s no way to mistake the new worlds they’re making for the work of men.

That was from an overview of recent Horror fiction written by women and although I’m generally wary of the olde ‘women write differently than men’ claim, and have yet to find an instance of a decently argued statement of that claim, the quoted point is interesting.

His stories: On Javier Cercas’ “Soldiers of Salamis”

Cercas, Javier (2002), Soldiers of Salamis, Bloomsbury
ISBN-13 978-1582343846
[Translation: Anne McLean]

There you go. It’s that time of drunk again, another review. This is the first half of what I wanted to be two joint reviews, one of Cercas’ novel and the other of Kertész’s novel Fiasko, because they are thematically related, just that one is great and the other’s decent. However, I mislaid my copy of Fiasko so I decided to shelve that miserable review and get on with this crapulicious piece.

So. I’ll start with the decent one, Javier Cercas’ novel Soldiers of Salamis, originally published in 2001. It is a nice novel, but not necessary reading. It’s short, light, entertaining and contains enough seriousness and originality to make up for the flaccid narration. This sounds harsher than intended, probably. It consists of three parts, chronicling the efforts of the protagonist to write an account of an incident in the Spanish Civil War. That protagonist is called Javier Cercas, and yes, this is a bad sign. It is an awkwardly postmodern construction, trying very hard to put a complex spin on the war, trying to exploit the complexities of memory and narration. I call it awkward, but it’s not bad. The parts are all there, lies, dead ends, conflicts between oral storytelling and written storytelling, distrust towards the written word, falsified evidence and a examination of what exactly authority in the telling of history constitutes. Plus, there are some nice touches. One endearing detail are the funny cameos, most prominently that of Roberto Bolano, recently deceased Chilean giant, who, in interviews in 2003 expressed his delight at being known more as a character in Cercas’ novel than as an actual writer. Bolano is similarly engaged in mixing fact and fiction yet his subtlety, so evident in The Savage Detectives, is nowhere near in evidence in Cercas novel.

The second thing is that the book can actually be forceful at times. It’s like a longer version of a passage from a far more mesmerizing Javier Marias novel in that it is powered by a strong interest in tracking down the historical truth about an incident that may seem isolated but is soon proving to be emblematic for the mire that the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship have created for Spain and its citizens, which, as the novel proves, has consequences for his country till today. And yet, Cercas manages never to overburden his novel with darkness and faux-serious historical signifying. Cercas manages his material well, he is confident in what he does, and the novel slowly unfolds like a well-laid plan. After finishing it, everything drops into place and whatever boredom may have forced you to spread the lecture of the novel over clearly too long a period, vanishes and is replaced with pleasure. Yes, pleasure.

And another positive aspect is that Cercas seems to be perfectly aware of his limitations as a writer, so much that the cameo of Roberto Bolano must be said to perfectly make up for a certain lack in his writing: humor. I said the tone is light but it’s not humorous, at least not in translation. The fact that it chronicles a dogged search for truth so so thoroughly done and expressed, and seems to require such an effort on the writer’s part that Cercas, needs to have recourse to someone else’s voice to make up for his lack. On the other hand, the fact that he is able to call on this voice and do it in such a satisfying way is indicative of his talents as a writer. The Bolano character steps up to the plate and boy does he smack the ball hard. The character is infinitely likeable, he’s nice, respectful, erudite, humorous and deeply serious at the same time. In fact he is the best drawn character in the whole book, the only one who jumps straight off the page. As a reader this is a strange experience, because it reminds you of all the flat characters, and that includes “Javier Cercas”.

The unevenness, however, is part of the novel’s technique, each section and each character serves a certain purpose (oh the banalities I write. Please do excuse me.), and after the first section, dealing with the hunt for truth, and the second section, consisting of an account of the events, the third section is what makes Soldiers of Salamis a novel, and a good one at that. On the surface, Bolano serves as a sauce thickener of sorts, by virtue of dispensing advice to “Cercas” who has trouble finishing the novel. On a different level, the character of Bolano itself does the same job, the warmth of the description and the elements that the voice of Bolano allows Cercas to add, cause the whole construct, which hitherto never felt more than just that: a construct, to finally gel.

Notice, I barely mentioned the whole postmodern novel-within-the-novel conceit, it’s because Cercas isn’t very good at that game and the less said, the better. It does demonstrate one important thing, though. As a historian you may end up with a straight tale, after years of research and digging for truth. This tale represented by the middle section of Soldiers of Salamis. The novel enveloping that section stresses, however, that history is hard to pin down, that it is always elusive, forming both all the straight tales to come, as well as influencing the interpretation of adjacent events and figures. This novel is not so much about history as it is about historiography. It provides insights into how historical accounts are written and it does that in a remarkably readable way.

If you are interested in the Spanish Civil War and want a good and moving read which is better than its component parts, get the book. I was glad to have read it, yet I am not the least curious about any of his other books. That may convey you this reader’s impression best, I think. In sum, a cautious recommendation. Maybe it’s the contrast with Kertész’s novel I finished a few days before starting the Cercas. Kertész (review forthcoming) wrote a necessary novel, moving, brutal, vivacious. Cercas didn’t. He wrote a good one, which is rare enough these days. More power to him.

Paris Confidential: On Ariel Dorfman’s “Konfidenz”

Dorfman, Ariel (2003), Konfidenz, Dalkey Archive
ISBN 1-56478-293-X
[Original Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995]

Konfidenz. The title sounds German, the author’s name vaguely German as well, yet neither novel nor writer are. Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean writer living and teaching in the US. He is most famous for the play “Death and the Maiden” which was turned into a movie by no less a genius than Roman Polanski. Konfidenz is his 4th novel, published in 1995, written in English. And it’s strange, strange. I have read it once all the way through (well, it’s a short novel) and reread several portions of it, and I still fell unable to decide whether it’s a great or horrible novel. The writing is usually a good sign, but not here. I’ll return to why this is the case.

At the center of the novel is a telephone conversation between a woman in a Paris hotel room and an unknown man who watches her from across the street, unbeknownst to her. It starts off as a thriller, along the lines of a ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. The reader is never apprised of the solution to what appears to be a riddle. During the conversation details are revealed, by and by. We learn who the woman is and get told who the man is and whence he knows her. Apparently he is a forger, lending his services to a clandestine organization, writing fake letters, constructing alibies, like these new agencies constructing an alibis for cheaters. The last person’s alibi he constructed and buttressed by forged letters was the unknown woman’s husband’s. This means he knows all sorts of details, enough to warrant saying that he knows her.

This may sound pretty straightforward with a plot we’re used to from many other genre texts. It’s written in a plain language, unadorned to the point of becoming repetitive. These are not rhythmical repetitions or anything, they rather read like repetitions borne from a severely limited vocabulary. The language is functional, not the least musical and, as I said, very repetitive. The novel is ‘saved’ by several intriguing inserts, reminiscent of Paul Auster (who is a similarly ungifted stylist), with two men watching each other, One of them is the one having the telephone conversation, the other one is just spying on him. Clearly he knows his subject well. Is he from the resistance movement, too? Has he been at this long? He never undertakes action, and later, when his actions are required, he recuses himself from that responsibility.

Still, even with these inserts, the first half of the novel appears to be pretty simple, promising genre appropriate surprises or something along these lines. The reader is kept guessing. Who watches whom, what’s up with the woman and is something wrong with her husband? And then the novel just implodes. The french police breaks up the conversation, and grueling police questionings ensue. In a way this accelerates the process of revelation as explanations follow upon explanations. Now, however, the crux: they are contradicting each other. The conversation itself was already replete with non-sequiturs, and odd ideas and coincidents. Now we are up against completely different versions of the truth and we, the reader come to agree with a character who says:

You know – I couldn’t care less if you’re telling the truth or of this is all just a gigantic tall tale.

Or several tall tales. And the further the story progresses the more the reader seconds another character’s thought:

It’s useless … there’s nothing you can do. Nothing you can do, that is, but ask why.

Why all these stories? Why the confusion? The why is not to be found in the stories themselves. This is not a detective novel – remember McHale’s explication of the modern/postmodern divide? – the genre elements are a red herring. The key is found in the settings, 1930s France and a concentration camp. The Shoah is not an easy tale to tell, as we have known for quite a while. It’s not just Felman’s “crises of witnessing”, I’d say Dorfman’s novel takes its consequences from Levi’s “here there is no why” and what McHale correctly analyzed as a shift in literary sensibilities.

The detective caper and traditional narrative logic is at odds with what needs to be told. A synonym of the title is ‘trust’ and Konfidenz‘s suggestion is that maybe we should not put our trust in the usual, conventional stories. The forger protagonist, after all, constructed fake stories intended to fool close relatives, people who are hard to fool. The success of his forgery depended, yes, on his skill as an imitator of a person’s handwriting and writing style, but at least to an equal extent on the fact that people do not mistrust letters written by their husbands and wives. Letters as genres are allotted a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. There are things you do not expect from letters from people you know. Same goes for detective stories. The title just emphasizes the distrust towards conventional stories Dorfman says is needed.

Needed not just because of a general linguistic fraudulence we are beset by as a culture and as members of a society, but because the Shoah clearly showed us the limits of our old ways to tell a story. Writers like Semprun demonstrated how fragile ‘truth’ in this context can be, and that you may be well advised to approach this truth from several ‘untruths’ first. Truth may turn out to be the dark hole in the middle of the web of storytelling. Telling the truth in a straightforward manner may distort it, hide it behind the intricate folds of convention or fancy language (hence, maybe, the bare-bones language in the novel). Konfidenz is another novel that shows how to circumvent this, how to repair storytelling, how to restore its power. A power that’s needed in order to learn from the past so that what happened once will never, never happen again.

Harmonious

But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful.

from Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray

Ghosts of our Youth: On Hwang Song-yong’s "The Guest"

Hwang, Sok-yong (2001), Der Gast, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-24563-0
[translated from the Korean by Katrin Mensing, Young Lie and Matthias Augustin]

The well read among us are well acquainted with the presence of ghosts in literature, in good and bad books both. One of the best post 1945 novels employing that technique is Pedro Paramo. It’s this novel that Hwang Sok-yong’s novel reminded me most of, despite the numerous significant differences. I may be returning to this.

“The Guest” is about the time that Communism became the prevailing political ideology of North Korea, and about civil war like fights between fanatical Catholics and fanatical communists, both committing countless atrocities. The focus here is not, as usual and common in reports of atrocities committed by communists, on the evil reds. This tendency is so common in literature, especially with all the Gulag literature and the GDR literature, showing, iterating and reiterating ad nauseam just how unbearable life under socialism was, that I was irritated at the fact that it’s not the focus here, but ultimately positively surprised. Catholic fanatics. Well. What do you know.

The protagonist is an expat catholic priest, living in the US, who travels to Korea in his brother’s stead. His brother’s a catholic priest as well, apparently long tormented by guilt. He committed countless atrocities in his home country, murdering many communists in an attempt to seize control of their county before Communist backup arrived. The urgency of his youthful follies is apparent. The atheistic Communists, driven by an ideology that seemed imported from abroad, going against all traditions, political as well as religious, must have seemed an imminent danger to the priest-to-be.

The fact that they had large backers all across the country and abroad provided the urgency to do away with those in their home country once and for all. The same applies to the Communists, of course. After the brutal colonial rule of the Japanese, they looked to the north and east and saw new beginnings.They decided to make it new in their own country as well. And then the old retaliated, the old, politically as well as religious. Catholicism is so strict, so much of a ritual, that it’s the perfect fit for a religion that one sees as an obstacle, just like the Russian Orthodox Church was.

Both parties were in the wrong, so wrong it’s tough to find the right words for it, and yet one is tempted to refer to the atrociousness as “youthful folly”. Hwang Sok-yong found the perfect literary expression for this. There are so many problems with depicting the brutality en détail, not the least of which is the question whether a description will do justice to what happened, for the mind of the reader who is too young or too unkorean (yes, neologism) to remember. It’s like A.O. Scott’s musings on the American remake of Haneke’s classic “Funny Games”. The ghosts are the personified atrocities, they are the a Derridean trace (not really, I’m just joking), the personified lack. It shows to the reader who’s missing. Fathers, brothers, daughters, mothers. They are right there, looking him in the eye. And here’s where the author’s second brilliant move kicks in. He did not use the criminal brother as protagonists, even though he’s the one who originally saw the ghosts. He hands the reader a reader-like mirror, the brother who had nothing to do with it all.

For him, the ghosts help unravel the convoluted story, family tragedies, the tragedy of a country stumbling from one dark place to the next and then the following one. And they help us understand as well without trying to shock us with gratuitous violence. It’s not that I am not always up for copious amounts of violence, my deep adoration of Sarah Kane’s slim but brilliant oeuvre speaks for itself. But here this may be the wrong road to go down. Making the reader guess, look, see the lack and the aftermath has proven to be as effective a literary move as I’ve known, see for instance a work such as Semprun’s magisterial (ministerial) Le Grand Voyage. And it’s effective here. Read this book. While not as good as the abovementioned Pedro Paramo, which is absolutely mesmerizing, depicting a village tragedy as well, it’s something else. It’s necessary. Read it.