Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder

Clavadetscher, Martina (2017), Knochenlieder, Edition Bücherlese
ISBN 9783906907017

Sometimes a book is so surprisingly good that you stop reading and go online to look up what other books the author has written and how on earth this is the first time you read their work. At least for me, this is sometimes the case. This happened to me when I read Martina Clavadetscher’s debut novel Knochenlieder, a novel about inheritance, language, uncertain futures and how communities persevere. This is a very good book. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Swiss Book Award and should have won it, too. Clavadetscher employs all kinds of registers, from poetry to cyberpunk, from JG Ballard to fairy tales. Her novel, the title of which can be translated as “Bone Songs,” is part of the current wave of German-language dystopias, but she manages to produce a text that is both science fiction – and not. There are portions that seem a bit off as science fiction, strangely anachronistic discussions of digital matters that are supposed to take place roughly 60 years in the future, but sound outdated today. But Clavadetscher incorporates these anachronisms as a gesture, as an element of the text that tells us that this isn’t really about the future. Knochenlieder is about the linguistic way we construct the future, the way we conceive and shift our sense of home, our sense of ourselves. In this, Clavadetscher ressembles no writer as much as JG Ballard, whose work is echoed all over Knochenlieder. Ballard had also always been uncomfortable with suggestions that he wrote prescient literature. Ballard’s work engages our collective memories as humans, and the collective memory of life on earth. Clavadetscher’s novel is more personal, and she doesn’t appear to subscribe to complicated theories such as those that undergird Ballard’s novels, but it has been awhile since I’ve read a novel about the future that so powerfully engages our present and past instead. And on top of all this, Clavadetscher’s language, despite the occasional slip into sentimentality, is clever, musical and sharp – and should be fairly easy to translate because she achieves all that with a more limited vocabulary than you’d expect of what is essentially a novel in verse. Knochenlieder is always a balancing act – had it been written with less skill, it could have failed in numerous ways. Instead, it seems very successful in what it attempts to do. A good writer. A good book. Read it. Translate it.

I mean, this is not to say that the book doesn’t have blind spots, but its clever construction makes you at least question whether what you see are indeed actual blind spots or whether you diagnosed something intentional as a blind spot. The novel has three parts, set in a chronological sequence. The first part is set in 2020, so in the very near future, in a small commune of sorts, a group of people who decided to escape the increasing awfulness of the world by going mostly off the grid. This commune is a group of families, who informally renamed themselves after colors and painted their houses that way. Clavadetscher combines different things in her commune. They are off the grid, but in a very specific way that distrusts not just the increasingly unsafe world (there’s a war going on outside, we eventually learn), but they also fit a kind of state of mind that is common today too: people who distrust modern medicine, focus on “natural” remedies and solutions. If you look at these communities today, they are often white, privileged, and focusing on notions of family and heritage that are politically unpleasant sometimes. When the “Green” family, long unable to conceive, manage to engender a pregnancy with the help of medicine, other members of the community attack them for introducing the “stachelkind” – a barbed or thorned child, an unnatural, cursed child. This phrasing recalls, in fact, the recent-ish comments by Sibylle Lewitscharoff, an important contemporary German novelist. In a speech in 2014, she referred to the abominations of children conceived in unnatural ways, like in vitro fertilization. She called them “Halbwesen,” chimeras: “They are not quite real in my eyes, but dubious creatures, half human, half artificial Godknowswhat.” Since Knochenlieder was originally written in 2015, and its themes overlap with some themes of Lewitscharoff’s novels, it’s hard not to see a connection. Mind you, I think the scope of criticism is wider than one novelist: it’s about a problematic mind-set.

Clavadetscher’s choices here are intriguing. Setting up such a community could have made her novel approach fiction like Sarah Hall’s good The Carhullan Army, stories about communities off the grid, often governed by a fundamentalist secular ideology of sorts. Instead, she barely touches on the ideology, thus asking us to implicitly associate them with the groups and ideologies we already know. She focuses on the human aspects, because ultimately, her novel is about how we relate to one another and how we make a home with one another. Additionally, the science fiction doesn’t end with this (near-)future community. The more science fictional elements, including some not-quite-right technobabble, follow this. Doing this creates a tension. On the one hand, the second part, set in a metropolis, among hackers and computers, makes the simple, poetic, pastoral first part resonate as a kind of ideal, idyllic place before modernity breaks in. At the same time, we are shown that it is already broken – not by modernity but by lack of empathy, love and community spirit. Clavadetscher evades simple dichotomies, lifting her discourse into language itself.

And indeed, the language of the novel is remarkable. Clavadetscher writes a prose that is lyrical, but not excessively so. She uses line breaks to speed up and slow down her narrative. It allows her to create palpable, sensuous scenes of action and seduction. Her language allows for a clear treatment of hallucinations as well as of realistic observations without really including a linguistic shift, there’s enough room in her language for both. She does, and it’s almost impossible not to, I think, with this kind of writing, sometimes slip into sentimentality as well as a kind of poeticism that echoes Günter Grass’s very specific phrasings extremely strongly. But those moments are an exception. Novels in verse are often either banal or horribly burdened by self-consciously poetic language. Clavadetscher’s prose has a purpose, there are muscles working under the surface, and the effect is extraordinary. One such effect is that the poetic and allusive style presents a kind of discursive “home,” a fixed point of emotional reference as the world described degrades into dystopian awfulness. As the novel slowly turns into the search of a daughter for her mother, Clavadetscher increases the amount of fairy tale motifs, enriching and affirming the book’s basic linguistic direction as the lingistic search for home starts corresponding to a narrative search for home. My intuition to search for a language based solution to some of the novel’s intricacies is confirmed, I think, by what I called “technobabble” in the novel’s middle section. The protagonist of the second section is a hacker, but written the way old people imagine hackers. It uses current vocabulary and offers a kind of hacking that we do now, and indeed have done for a while now. The novels and movies of the 1980s and early 1990s, though more mid-career Neal Stephenson than William Gibson, are clearly echoed in these lines, though brought slightly up to date. The 1995 movie Hackers, which isn’t actually that awful of a portrayal of hacking resonates throughout. In no way would hackers 60 years from now go about their business the way that is described in the book. However, I don’t think we’re supposed to read this as a realistic hard SF speculation. Yes, it sounds outdated for 2017 – but it’s supposed to sound that way, I suspect. The novel pushes its readers onto the level of language, allusion and discurse.

If I was reticent about plot details, it’s because the plot of the book is good fun, I think, and there’s no need to spoil it. Ultimately, Clavadetscher has written an engaging, intelligent book that is more original that the vast majority of contemporary literature in German, particularly the prize winning kind written by non-immigrant writers. The Swiss Book Award was won, eventually, by Jonas Lüscher’s most recent awful novel, one of many praised and shortlisted novels about male professors and their righteous ruminations. Knochenlieder doesn’t really add to important political discourses, despite alluding to a future with camps and wars. Nevertheless, there’s something at stake here, this is literature that takes risks, that is fun to read and sometimes disturbing to ponder. This is an unusual and exciting voice. Translate it already.

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Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon

Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2010), Tauben Fliegen Auf, Jung und Jung
ISBN 978-3-902497-78-9
[Translated into English by Tess Lewis
Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2014), Fly Away, Pigeon, Seagull Books
ISBN 9780857422125]

German language literature is full of tales of migration – often these are among the better books published in the language. Melinda Nadj Abonji is a Swiss writer and performer, and her second novel, Fly Away, Pigeon, is such a tale of migration and identity. It was also a runaway success – winning two German language book awards, garnering praise from critics and readers alike. And it’s been translated into English. There’s no doubt: Fly Away, Pigeon is a lovely book. It is very smart, well written, and moving. And yet – at slightly above 300 pages it is twice the size of Abonji’s 2004 debut novel and her third novel, published just this year. That her sophomore novel is sandwiched between two such significantly shorter publications suggests that writing novels longer than 300 pages doesn’t come naturally to the author. Indeed, the novel sometimes feels a bit padded, a bit overlong, stuffed here and there with slightly too much detail, slightly too much sentimentalism. It’s true, the novel tells a story about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, about communism, about immigration, about integration, and about the way all these stories contribute to identity formation. You’d think this does require some space – but Abonji doesn’t always use the space well. Her debut novel, while a bit flashy and melodramatic, showed the author’s skill for using allusion and fragments to tell a deeper story than the words on the page appear to tell. Somehow, despite the fragmented, back-and-forth seesaw structure of Fly Away, Pigeon, one never feels that a story was left untold, or was told only partially. It feels as if we were told everything, exhaustively. And yet, obviously, we have not, but something about Abonji’s calm style in the novel makes us feel as if we are told a full complete story. I feel framing this as something bad, because I wanted the book to be more. At the same time, the kind of story it tells is fairly unique and Abonji has a clear sense of how languages and nationalism and identity interact. The book is very clever and a very pleasant read, despite some harrowing stories within its pages. I guess this is a kind of literary comfort food. A well executed story with a relevant subject, by a writer in control of her prose and her thinking. Honestly, it’s hard not to recommend this book.

In some ways, Fly Away, Pigeon provides a contrast to some of the German language books I reviewed here recently. It discusses the way an immigrant family attempts to become Swiss citizens, a theme that also comes up in Meral Kureyshi’s Elefanten im Garten. But in that book, the process is humiliating and alienating, whereas Abonji’s characters are accepted by their village. You may not know this, but in Switzerland, the individual communities get a vote as to whether foreigners living among them get Swiss citizenship. And these villages are quick to reject foreigners if they, for example, wear, O sin of sins, sweatpants around town. Or if they don’t like to go for hikes in the mountains. Or if they are vegan. As we know from Swiss writers like Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and from the success of the SVP party, bigotry bubbles just under the surface in Switzerland. But Abonji’s novel is like a calming balm, in contrast to Kureyshi’s irritant. Abonji’s family is accepted, and the handful of bigots in the village are presented as exceptions. The reason Abonji’s family does so well can maybe be traced to another difference. In contrast to Barbi Marković’s Superheldinnen, the family at the heart of Abonji’s novel are stable and secure economically. They worked their way up to owning a café in their Swiss town, overcoming early skepticism and gaining economic and social success. It’s hard to believe that Abonji’s novel is particularly representative of the immigrant experience – but then again, as a novel it doesn’t have to. And this choice of economic comfort – it’s clearly a choice. Because in her debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, Abonji discusses a much more difficult, marginalized existence. Migration only enters the novel in passing, but it is connected to that novel’s themes of exploitation, loneliness and violence. There are no rose tinted glasses in that book, which packs a punch, but is also freighted with the melodrama and eagerness of a debut novel. It follows, then, that the choice to depict a family rising to comfortable middle class status has a specific literary value rather than merely reflecting the author’s views on immigration.

As it turns out, Abonji uses the calm waters of the immigration narrative to hide some darker stories below the surface, lifting them out of the water one by one as the novel progresses. This allows her to focus on certain issues without having to to make them stand out against a loud background. In many ways, Abonji’s calm look on language and nationalism makes her work an apt comparison to the many German takes on immigration by writers with no immigration background. In those books, there’s often a disinterested, distanced, almost pathologizing view of that Other, the migrant and their culture. It’s not that it’s critical and negative – it’s often benevolent, in the most condescending fashion. That condescension explains why critics can feel insulted when a foreigner, who won one of their coveted awards, isn’t properly grateful to their Germanic munificence. Abonji’s novel shares some of the distanced intellectualism, but she never condescends to her characters. We are always aware that their issues are important, urgent and are in no need of anthropological curiosity. Abonji approaches the whole topic intellectually – in another essay, published by Volltext, she discusses her multilingualism, and starts toying with language, layering puns and allusions. She does the same in her novel: almost bemused, characters remark on the way words in one language echo words in other languages, she uses multilingualism for puns, for allusions and the like. But within the glitter of language games, there’s always the core of identity and belonging.

The family at the heart of Fly Away, Pigeon are Hungarians from the Vojvodina, which is an autonomous region in Serbia today, and was then part of Yugoslavia. The father of the family in the novek was horribly mistreated by Tito’s pseudo-communist dictatorship (the grandfather was tortured and interned in a work camp), and doesn’t leave out any opportunity to malign the man and his reign. He’s also our main window into how the novel views nationalism. He views himself as Hungarian, and often praises the food and cultural achievements by Hungarians, but whenever he visits the Balkan, he brags with the cleanliness and efficiency of Switzerland. He equates Yugoslavia with Serbians, who he hates with a fiery passion. His view of his nationality is one where he as an individual is front and center – his identity isn’t constructed by nationalist discourses: it’s the opposite, he constructs national narratives to fit his identity, to distinguish himself from others, to elevate himself and denigrate others. Even if I may make it sound bad, the book doesn’t judge him for it, but on the contrary uses him to make a larger point about how identities and national narratives interact. The question is always the amount of agency an individual has in the overall scheme. The father of the family in Abonji’s novel has the most agency, the most freedom to act as he sees fit. Meral Kureyshi’s characters, by contrast, have much less agency, have to undergo more pressure and parry more attacks. Even within Abonji’s novel there are differences. The protagonist, the daughter of the family, is much less able to move between national identities. In fact, at one point a love affair appears to trap her between loyalties and nationalisms. That the book ends with her moving out (no spoilers there) supports my feeling that some of the book’s themes are about individual identity and freedom. These tensions are brought to a boil during the Yugoslav Wars, which happen at the same time that the family receives plaudits for integrating so beautifully into the life of the Swiss town they live in.

Another theme of the novel is memory. Melinda Nadj Abonji herself moved to Switzerland at the age of 5. Her memories of Yugoslavia are by necessity flawed, but the novel provides a model for how first and second generation immigrant memory can work. A tapestry of languages (the novel is written in standard German, but it contains words and phrases in Hungarian, French, English and Swiss German) foregrounds the oral nature of the novel’s narrative. Most of the novel’s stories are not told in flashbacks, but are told to someone. There are three generations of storytellers in the book, and between them, they create this curious amalgam of memory, with the book itself, published years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, an extra layer. The optimistic view of culture, of the possibilities of immigration and the endurance of memories are not undercut by doubts, cynicism or criticism. Explicitly, Abonji presents many of the stories of the past as constructed, sometimes offering conflicting versions of the same story, but the higher (or deeper, depending on your choice of metaphor) truth survives even this construction. In this time of anxieties, with its rising tides of bigotry, the calming voice of Fly Away, Pigeon is welcome. We will go on, we can go on, and we will talk to each other about where we have been so we can see where we need to go. Do I have some skepticism? Sure, but this is well executed literary comfort food, with a pulsing core. Before you pick up someone like Ingo Schulze, go and read Melinda Nadj Abonji.

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Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie

Zehrer, Klaus Cäsar (2017), Das Genie, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257069983

Sometimes, when I look askance at a book I dislike, I ponder the question of what makes a bad book. I don’t mean going down the Bourdieu/Herrnstein-Smith path – I mean it in a simpler way. My gut feeling as I read Klaus Cäser Zehrer’s 600 page debut novel was: this is an awful book. And yet, it’s also entertaining, but not because of Zehrer’s literary skills. It’s primarily entertaining because Zehrer takes a real person with an exciting life, and tells that biographical story with very few adornments. For those, like me, who had not known of this person’s life, reading the book was quite a rush and led to me looking up other biographies and studies. Zehrer’s main accomplishment is that he takes the life of William James Sidis and stays out of the way as it unspools on the pages of his novel. If you want to read literature – you won’t find it here. If you are a fiction reader who enjoys seeing a mind thinking as you follow the trail of words – you will be disappointed. If you want a streamlined biography without footnotes and told with the verve and speed of an adventure novel, this is probably for you. William James Sidis’s brief life became more and more complicated the older he got, but Zehrer is entirely untroubled by the possible complications. He picks a style and sticks to it, and nothing stops him. The style is 19th century bildungsroman, but without the baggage of symbols and interior life. It’s a tale of the rise and fall of a genius, told without any interest in women, minorities or, really, any other issues that would stop the rollicking speed of this book. Here’s the kicker: I cannot possibly recommend this book. But I might give it as a present to some people in my life who aren’t great fans of difficult literature. Das Genie is William James Sidis as re-imagined by Ayn Rand: a tale of heroism and failure that fails to do justice to its protagonist. There’s no critical distance or thinking involved in the book at any point, which is the most frustrating part. Zehrer’s style is competent and unremarkable, but at least it’s usually tight and sharp enough for his purpose. So is this a bad book? Or just mediocre? I don’t know.

Das Genie has three distinct sections. The first section is about Boris Sidis, an immigrant from the Ukraine who lands in the US to make it big. It’s written for an audience who already know that Sidis will become an important figure in 20th century psychoanalysis, and it’s the most Ayn Randian part of the book. We find that Sidis is a capital H Hero of intellectual prowess. He picks up English with ease, he starts working in a factory and after a handful of days is ready to lecture the factory owner about how to run that factory. He’s an Ivy League Hank Reardon: proud, uncompromising, and going from success to success. He goes to Boston where he teaches English to other immigrants, he impresses William James and Charles Eliot Norton into giving him a spot in Harvard, and he finds himself a wife. In a scene that could be straight from Atlas Shrugged, Zehrer explains to his future in-laws how useless emotions like love are and that it is not relevant whether he loves his future wifé, but whether she will be useful to him. And indeed, she becomes his biggest supporter, earning a PhD herself, and fighting for his vision and legacy for the rest of her life, inheriting even his struggles with empathy, as her interactions with her son show. Eventually he sires a boy, who he names after his benefactor William James and immediately tries to turn that boy into John Stuart Mill 2.0. He endows that boy with a lot of knowledge, but also with his Objectivist disdain for other people and authority. Why follow rules when those rules are stupid? The tale of the boy is the second chunk of the book, and the story of adult William James Sidis, called Billy, is the third. Even before getting into the meat of the book around the “Genius” of the title, Billy Sidis, the book becomes hard to take.

There’s no doubt – the book reads like a breeze, exactly like an adventure novel. But unlike modern takes on the 19th c entury adventure novel (I might post a review of Christian Kracht’s work here one of these days), there’s no sense of the author understanding the problems inherent in framing narratives this way. Zehrer doesn’t just present Sidis’s misogynist disregard for women, he mirrors it in his book. Sidis doesn’t have time or space for women – and Zehrer doesn’t either. That first section reads like a male fanboy. The two other sections are easily summarized: Billy gets into Harvard at 11, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree and leaves Harvard, disinterested in a formal education. Goodwill gets him teaching gigs here and there, but public attention, bullying and the oppression of gender roles and expectations lead to Billy trying to hide from the limelight, ending up as an anonymous accountant, hiding from journalists and his own family. He ends up writing three different books under pseudonyms, all three about his own strange obsession, like languages and train tickets, gets involved in communist activism, founds not one but two revolutionary societies and dies in his early forties of a stroke. I mean that last sentence alone should make your mouth water. What material! And you close the book almost heartbroken about this waste.

It’s true, the eventual failure of Sidis’s education philosophy in his son’s demise complicates the picture without Zehrer’s intervention, all by itself, but that’s not enough. And it’s true, the heroic tale of Boris Sidis very cleverly puts the failures of William Sidis in stark relief – but is it really clever? As the story of William James Sidis starts taking up speed and a sense of tragic inescapability, one always feels that Zehrer shares Boris Sidis’s lack of empathy. Zehrer’s biography of Billy Sidis is told from the outside, accepting all facts about his life as a given, and then chronicling his downfall with a cool distance. I’m not saying the book should have focused on Billy’s inner life. But Zehrer also never really pans out to include society or other people. His disinterest in people not named Sidis is carried over from the first section. Sidis’s life crosses that of Norbert Wiener, but the book isn’t interested at all in these two different versions of child prodigies. Does have Sidis’s disregard for authorities and his unease with less-than-brilliant people an equivalent in the famous mathematician’s life? There are women, activists and writers crossing Sidis’s path. A famous New Yorker essay on Sidis was written by none other than James Thurber. Zehrer mentions all of these things, with an almost blasé disinterest in expanding or even just thinking about these issues.

Late in life, William James Sidis wrote a long history of the United States from the point of view of Native Americans. The text is available online – Zehrer mentions it but barely deals with the interesting aspects of it. William T Vollmann built a whole career on working on American history from that angle – what are the intellectual aspects of Sidis’s book? How does Billy Sidis’s disregard for rules and mediocrity connect to his ideas about nations, narrative and history? How does he fit in the broader context? Was Billy Sidis truly as brilliant as his family claimed? I’ve listened to a talk about Norton’s tests for prospective Harvard students and there’s a lot of material there about what cultural expectations mean in that time. Zehrer has no doubt, never stumbles, never stops to think, consider or complicate. He is also completely disinterest in literary form. The book is written strictly chronologically, in the plainest structure imagininable. Closing the book, one wishes the life of William James Sidis had been told by a writer like E.L. Doctorow, for example. Or a writer interested in other voices. Zehrer’s book is almost offensively male and white, intellectually incurious, a journeyman work.

This is not what I expected when I saw that an older writer, who spent his life in journalism, published a debut novel this late in his life, and a thick, 600 page slab of a book to boot. I mean this brings me back to the initial question. Is this bad? I feel that much of what I would call bad (rather than mediocre) is colored negatively by my disappointment. This story could have been a better book. It should have been a better book. We rooted for you!

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Nina Allan: The Rift

Allan, Nina (2017), The Rift, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650376

20171111_122327443566726.jpg I love Nina Allan. You can read my review of her debut novel The Race here. Go ahead. And this week, I am pleased to tell you that Strange Horizons has published my review of Nina Allan’s excellent sophomore novel The Rift. You can read the whole review here. Below an excerpt from my review. You should read the whole thing though. And the novel. Nina Allan. She’s the real deal.

This is additional language that enhances speech, enhances empathy, and allows for other, different, and kinder connections between people. Nina Allan’s vision of what science fiction can do is unique, and if the improvement she offered from The Race to The Rift holds, she may be one of the more important science fiction writers of our time.

über das ertrinken

ein flirren im hinterkopf und ein gefühl des ertrinkens unter der schädeldecke. irgendwas jährt sich immer und man geht klirrend zu bett. ich habe in den letzten zwölf jahren neben einem klumpen uranglas geschlafen und vielleich wächst mir deshalb ein zweites leben. man sitzt im november neben einem kaffee, einem knäckebrot und zwölf ungelesenen manuskripten. ich zähle: eins zwei drei usw. ich zähle auf deutsch sonst denke ich überraschend wenig auf deutsch oft denke ich auf english ich denke in sätzen, in satz- und gedichtanfängen vielmehr. manchmal rede ich auf russisch mit mir. ich kann keine filme über seeunglücke sehen. vor nichts habe ich soviel angst wie vor dem ertrinken und dann sitzt man im november hier und fühlt wie sich der schädel füllt und alles wegschwemmt alle sätze mit punkt komma usw. es bleibt nur ein flirren. ich sitze im ungefähr, und denke in keiner sprache. überhaupt, was denken. ich have angst vor dem tod. so weit ist es schon gekommen.

Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen

Marković, Barbi (2016), Superheldinnen, Residenz
ISBN 978-3-7ß17-1662-3

I’ve discussed this issue before: how do you define a German novel? Some of the most interesting books published in the German-speaking countries recently have complicated this question beyond the usual distinction between literature by Germans and German-language literature, which is also written, say, by Austrians and Swiss writers. Barbi Marković offers a completely new challenge. Her debut novel Superheldinnen has been published in German by an Austrian publisher, and it is not a translation of a previously published Serbian book. The author speaks and reads and writes German (she has taken part in this year’s Bachmannpreis), and has written vast portions of the book in German – before giving up and translating the bulk of it back into her native Serbian. Her friend and translator Mascha Dabić then translated (with her help) that text back into German, whereupon it was then published by Residenz Verlag. Superheldinnen only exists in German – and in a way, this makes the book German literature, much as I think the excellent output by British writer Sharon Dodua Otoo, who was born in Ghana and now works and lives in Germany, should also be considered part of German literature. Too- narrow definitions of what German literature is misrepresent how the field of German literature works – and risks focusing only on the most dull and boring books to boot.

Germans like to talk about migrants, the recent, almost unbearable novel by Jenny Erpenbeck (Go Went Gone) is a good example of that focus, but they are not as happy to hear from those migrants themselves – the strange spectacle of the 2017 Bachmannpreis is evidence of that. Barbi Marković was born, has lived and worked in Serbia – but her literary output is clearly yoked to her years of studying in Vienna. Her first book is a riff on Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. her second a riff on Thomas Bernhard’s story Gehen, and this, her third? It’s a sharp interrogation of the immigrant experience in Vienna during the late Oughts, it’s also an extended riff on various German and literary texts, it is an explosively written take on fairy tales, existentialism and the dread and anxiety of poor people. Marković employs all kinds of methods and genres to push her story forward, from montage to poetry, and given the enormous vitality of its speaking voices it’s hard not to see her acquired skills as a playwright at work here. This book is very good, very funny, and very desolate and dark. It’s also heads and shoulders above all the books on last year’s German Book Award shortlist, if you want a sense of the priorities of German critics. Superheldinnen is vital, relevant, brilliantly written literature. It’s also German literature. The question should not be – is this German literature? It should be – why isn’t there more German literature like this?

The book focuses on three women. They live in the Vienna suburbs, congregating, like Shakespeare’s witches, to ponder fate – their own, but also that of people around them. They have special “powers” – they can lift a hapless person from misfortune and obscurity onto a better path, but they can also make a person vanish from the world – well and truly vanish, so that nobody will ever remember them again. Like Macbeth’s witches, their mutterings and comments and speeches have the quality of a chorus, of a coven of angry voices, but there’s no hero in the foreground. There’s just the three women – who are all of them immigrants, and utterly poor, “working poor,” as the terminology has it today. They have jobs but sometimes, bad luck, racism and other systemic obstacles will be quite enough to root people quite firmly in poverty. And they want out. They don’t wish for riches – they crave to be middle class. That is, being able to afford going out occasionally, being able to put food on the table without anxieties and maybe even afford children. In their words, we read disdain and envy for those who have a secure life, but also plain desperation. All three women live a life without safety, without support, and their language reflects this tension. The book looming in the background of Superheldinnen is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin’s classic novel of poverty and despair.

In fact, Marković, who studied German literature, names the book specifically in a section of her novel that takes place in Berlin. This feat of transposing Döblin’s novel, which is incredibly male, filled with violence, male sexual anxieties and the expectations that society places on men, onto the lives of these women, is a remarkable bit of literary wizardry. The author demands of her readers that they be able to see beyond the specifics of these two sets of people to the issues and problems they share, as part of the working class underbelly of Europe. In many ways, this is obviously a book about migration, assimilation and issues like that, and I may get to them later, but Marković does break with expectations in writing a stirring, bleak portrayal of the despair of vast sections of the working class, whether they are immigrants or not. This clear sense of social issues isn’t particularly common in immigration narratives, which often focus more on cultural issues. It’s not that immigration narratives portray only affluent people – but the answer to why they sometimes struggle is often racism. What about capitalism, one imagines Marković’s rejoinder. Things are a mess for vast portions of the populace, and the reasons for that are complex and dispiriting.

That is not to say that Marković isn’t interested in cultural issues at all. The plot, in the present tense, focuses on the most recent meeting of the three women where they decide who to curse and who to lift from misfortune. Interwoven into their debates are memories of the past, of attempts to make it in Berlin, of memories of Belgrade and Sarajevo. As it turns out, the book offers its readers a layered discourse about speech and memory. The invention of the power to erase someone from public memory alone is a powerful metaphor for the way memory is constructed. Shoshana Felman, in one of the most striking essays I have read this year, suggests that women cannot have an autobiography, inasmuch as an autobiography entails confession. Women can only testify – and this is a process that implies (and demands) readers, other women, others who read that autobiography and thus make it real. “We might be able to […] access our story only indirectly – by conjugating literature, theory, and autobiography together.” That is a very clear description, I think, of what Marković does here. She creates a montage of voices and references – in part the book is an actual montage, of her text and bits and pieces of ads, billboards and other noises, centering around that central metaphor of the possibility to be entirely erased from memory. So how do we deal with it, we speak, we speak and we listen, we read and we share.

I’m sorry for the brevity of this review and its shortcomings, but I haven’t been well.  As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Nina Allan: The Race

Allen, Nina (2016), the Race, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650468

There’s so much good science fiction coming out these days, it’s quite mind boggling. Not, I think, since the heyday of Delany, Blish, and Ballard have we had such ample riches of good science fiction, with the good, older writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville still actively contributing masterful work, and newer writers like Ann Leckie and Karl Schroeder offering astonishing contributions to the field. And even among all that competition, the Race, Nina Allen’s debut, stands out. It’s not even entirely clear that it IS indeed science fiction, depending on where you’d draw your line, but it contains science fiction, and as a whole offers a new direction in the genre, reflecting on the possibilities of the languages of science fiction, and presenting a story that is connected to present day concerns like violence, misogyny, race, fear and class. Nina Allen isn’t a great stylist, and in her debut, her cuts and shift are still a bit abrupt (she manages these much better in her sophomore novel) but the overall effect is enormous and stunning. I’m not sure who can read this book and not like it. It’s entertaining, smart, if sometimes a bit on the nose. It draws from all kinds of literature, in all kinds of genres, and it explicitly names Lessing, Murdoch and James Herbert as some of its parameters. It’s science fiction, and for that matter, hard science fiction, as it’s called. But it’s also literary fiction about science fiction. It’s careful and kind and generous, and truly unique. I recommend you go and buy it now, before you read on. I think this book is best read if you don’t know what’s coming, if you experience the book and its turns “cold.” And it’s not about not giving away a putative “twist” ending – the whole structure of the book should come as a pleasant and intriguing surprise to the reader. So, I mean, go, go, go.

I assume if you are reading this paragraph you have either read the book or are not planning on reading it. Or maybe you are in neither camp but still read on? So I’ll say more about the way the book is built, without giving away everything. The book has basically four major sections and one small one.

The first section, “Jenna,” named after protagonist and narrator, is the longest one. It’s a “hard SF” story about a literal “race,” a dog race that is. In an unspecified future in a place called Sapphire, people have developed “smart” dogs which can connect to human handlers through a process involving complicated technology which is sorta-kinda explained. The narrator is a woman whose brother runs a stable of such dogs. Her brother is in a lot of debt and one day, his daughter gets kidnapped. This child had developed a kind of psychic connection with dogs that doesn’t need technology. While we at that point don’t know who kidnapped the child, some aspects of the development had me thinking of Childhood’s End (I was wrong, kinda), but certainly, Allen’s science fiction story combines many other SF stories of human evolution, but Allen also weaves into it a different kind of narrative that I’m still not entirely sure how to pinpoint, but I think there’s a connection to some female centric YA literature in the way we are told about the protagonist’s involvement in making special gloves for racing the dogs. And finally, Allen makes a point of mentioning James Herbert’s Rats trilogy in that section.

James Herbert’s 1974 debut The Rats is a masterpiece of horror, structured in a simple way, absolutely terrifying, but offering a story that is both a kind of biological horror, and a metaphor for the state of the United Kingdom in the 50s and 60s, with suburbs disintegrating, and the darkness of poverty and marginalized existence breeding a new, almost unsurmountable terror, that will hunt you down, eat you and your children. The main terror coming from the rats is not their size and ferocity, though that contributes, it’s their intelligence. A few times in the book, Herbert has a human character look at one of the smart rats and feel how their intelligence changes the level of power. One is tempted to see in this fear the common fear of the establishment at minorities moving closer to power. Brexit voting in the UK and Trump’s ascendance in the US are examples of this fear. Herbert manages to both offer a metaphor, and the thing itself, marginalized communities and poverty, that is, in the same, rather slim, tale. Allen doesn’t reference the first, but rather the third book, Domain. The third book keeps the subtext, but moves the whole conflict into a postapocalyptic future, an obvious reference to the The Race itself.

The second section, “Christy,” is set in our time, and from the first sentence reveals that this section is narrated by the person who wrote the science fiction story of the first section. And immediately, Allan sets about not just complicating the previous section, but commenting on the writing generally: “You’ll imagine that I created Sapphire as an escape – from the ordinariness of my own life, from the difficulties I found in making friends, from the isolation I felt after our mother left. I’ve learned not to waste time denying this, some of it is probably true after all, at least partly – but my main reason for writing about Sapphire was because the place felt so real to me, and I wanted to imagine it in greater detail.” We get imagined places both as something that has its own logic, as well as something that has some undeniable connection to the “real” world, whether as metonymy, metaphor or allegory. Christy’s story also involves a brother, but it’s a much darker story of rape, queer love and suspected murder. It ends on a brilliantly written, harrowing, cinematically powerful scene. Christy also offers books as comparisons, particularly Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Memoirs of a Survivor and her Golden Notebook, as well as Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn. Briefing for a Descent into Hell somehow anticipates Nina Allen’s second novel more than it helps understand The Race, but the Golden Notebook (though the protagonist prefers Briefing due to its title) is actually very fitting in the way its chapters are structured. Lessing’s masterpiece, apart from being one of the many, many reasons she was one of the last deserving winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a complex meditation on the connection of life, experience and fiction, with journal entries, novel-in-novels, memoir and conventional literary fictional narrative.

I found this focus on Lessing an interesting choice (Say, Atwood’s Blind Assassin would also have been fitting in some ways), that points to the specific concerns Nina Allan’s novel has with female experience, British colonialism and race. Indeed, the third, the book’s shortest section, called “Alex,” concerns a black male character who has made an appearance previously and whose role it is to sort out some mysteries, to provide a different angle on Christy-as-writer and on the topics of masculinity and race. “Christy,” the second section, is intensely class conscious – it provides a very clear sense of how poverty limits the possibilities of children, teenagers and adults, and how education can helps navigate these limits, but cannot completely overcome them. We also see how gender interacts with these limits. What’s more, the second section contextualizes the science fiction we started with, by rooting and grounding its elements and concerns, which has two effects. It makes our original reading of the first section deeper, it also asks us to read the realist second section with eyes trained by reading the previous science fiction. And there’s a third effect – being so plainly and unsubtle prodded to connect section one and two, we’re also quietly asked to expand our reading of the many science fiction intertexts. Not James Herbert, whose own book is already doing the same things, but the unnamed intertexts, from YA novels to Clarke. The third section doesn’t add a ton to this mechanism, except to reflect on some previous assumptions regarding race. It feels like the third section’s main function is narrative, as it provides some kind of closure for the literary fiction of the second and third section, without answering all the questions.

The two final sections, then, are two more science fiction stories, one, like the first section, offered in tone and font like the first, expanding on the tropes, ideas and story of the original science fiction story. It’s set in the same world and shares the same characters. The same, to an extent is true for the last section. But while the literary fiction in “Christy” implied that the first section was written by Christy, it is only the final section that is explicitly labelled as “written by Christy Peller,” which returns us to Christy’s assertion of the world having its own logic. Nina Allan never clarifies anything, but there’s a good case to be made that the science fiction of the book is not a “novel within a novel” kind of writing, but that as presented, it is a third space, not reality, not the “author’s” imagination, but something else, a new space, as only, it is implied by this book, science fiction can create. This is a topic that the sophomore novel The Rift would expand and improve upon, but it’s already clear in the debut. The Race is a complex book, with engaging characters, good ideas, and many, many worlds contained within.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

1000 pages, untranslated.

The shame of reading in so few languages sometimes leads to me looking with thirst and envy at the thick, juicy novels published in languages I don’t, or in this case, barely speak. This is the most recent example: Florin Chirculescu, who has hitherto published mostly genre work under the pseudonym Sebastian A. Corn, has just published a 1.120 page novel with Editura Nemira, titled Greva păcătoșilor sau Apocrifa unui evreu, which translates to The Sinner’s Strike, Or The Apocrypha of a Jew. And it sounds absolutely amazing. If you click here, you’ll find a review by Mihai Iovănel. Here is a small portion of it (translated by Meropi)

The Sinner’s Strike is, […] a primarily realist novel […](Fantasy, Sci-Fi elements etc. are, however, by no means absent.) Its approach to realism is diverse, pursuing it into several directions (the Pynchon-like paranoid realism, the satirical realism of the Bessarabia chapters which feature Grigore Vieru). Florin Chirculescu is among the very few Romanian writers (next to Cărtărescu and just a couple more) able to craft grand, cosmic-scale plots. More crudely: he thinks big. Whether set in a Romanian hospital ward, in the middle of the Amazon, in the company of Mohammed, aboard an atomic submarine or at 8000m above sea level, his narratives unfold equally seamlessly. The ideas he carefully but never directly folds into his fiction, address both questions which are of immediate and local interest (from the sorry state of the public health system to the sorry state of the political class) and questions which raise transnational concerns, such as religion (in a time of unhinged Islamophobia it is refreshing to read a few pages which display a deeper awareness of tensions at play, although they do no shy away from depicting the violence and bloodshed). The Sinner’s Strike is a chessboard controlled by a strategic mastermind like Capablanca, who is moving pieces, towers, castles, countries, ideas, religions, myths, dreams. And his dreams wind up our very own.

Don’t tell me you don’t want to read this. It sounds like a madder,  more interesting Mathias Énard. I dare you. Go read Mihai Iovănel’s review if you can read Romanian. Although in that case, I assume you’re already trying to get your fingers on this yummy book.

Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford

Cornell, Paul (2015), Witches of Lychford, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8523-9

Reading Adorno’s Kulturindustrie, people like to focus on his curmudgeonly complaints about popular culture. My favorite aspect of it has always been the idea that whatever noxious ideology we see displayed in the products of the culture industry are merely magnified versions of ideological tensions that have been part of earlier art all along. The unsubtle, obvious treatment of them in the culture industry merely makes them more visible. Something similar, on a smaller scale, is happening with Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford, I think. I have always meant to read a book by Cornell, but never got quite round to it. He’s been writing novels, comic books and scripts for TV, including some very good episodes of Dr. Who. So for some reason, this novella, published by Tor, is my first taste of Cornell on the page, and it’s a curious experience. Cornell writes his story with an extraordinary ease, assembles it from various parts, hints effortlessly at a broader backstory, develops interesting characters in just a handful of expert strokes. It’s quite extraordinary to watch, and that certainly makes the book worth reading. If you like stories about witches taking on elves and evil in a modern small town,it’s hard to imagine a story executed better than this one. What’s more, the book echoes a certain British kind of writing, of the Gaiman and Pratchett variety, at least for me, which has a comforting effect. Yet underneath all that, the book follows a curious discourse about money and power with a somewhat unpleasant cultural history. In this case: structural antisemitism, and it made me worry about many of the books in this tone or genre I had previously enjoyed. It’s Cornell’s excellent craftsmanship that has made certain discourses this visible in this novel or novella, because instead of couching the ideas in story and material, Cornell zeroes in on the more difficult parts of these ideas, because he has to, to create his music from the skeleton of notes that the short form leaves him with. I feel very uncomfortable with this book yet at the same time cannot but admire its execution. Cornell hits all his notes exactly. Honestly, it is books like this that I sometimes want to throw at some of the current literary purveyors of genre, the people coming from literary fiction who stoop to genre fiction, not realizing that genre fiction depends on craft and skill just as literary fiction does, and Paul Cornell demonstrates the mechanics of writing genre literature in this decidedly minor, but absolutely delighful, though poisonous, little book.

Witches of Lychford is creepy, but it’s also funny. It takes all of five pages to firmly place some of the book’s voice in a tradition of light, humorous English fantasy, the genre that was dominated for what felt like a century by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett, with the exception of some very early and some pretty late work, mastered a consistently humane and humorous voice: he created a parallel medieval world, into which he slowly introduced the foibles of modernity, from cinema and rock music, early on, to the postal system, telegraphs, banks and trains later on. His characters are sensible British people, usually men, with sensible, common-sense minds that were disturbed by intrigues, racism and other silliness. In Terry Pratchett’s world, being humane and kind always prevailed in the end, it would always show you the way, even if you were unlucky and died. Pratchett was critical of institutions but generous towards the people in his books. What’s even more interesting is that any careful reader was aware how thin the line was which Pratchett walked. Connecting fantasy races like dwarfs or elves to human racial tensions is difficult, and “common sense” can very quickly be used to excuse lazy thinking. If we’re asking you to include more complicated identities and preferences in the way you chart your world, being a common sense thinker is no excuse to exclude LGBT or people of color from the way your world works. And Pratchett never did that. Pratchett’s characters draw a line, but well-meaning people are always within the bounds. It’s bad actors who are left out: bigoted people for example. There are many examples of this British pastoral, grappling with modernity, but nobody executed it with as much kindness and care as Pratchett, which is his greatest achievement, I think. Second on the list was Pratchett’s skill with language, with moving phrases and objects just outside the reach of easy cognitive access, making our brains do double duty and re-assess things and words taken for granted. The book that Cornell is most likely to have had in mind while writing Witches of Lychford, however, is not a Pratchett novel per se. It is a collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, whose work has always been a bit disappointing, but has now also become boring.

That said, Gaiman’s appetite for storytelling in his early work was impressive and while not possessed of Pratchett’s gifts at defamiliarizing objects and language, his work repeated many elements of Pratchett’s, though in a more self-possessed, slightly unkind way. His modern city lacks the possibilities of redemption that Pratchett’s has; his view of modernity and its clash with the British pastoral is much more informed by the (infamous?) ending of Lord of the Rings, with the return to the industrialized Shire. Whereas Pratchett’s work follows many of the beats of the pastoral novel, despite much of it being set in the gigantic metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, Neil Gaiman implies the pastoral by its lack, by the decay, the destruction that modernity hath wrought. That’s not a very interesting topic for a late 20th century writer, and, if you insisted on doing it, one could at least ask for it to be done in an interesting way (Alan Moore, Gaiman’s contemporary, was interested in many of the same themes, but his work is compelling throughout; the difference between Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s very popular run on The Sandman is instructive here). Cornell’s novel(la) is decidedly written in a post-Gaiman and post-Pratchett environment (there are other writers relevant here, but I’m restricting myself to these two). The echoes to Good Omens, the Pratchett/Gaiman collaboration are loud, but throughout the whole book we find a mixture of various approaches to the light British fantasy dealing with modernity and community. Pratchett could rely on the reader’s awareness of the vast reservoir of characters making up his community, and played with new elements accordingly. Cornell has to do the introduction, background coloration and plot all at the same time, and he pulls it off with aplomb. His main characters are three women, implying the Shakespearean coven of weird sisters, but as it happens, and despite the title, only one of them is a proper witch. A second one is a newly arrived reverend, and the third one runs a magic shop in town, has had a year-long affair with a fairy prince, but is practically an atheist. The title, and the behavior of the women in the novel gives us a sense of female community, unlocking some of the non-obvious meaning of the word “witches.” The small town they all live in is a community too, and in a handful of deft strokes we learn how the three women are part of that community too, with even the new reverend having roots in the town.

You know who doesn’t have roots? The new superstore about to open up. The story of the superstore coming to town has had many many versions, some interesting, as in the underrated NBC sitcom Superstore, some more dull, as in Meg Ryan’s final box office hit Em@il for you. Often, we find a slightly troubling nativist discourse surrounding the arrival of the superstore, but it is rarely as obvious as in Cornell’s novel, where the superstore’s arrival literally means the arrival of Evil itself and the apocalypse. If the store is built, a Sunnydale-like hellmouth will open, and all hell will break loose. A demon is seen throughout the book, testing the boundaries in what feels like a nod to Terry Brooks and the second Shannara novel. God knows. That said, evil here is not the unknown corporate entity, it’s shown in the form of a kind of Satan light who tries to talk the town into building the store. He’s deadly but pretends he’s normal. He bribes the mayor, but tries to influence the town in other ways as well. The depiction of his evil is clearly tainted with the associations of antisemitic tradition. A cosmopolitan outsider threatening the nice people in a small British town? Someone whose evil is in his money (there’s a stack of money he offers as charity and it needs to be burned to ward off a danger late in the novel)? He even paints red marks on the doors of selected townspeople. Phara-oh no. This aspect has always been active at the limits of this British genre, from JRR Tolkien’s complicated relationship to Jewishness, to Corbyn’s devotion to the potatoes and leeks growing on his allotment. The countryside on the one hand, and the complicated, difficult modernity on the other, that is part of Britain’s long history (and dark present) of antisemitic sentiment that crosses party lines. Paul Cornell took a trope, the one of capitalism encroaching on proper British small town/village life, which had always been structurally problematic, and lays bare, unintentionally, I think, some of its foundations. The painted red marks on the doors are the icing on the cake, but really, in his narrative efficiency, he makes most of the elements of the book cohere wonderfully, all of them fitting this scheme. It’s a curious effect, in an overall very uncurious book. Witches of Lychford is comfort food, with a drop of poison.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Sometimes I don’t write

when I remember there’s no point and the creases in my legs and my effluvious clothes and the years of carrying around this heavy body with me and thousands of poems I’ve written so fucking much can you believe that and I carry all of it with me and on me and at my age eventually I’ll get trouble with my knees that’s what my mother says and she should know. My grandmother visits the cemetery once a week, even though they removed my great grandfather’s grave, there’s a gap now, with freshly sown grass, though it is brown now, nothing grows in autumn except death. That isn’t a good phrase, I should strike it, but I carry that with me, with my body and my hair and the half-dozen fragmented languages in my head. Sometimes I don’t write and I step out of the house and walk until my knees hurt I live in a small city surrounded by wood and thousands of poems that I wrote at some point not to mention all the fucking short stories. Sometimes I stand in a park God knows there’s enough parks here and there’s a conspicuous gap between trees, you count them, one, two, three, four, and then nothing for a bit, and then you sort of have to start at one again. I didn’t use to think much of that, but my grandmother looks at a rectangle of grass once a week, and in that gap she sees her family buried, they have all been buried there for generations and she is the last to live in that village, she won’t be buried in the family crypt and I am sitting here with a black notebook like the fucking hipster I am and want to write, but sometimes I just don’t write because there’s no point. There are things to do, there must be things to do with my hands or my feet or some other part of this enormous odorous physical burden, but I don’t know what, so I write something, and often that is a poem and it adds to what I carry around with me even though there’s no point and really I shouldn’t write but then I settle into my folds and there’s a faint smell of soft rotting oranges even when it’s cold or when the rain swallows all odors, and I just write and revise and rewrite and eventually, I mean, can you fucking believe it?

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

Jackson, Shirley (2013 [1951]), Hangsaman, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-39198-4

I know little about Shirley Jackson, and Hangsaman is only the second novel I have read of this famous writer of the American Gothic. I have little context for this book, but ultimately, it seems the kind of book spoiled by context, by biographical or bibliographical explanation. Let’s say it now: Hangsaman is a brilliant, utterly unique, a terrifying book, that, published at the same time as Salinger published his Catcher in the Rye, offers a sharper, smarter, more scintillating take on growing up as a teenager in 1950s America. Jackson includes, though she names it differently, the “phony” adults, but there’s more: sexual terror, awakening. The book is full of symbols, it uses movies, books and songs to give the reader some orientation, but it doesn’t depend on any of them. It’s one of the most densely written books I have had the pleasure of reading this year, but it wears its complexities lightly. I complain on occasion about books that are leaning too heavily on a clever structure without offering the basic substance of story and writing to their readers – this, this is the opposite. It’s clever and funny, terrifying and intriguing. It’s a fantastic book, and I’m not entirely sure why Jackson isn’t more widely admired.

An award named after her is given out every year to horror and suspense writers, but Hangsaman should be read and taught among the best American novels of the 20th century, and not just the best American crime novels. I have no idea how widely read this book, not one of her most famous novels, was, but some of its inquiries into femininity and power, and some of the ways its symbols and ideas are staggered appear to have influenced other modern classics, like Atwood’s Surfacing. But while Atwood is a clean and skillful writer of prose, Jackson’s command of the sentence is almost Kleistian in its detailed rhythms, its musical shifts that follow the protagonist’s shifts of mind. It’s a rich, complex novel that I’m sure has more treasures buried under the surface – I’ve finished reading it 5 minutes ago, and one exits this book in a kind of rush, an excitement. This is how all books should be, one wants to write. Suddenly, the fact that I have only read two of her novels seems like a gift – so much more to read! If her other books are as good as Hangsaman and We have always lived in the Castle (the other one I read), a very dreary late summer/autumn is about to acquire some bright spots.

Please forgive the possibly over-emphatic tone. I am improvising this review to collect my thoughts and I am coming right from the book, like a man out of a pouring rain, dripping with water and misery. In the same way, I am coming to you, dripping with mystery and excitement and literary joy, so, you know, cum grano salis and all that.

Honestly, however, I don’t think I will greatly adjust my opinion later. The book shifts gears rather rapidly between its three parts, but this movement of the book overall is reflected in the micro-movements of the protagonist’s thoughts, fantasies and the author’s sentences. While there is possibly a rape in the book’s first third (it’s marked, like Kleist marks sexual congress in the Marquise of O., by an elision), and occult elements in the book’s last third, this is in no way a horror novel, or even a psychological thriller as we understand the genre today. It’s a small-scale Bildungsroman, equal parts Hesse, Musil and Atwood. We meet the protagonist, a girl named Natalie Waite, in the first part, we learn about her family. Her father is a failed mediocre writer, whose miserable existence is foisted on the child, who is forced to write texts that her father then corrects. The dynamic between father and daughter is uneasy throughout – Jackson writes this first third of the book with a masterful sense of the claustrophobia that the big ego of a small bourgeois mind can create in a family, especially in a time when men were the ones in control, and women, like Natalie’s mother, had to give in, give up, give over to the men in their lives. The real cruelty of this situation is that Jackson has Natalie muse about what it means to become an adult: “There was a point […] where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities.” That last phrase, “believable possibilities” is really the clincher here. Natalie’s mother, as well as other female characters, are not obedient, they are fully conscious adults, but society was built in a way that cut down on their “believable possibilities.” Reading this book about growing up female in post-war America makes the insouciant pale dullness of Holden Caulfield’s rebelliousness even more galling, I think. There is a sharp realism in Jackson’s book, but it’s different from a lot of socially conscious novels I remember from the period. Natalie’s father is no Man in a Gray Flannel Suit – and Jackson really doesn’t particularly care about sussing out the motivations of the men in her book. What she cares about are how their behavior corrals, restricts and harms the women of the book. The second section is basically an academic satire, often funny, sometimes depressing, always told with a remarkable economy and flow. In it, we find another married couple, practically the younger version of Natalie’s parents. We also find other girls in Natalie’s dorm who have different ways of dealing with masculinity. The extent to which Jackson shows, without being preachy, that all these ways are different kinds of negotiations with power, is remarkable.

I thought of Kleist when reading Jackson, because one of the extraordinary qualities of Kleist’s prose is the way he manages to be both emphatic, pushing and following the ebb and flow of the plot and action, and at the same time build his sentences with careful, unerring elegance. There are almost no sentences that offer unnecessary simplicities – everything is rigged tight, yet the writing often seems over-bordering with linguistic energy. Of course Shirley Jackson isn’t Kleist, but the way the book’s prose seems to be tailored exactly to the protagonist’s thoughts and the plot’s movement, without sacrificing linguistic energy and elegance, did remind me of him. Usually when you admire a skillful prose architect, they build their novel from the linguistic and syntactic possibilities of their work – their sentences are always recognizable. Shirley’s writing bends to its content – but it doesn’t break into stylistic ugliness or incongruity. She does offer the occasional commonplace observation or statement, but in a way, as a reader, I’m actually quite thankful, because it allows me room to breathe. The whole middle section is more widely spaced, airier than the first or last section. There are more people in it, real, not imagined people, more time passes, and language often moves us from event to event, rather than from one place in Natalie’s head to the other. In that sense, the occasional bromides are not superfluous at all, but add to the book’s musical structure. Another connection to Kleist is the way the movement of his sentences always reflected his sense of the weight and power of the people he described and moved through his stories. His syntax would bend around powerful people, offering us a syntactic mirror of the social pressures of his time. Again, Jackson isn’t Kleist, but Jackson’s sentences expand and contract to reflect the weight of speech and of the social status of the people represented by that speech. The third way is Kleist’s ease with representing, in drama or prose, difficult mental states and unequal access to reality. In fact, Kleist is one of my favorite writers in matters of liminal mental states, passions, mental anguish and madness. In this, Hangsaman is almost his equal. Shirley Jackson moves from interiority to exteriority with unbelievable skill – literally unbelievable, I had to reread some pages just to fully enjoy the enormous writing.

Natalie is, ultimately, I think, a Deleuzian schizophrenic – though I don’t mean this clinically at all. But if I remember Deleuze and his partner in crime correctly, they offer the schizophrenic as someone who has unusual access to the real, because the border between things and words have become permeable, and because the usual connection of desire with lack (we desire what we don’t have) doesn’t exist with schizophrenics, instead desire becomes productive. And indeed, Natalie is “shocked by her own capacity for creation.” She is easily able to hold two conversations at the same time, one created by her own mind, and one happening in the physical, real world. In fact, the third part of the novel offers multiple mappings of reality, as Natalie and her “friend” Tony play multilevel games the board of which overlaps with the real world, but not completely. This section sums up everything that the previous parts have slowly accrued, we are pushed into thinking the world with Natalie, after the first two parts have trained us to be good readers of her voice and her creations. There is nothing supernatural here, and yet we struggle with distinguishing reality from fantasy, as we are thrust into the unstable symbolic world of a brilliant adolescent. The book’s conclusion is strange, exhilarating and breathtaking.

I cannot possibly imagine someone not liking this book, which is the best book I reviewed this year so far by a country mile, and I didn’t expect it to be this good. It’s looser, pushier, louder than the other Jackson I read, We have always lived in the Castle, but that one is also an examination of liminal states, of conflicts between interior and exterior, of femininity and patriarchal power and violence. The latter, Jackson’s final novel, is also a really complete, almost flawless and I expected Hangsaman, her second novel, to be more of an apprenticeship, a trying out of language and reality. Instead, I encountered a masterpiece. I said earlier that Jackson should be more famous, but equally, it’s a mystery to me why Hangsaman isn’t a more famous novel. I did write this review top to bottom within an hour of finishing the novel, so there are bound to be exaggerations and blindnesses, but I don’t think my overall appreciation of the novel is wrong. This is really, really good. Everyone should read this.

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On Fate

My sister just asked me whether I believed in fate. She is afraid of flying and about to fly to Asia, her heart in her pocket and her fears in her throat. It is an odd question. She asked whether I believed in all choices leading to the same result and I said I believe in nothing. I barely believe in the floor bearing my weight as I get out of bed. I am never more cartesian as when I find myself under the blankets in the morning with a whole day, or whatever is left of it spreading out ahead of me, fanned out like carpet samples. These past weeks I have found myself tortured by the question of who I am. So now I am asked about fate. It is the wrong day to ask me. I am tempted to make some joke. I cycle through possible puns. Schicksal. Schocksal. Schmocksal. Scheusal. I improvise a poem. My sister gets impatient. Do you believe in fate? Would I have met the man of my dreams, she asks, had I not taken this class or that, had I remained friends with this friend or that? Would I now stare down the barrel of this flight, or this sickness or the implacable drumbeat of loneliness at this stage of my life, she prods me, unhappy with my silence on the other end of the line. Would I have always become who i am? I cannot answer this question. We are who we are. Beloved sister, I am who I am, and contemplating other paths will not help me continue breathing, will not help me look at daylight with a welcoming frown. I have nothing, I am barely anything, but this is who, where, how I am. Could my life have taken a different turn? I have to look at all the turns and choices in my life and for everything that went wrong, other things went well. Going down a different path, I would not be me – and more importantly, you would not be you, I told my sister, as we both slowly slipped into a tub of pathos and obviousness. Pathos is thick like molasses, but it smells like that milk in the fridge that could be off, but you’re not entirely sure, so you’re sitting on the kitchen floor, smelling the milk, contemplating trying it, but what if it is truly, terribly spoiled and nobody wants to start their day drinking spoiled milk on the kitchen floor especially if you’re busy pretending the afternoon sun is really the morning sun, I mean unless I look at the clock nobody knows, that’s how that Heisenberg theory goes, right, and so you put the milk back in the fridge because you’re not that thirsty anyway and life is full of choices and that should answer your question. What was it again?

 

The Nobel Prize 2017 and literary awards

It’s two or so days until the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded. I have not made a list myself yet, and after especially Dylan, I am not especially optimistic about the outcome this year. However, since last year the award did not go to a writer, and generally speaking, the award has been bypassing the global heavyweights, in favor of the Modianos and the Munros of the writing world, my picks from 2016 are still valid.

As far as I can tell, most of the writers I picked are still alive despite the horrible loss of John Ashbery this year. So please read this blog post if you are interested in who I think would merit a win this year. I have also, as a slightly puerile reaction to last year’s award, drawn up an alternative set of candidates. Now, this list may look silly, but it is at least half-serious, in a world where the literature award is no longer awarded to literature. Read the blog here.

But while you hopefully click these links I wanted to add one more thing. I am aware, following Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Simone Winko, Bourdieu and others, that awards are not a sign of “true excellence,” with the idea of an objectively best set of books or writers already being a problem. And yet I am still following book awards, and can get a bit cranky about, say, the ridiculous longlist of this year’s German Book Award, not to speak of my upset at last year’s Nobel award.

Look, whatever weaknesses awards have, I feel that some of the dismissive reactions to prizes come from people who are already well read. I mean I don’t have time scouring the lists of current novels in the languages I read, but I have ways of getting at recommendatios, but let me tell you, as a German/Russian teenager, the Booker longlist and the list of Nobel winners was a very helpful shortcut to learning about writers outside of the narrow borders of my reading. I was not surrounded by a circle of readers or writers, I wrote poetry alone and secretly, and similarly, much of my reading happened in shadows, on attics, in the quiet spaces where words from all over the world came to life.

Without awards and longlists my reading would have been restricted to that of my circle of friends, or of newspaper reviews. Germany, by the way, if you want some insight on the latter, is a country where Jonathan Franzen is taken seriously as a Nobel Prize candidate.

I found some of my favorite books and writers on the lists created by awards, award discussions and longlists, most at a time when I wouldn’t have been able to find these books. There were three distinct sources for me as a teenager, discovering literature, two of them being two bookshops in Heidelberg, both long defunct, and one my trawling through lists and awards.

Scoffing at awards is well and good for those who already know about books, or meet people they can ask. In my opinion, awards have a powerful function in the literary discourse, beyond what they say about how the field of literature works, and how value hierarchies are constructed etc. etc. They are also just lists of books that we can easily access, look up, read.

And that’s why last year’s stupid award made me angrier than a misplaced award like the Munro did. Books. They matter. And I’ll wait for the announcement this year again. I won’t be as excited as in previous years because to an extent, they broke the award last year. But I’ll be waiting. And hoping. And please, dear GOD, don’t give it to Murakami or Marias.

Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories

Larcenet, Manu (2003), Le Combat Ordinaire, Dargaud
ISBN 9-782205-054255

I picked up this book in a Parisian comic book shop yesterday and read it all the way through on the Metro ride home. Granted, it’s not very long. That said, I haven’t been this impressed with a comic book purely by the way it’s written in a long time, so I’m sitting here to give you a quick shove. Go read this book. It’s called Ordinary Victories in English translation (published by Europe Comics), but there’s nothing ordinary about it. My caveat here_ I’ve only read volume 1, God knows the book might fall apart in later installments (there are four overall), but I cannot see that happening. Manu Larcenet is a fantastic writer, whose artwork unexpectedly complements his stories of love, heartbreak, war and disillusionment. I’ll admit – when I was recommended the book in the shop, I leafed through it, and wasn’t bowled over. Funny faces, bulbous noses, dudes smoking weed. None of this was new, none of this seemed worth the time and money to engage with it. For some nebulous reason I picked it up anyway, and I find it hard to summarize what an achievement I am finding this book to be. I was moved, not just by the awful cliffhanger ending to the book, but also by the enormous amount of humanity that Larcenet offers his readers. Ultimately, this book is about who we are as people, what we value and what holds us together as communities. Set against the backdrop of the 2002 Presidential elections in France, it asks us to understand what it means for France that a fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was able to get into the runoff against Chirac, what it means for us on the left or even center that a substantial amount of the country could have embraced violent cynicism as a political philosophy. It’s curious that I am reading the book today, as Le Pen’s daughter has gathered an even larger part of the vote in the recent French elections, and Trump won last November’s election in the US, and this Sunday, our own fascists are poised to win a historic victory and become the third largest party in parliament. Reading it as a person who is questioning some of his own choices in life and trying to find the glue that connects him to other people, this comic had a particularly strong resonance.

The protagonist is a 20something photographer who is unhappy about his job, though he still loves taking pictures, and has made enough money to be able to live (frugally) in the countryside for a year or so without being forced to take another job. He doesn’t do a big sweeping assessment of his life – he just takes down all his photos, and takes walks through the countryside with his rancorous cat Adolf. He meets farmer, smokes some weed, and, eventually, through an injury to his cat, falls in love with a veterinarian with whom he begins a loose relationship. The book begins on a psychoanalytic couch, and we may want to read his trip to the sticks as a kind of liberating move, but we quickly realize that it is his way of hiding from the issues and forces in his own life. This personal journey is however quickly buttressed by a nastier political theme – his father’s (and France’s) past during the Algerian war. The common practice of torturing Algerians during that war rears its ugly head as the book progresses, again, echoing the Presidential elections that happen during the events of the book, with one of the candidates running, Mr. Le Pen, having himself participated in acts of torture. There are no flashbacks (yet), instead we learn much of the Algerian war background of some of the protagonist’s characters, including his father, in stray sentences and one dialogue. Fittingly for the protagonist’s profession, it is a photograph that sets that whole discourse in motion. In retrospect, after finishing the book, it is quite remarkable how efficient, how sharply structured and how overall well made the book is. For all that the book may seem meandering at the beginning, everything in it serves a purpose – this kind of unassuming density is always impressive to me. It means the author has a solid control both of his ideas and the way he wants to deliver them, as well as of the craft of just telling a story with well-rounded characters. Even those characters that we never really get to know are written in a way where we can glean some additional, fuller dimensions.

The only downside to the book is its extensive maleness – the main character is a man, and his interlocutors are all men, except for his girlfriend, his mother, and his brother’s wife. Of these, his brother’s wife is the most independent – she confronts him once about his behavior, but is shown to have a whole life outside of the main protagonist’s travails. His girlfriend merely serves as a foil. Now, I understand that this is a story about this one man, and some of the maleness is inherent in the material. What’s more, the male farmers, his father, and his own gender form a kind of connection to the people who have largely been responsible for the political drama, both in the present of the book, as well as in the French past: white French men. I sort of expect the other volumes to draw more on the connection here, and it’s certainly an interesting and relevant path of thought. At the same time, introspective books by men about the deleterious effects of masculinity are as common in literature as croissants in French bakeries, and I must admit that I am slowly tiring of finding yet another text caught in the maelstrom of the (self-critical) male ego. At the same time, it’s a sign of how fantastic this particular text is that I still enjoyed it greatly, bulbous noses and bulbous egos aside. This is a very good comic and you should read it. Also, it has an adorable cat!

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Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten

Kureyshi, Meral (2017), Elefanten im Garten, Ullstein
ISBN 978-3-548-28849-9

This is a good book. Meral Kureyshi is a Swiss-Albanian writer who is part of that country’s Turkish minority. At the age of nine, she moved to Switzerland, where she still lives and writes. Her novel Elefanten im Garten, which someone should be translating into English ASAP, talks about a girl with similar experiences. At the center of it are the feelings of displacement and alienation that accompany many refugee narratives. The novel’s protagonist is a refugee, who, when she loses her father, goes into a bit of a tailspin, reevaluating her life. The novel recounts that life in fits and starts, moving back and forth through time, offering us a disjointed chronology that reflects the disjointed biographies of many people who have left their home without being allowed to find a new home in the place they arrived. Kureyshi offers us a novel written in a poetic style, although you can tell the MFA trained writer in the self-conscious way she sometimes presses the poetic elements to the point of offering the occasional Coelhoite banality in the guise of a moving sentence. The flourishes that permeate the book are not its best element – she is best when she allows her observations to stand on their own, but she also has an interesting gift for structure and how to make stories like hers cohere. Her tendency to offer a pretty poetic bow to the sharp unsalted substance of her tale is regrettable, because it keeps us from finding her voice in the text as much as we should – it also invites comparison with other, somewhat better texts and writers, the most obvious of which -to me- was Aglaja Veteranyi. Veteranyi was exceptionally skilled at giving us a moving tale with political relevance, where poetical flourishes enhance rather than cloud the author’s work. You can get Veteranyi’s slim oeuvre in English, and one wonders whether the loud echoes of her work in Kureyshi’s book are an indication that her work is taught in MFA courses and schools as one way to deal with this specific kind of material. Don’t get me wrong – I may have complaints, but Elefanten im Garten is definitely a good book, and one that is both moving and – especially given today’s politics- politically relevant.

The book is structured in many small blocks of text, too small to be called chapters, although they are themselves structured in larger groups which resemble chapters but are never named as such explicitly. These groups advance a topic, or an element of the plot, and within the groups there are bits set in the past, bits set in the present, offering, in effect, a sort of complete set of the protagonist’s context for a specific observation or memory. There is this strong sense, within each of these groups that we are the sum of our memories and to understand an emotion in the present we need to understand the deep impression left on us by the weighty pressure of the past. This coherence then allows Kureyshi to be much less obviously structured in the way she arranges the groups. It is only after a while that we notice we were slowly fed more and more details, that Kureyshi slowly builds one element on the other. Much as they do in Veteranyi’s work, repetitions start to weigh on us as we make our way through Elefanten im Garten. We learn that the protagonist’s father died early in the book and that this precipitated much of the soul searching, the “Das dreißigste Jahr”-styled attempt to find herself which comprises the events in the novel’s present. Only as we pass through the novel do we slowly understand why that death was so shattering. And we really do – the impatience of the writer to make us understand, to show us, to point to the important thing can be irritating, particularly at the beginning, when all the pointing is unearned, and in retrospect, when we see how the book itself does such a good, gentle, and moving job at pointing us in the right direction. One sentence early says “I looked for you in your diaries, but I found myself.” This is not a good sentence, and thank God the book doesn’t crawl with them. But that is an example of the author not quite trusting herself. We understand as we go through her memories and vignettes that understanding the things her father -Baba- did is also a mirror to her own life.

One feels with some unease that the author was taught that this material would benefit from this kind of language, and this kind of obviousness – particularly since the work of Dorothee Elmiger, which I reviewed a few months ago, doesn’t contain any such superfluous pointing and waving. Elmiger is content to let the material accrue, to let the information and the stories and the allusions do her work for her. And Elmiger went to the same MFA program, the Literaturinstitut in Biel, but her material and approach is different. The heavy traces of Veteranyi in Kureyshi’s book leave me, as I said, uneasy. But maybe it’s not the MFA – maybe it’s just this incredibly talented debut novelist’s impatience to really make the book work, make the book speak to its audience. In a book I’ve been reading recently, Anne Katrin Lorenz discusses parrhesia and the way Foucault’s work shifts in relation to it. Ultimately, Lorenz says, Foucault lands on the importance of open speech as a form of self-care, making one’s life into art. Given the biographical overlap between Kureyshi and her protagonist, it’s hard not to see some of the way the novel is written as a kind of performance, a sometimes regrettably overdetermined, but always exciting dance on the page of speaking out, and needing this transformation of self into art to work. Some of the connections she makes are breathtaking, but subtle. Or breathtakingly subtle? For example, the use of colors. In the same group of blocks where she discusses the letters her family would receive from the state announcing the rejection of their stay in Switzerland, she also mentions winning a bike at a fair. The envelopes of the letters are yellow, the bike is orange and the only other colors mentioned in the group are two shades of red. This may seem minor but the theme and symbolism is part of what ties that group together and Kureyshi keeps doing things like this, seemingly effortlessly, and you follow her until she drops one of those clunky-poetic sentences on you.

The poeticisms are all the more confusing because Kureyshi sometimes offers simple, plain sentences, simple, plain descriptions of things that happen, and these are among the most shattering parts of the book. She asks questions of her readers: what does it mean to be at home, if your residence can be revoked at any time. Do you understand the fear of living in suitcases, being prepared to leave the place whose language you know best? There is a lot of awfully complacent writing about refugees these days in German-language literature, and some confusingly clueless writing about Germans going abroad that would have been questionable in a 19th century novel. From Jenny Erpenbeck’s overwrought tale of German compassion and confusion to the traveling tales of Bodo Kirchhoff (whose offensively reactionary book Widerfahrnis won last year’s German Book Award) and Jonas Lüscher, whose debut Frühling der Barbaren feels like one of Fouad Laroui’s French characters wrote a book, and whose new book (longlisted for this year’s German Book Award) is another tale of an upper middle class German who feels put upon by women and travels abroad to find a solution to his very important problems. Writers like Kureyshi destabilize that literary complacence. Two other books on the topic, one that hasn’t come out yet (but is already longlisted), Sasha Salzmann’s Ausser Sich, and one that’s been out for a bit, Olga Grjasnowa’s Gott ist nicht schüchtern, are on my short short list of must reads. And Kureyshi should be on yours. None of the book’s minor shortcomings overshadow the book’s major virtues, and they are equal parts political and literary. This is the kind of debut novel that you squint at, saying: if this is her first book, how goddamn good will the next one be? And maybe graduating from the MFA school will reduce the group of teachers that push her to adopt other voices, like Veteranyi’s in this book, and increase the courage to push harder for her own.

Because her voice needs to be heard. There are scenes here that I have never seen described or written before, filled with an awareness of how our world works – or indeed doesn’t work. In one fragment, Kureyshi’s protagonist waits at a busstop with a man wearing the uniform of the Swiss army members of the KFOR soldiers stationed in Prizren. The man comes from the same village where the protagonist grew up, and Prizren is where her family is from. She makes him aware of this coincidence, and he nods and turns away. This scene is described in incredibly precise language, it ends on a simple declaration, but also contains a small borderline surreal element. I have never read a scene quite like this before – and for something to be entirely new to me, that’s not very common. Literature that surprises me, that moves me, that angers me – that’s literature I want to read, particularly when it’s mostly well written. German is a sickness, the protagonist says at some point, she cannot get rid of it in her head. Well if this book is the result I’m not sure I want to help her find a cure. Read this. Translate this.

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Grymmyger Tilger

Grymmyger tilger aller landt, schedlicher ächter aller welte, freyssamer mörder aller lewte, jr Tot, euch sey verfluchet! got, ewer tremer, hass euch, vnselden merung wone euch bey, vngluck hause gewaltigclich zu euch: zumal geschannt seyt ymmer! Angst, not vnd jamer verlassen euch nit, wo ir wanndert; layt, betrubnüß vnd kummer, die laytten euch allenthalben; leidige anfechtung, schentliche zuversicht vnd schemliche verserung die betwingen euch groblich an aller stat; himel, erde, sunne, mone, gestirne, mer, wag, berg, gefilde, tal, awe, der helle abgrunt, auch alles, das leben vnd wesen hat, sei euch vnholt, vngunstig vnd fluchend ewiglichen! In bosheit versinket, in jamerigem ellende verswindet vnd in der vnwiderbringenden swersten achte gotes, aller leute vnd ieglicher schepfung alle zukunftige zeit beleibet! Vnuerschampter bosewicht, ewer bose gedechtnuß lebe vnd tauere hin on ende; grawe vnd forchte scheiden von euch nicht, wo ir wandert vnd wonet: Von mir vnd aller menniglich sei stetiglichen vber euch ernstlich zeter geschriren mit gewundenen henden!

Johannes von Tepl, Der Ackermann

On not writing poetry

A great deal of effort is invested in the act of not writing poetry. You write a line, and another one, and a third, slower one and you are alarmed by the sour unmusicality of the stanza, and the overall lack of skill. So you strike them all out, get up, and take a walk down the street. After five minutes you reach the local bakery that has closed three times in the past year but appear to still serve customers. The person at the counter wears a paisley skirt and a look of defeat. I start writing a poem in my head as I am waiting for my loaf of rye bread. This is a bad sign so I leave without my bread, running down the street, and back up the stairs to my apartment. I do the dishes, breaking one out of every five plates into exactly twelve pieces. I sit down and stare at the wall, carefully not writing poetry. The act of not writing poetry, when you have no talent for it, costs a great deal of effort.

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!

Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life

Bhagat, Chetan (2008), The 3 Mistakes of my Life, Rupa
ISBN 978-81-291-1372-6

I don’t often read genuinely terrible, awful, no-good books. When I read a book I consider bad, it’s often “just” mediocre. It’s just – look, my reading habits often filter out the truly awful. So when I say that Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life is a truly terrible book, I don’t mean: bad like Paul Auster, or bad like Daniel Goetsch. I mean bad like the essay you wrote in high school, bad like that movie you found on an old VHS in the ruins of an abandoned blockbuster starring Zachary Ty Brian. I mean bad. To be clear: Bhagat is, from what I can tell, a spectacularly successful Indian novelist (I recommend this post for an excellent analysis of his appeal), and this book is interesting for a variety of reasons. None of them are literary. This is not a good book. By comparison, Dan Brown is a genuinely competent novelist (he’s not) and Paulo Coelho erudite and clever (he’s not). If we exclude the thousands of pages of epic fantasy I’ve read in my life, Bhagat’s novel ranks among the worst books I have ever read. It’s a 250 page book structured into 210 pages of mind-numbing banalities and 40 pages of harrowing, grim, brutal action, which coalesce into a half baked strange political point and end in the writer’s autoerotic epilogue. This is bad. And yet…

And yet – I am so used to reading Indian literature in English, often by writers who do not live in India, like Rushdie or Mistry, or writers like Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy, who are, at least partly, writing for a commonwealth audience, for readers who are not Indian. Bhagat’s novel is clearly directed at Indian readers, making small in-jokes about cultures, cities and communities, constantly relying on the reader’s sense of how certain things work and how certain historical backgrounds function. That makes for an extremely interesting reading experience. There’s room here to consider this book in connection with some postcolonial thinking, about the extent of colonialized speech. There are curious notes on religion and race, as well. If only the book’s core wasn’t the story of a couple ofi nsecure-but-boisterous boys, confused about and dismissive of women, and if the prose didn’t resemble that first draft you write at 4 in the morning after a bender just to get the idea out, maybe there would be something here? Following Gayatri Spivak’s essays on the archives (“The Rani of Simur” still holds up today) and on the subaltern, there was always a mildly disquieting element in the way Indian writers were received and perceived in the West, part of a traveling community of writers who Rushdie described well in essays collected in one of his best books, Imaginary Homelands.

Describing, speaking about India in English has always been an inherently tricky business, and the Western appetite for essentialist, dubiously fetishistic narratives of India has only fueled that. When Rushdie, after the stunning Grimus, recalibrated his writing under the influence of Grass, Desani, Marquez and others, his use of a specific tone, almost a genre of writing, a mode of how to speak about India in English to a Western audience, is clear and palpable. Particularly among the fêted but clearly weaker writers, like the inexplicably Booker winning Kiran Desai, the use of generic markers is obvious, and deserves interrogation within Spivak’s parameters. Chetan Bhagat is a completely different kind of writer, and I don’t just mean that he’s an incompetent boob. His book is written in English, but it makes no allowance for English readers by explaining, contextualizing, explicating terms, words or descriptions. His audience knows what he’s talking about, and the experience for me as a reader is fascinating. One encounters these things in translation, obviously, but there is a specific context for Indian literature in English, and within that context, reading Bhagat can be a puzzling experience.

Take Bhagat’s nationalism: there are people in the book who are non-Indian native speakers of English, specifically Australians here, and Bhagat’s descriptions of Australians and their language is very clearly that of someone who googled the words “typical Australian phrases” and copy and pasted them into the novel, with only very cursory care for whether the sentences around them syntactically supported the insertions. Bhagat’s characters are proud Indians, saying things like “I don’t want to be Australian in my next life. Even if I have a hundred next lives, I want to be Indian in all of them.” This unabashed, unchecked, clear nationalism, together with the essentialist and ignorant treatment of Australians is a curious fit for many conceptions of the discoursive structure of Indian literature in English. One of Bhagat’s most recent novels follows the foibles of an Indian who attends a British public school and thus invites, maybe, comparisons with books like Rushdie’s (very good) memoirs. But all of this has less to do with Bhagat’s novel, as it has to do with me as a reader and Western traditions of reading and how Indian writers, both those who live in India and those who made Canada, the US or the UK their permanent home respond to those tradtions.

Bhagat’s novel appears, at first, to be about cricket, and about some very odd ideas about love, sex and gender, but ends up making a serious point about politics. The background to the book are the Gujarat riots. As far as I can tell, Bhagat, a public intellectual in India, whose offensively low skill as a novelist appears to be equal to his skill as a public intellectual, is currently, more or less, a supporter of Modi’s government. In the novel, Bhagat strongly excoriates the Gujarati mobs, and offers a multi-cultural vision of India where all Indians are raising the national flag and beat Australians at cricket, because dammit how come that tiny nation keeps beating us! He doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not a Muslim mob was responsible for the Godhra train burning (they may not have been), and he strongly suggests that BJP leadership had a role in inflaming and steering the riots, indirectly implicating Modi, who indeed many people have considered complicit. The solution to these issues? Sticking together as a nation, with all resentment directed at foreigners, not Indians. History has turned out differently, and as it turns out, Nationalism is bad medicine. It’s like rubbing hot sauce into a wound. So the novel’s politics are at best naive. Fittingly, every person in the book shares the author’s naivete.

There is the main character, Govind Patel, an aspiring businessman in his twenties who has sex 9 times with a 17-18 year old girl who he’s supposed to tutor and who inexplicably falls for his geeky looks, seducing him on a rooftop, culminating in a sex scene that is both explicit and extremely prudish. Govind may be a big ol’ virgin, but Bhagat himself doesn’t appear to be quite on the up and up about the mechanics of sex, as he has Govind insist multiple times that they had sex with a condom, but then also feel bad for having “unprotected sex” – I’m not sure what kind of protection Bhagat envisions. Maybe it’s the same protection that kept his editor from touching the manuscript, because there is no way anyone edited this borderline random collection of letters and (completely mad) punctuation. There is his best friend Ish, whose sister had protected/unprotected sex with Govind, and who, while fleeing from an angry, murderous Hindu mob, takes a cricket bat to his best friend when he finds out Govind has been tutoring her in very naughty subjects. And then there’s Omi, whose father is a mad priest/BJP politician, who drinks two litres of milk per day and almost faints at the sight of breasts.

But the book’s worst, most unbearable character is a man called Chetan Bhagat. You see, the book is framed by the story of Bhagat receiving an email from Govind who is about to kill himself but uses the time while he waits for the pills to do their work to send off a weird fan email to Bhagat, whose books he loves so much and who, he feels, is the only person who can understand him. So Bhagat finds Govind who has survived his suicide attempt that was clearly as badly planned as everything else in Govind’s tiresome life, and Govind then tells him his story, culminating in murder, fear, and friendships breaking apart during the Gujarat riots. Of course, that’s when Bhagat adds TWO epilogues, because if there’s anything more important than a horrifying event in recent Indian history, it’s pointing out what a nice and helpful person this Chetan Bhagat is, who ends up reuniting old friends and lovers. He’s quite something, this Chetan guy. And so humble! In his introduction/acknowledgements, he explains: “I don’t want to be India’s most admired writer. I just want to be India’s most loved writer. Admiration passes, love endures.” I mean, cockroaches would survive a nuclear desaster, so God knows, Bhagat’s work might endure.

And I can see literary critics in a century reading these books, thinking “surely this is satire” and giving Bhagat a spot in the pantheon of satirical writers, as the master of satirizing bad prose. I had to read parts of this book to people, just to make them aware of the existence of observations like: “The great thing about girls is that even during pauses in the conversation you can look at them and not get bored.” I have never read a book like this, and God willing, I will never again. And yet, even as I go through these pages of terrible dialog, awful descriptions, and embarrassing thoughts, I can’t help but be fascinated by the book as a part of literary discourse. If only it were better.

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Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second

Fior, Manuele (2016), 5,000 km per second, Fantagraphics
[Translated by Jamie Richards]

ISBN 978-1-60699-666-9

I can’t believe I never heard of Manuele Fior before. 5,000 km per Second is an extraordinary book – succeeding on all levels: as story, as a set of characterizations and as a graphic narrative. In fact, the art is to me the most astonishing aspect of it. I think we sometimes make allowances for comic books, for the limitations in the way comic books carry a narrative visually. I’ve never read a book like Fior’s, with it’s extraordinary approach to exactness. I kept going back and forth in the book, admiring his work. Until, that is, the end of the book, when the sad music of the book’s song of love and loss comes to a beautiful elegiac end and I needed a break. This is an absolutely gorgeous book, with only the sometimes angular dialog as an occasional weakness. Fior is Italian and the book was translated into English for Fantagraphics, not that the publisher is particularly forthcoming with this information. Ir’s not until the final page of the book that we find, in small print, the name of the translator, a man called Jamie Richards, who translated the novel, originally called Cinquemila chilometri al secondo, into this English that’s less than ideal. My Italian isn’t good enough to figure out whether a sentence is aesthetically pleasing so I cannot compare, but there’s a kind of awkwardness that I tend to associate with translations. That said, whatever misgivings I might have regarding the dialog, it’s never a very important element. Fior’s skill as an artist is such that for much of the book, we would understand the story even without any dialog. If you read only one comic book this year, make it this one.

too little too late

The story isn’t written as memory – it is an interrupted love story that stretches over a long period of time, told in the moment rather than as something remembered, but at the same time, Fior captures the complexities of memory with a rare skill, singling out moments, situations, gestures in a way that invites all of us who have had broken hearts, unfulfilled longings, tragic amorous histories to share in this story. And while the basic structure of the story isn’t remembrance, memory, and the stories we tell each other about our past, all these still play a central role in the book. The episodes are connected by the two protagonist remembering earlier episodes, remembering each other, creating a sense of what could have been rather than an anticipation of the future. Every new episode, every jump ahead into the future represents a significant change in the life of the protagonists, but the book doesn’t, I think expect us to anticipate these developments. Instead, every episode is a layered composite of all the previous ones, and represents one path taken of many that could have been – and there’s a tragic, melancholic sense of loss in this. The loss of all the other possible futures, that is. If you’ve ever looked at the path your life took and wonder where things shifted, went wrong (or well) to lead you to where you are today, you have a sense of how the book works. There’s no “glo up” in the book – at best there’s a feeling, in the end, of some tired acceptance of everything that has happened. Things never go entirely well, hopes dissolve, futures turn cloudy and unhappy.

Look at the hands in these panels

Have you ever looked at the evening sky and wondered where the day, the week, the month, your life has gone? Much of this is communicated by Fior’s book. We meet Pietro and Lucia as young Italian teenagers, and then find them again and again, until we are offered, towards the end, a completely dispiriting hasty attempt at sexual congress between two sad, bloated middle aged versions of their younger self. Lucia tells Pietro not to look at her, out of a shame that must have grown in her in years and years of bad experiences and shame, very little of which is shown in previous episodes. When he fails to rise to the occasion, she blames it on his having looked at her. This is the saddest scene I have read in any book, in any genre this year, and I’ve read some very unhappy literature. It’s important to understand that when we remember episodes of the past, they are not a complete, or even largely complete guide to who we are today, how we ended up as the people we are today. Fior understands this, and he doesn’t use the episodes as full explanations for how the characters end up where they are – partially, sure, but middle aged Lucia’s shame and embarrassment’s source is hinted at in one episode, but fundamentally, we are presented with the way she is, and are asked to fill in the sad, but inescapable facts of her life. Every moment of our lives we have a choice – a choice of where to go, what to do, who or what to pursue. At the same time, we are already locked into our moment by our past choices.

This is one of the saddest panels I’ve ever seen

What’s truly remarkable about Pietro and Lucia’s story is not the deflating trajectory it takes, but the almost miraculous way their paths keep crossing, the opportunities that keep accruing, the way each failure is followed by another opportunity. It’s tempting to see the book as a kind of love story, but really, it’s about the way adulthood is often a mixture of compromises, disappointments and small hard won successes. The recurring tale of Pietro and Lucia just serves to show that what the two follow is indeed a path and not a random selection of episodes. The way they change, not just as individuals, but also how they change as friends, lovers and acquaintances shows the winding path to sexual inadequacy, loneliness and the small compromises many of us take to evade. Manuele Fior’s success as a storyteller is almost impossible to overstate. Structurally, this easily keeps up with some of the best short novels I’ve recently read. I say short novels – to be clear, this text depends on being a rather short book. Blown up to the proportions of the unbearably unbearable One Day by whatshisname it would lose almost all of its appeal. All the episodes are brief, showing short moments. A meeting over coffee, am unpleasant morning in the car, a nighttime arrival in Norway and and a midnight romance. Even the one episode that strictly speaking takes place over a longer period, is told succinctly and efficiently. Whatever the comic’s page count, this is, structurally, a novella kind of story.

To be clear – I am not trying to say that this book could have been prose. It was just to situate it among the other books I read this year. No, Fior’s greatest strength is his unbelievable skill as an artist. I have never read a comic where the artist had such a sure, such an exact sense of what counts in a given panel. No character or setting is ever completely drawn, much of it is full of the vague clouds of Fior’s watercolors – but Fior is incredibly good at concentrating on one gesture, one facial quirk, one interaction. Sometimes this can be the whole shape and movement of a pregnant woman in a tub, sometimes it’s just a hand holding a chin, or a hand reaching out, or a face that can’t believe what it’s hearing. This is true for every single panel – and in every single panel, the sometimes vague, sometimes expressionistic elements serve to underline the importance of the one exact, relevant gesture. The combination of evocative, inexact vibrancy and the sharpness of small elements makes the memory/immediacy double structure of the story told work so well. It also contributes to our reading of the story as efficient and sharp rather than maudlin, no small feat given the sometimes overwhelming feeling of melancholy that the story is dipped in. Manuele Fior offers us a novel about life as a series of repetitions of diminishing returns, of the stupidity of hope, and the sadness of middle age, and the betrayal of the heavy bear that walks with us, our bodies, and yet when we finish it we are elated, and left with admiration, and that strange feeling of happiness that always accompanies the reading of a true masterpiece. Or maybe that’s just me.

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Unimaginative Imagination: on Luc Besson’s Valérian

I wrote a little thing about Luc Besson’s Valerian for The Fanzine and you can find it here. This is how it starts:

In a classic essay, Samuel R. Delany wrote that “without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped in blind history” and in other places, he offers up science fiction as a genre with a unique language – not just the grammar of story, but the language and structure itself. Pierre Christin, author and co-creator of the French comic series Valérian et Laureline, suggested something similar when he said of his own creation that science fiction is a great tool to “overheat” the real. It’s too bad that Luc Besson, when he made a movie out of Christin’s creation, decided not to challenge the real.

Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants

Kallifatidis, Theodor (1977), Masters and Peasants, Doubleday
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
ISBN 0-385-09916-9

Kallifatidis is a Swedish novelist and poet of Greek descent. That is all I know. He has a large body of work, but very little of it is translated into English (or German, for that matter). Masters and Peasants, the English translation of his novel about WWII Greece, originally published in 1973 as Bönder och Herrar, isn’t currently in print. It’s certainly worth reprinting, it’s a good book. Kallifatidis writes a novel that appears to be written in a specific genre – a tale of the strange behaviors of villagers (think Clochemerle), but is set against a dark background: the German occupation of Greece. It starts with the dark image of someone hanging themselves on a fig tree, but goes on to tell a story that is often comical enough to make you laugh. Kallifatidis works with set-pieces that we all know from novels like this. There’s the mayor, the village priest, the local baker, stupid arguments about territories, pretty girls, the village idiot and many more. These parts are written in a deadpan tone that suits the subject very well. The town of Ialos, where it all takes place, couldn’t be more typical of the genre. A bare mountain with a lonely fig tree behind it, a valley before it, and a strange, neverending obsession with the size and quality of male genitals and death.

It’s very funny, but at the same time, the village is occupied by the German army and as time progresses, things get increasingly worse until a public execution drives many of the town’s men into the mountains to join the resistance. Kallifatidis never changes his tone, and in the way the darkness of history mingles with the elements of the comic bucolic novel Masters and Peasants sometimes resembles Roberto Benigni’s movie La vita è bella. Kallifatidis never really gets nasty except for the handful of remarks reserved for post-war Greece, where he allows his voice to include sharp, acidic takedowns of the fascist continuities in Greece after the war, as well as agreements of the Papandreou government to “sell Greece to the English.” He never dwells on the horrors of war, and the awful things that people do to each other. He mentions them, and moves on, opting to give a sense of how everything coheres rather than breathless condemnation. Ultimately, not all the bad people in the novel are Germans. Many are Greek, many are villagers, and many terrors preceded the German invasion. It’s an interesting, solid book, and I find it deplorable how little of Kallifatidis’s work is available in translation.

Like many of the classic tales of village stupidities, Kallifatidis’s village is full of cruel, stupid people. Cruel, stupid and insecure. Unwilling to learn, scared of change and resentful towards outsiders. Kallifatidis’s novel is full of repetitions, narrative circles. We learn of a person, a thing, an event and then we keep coming back to it until we come back to its chronological end point, which is often death. Thus, on page one, we learn that the village confectioner had hung himself on the fig tree because rumors were going around about his sexuality. People, for stupid reasons, assumed he was gay, and used this rumor as a weapon. When he left the village to learn how to make sweets, it didn’t help, because sweets are, of course, the gayest of foods and the city he learned his trade was the gayest of Greek cities. So upon his return, married with children now, they persecuted him. First by dropping hints like “so you really like to make sweets, huh.” and later, by trying to have him arrested or kicked out until eventually he went to his death, “proving” to the village his sexual inclination. We begin the novel with his suicide and his fate is alluded to again and again until we are explained what happened to him in more detail towards the end of the book. His death functions to contextualize the cruelties under German occupation.

It’s thus no surprise that a group of Greek youths, recruited by the Germans, one night goes out and rapes a young Jewish girl. The rape and the extended tale of suicide come near the end of the book. They help us see the genre of village follies as what it is: the sometimes inhuman mob mentality that small towns and villages easily develop. Kallifatidis goes to greath lengths in between to explain to us the idiosyncrasies of the village. There’s a priest who is an alcoholic womanizer, there’s the obsession with cocks (there’s a whole taxonomy of cock sizes), and the mayor, who has the largest penis in the village (nobody really knows, but he’s the leader and leaders should have large penises, is the village logic), nicknamed the crown prince. There’s a butcher who kills his animals by straddling them, an act that arouses him and the women watching. The obsession with male genitals is part of a kind of insecurity that ends up driving the confectioner to his death, and the general almost hysterical discourse on sex surely contributed to the rape.

There is a great deal of darkness in the book, but Kallifatidis serves it on a platter of light deadpan narratives of village stories. In doing so, he hews so close to generic conventions that the novel sometimes seems almost banal in its humor – until, that is, tragedies invade it. There is always a little death in these books, but the end of Masters and Peasants is filled with death, as all the narrative strands converge towards the end of the war, with villagers dead, in Dachau or otherwise aggrieved. At the same time, Kallifatidis does not give us a clean ending either: the book is full of comments on the awful post-war period, and the author himself has made his life experience part of the book. Not only does the book end on “I am one of the children.” but the introduction to the novel makes clear that this is essentially an autobiographical project: “neither the town nor the people are fictional” and explains that the book is called a novel “simply because what I present here is my own picture of reality and not reality itself.” This is deeply curious and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a disclaimer quite like this.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its connection to reality. And by this I am referring to two distinct aspects. One is linguistic, the other generic. Linguistically, it’s fascinating that this book was written in Swedish, but with its references and the introduction, it reads utterly Greek, not to mention the folksy tone of the whole thing. But I am not reading it in Swedish either, I am reading it in English, a process which has completely wiped away the Swedish element of the book and left me only with the Greek. Yes, some awkwardnesses in the translation make me suspect Swedish constructions and holdovers, but my Swedish isn’t good enough to figure these out. So for all intents and purposes, this reads and feels like a Greek book which is an odd feeling. And this sort of brings us to the second part of this. Many countries have their own style of crude village humor, often with clearly recognizable differences. I don’t know the Swedish genre well enough to know whether Kallifatides, in his Swedish text, has used that parameter rather than offer a typically Greek genre of tale. All of these are differences that completely vanish in the translation, where all we know is we are reading a translation, and this is a story about a Greek village.

And there is another part to this generic thought – the brief introduction clearly suggests that the text is supposed to be read as intensely personal. Nothing has been changed, and the reason the book isn’t a memoir but a novel is not because of a distancing fictional device, but really the exact opposite: because the author feels his own perception may have warped reality. in short, it’s too personal. But the book itself never reads like a personal or real story. Disregarding some unique touches, most of it feels incredibly generic – and I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s just that the book appears to be constructed with generic parameters. If the introduction didn’t exist, I would never assume there to be a personal element to the book. Don’t be absurd! Have you ever considered Clochemerle to be some confessional story from the French province? Of course not! It’s the friction between the novel and its introduction that’s so interesting.

I wonder whether this has something to do with witnessing and speech – I think it is entirely possible to read Masters and Peasants as a text that uses generic markers to facilitate personal speech. I mean, it is explicitly framed as Kallifatides finding his voice, finding the guts to write about his past. The two-sentence declaimer in the introduction is not unlike the worries about representation and reality that pervade, say, Jorge Semprún’s work, but the text is free from epistemological troubles and doubts. It is full of declarations, about the past and human nature, but the text’s language is the impersonal language of genre deadpan. I think there’s a way to read this use of genre as a tool to question narrative in itself. Of course, a better clue to how the book works would be to read Kallifatides’s other books from the period, but publishers have been very negligent in translating a writer who seems to be very accessible.

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The Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.

I live with a black Box of terror.

The full text is at ric journalThe Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

Wyl Menmuir: The Many

Menmuir, Wyl (2016), The Many, Salt
ISBN 978-1-784630485

So, to get things out of the way, this is a novel about grief, some of it quite affecting. Short books about grief are not uncommon. Max Porter’s debut novel(la) Grief is the Things with Feathers is an example of a well-executed book about grief and loss, as is Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel or Joan Didion’s memoir. The worst book I’ve read on the subject in past years was John W. Evans’s plodding and whiny Young Widower. Grief, whether autobiographical or not, is a powerful emotion for writers to mine, and I think it shows overwriting and overdetermination like few other genres. The stark simple fact of death and loss is so severe that it asks of the writer to be particularly mindful of the words and forms they are using, in contrast to writing about other strong emotions like love and desire, which can take a bit of overwriting, and in fact are sometimes enhanced by it. Max Porter’s examination of grief worked so well because he created a metaphor that carried much of the load for him; additionally, he used a language that was spare but not bland, with a fine sense of where to slip in and out of the events. Max Porter’s success was particularly interesting as he was one of the first of the recent wave of people from the “book industry” (Porter is a Granta Books editor) to come out with a fiction debut. Another one was literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel Did you ever have a family was longlisted for the 2015 Booker.

Editor and consultant Wyl Menmuir added his name to that list with his own Booker-longlisted debut The Many. It is a solid book, written by a man with solid literary taste, a clever imagination and solid literary skills. Like Max Porter, Menmuir opted to write about grief, and like Porter, he uses an allegory to carry the reader through the story. But Menmuir is what I like to call a meddler – he writes the allegory in a way that requires him to “reveal” the mechanism behind it at the end, and he keeps dropping hints, in a prose that’s sometimes simple, and sometimes egregiously overwritten. Curiously, his set-up didn’t need him to use some of the tools of (magical) realism, and yet, in the first 3/4ths of the book, that’s what he does over and over – and these are not his strengths. In German, we say of mixed affairs like this that they are weder Fisch noch Fleisch, neither fish nor meat. And that’s what you get here – a good idea, a powerful emotion, and a writer who kept meddling in his own book, adding stuff here and there, resulting in a book that feels mostly like a missed opportunity. The idea could have made for a much stronger book, a truly affecting, moving, maybe even terrifying little novel. Instead we get a book that’s in between genres, in between styles, in between registers. If this book didn’t have the Booker sticker on the cover I wouldn’t have read it – to be honest, I might not have finished it. It’s a solid book, and quite short, so…maybe read it?

I’m not giving away the novel’s resolution here, and won’t describe how the allegory connects. But for 2/3rds of the book, it’s not really material how the allegory works – it’s true, you can go back and some curious passages work differently after you have more details on the allegory, than they did when you read them for the first time. At the same time, you’re always sort of aware that this is an allegorical set up, with various elements too staged, too portentous to work as realism, even magical realism. This makes the novel sometimes difficult to assess – a first reading is, after all, the most immediate, most important reading of the book. The book that came to mind as a comparison immediately was Graham Swift’s masterful novel Waterland. Now, Swift’s novel is so good that it is practically sui generis; I’ve not read another novel even by Swift that can compare with it. That said, it’s hard not to feel Menmuir draw from the same well in his set-up. The setting of The Many is a small fishing village dealing with a recent death. A young man named Perran has died. There is a general sense of gloom, and much of it feels immediately isolated and allegorical, but at the same time, Menmuir sets up a sense of place that could well be a real fishing village. He draws on the same sense of interconnection of history and nature that drives much of Waterland. We have a real sense of how this fishing village economy works, including an ominous representative of EU fisheries regulations. Into this village comes a man who is himself burdened with a recent loss. This man, Timothy, takes up residence in the house that was until recently occupied by Perran and is still full of his things. Again, we get a real sense of how objects interconnect with the life and history of the village and the many superstitions, habits and rules that are part of that life.

None of this is necessary for the allegory, mind you. If you step away from the text, you can see the allegorical bones of it, with the house, some of its furniture, the village and its inhabitants and a forbidding line of container ships that forms a taboo barrier for the fishermen. All the magical realism, all the Graham- Swiftness of the text is additional, it’s not needed by the text – you could argue that the damp atmosphere of the novel is important, but even it can do without most of these touches. What’s worst is that in order to make the book work despite all the additional weight, Menmuir pushes in a ton of flashbacks that keep us on our toes and sometimes focus us back on the overall structure. They are inserted awkwardly sometimes, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Menmuir can’t leave a good thing alone. There’s the woman, maybe from the EU, who pays the fishermen for their catch of diseased dogfish. She stands on the docks, silent, with a grey coat. There’s a lot of weight in these descriptions, and a lot of power in the set-up, but Menmuir, in what feels like anxiety, keeps piling on, with sentences like “Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it.” I’m not even here to judge the quality of that sentence as a piece of prose, but it makes very clear the author’s anxiety to really nail down all the meaning and foreboding he wants to nail down. Or, earlier: “He realizes then he is not fishing but hunting, and he watches for Timothy the way a hunter waits for a stalked deer.” The hunting metaphor is almost immediately discarded, and doesn’t add much to the text that the reader wouldn’t have seen themselves.

This overdetermination is a pity. I cannot say whether the novel, executed with a more focused sense of form, and with sentences that are sharper and clearer and more consistent, would indeed have been better. Looking at the simpler sentences, it’s not clear that this is a strength for Menmuir either, but anything would have been better than this hodgepodge. And there’s so many good ideas in here. There’s an early indication of an interesting comment on masculinity and communion, on intellectual work, on the meaning of family and communion, and some of the many, many dreams that swamp the book are very well done. But the most interesting part is the connection the author establishes between private and public grief. If Max Porter’s book is indebted to Ted Hughes, then Manmuir’s book surely owes a debt to Eliot. The village is indeed an “unreal city” and the title of the novel reminds us of that Dante line that Eliot incorporated into The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” There is an overwhelming urge in the book, particularly towards the end, to connect the private catastrophe with a broader public narrative. It is such an enormous sentiment, that it deserved a somewhat better novel built around it. An example of an excellent novel built around a coastal village, dealing with death and loss is A.L. Kennedy’s extraordinary story of young adulthood, aging and suicide, Everything You Need. I mean, as a reader, when I closed The Many, I almost felt a sense of loss myself: the loss of the good or even great book that this could have been. In my head I heard the lines from Donald Hall’s poem “Without” from the collection with the same name, mourning his late wife Jane Kenyon: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean”

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July Roundup

In July, for some reason, I ran a little experiment and posted something every day, sometimes twice a day. There are four distinct clumps of posts: reviews, #tddl posts, photos and brief personal essays, and then some additional stuff, plus one poem. If you missed the posts, here they are below, sorted by category:

1) Reviews (in alphabetical order)

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand
Graham Greene: A Gun for Sale
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept
Ben Mazer: February Poems
Denise Mina: Still Midnight
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

2) #tddl-Summaries

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

3) Brief Essays

3a) Mostly personal
Translating for Writing
So what’s your poetry about?
On Liking Short Novels

3b) Less personal, mostly complainy posts
Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche
#Translation and Heartbreak
Object Lessons
Male violence, God and the G20: Abraumhalde by Elfriede Jelinek

5) Photos

Balenciaga & Me
Me and My Grandmother
Dinner
A Jelinek Play in Bonn
Evenings
Cologne Pride

6) Additional Posts

Man Booker, man
Rummelplatz in English translation!
Plots of stories I’ve written or rewritten in the past year: a poem
Marcel Inhoff reading

 

Yours Truly in a Brussels bookshop

Luan Starova: My Father’s Books

Starova, Luan (2012), My Father’s Books, U of Wisconsin P
[Translated by Christina E. Kramer]
ISBN 978-029928794-8

So I had been looking at the Macedonian language for a little while, which is fascinating with its closeness to my own Russian. Somewhere in the process, I took a look at literature from the country translated into English and there’s remarkably little of it. One writer who has been graced with a translation is Luan Starova. And boy o boy is this a lovely book. It’s a childhood memoir, but also an ode to books, to language, and to the feeling of being at home in books, rather than in a specific place – I say, childhood memoir, but Starova uses his childhood memories as a way to try and understand his father rather than offer us stories from his childhood. The child in this memoir is mostly someone who looks, who admires, who is sometimes hungry or sad, but very rarely actively doing anything. No, this book circles around books, more importantly, around Starova’s father and his attempt to find a place for himself in this world. The father uses books to build an identity, and to interrogate one. And throughout his whole reading life, the ebbs and flows of Balkan history shake his father’s life, but never really imperil his true calling: reading, collecting, annotating books.

Luan Starova writes his book in small vignettes, small episodes, that start with the basic elements of the house the family lived in, and where the library in it was, and how the family and the books co-existed. Later sections look at his father’s friends, of which he had few, in fact, “towards the end of his life, my father had many books but few friends,” as well as at various important objects in his life. The order is not random – as we near the end of the book, the circles Starova draws become larger and larger, returning again and again to his father’s migrancy, to his family history, to the decisions he made before he became a reclusive book-obsessed Macedonian, and in the final sections, we look at a process beyond reading – a process of creation, as Starova’s father uses old manuscripts he found to untangle not just his family history, but the cultural heritage of the Balkans altogether. His father died before finishing his work, and some of the book concerns the spidery traces of his father’s notes in his books, his father’s attempt to “shore up these fragments,” to borrow a much-borrowed line of poetry. Starova’s father was obsessed with order – and reading the book, including the almost unbearably moving final chapter, one feels a similar purpose in his son.

It’s enormously odd, for a memoir by a son about a father who is obsessed with family history and books, to be so disinterested in actual books. But the movement of his father’s life, after all, is from life, into a life in books, and then, as he neared death, back into life itself. As Starova writes: “he had found an exit from the labyrinth of manuscripts that led out into life.” And in a sense, Starova’s own book follows that path, I suppose. Starova, born on the shores of Lake Ohrid, but on the Albanian side, is a multi-lingual writer who dedicated his writing life to writing the work that his father had begun as he died, at least that’s how it looks when I peruse his biography. Still, it leaves me with an odd feeling: some of the book feels almost anthropological, a book about this strange tribe of people who love books as much as life itself – like the professor of French, who wanted to die while reading a book, and was buried holding a copy of André Gide. Or entomological, with the concentric structure of the book like a microscope, looking at these people as if at a strange group of bugs.

I don’t mean it’s cruel – it’s loving and warm and lovely throughout. But it is not a book by someone similarly obsessed, very clearly, Starova is not a book person to the same degree as his father. I mean, he’s a different category of people, very clearly. We are warned of this, although maybe warned isn’t the right word. In the small section “The Cabinet,” very early in the book, Starova tells of his acts of accidental vandalism in the cabinet, leaving that space of valuable books and documents in disarray, with valuable books and documents damaged beyond repair. I mean, reading it, my heart broke for these books. But the section isn’t written to evoke my kind of heartbreak – it is about the way his youthful misdeeds impacted the family, in particular his mother. It is his mother who finds the chaos, it is his mother who tries to get things back in shape – in fact, his mother knows her way around that inner sanctum of that house-cum-library better than his father does. She doesn’t share her husband’s predilections, but it seems as if her distance from what’s in the books helps her deal with them better than Starova’s father who is too distracted by the books to stay on top of things.

Indeed, it is the mother who is the most interesting figure of the whole book, and the fact that she survived his father and helped the children understand their father’s self-chosen mission in life maybe explains why the book is like it is. It is unbothered by what’s in the books and is thus well positioned to contextualize the reading and collecting and thinking that went on in Starova’s childhood home. His mother supported and protected his father, until the very end, without having his need for books. In fact, the very first story of the book is called “Love” and that’s what we understand to be a dominant theme of the book, running underneath everything. The marriage depicted is old-fashioned, and nobody could view an arrangement like this as ideal today, but Starova posits love as the glue that holds that household together, a small house full of people and even fuller of books and objects. Because of course his father’s obsessions didn’t stop at books, they also included all kinds of unwieldy objects like a globe or a spyglass. Love, Starova tells us, kept the household running through all the troubles. And I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree.

I agree that his father was mostly useless outside of his profession as a judge and his hobby as a reader and scholar. But the way the couple came to be married sounds a bit off, and the whole arrangement – sure, love could explain it. But you know what also could explain it? A woman trying to make a very difficult situation work, love or not. And that fits the way his mother is depicted in the book generally. In fact, she is the book’s most compelling character. It is her, whose skill with languages saves them twice from being killed by Italian soldiers during WWII, as the Axis marched through the Balkan. The very description of her knowledge of the way the books are sorted throughout the house is a marvel of practical dedication. If nobody knows where the books are, nothing will get done, and so it falls to her, who doesn’t even particularly love books. It’s curious that her son, who is clearly much more her son than his father’s, doesn’t have enough empathy for his mother to interrogate the way his childhood household was run. There’s always a bit of a haut goût to these male narratives of bookishness where the preoccupation with books allows them to filter out the practical aspects of life, forcing women who are with these obsessive men, to do all the emotional labor, to work through it, to make it work.

All this is in the book, but it bubbles under the surface. Starova admires his mother, but I don’t think the book does her justice, or his father’s blinkered blindness. The best example for the latter is an episode involving a similarly bookloving friend. This one is obsessed to the point where he accidentally uses money set aside for an ophthalmologist and buys himself a van full of books. So this friend and Starova’s father lend each other books, but they don’t always read the books and upon returning them they test each other over this. As it happens, one day, the friend borrows a book in which Starova’s father forgot food stamps. The children are angry, desperate and hungry, and as the friend returns the book, the stamps are discovered. Starova’s father does not discuss his hunger, his wife’s hunger or that of his children – instead he gloats because this discovery is proof his friend did not read the book all the way through. I mean, he is a hell of a difficult man, and making a household work around a man like that must be hard; loving a man like that must be even harder, however, and if Starova is right about his mother’s feelings towards his father, that’s even more impressive than her feats of survival.

All of this is told in a very simple language. Macedonian is, as far as I understand it, a Slavic language. I know, we all grew up on stories of Alexander and Macedonia, but that Greek Macedonia is not the same as today’s Macedonia. If you speak Russian, and you hear Macedonian spoken, you can sorta-kinda understand it. My Russian is bad, but I watched a Romanian movie this year and listened to the music of Toše Proeski at some point this spring, and even I can get the gist of it. All this is to say that Russian is a difficult to translate language – you can always either see the seams or accept that the translator papered over it. Christina Kramer translated this book with, I think, an emphasis on accuracy – that explains the extreme unevenness of style. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it sings, sometimes it reads angular and awkward. Have you read Green Integer’s Ko Un translations? Yeah, that awkward. And speaking of awkward, sometimes, and this is not a translation issue, Starova likes to end his vignettes on overly clichéd phrases or on a sentence brimming with somewhat unearned pathos. It gives the book a feeling of being overdetermined, of an author who tries to get things to come out with the same emotional power that they felt when writing it, but that’s not how writing works. However, the structure of the book, which repeats phrases and observations again and again, leading readers to the powerful ending, is extremely well done. The book works best when its language is simple and declarative. Some of the most shattering sentences here are unremarkable in terms of style, but Starova imbues them with meaning.

You should read this book. There are other topics I haven’t even touched on, like his father’s attitude towards language and script. And despite some of my gripes, the portrayal of someone who loves books is heartwarming, and as a fellow book nut, I connected strongly to the book. But the most important aspect of the book that I haven’t touched on is the idea of migration. I’ve talked before about James Clifford and traveling cultures – in a sense, Starova’s book works like an example of that. His father lived in Turkey for 4 years, talked to Atatürk and was happy – but he returned home, to the “hell” of the Balkans, to connect with his family, and ultimately, to write an anatomy of the post-coloniality of the Balkans as they recovered from the Ottoman empire. He brought his books with him, wherever he went, but once he settled in Macedonia, he didn’t actually go anywhere, but he traveled through his books, but even in his travels through ink and paper eventually he returned home, as he found documents that helped him understand his country, his family and his heritage.

 

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Translating for Writing

I comment a lot about translation here and I have many complaints. Maybe it’s fair to point out that the times someone paid me to do a translation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. That doesn’t mean I don’t translate, it just means I am incredibly unfamiliar with the pressures of translation from a practical point of view.

But, as I said, I do translate, almost every day, and in various genres, like I am currently doing small translations of Marcel Schwob’s prose pieces. I like to call what I do “translating for writing” and it’s the same thing, though on a less competent level, what writers like Robert Lowell did. Lowell translated the poetry in Imitations in order to break through a block in his own writing. Now, I don’t have writing blocks per se, but I do translate in order to play with my words and to defamiliarize my syntax and metaphor routines.

Recently, I was thinking about this and I think the term “translating for writing” fits it very well. I borrowed the term from the very brilliant linguist Dan Slobin, who, a few years back, offered a weak version of Sapir-Whorf that he called “thinking for speaking” – meaning, our language does not influence our thinking maybe, but when we think in order to speak, the kind of language we speak does influence and shape our thought. I think my translations that result from the process are not “good” translations – they are shaped by my ideas about writing and not by the author’s ideas about writing, beyond what’s on the page.

As a teenager, like many well read obnoxious male teenage poets, my poetry writing became increasingly Celan-y, to the point where I mastered a certain epigonal idiom fairly well. It was then that I decided to interrupt my routines by translating dozens of poems by Creeley, an objectivist American poet. And I think it helped me develop a certain personal idiom. I have since gone back to this well again and again – not Creeley specifically, but the process of translation.

I write every day, but I also translate almost every day, and in a way, it helps me stay sane sometimes. But since I do so much “translating for writing” sometimes I worry it skews my judgment of professional translators who provide the books in all the languages I cannot read (and they are many because I am terrible). But in some sense, translating other people’s writing is, for me, not just the best way to understand their writing, but also my own.

Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche

Long title, short post. I understand that this is mostly for me to vent, and probably not of larger interest, but beyond the parochial matter at hand which caused me to get upset, there’s a broader issue that has annoyed me for a while. So what happened was I wanted to write something about an argument offered by Richard Wolin, a philosopher from New York, in an essay published in 2016. It was given at a conference and collected in the German book Martin Heidegger’s “Schwarze Hefte”: Eine philosophisch-politische Debatte, edited by Prof. Marion Heinz from the University of Siegen and her assistant Dr. Sidonie Kellerer. I was interested in how what Wolin very correctly notes about rationality and some debates dating back to enlightenment, how this ties into some Frankfurt School ideas. So I sat down to write a few hundred words on it, probably for this blog since I didn’t think anyone else would be interested. Anyway, while I might still do that, I got sidelined by something else. As it happens, today, in order to write the thing, I took a look at the essay again and noticed something that irked me greatly. It’s something that has bothered me for years and years. It’s the edition anglophone readers usually use of Nietzsche’s work.

Look, sometimes, discussing Nietzsche with Anglophone readers can be difficult – regardless of their skill and reading. And the reason for that is that the Nietzsche I know and the Nietzsche they know are two different people. The Nietzsche I know exists in the lovely, important, authoritative German edition by Colli and Montinari. It presents all of Nietzsche’s works, including multiple volumes of unpublished fragments. However, most Anglophone readers I know have read Nietzsche in Walter Kaufmann’s edition. And therein lies the problem.

Nietzsche’s published books, particularly in the middle period, after the first book, and before the mildly nutty late books, are extremely well constructed. Wolfgang Müller-Lauter has given excellent insights into the way Nietzsche uses paradoxes and structure as a way to give additional and sometimes contradictory meaning to his aphorisms. That makes him very hard to quote, and despite this, Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche stitches up the original books to fit Kaufmann’s own reading. It also, confusingly, contains three of the late books in full, but only selections from, say, Beyond Good and Evil, inarguably one of his most central books. But that’s not the main sin. The main sin is related to the “book” called The Will to Power.

The Will to Power is a posthumous “collection” of fragments, assembled by Nietzsche’s antisemitic sister, a horrible “collection” which Colli and Montinari call, accurately, a “historical forgery” – it is a book assembled from various, often re-assembled fragments Nietzsche never put into an order and never intended to be part of one book or argument. Walter Kaufmann not only translated it, but he also included it in his Portable Nietzsche, a book, let me remind you, that only contains a selection from Beyond Good and Evil. And having it there, as one of Nietzsche’s comparatively few books, severely distorts Nietzsche’s political and philosophical intentions. This would be ok, if the edition was old (it is) and Viking (now Penguin) had corrected itself and removed the historical forgery from reprints. However, you can still find the book listed by Penguin, Will to Power and all.

And thus, Will to Power continues living, even in German academic publications, despite the authoritative edition having expunged it as a book, and re-sorted the fragments as fragments into chronological order. Why? Because American academics are involved and Walter Kaufmann’s poisonous little edition continues to exist. This brings me back to Richard Wolin and his essay on Heidegger I mentioned at the outset. A few pages into his genuinely interesting argument, Wolin goes off on a tangent and offers a spurious argument about Nietzsche. That’s ok, it’s not uncommon. But then, in support, he offers a quotation from The Will to Power. The book, mostly edited, I suspect, by Dr. Kellerer, is very well edited, and naturally all its citations of Nietzsche come from the Colli/Montinari, the authoritative edition of Nietzsche. But of course you cannot cite this edition as Wolin’s source because, as a book, Will to Power doesn’t exist in this edition. So what do you do?

Now, there would be two honest ways of dealing with this. Option one: leave Wolin’s text alone and in the footnote citation, cite the volume in the Colli/Montinari edition and use the footnote of the citation to explain the fact that what’s cited as part of a “book” in the text is actually merely a fragment of little canonical value; this would of course somewhat undercut the authority of Wolin who uses a “well known” book as evidence, evidence that would be much weaker coming from a random fragment. Option number two would be to write Wolin and have him change it in the text itself, and then cite the Colli/Montinari volume in the footnote.

The editors picked option three: Wolin changes nothing, and the editors cite the 1906 edition, edited by Nietzsche’s sister, the avowed antisemite Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as source. I would bet a large amount of money that that was not Wolin’s source: I am pretty sure Wolin drew his opinion of Nietzsche, and this source specifically, from Walter Kaufmann. But you have to cite some German source, so the editors picked the Förster-Nietzsche edition, published 110 years ago. To not make this look like the outdated antiquity it is, they actually don’t cite the original text, they cite most recent reprint from 1980, but it’s not a modern edition, it’s a straight reprint of the turn-of-the-century edition by Nietzsche’s sister. And then, to sorta kinda satisfy editorial ethics, they add, after a semicolon, where the fragment can be found in the Colli/Montinari edition. This way you allow Wolin to cite the forgery like it’s a real book, and pretend his argument about Nietzsche has substance (it doesn’t) and you help him by providing a footnote that pretends to offer a supporting citation, but mostly offers cover. It also shows awareness that the editors know that the Will To Power book they cite is not the correct/authoritative source, but keep it in the footnote to allow Wolin to keep it in the text.

And so Walter Kaufmann’s poisonous little edition lives on in German, closing a curious little circle. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, only this one has two sets of parents. There’s Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, and then, as the book was fading out of circulation and use in its original language, there’s Walter Kaufmann, who sends a jolt of electricity through the tired antisemitic body of that strange assemblage of a text, and keeps it alive for a few more decades, albeit in English. And now it has come back, in a German-language academic essay, albeit as a translation, masquerading as the real thing, and not the creation of two Dr. Frankensteins.

That’s it. If you made it all the way to here: I apologize. I had to vent. That dishonest footnote made me very upset.

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

Rummelplatz in English translation!

I mean this may be old news for you, but I had somehow missed it! Rummelplatz, a messy but exciting novel, has been translated into English and published by, who else? Seagull Books. Here is my review which dates all the way back to 2011. YOU WANT TO READ THIS BOOK, trust me. I cannot speak to the quality of the translation, but here is my summary of the book from my review:

My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig may not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been, and that is not an overstatement. This book brims with talent. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book.

Translated by Samuel P. Willcocks
544 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015
The German List

Object Lessons

My little shelf of books in my apartment is not full of all kinds of weird editions – I prefer to collect books in larger volumes and will replace many individual copies with Library of America editions, say, or in the case of comics, with one of those trade omnibus editions or with poetry with a poet’s collected works. Sometimes as I stare at the shelf, I wonder how much I am losing. Is my reading of comic books in any way accurate, reading them in trades first, and then in a thick omnibus edition? How much does the understanding of comics depend on reading it issue by issue?

Armand Schwerner is an interesting exacmple. As readers of Schwerner’s enormous The Tablets we are naturally aware of the multi-level fiction, and Schwerner has found interesting ways to engage us. As McHale has pointed out, unlike other postmodern ‘archeological’ poems like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Schwerner’s unreliable scholar/translator shoulders all the blame for anachronisms, jokes and other breaks with the solemnity of imitating the poetry of a (much) earlier age. And unlike books with similar narrators, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the doubtful material nature of the poetry under examination undercuts too glib a reading of that narrator.

The Tablets is a book about translating fragments that is itself made up of fragments, in more than one way. As we near the end of the book, the commentary and annotations become longer and more revealing, and eventually allow us to have a much fuller view of the character of the scholar/translator – but for all of Schwerner’s life, The Tablets weren’t available in book form at all. The first eight tablets were published in 1968 – and the collected posthumous edition wasn’t available until 1999, 31 years later. For us, who have access to the full book, it’s hard to imagine the interpretative process of earlier readers. Acquiring all the segments of the poem must have been a task similar to the one undertaken by the scholar/translator. Thus, the book itself is an object lesson in the sometimes arduous task of reading and understanding a text as a whole, in order to be able to contextualize and read smaller portions of it.

I know there’s quite a bit of literature about what constitutes a “text,” but the material aspect of it, of readers being also collectors by necessity, I find extremely fascinating. I have an unpublished longer academic essay on Schwerner in my desk somewhere, and recently I keep taking notes in it on materiality, seriality and the way materiality impacts reader reception theories.

Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand

Goetsch, Daniel (2016), Ein Niemand, Klett-Cotta
ISBN 978-3-6ß8-98021-9

So you may remember my posts about the BachmannPreis earlier this month – I always try to read books by authors involved in it but I don’t always manage. This year I came away with four novels by four of the writers, and the very first one I read was a big dud. Daniel Goetsch’s reading on Day One of the Bachmannpreis was dull, sort of competent, but incredibly boring. It was inconceivable that he had read an excerpt from a novel, i.e. that there was a whole book of that material out there. A case for the Geneva conventions? I had had a look at his 2016 novel Ein Niemand by the time he read his story and it started very promisingly – derivative, but interesting, and I was looking forward to challenging my negative opinion of his writing. Maybe, in book-length form, he was a much better writer? I’m not good with very short fiction anyway. So ahead I went and took a plunge into Ein Niemand (~ A Nobody) and, man, I wish I hadn’t. If you write a story about mistaken identities, conspiracies, economic fanaticism, suicide, love, desire and more, there should be no way to make the book a punishingly boring reading experience, and yet, Goetsch succeeded. Maybe that is his superpower. What’s more, the book is competently written throughout, though more in a journalistic rather than literary way. How can this go so bad? There’s a bit of research that went into the book and it’s presented to us like a high school recapitulation of knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia – nothing is at stake here, except a case of very fragile masculinity. If you ever wanted to read a book where a man regrets not having the wherewithal to sexually assault a woman who denied him sex, and where this “failure” is shown to be indicative of other kinds of weaknesses of character, look no further. If you want a book that is largely set in Prague and has a sense of place that smells of a well annotated Lonely Planet guide rather than of observation and description, halt, you have your book! If you crave a book that borrows from various European traditions heavily, but comes off as an improvised pastiche by a high school student (who doesn’t get laid) – I have just the book for you! Should you read this? GOOD LORD no. At the same time, I can’t say whether it wouldn’t work in a translation, if by translation we include the Deborah Smith school of light to heavy editing of the original text. Because the structure isn’t all bad – after all, many other books have made this work. As it is the best thing about the book is the lovely cover. Maybe Klett-Cotta should invest in editors.

The structure is that of an interrogation: the German police, on the eve of Romania’s joining the EU, have caught a Romanian who they believe is in the country illegally. The man, who they believe is someone named Ion Rebreanu, proclaims to be, in reality, a German citizen named Tom Kulisch. Most of the novel is written in Tom/Ion’s voice and is written in a very “written” way, but the information contained therein is also information the policeman receives in the sections that are set in the novel’s present, and are narrated from the policeman’s point of view. The reason, I suppose, why the story of Tom/Ion is not told more orally is due to the overarching theme of the novel: the play of identity and narrative. We, like the policeman never know what’s happening, and some of the novel’s fictional games are on the surface, some more submerged. Some of the novel is set in an area of Bucharest called Gliulamila, which, as far as I can tell, is completely made up. It’s not entirely clear whether that’s intentional, as a fictional game, or not. With overall awful books, one is always tempted to assume incompetence, not intention, but I’m not sure here. After all, the novel is completely based on providing layers of unreliable information told by various characters to various other characters. The book offers us Tom/Ion’s story as one of confusion, of being misidentified by many people, of lying about his past, about his present, the fear of being found out connects with the fear of not being found out etc. There are other characters who did a name-change like Tom/Ion, and again other characters who are living a lie. The constant elements are sex, violence, hunger, as well as a curious copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies that the protagonist carries around with himself. We are frequently cautioned to assume none of the story told is real, with a strong vibe of The Usual Suspects about some of the writing, but for a possibly invented narrative, intended to stall the police for a few hours, Daniel Goetsch spends an awful lot of time engaging in describing male malaise. The novel moves either too fast (the final chapter of Ion/Tom’s story reads like a deadline needed to be kept for the manuscript) or too slow, as in the truly excessive and languid examination of the relationship of Tom/Ion to a mysterious woman named Mascha.

The deficiencies of the novel are obvious just from reading it, enough to make me worry about the sanity of Klett-Cotta’s editors. They become particularly glaring if looked at in context of their literary forebears. JMC Le Clézio’s only true masterpiece, Le Procès-verbal, as well as some of Modiano’s work (particularly Boulevard de Ceinture, maybe?) appear to have provided some inspiration – the major connection however is the Swiss tradition of examining identities. Goetsch, himself a Swiss writer, was clearly influenced by some of the giants of Swiss literature, particularly Max Frisch and Adolf Muschg. Muschg’s Albisser’s Grund (inexplicably untranslated into English) is an absolutely brilliant novel about a foreign-born psychiatrist named Zerrutt who is one day shot by his patient, Albisser. The police starts questioning the victim, because as it turns out not everything is as it seems. Albisser’s Grund is roughly twice the length of Goetsch’s book but so much more captivating. For Muschg, writing, narrative, personal identity are all at stake in the book, and he manages to create a book that is both highly constructed and symbolic and emotionally relevant at the same time. He also makes use of the element of foreignness and how that changes how we construct our narratives and read others’. There is very little evidence in Goetsch’s book of an awareness of the same thing, or in any case, it is badly executed. The major example of the kind of writing we find in Ein Niemand, however, is Max Frisch. I don’t, personally, love Max Frisch, apart from Montauk, which I think is a flawless piece of prose. But, in particular in Stiller and Mein Name ist Gantenbein, Frisch provides a skillfully executed example of how identities and narratives are connected, and how telling stories of ourselves can often also just be us telling stories, both to ourselves and to others. Political, personal and social expectations are all part of this narrative game. Less relevant to the novel under review, there are many other Swiss writers engaged in this kind of writing, with Dürrenmatt, playwright, novelist and theorist, as a particularly notable example, though in Dürrenmatt it has an absurdist angle that we don’t find here. It makes you wonder what’s in that water there, doesn’t it. Then again, whatever’s in the water clearly doesn’t confer talent – because for all the similarities to other books, be they French, Swiss or German, Goetsch clearly doesn’t hold up his end of the tradition.

The only tradition where he does hold his own is that of tedious masculinity. I cannot tell you how tiresome it is to read book after book of men worried about their dicks. Invented or not, Ion/Tom’s story is to a large part one about impotence, in a framing that reminded me a lot of Grass, particularly late Grass. In Grass’s work, which I admire almost unreservedly (while pretending he only wrote one and a half books since 1999), there’s a strange obsession with masculinity and male genitals, both literally and symbolically. I mean, really. Dicks and memory are the two overarching themes of his work. Grass connects masculinity all the time with the act of writing and with literary tradition (Bloom, anyone?), and sexual potency always doubles as creative potency, too. And that’s fine if you are a preternaturally talented artist (see my obit here for some more fawning). It’s more of an irritation with Daniel Goetsch. The story Ion/Tom tells has multiple beginnings. It begins with a suicide, or it begins with witnessing a deadly accident, or – and I think this is the real beginning: it begins with Tom’s failure to translate a manual from English to German. There’s a sentence in it, “The image that has been adjusted will not be reflected even if it is captured,” which eludes him. His inability to render it in German leads to a kind of mental breakdown and then sets in motion all the rest of the story. Now, this has multiple uses in the book. The sentence itself reflects the way the story is built; but also, on a less metafictional level, this failure to translate the sentence is repeated in his failure to “man up” in his subsequent dealings with women. After his breakdown, Tom witnesses an accident, pickpockets the victim, and takes on his identity, to go to Prague where he lives as Ion Rebreanu for a while before moving to Bucharest and eventually back to Berlin. Rebreanu is a “real man,” who has a woman for his passions and a woman to talk to, although he apparently has sex with both. In one of the strangest scenes of the book, Tom’s inability to fuck one of the two women, is then followed by recriminations – had he been a real man he would have just forced her, he would have taken her. The book doesn’t use the term friendzone (thank God), but Ion/Tom is constantly stymied by being considered a friend by a woman he’d really, really like to fuck, which, I mean, thank you but no thank you?

The rest of the story is full of strange clichés about Czechs, Russians, Roma and Romanians, to the extent that the few genuinely good observations are startling, unexpected. There is a two page rant about Romanian politics, by an interesting (but unexplored) character which is startlingly interesting to read, although it is couched in Wikipedia’d information about Ceausescu and his reign. I mean, the book’s decisions of what to dwell on for pages and pages and pages, and what to sketch in half a sentence are confusing. I mean, yes the book is bad, and yes, the only other text I know by the author is worse, but there are many solid ideas here, and it’s inexplicable that Goetsch didn’t have an editor who told him to cut the genital self-examination and expand on some, hell, any of the other elements. I mean Goetsch is a competent writer. How did this happen? And why did I have to read this? And what do I do with my copy of the book? Questions raised by a questionable book. Here’s to hoping the other three Bachmann-inspired purchases are better!

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Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Tevis, Walter (1962, 2015), The Man Who Fell To Earth, Gollancz
ISBN 978-1-473-21311-1

Greene, Graham (1936, 2009), A Gun For Sale, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-28614-1

I read Walter Tevis’ SF novel on a hot summer afternoon in preparation for a paper that I will not, as it turns out, present at a conference (travel expenses to Salzburg didn’t work out, regretfully). The topic was the idea of the Good. Walter Tevis puts a curious spin on this, in a book that is as much a moving and plausible examination of loneliness as it is anything else. My original paper examined the many science fictional narratives of Alien visitation that were in some ways trying to communicate a sense of the Good to the human race, whatever the ends ultimately were. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is the most famous, I think, example of this. There’s a sense in which one can read Newton, the alien who arrives on earth with plans for advanced technologies and a secret mission to save his home planet, as another one of those aliens. Newton ultimately fails, and I’m not spoiling the story here, because the whole book is imbued with a sense of resignation, and the sad and shabby way in which Newton fails is notable more for its Kafkaesque ordinariness more than anything else. There’s a darkness at the heart of the novel, but unexpectedly, it’s only marginally connected to the science fiction story at the heart of it. Fundamentally, if you strip this novel down to its most essential elements it is a searing novel about the horrifying loneliness many of us feel, the desperation of being alone and the way alcohol offers a welcome but destructive recourse to it. Tevis manages to tell a heart wrenching story by not indulging in the sad parts of it – he employs shifts in perception and time to provide a distance, making the final confrontation all the more emotionally charged. I end these first paragraphs on the blog with a recommendation to read or not read the book. In this case, I assume you know you should read this book, right? It is a classic of science fiction, but even if you don’t like the genre it is a powerfully sad tale about the difficult to stay the course in the face of public resistance, and personal mistrust. The way Tevis depicts the attraction and use of alcohol to the lonely mind is exceptionally sharp and painful to read. Go, go and read the damn thing already.

His planet having run out of fuel – and soon sure to witness the death of his race, Newton was carefully selected by his peers to do this job: use the knowledge about his planet’s advanced technology to quietly build a business empire on Earth and within a few years, assemble enough money to build a large rocket and send fuel back. In 1963, Tevis’s vision of the dying planet “predicts” our own trouble with fuel, but then, these kinds of predictions were in the air – just think of JG Ballard’s first three novels. Newton isn’t personally brilliant – he was chosen for the task, the plans were given to him. He was chosen for his resilience – an important factor, since even he, an exceptionally resilient member of his race, is pale and thin, basically walking on bones of glass. The first time he rides and elevator, the mild gravity pressure lands him in a hospital. More importantly, for people around him, Newton is weird. He talks weirdly, he looks weird with his long limbs and pale skin, and he doesn’t do well at the usual social games. He doesn’t comply with the expectation of heterosexual masculinity, he’s just himself, a weird person. And his reaction to seeing this reception is to retreat, and restrict contact to humans to the absolutely necessary. He keeps a servant around, an isolated, somewhat weird woman, who I will talk more about below. Eventually, he takes an engineer into his inner circle. That engineer, too, is a bit on the strange side. Clearly, he attracts people who are a bit “off,” just because he himself is perceived in that way.

And increasingly, he starts drinking alcohol to balance himself emotionally. The pressure of his mission, the complicated relationship to the human race (and the humans around him), all of this becomes just the teeniest bit smoother with alcoholic lubricant. And In Tevis’s novel it is alcoholism, but this mechanism is absolutely true for all kinds of coping mechanisms of people who feel they have to deal with a kind of intense loneliness. Looking at someone in front of you and seeing your insufficient self reflected back, and still having to deal with that person and people like him – it explains many addictive behaviors and choices, from drugs and alcohol, to the barely-better-than-placebo world of psychopharmacology (I comment on it here). At the end, in Newton’s most human moment of the whole novel, a bartender remarks to another customer: “I’m afraid that fellow needs help.” And he doesn’t mean: help to reach his home planet. He means help dealing with what is clearly a severe case of addiction, desperation and loneliness. Newton, throughout the book, operates on the margins of sanity and while the alcohol doesn’t help, Tevis demonstrates with enormous skill the attraction of it as a coping mechanism. And despite all this, Newton manages to maintain a solid performance, until, in the novel’s dramatic finale, his professional self, the part of him that worked on the mission, also fails. That’s when everything truly ends, when his half-imagined pride in his work, his confidence of sorts in its success collapses.

And he’s not the only one with such problems and such coping mechanisms in the book, but before I expand on that, I want to pivot for a second: I decided to make this a double review of sorts. Recently, on a train ride home with dampened spirits, I was reading Graham Greene’s novel A Gun For Sale. I have not read as much Greene as I should have, but this is, as far as I can tell, considered a minor novel. Greene split his work into serious fiction and what he called “entertainments.” A Gun For Sale is such an entertainment and indeed – what you have is a very entertaining noir crime novel, with murder, shootouts, twists, betrayals, and dark conspiracy. It tells the story of a contract killer, the gun for sale from the title. He kills an ambassador and is then framed for a robbery and soon, the police is closing in on him – not for the crime he committed, but the one he did not commit. On the surface, the novel does not seem to be very similar to Walter Tevis’ novel of alien visitation, but as I was reading it, I kept thinking of Newton and his isolation. Raven, Greene’s protagonist has a cleft upper lip and he’s always painfully aware of his reflection in the eyes of the people he talks to. When a woman offers him genuine trust and affection, he, raised to be lonely, has a hard time understanding it – and by the time he accepts it, the facts on the ground already changed and he has lost that trust without realizing it. Yes, Greene’s novel is about crime and murder, and Greene depicts various seedy characters extremely skillfully, including a Thénardier-like couple, but at the same time, it is an extended study in loneliness. Raven, fleeing the police, is trying to clear his name – or rather: he’s trying to find out who cheated him, who disturbed his professional routines and environment, in order to exact some revenge on him, to regain some balance. This is not about being declared innocent, as it is about fighting to maintain some professional pride. Because really, that is all he has. Even an occasional love interest in his past admits openly to be repulsed by his harelip, and the structures and connections he expected to be able to trust prove to be slippery and deceitful. His reaction is not anger or noir cynicism. It’s a desperate confirmation of his profound loneliness: “ He was touched by something he had never felt before: a sense of injustice stammered on his tongue. These people were of his own kind […]. He had always been alone, but never so alone as this.”

Now, of course, Newton is a kind of benefactor to humanity, and is on a mission to help his own race, while Greene’s Raven is a cold and particularly brutal killer, and so on some level their situations are not comparable (though Raven’s efforts to exact revenge on the man who tricked him do lead to a beneficial outcome for his country, but unintentionally). But the way they are isolated from their fellow man, the way a profound experience of loneliness is mediated by both men on the professional level, until, for both men, that level, too collapses, leading to catastrophe. I’m sure that’s not the most common or popular reading of Greene’s novel, I suspect many readers are more interested in the connections it makes between class and war and gender. And it’s true, it’s a frightfully complex and interesting novel on those levels as well, but I am fascinated by the thread of loneliness that runs through it all. In a way, Raven’s abject loneliness helps motivate others to deal with their own fears of abandonment, from a recently-engaged couple, to a young muscular bully, who, forced by Raven at gunpoint to strip down to his underwear, is seized with immediate social anxiety. In a sense, class pressures, predatory capitalism and war are presented as weapons that only work because we are lonely and isolated and cling to our fears and coping mechanisms. There are not as many carefully detailed characters in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is more of a character study of Newton, but even there, loneliness abounds. Newton “learns” his alcohol habit from his servant, a woman who is also riven with fears of dying alone, and who drinks to compensate. It is meeting Newton that leads to her and another character to eventually marry, to avoid the strange and unpleasant isolation Newton spends his life in. Newton’s desperation is encouragement enough.

The right street for our time

As with Greene’s novel, I focused on one aspect of Tevis’s novel to the great detriment of many others. It does offer a take on the idea of the Good and how it is connected to human actions (I suspect Tevis shared Iris Murdoch’s distrust of what she calls “the rational man”). It also makes very interesting observations on race, on reality, on hope, language and many more topics. There’s a reason Tevis’s novel is considered a classic of science fiction, and it’s not because it’s a very realistic and harrowing portrayal of loneliness and alcoholism. But I think these are important aspects of the book, and it, in itself, is a very important book, but it is not a happy one. Maybe I should close with the words Greene uses to describe Raven’s death:

Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain. It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort. At last it came out of him and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.

How is that for an outlook on life. And indeed, some of us will be heading into a vast desolation with pain as the only companion. In this, Walter Tevis and Graham Greene agree. Cheerful.

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Male violence, God and the G20: Abraumhalde by Elfriede Jelinek

So as I wrote on the blog, I was at a Jelinek performance in Bonn. I wrote a little thing and 3am Magazine was kind enough to publish it. This is how it starts:

If you’ve read Thomas Bernhard’s letters you’ll know he was frequently upset about the way his plays were staged. Not so his fellow Austrian, writer Elfriede Jelinek. What she hands over to theatres is, on the page, a block of text. Fiery, complicated, no paragraphs or speakers, just one long monologue on topics like power, violence and sex. Theatres are free to use her texts as they like. And German theatres, notorious for taking enormous liberties on the stage, have taken this freedom and run with it. Recently, a Jelinek play had its premiere in Germany’s former capital, the sleepy city of Bonn. The play, titled Abraumhalde (written and first staged in 2009), takes current discussions about masculinity, violence and religion, and reads them in connection with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s enlightenment classic Nathan the Wise and Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl.

Read the rest here.

Ben Mazer: February Poems

Mazer, Ben (2017), February Poems, Ilora Press
ISBN 978-0-9962063-2-7

April may be the cruelest month, but the heartbreak of Ben Mazer’s February Poems seems overwhelming. February doesn’t usually get such a bad rep. Margaret Atwood anticipates spring in her poem about that shortest of months: ‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’ Mazer himself, in his earlier collection The Glass Piano, declares that ‘[t]he earth emerges fresh and clean in spring / Disorder is the beauty of the thing.’ February Poems, on the other hand, is consumed by a wish for order, for an end to ‘these spiritual journeys’ after months of heartbreak, catalogued in these urgent poems. Many of the themes of his earlier work reappear here, tightened, focused on the poems’ narrative. The Russian poet Pasternak demanded in his poem ‘February’: ‘get ink and cry!’ and while Mazer’s poetry is not particularly lachrymose, shadows of Pasternak’s own heartbroken early poetry haunt the pages of this remarkable book, though I do not know whether Mazer has read the great Russian’s work. It is not, however, merely the ghosts of past poets that haunt Ben Mazer’s poetry: it’s, in some sense, the memory of love, and memory itself.

Read the rest of my review at Poetics Research.

So what’s your poetry about?

I was sitting at a booth at a book fair a few weeks ago, waiting for my reading slot to open up and a woman sidled up to me, looked at my pile of books, then at me, then thrust a finger at my face: what’s this then? What’s your poetry about? I don’t fucking know. Look, lady, I just wrote it. I can’t even tell you if it’s good, but i do know it’s a thing i do and I have competence at this thing. What’s this then? well it’s a lot of words, for one thing. Words I noted down, words I collected, some words I got from a dictionary, some words I got because I misread my handwriting and I liked the misread word better than the one I wrote. What’s this then? Well, I don’t know. My body is in there and the horror and squeamishness I have with it, the heavy bear that walks with me. In it there’s me as a man, me as a woman, me as a word, maybe there’s not me at all. My grandmother was supposed to be in there but maybe this book has tiny holes in it and things that I put in slipped out. I don’t think i can tell you what this poetry is about. Is it about the terror of losing my mother tongue, or about the time I almost died or the other time I almost died or that other time. Maybe there’s love in it, I don’t know, I read it aloud and it doesn’t look like any love I know. So what’s your poetry about? Is it about drugs or alcohol or loneliness, surely it’s about loneliness, because how can it not be, on the other hand look at all the words and they are right here with me and with you too, just look at the book, you can have it, for free, if you want, Miss, take it with you it needs a reader and a better one than me. Someone who knows what to answer when asked So, what’s this poetry about?

Denise Mina: Still Midnight

Mina, Denise (2009), Still Midnight, Orion
ISBN 978-0-7528-8404-2

This is the second novel by Mina I’ve read (I’ve reviewed Field of Blood here) and it is just as good, probably slightly better than the other one. Denise Mina has a rare skill for writing a crime novel that even while following most of the rules and expectations of the genre, always feels enormously grounded in a sense of place and community. Mina’s first novel was set in a poor and restrictive Catholic environment, and this novel is set at the fringes of another religious community in Glasgow: Muslims. Mina never succumbs to the temptation of making this a novel that separates “us” from “them” – detectives entering some foreign culture. Much as in the other book, Mina’s protagonist is related (though here strictly speaking not part) of the community, having a sense of how crime functions not from a place of power, but from personal experience. There is a healthy dose of Simenon in this book, for the way Mina treats the process of understanding, and violence. And, I suppose, the influence of Nordic noir makes itself felt in many of the book’s mechanisms, as well. The novel is less historically anchored and buffeted than the other one, giving it more of a local, isolated bleakness rather than a sense of the injustices of history. You can see the conclusion coming a mile away, but then, this is not the kind of mystery where you race towards the end, trying to follow an author’s trail of clues. This is more of a slow affair, as we are getting acquainted with a person, her idiocrasies and her place in her community. These are all reasons why this is a lovely crime novel, but what makes this book really stand out is Mina’s writing. Field of Blood was well written, but Mina’s only gotten better with time. There are curious metaphors nestled all over the book and while the author mostly stays on the well-trod paths of genre writing (a lot of people say things “quietly,” there’s a lot of grinning and smiling as means to keep dialogue glued together, too), she succeeds at making her book surprising – not in terms of plot, per se, but actually on the page. And there’s not many mysteries that you can say this about. The appeal of Still Midnight is more narrow than the appeal of Field of Blood; if you don’t like police procedurals, you won’t like this. But if you do have an appreciation for the genre, however slight, this is a strong recommendation.

One of the most interesting things Denise Mina does in her work, and that’s something that carried over from Field of Blood, is her take on masculine assumptions. Police procedurals always have an unpleasantly male touch, and women tend to be the victims (or murderers) in them. It’s for men to divine the killer and make order in the world. The basic structure of the detective novel – to find out how this world works, what the connections are and the like – is a good fit for the delusions of rationality that are so common in conceptions of masculinity, particularly coming from men. You often don’t have a choice – you can only choose between different kinds of men. And this is not gendered regarding writers. Women get in on the action too. Elizabeth George’s American English countryside does contain a female detective, but she’s subservient to a male detective, who is often more careful, rational and elegant than his female colleague. Fred Vargas writes lovely male detectives, often sensitive, interesting ones, but her Adamsberg basically has a woman he’s romantically interested in under constant surveillance in Dans Les Bois Éternels, and that’s not atypical. There are of course several exceptions, but the two most popular ones, the female investigators in the novels of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell (who I personally find completely unreadable, I cannot read more than 10 pages in a row of without despair), are not actually detectives, but anthropologists and medical examiners. I’m sure this is not an accident. The violence inherent in being a policemen, the way you partake in oppression is more of a comfortable fit with male protagonists, who are, after all, socialized to do that anyway. Denise Mina’s decisions in her book, regarding this situation, are curious and interesting. Her detective, DS Alex Morrow, is also, in this case, an assistant to a male detective, but he’s incompetent, haughty, anxious and paranoid about looking bad. Mina shows, explicitly, that being a man, it is easier for him to sell mediocre results as brilliance, and to steal from the work of others, decline to credit them, and make his way up the ladder. The man in this case (his name is Bannerman, make of that what you will) is unlucky, because DS Morrow is assigned to help him, and, sometimes without trying, she keeps showing him up. How? By being more of a typical detective than he is. In a way, Mina employs the genre markers both of the police procedural and of the noir detective novel and combines them. In the former, the police are practically on Starship Enterprise, visiting strange cultures and making sense of them. In the latter, the detective is part of the seedy parts of town, and is threatened and affected by them.

She uses both, but makes the limitations of the former as compared to the latter, clear. The most compelling part of the novel, however, has nothing to do with policework and even Mina’s protagonist is only marginally part of this: Still Midnight is a book about community. One of the text that I found most impressive in this year’s Bachmannpreis-Competition (see here) was a short story that took the cliché of the person from another culture that has to be understood, and flipped it on its ear, showing how class pressures are things we all share, and that if we look at people as being fundamentally like us, we have a better chance of understanding and communicating with them. The same is true in Mina’s novel: a crime has happened in a Muslim household. That crime is best understood if you look at the way crime works in Glasgow rather than work with terms relating to Muslims and Islam. Everybody in the novel is, first and foremost, a Glaswegian. Glasgow is a working class town, where economic pressure grinds everybody into the same fine powder. Whereas the closest Glaswegian relative for Field of Blood was Meg Henderson’s brilliant memoir Finding Peggy, in the case of Still Midnight, it is none other than No Mean City, the classic account of crime and poverty in Glasgow, which is no mean feat. The most frustrating element of the whole novel is how effortless it reads. There are infelicities and frustrating oddnesses, and maybe the night shouldn’t be described as “black as ink” more than once, but the book reads light, skilled and playful in the best way. In taking up a motif from her debut novel Garnethill, Mina has a protagonist whose brother is part of the Glaswegian crime scene, who knows members of various communities, including a club of young Muslim men, from school, and who is fiercely intelligent. Everything connects in her novel, everything coheres, and it’s gratifying to know there’s so much more where this comes from. Denise Mina is a special writer. Read this book (if you like police procedurals).

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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.

Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream

Schweblin, Samanta (2017), Fever Dream, Oneworld
[Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell]
ISBN 978-1-78607-090-6

There is only one other book I know that is like this: it’s Lessing’s The Fifth Child. And it’s not just the nightmare depiction of parenthood – it’s also the writing itself, at least as rendered by Megan McDowell. Samanta Schweblin’s debut drops us right in the middle of a story, never really waiting for us to catch up and then increases pace and tension as it goes on. Schweblin’s style is literary enough, but it is the functional precision of it that is most interesting. She has a knack for describing things in unique ways that increase the creeping tension throughout the book, but if you stop and look at the page, there’s nothing there, really. Lessing’s work always struck me as immensely paraphrasable, i.e. ideas and structure were more important than the actual writing, and Lessing herself never exceptionally interested in language. Schweblin’s book is already paraphrased, if we accept that translation is a paraphrase of sorts, but looking at it from the remove of translation it also seems the kind of book that’s eminently translatable – mind you, I’m not saying the writing is bad. Megan McDowell found a fluid English that meets the task that is expected of it: making us understand a complex, mysterious situation with a minimum of words (incidentally. NOWHERE in my copy of the book does it offer the original publication date (2014) or the original title (Distancia de Rescate). If you look at the book it’s like it sprung to life like Athena: fully formed. Shame on you, Oneworld). The form she chose – an storyteller who is interrupted and focused by an impatient interlocutor – conceivably helped the author to focus her story without resorting to drab minimalism. The main storyteller can be imaginative and exact, as in a description of a field of soy “leaning towards us,” but more often than not slips into redundant overnarration, particularly early in the book. It is the exceptionally well executed structure that corrals all this into the kind of terrifying narrative that Fever Dream ends up being. It’s not perfect – the author evades a lot of pitfalls by keeping the book short and tight, but that also means that many issues fall by the wayside. The book’s use of folklore, ecocriticism and similar ideas is done almost in passing and this is where the comparison to Lessing comes full circle to me: because even in Lessing’s less accomplished books, hounded by her sometimes rickety style, there’s something at stake beyond plot and literary games. I think Schweblin doesn’t quite push through to the other side, and for a book with so many complicated ideas and possibilities, being merely entertaining and terrifying seems like a minor accomplishment. That said: it is entertaining and it is terrifying and I recommend you don’t give this to parents with young children (much as you shouldn’t give The Fifth Child to a pregnant woman). I do recommend you read this.

By “paraphrasable” I didn’t mean bad. That needs to be repeated. There are books and writers who are getting a good amount of praise today (I’m looking at you, Blake Butler and Green Girl) where you feel that the writing is incidental, it is the final ingredient after ideas and ideology have already been poured into the novel. The writer just adds the words at the end to make it work but he doesn’t care about them particularly. That is not the case here. Schweblin’s descriptions are excellent, the structure is excellent and the words are well chosen and precise. Schweblin’s book is like one of those literary horror novels that occupy a distant region of your mind, making you think differently about reality. That’s what all good horror does, I think? It pushes you to reconsider whether some mapped areas of your reality are really as mapped and controlled as you think. House of Leaves was another book like that. Somewhere halfway through reading Fever Dream, I looked at my own hands with a kind of alienated creeped out feeling. Surely that’s an achievement. In a way, what you get here is the training of a good short story writer, too: everything coheres, and is written with a view towards the end of the story as your hair starts to stand on end. You can guess what happens from the first pages, and you’ll have guessed coreectly, but Schweblin isn’t writing a mystery, she is presenting a strange, maybe supernatural story, and invites you from the start to read it with a sense of dread. The first line is “They’re like worms,” and while said worms don’t end up being very important to the book, the early insistence of them contributes to our reading. What’s more, as we read the book we know that everything bad that will happen, has already happened and we’re part of a conversation explaining to one of the people involved in it being forced to remember what exactly happened. We follow along, involved in the story, trying to see what’s important, and then suddenly when things get irreversibly bad it’s like a chute opens and we fall to the end of the story. Whatever issues you may have with other parts of the execution, this structure works exceptionally well and you don’t usually find this in literary fiction. Literary fiction does genre extremely badly – despite the literally formulaic qualities of the latter, literary thrillers, science fiction, or horror tend to not be as involving as their genre siblings. Schweblin can take it up with the best of them, and yet write in a careful, measured, often subtle way.

I have skirted around plot details for a reason, but I would like to mention the importance of pain in the story and how it works in the narrative structure of the book. I’ve recently read Elaine Scarry’s amazing The Body in Pain, and there is this chapter in the second half about the pain and imagination. Basically, Scarry explains that pain has no object. Pain just is, whereas imagination is all about the object, and has no corresponding state, really. Imagination is wholly dependent on context and the object that is imagined, the object itself determines the shape of the imagination, whereas pain is just an overwhelming state. Incidentally, Scarry is only talking about physical pain, yet her descriptions of it also fit my personal experience of depression and the experience of others I have read about. An overwhelming state of emotional pain, for which sometimes there is only one reprieve. Well, then again, maybe not. Back to Scarry and Schweblin. So one important factor here is that Schweblin toys with the limits of how we define humanity. The change someone can undergo as they suffer through intense pain is seen in the book as evidence of a swap of, what? Souls? Essences? There’s also the incredulousness of the mind when faced with exceptional pain, the tendency to sometimes catch up with it after a while that I think is reflected in the book. Mostly, I think what it is, is it tries to offer an illness that is so intense and fast in its effect, that it comes as close to an experience of pure pain as you can get. There are, I will say, queasy feelings reading this. One wonders whether Schweblin herself has ever felt truly exceptional physical pain. I have not, and there is a certain nonchalance at dealing with the physical aspects of the whole ordeal that make me wonder about Schweblin. With Lessing, to get back to the first paragraph, and whatever her failings as a writer, there’s always a sense of the writer dealing with physical and class issues in a responsible way. I’m not entirely sure about Schweblin. At the same time, the way her novel deals with the other half of Elaine Scarry’s equation, the imagination, is so deft that it’s hard to hold on to my misgivings. The book is in the form of an interrogation of sorts. A boy named David forces a woman named Amanda, who is probably dying, how she came to be where she is. She doesn’t quite remember, but in a sense Schweblin leads us into a great gothic mansion of Amanda’s mind, as we walk down, well not memory lane, more like memory hallway. Schweblin blurs the lines between memory and imagination, and as Amanda, who doesn’t currently feel pain, imagines the pain she felt, it warps the simple narrative of memory too.

There are many topics I haven’t talked about that Schweblin engages fully and other topics she alludes to. One topic is motherhood, the anxieties of modern motherhood. Amanda has something she calls “rescue distance” – a context dependent need to be close enough to her daughter to rescue her. This is a central term in the book, as evidenced by the fact that the novel was originally published in 2014 in Spanish under the title Distancia de Rescate. When the environment feels safe, that distance can be very great when there’s a threat, even inches may be too far. Much of how she explains it reminds us of helicopter parenting, maybe, but Schweblin carefully reaches into that sense of security and upends it: the catastrophe in the book happens with the daughter inches away and Amanda’s “rescue distance” alarm not raised at all. 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, and Argentina. Schweblin’s native country, has had a water contamination scandal in 2005, and Germany, Schweblin’s current country of residence, has a near-obsessive debate about nuclear waste all year round, so that could be the case. But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is. This uncertainty bothers me, to be honest. It’s not like Schweblin went down the path of Vandermeer who in his recent novels fully explores what Timothy Morton calls “dark ecology” (drop everything now and buy/read Morton’s book!). When I read the barrels (with the interlocutor suddenly saying “This is the important moment!”), I was let down. Maybe because books like Massimo Carlotto’s Sardinian investigative mystery Perdas de Fogu sharpened my sense of what’s possible and maybe necessary to say in fiction. Introducing the ecological element like this, as a trope, not as a reference to real barrels rotting away somewhere in the Argentinian countryside somehow seems worse than offering no such explanation but keeping it open. And here is where I mention Doris Lessing one final time. Despite her shortcomings as a writer, Lessing was a great writer, because of her sense of responsibility. Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very very good novel, clever, but written with the depth and understanding of a real storyteller.  But it very clearly is not great, and I don’t know whether the writer will develop in that direction. This seems like a long short story, and I don’t know whether Schweblin’s ambitions will carry her beyond this (and I also don’t know how much of this book is McDowell’s invention), but I am genuinely excited to find out. This is one of the best books I read all year.

[I have elaborated on the ecological issue in this addendum here]

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Werner Hamacher (1948 – 2017)

 

When Werner Hamacher died this year, there was an outpouring of grief that surprised many: Hamacher’s name is not as widely known as that of many of his peers, although he had a significant impact on philosophy and literary criticism. As an editor Stanford’s Millennium Crossing: Aesthetics series of translations, which introduced anglophone readers to Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and others, his influence went beyond his own work and teaching. Despite knowing multiple students of his, it had taken me years to pick up and seriously engage with Hamacher’s work.

My interest in Hamacher is, in part, due to a personal preoccupation with a specific kind of thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by – and working on – the connection between the various ideas about close reading coming from the German tradition (Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Szondi) and the French deconstruction, so often maligned by critics, with Derrida and De Man as their most notable examples. Schleiermacher, one of the inventors of modern hermeneutics, laid the groundwork for a tradition, in which simple assumptions about the author, the text and its reader are destabilized. There is no sense of dogmatism as to what a text is and how it should be read.

In his description of the vagaries of literary criticism, Szondi’s declarations share a frame of mind with Derrida and especially Paul De Man, whose literary criticism often considers reading a text for its faultlines. There are other similarities, as well. Take autobiography: Dilthey posited a relational understanding of autobiography and suggested that plain autobiographical declarations are part of the textual situation. At the same time, there is a complex discourse about the subject of the text (das Innewerden) between the author and the reader. Dilthey’s comments are similar to Derrida’s conception of autobiography as well as De Man’s declaration that “the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life.” And yet, despite all the similarities, critics often associate one school of thinking with an inherent seriousness and the other with textual frivolity. I have always felt there to be an unacknowledged link between these traditions. Only last year have I encountered the work of Werner Hamacher, who worked exactly in the area that I am so interested in. Hamacher focused both on Szondi’s concept that literary criticism means perpetual work on the text, as well as on Dilthey’s complex ideas about the subject and how it is both alienated from and still connected to the symbolic forms. There is an almost Levinasian sense of ethics in the way Hamacher writes about how people relate to each other through and despite language. In his opus magnum, he refers to language as a long goodbye to sense and the subject, but in other places he’s written about the consequences of language for human rights, for example.

I keep mentioning his work, but as it turns out, Werner Hamacher has written a sizeable number of articles, but not much in the way of books A forthcoming publication next year will be only the third major monograph to appear in German. The previous one was Premises. Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, which appeared in English in 1996 and in German in 1998. The sequence of publication reflects the fact that he taught at American universities for years. Unlike Hannah Arendt, who also published in English first, he didn’t write the English version himself, but instead was translated (very well, incidentally). Indeed, Hamacher wasn’t, first and foremost, a writer, but primarily a passionate thinker and speaker who developed his ideas in the lectures themselves. He would come to the lectern with rough outlines and then talk and think his way through the material.

As Alexandru Bulucz, poet, scholar and translator, wrote in his own personal appreciation, Hamacher was a teacher who allowed students to see them think through a text or a problem rather than a teacher who turned up with a finished product that merely needed to be presented. He challenged students in class, maintaining a personal distance, but asked for his thinking to be critiqued as he critiqued others. Thinking was his prime objective. Then again, this reflects Werner Hamacher’s attitude to the institution of the university. In a flaming appeal, published in 2010 as “Freistätte,” Hamacher discusses universities as a place of absolute intellectual freedom, or at least that’s the way he thought they should be. Free of not just economic pressures, but also free of expectations and the tyranny of tradition. In a true place of free science, scientific pursuit has to be free of everything that is not itself and that includes its own traditional forms (Formtradition). For Hamacher, the pursuit of science is sacred, and that includes teaching.What must be clarified here is that the German tradition Hamacher works in sees the humanities as a science. This is more than just a question of terms. Yes, it is true that the German term for humanities is Geisteswissenschaften – and what the anglophone world calls science, we call Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. But Hamacher works from a specific tradition that stresses the scientific aspect of the humanities way beyond the bare bones meaning of the term itself. There is a line leading from Wilhelm Dilthey, 19th century hermeneutics scholar, to Peter Szondi, teacher, holocaust survivor and academic literary critic and finally to Werner Hamacher. They all shared an absolute seriousness about the task of teaching and writing about language and literature.

Never having heard Werner Hamacher teach myself, never having known him in a university context, I can only resort his book, which shows him to be a refulgent thinker and writer. His work on Kant, Kleist, Celan and others is insightful and is carried, at the same time, by an exceptional talent for synthesis. In Hamacher’s thinking, several traditions connect in sometimes startling and surprising ways. He opened clear, new paths to already well-known texts. Hamacher’s is that rare and lovely brilliance – the kind you admire even as you may occasionally disagree – and he brought to bear his immense mind on building a theory of how to understand not just the world – but the structure of understanding itself. At a time when the subject has slowly crept back into serious criticism, Hamacher’s careful work on the way language and understanding interact with each other, and dispossess the subject of its assumed powers, seems particularly timely.
Hamacher was important in other ways as well. His international stature rests not just on English translations of his work or his teaching at Stanford, NYU, and other American universities. He has had a significant impact even on people who have not read him or his students, as the force behind (and series editor of) Stanford UP’s Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, which is maybe best known for being the main English-language publisher of Giorgio Agamben, another thinker whose work synthesizes different traditions. Hamacher also translated poetry and criticism into German, most notably, Paul De Man’s Allegories of Reading.

For many, he was the kind of philosopher whose name is not as well-known as it could be, but whose impact has been felt for a while. That’s certainly true for me –I hadn’t seriously considered Hamacher’s work until last year and hadn’t directly engaged with it until this year – so his death represents the sudden loss of a great writer I was looking forward to discovering in-depth in the months and years to come. I did not know him personally, but from his former students on Facebook, a clear picture of another Hamacher emerges: a teacher, kind mentor and friend. His bridge-building exceeded his work as editor and translator, and reading personal tributes to him this past week has been lovely and moving. I’m sure we – not just those who know him, but we as readers and intellectuals – will grapple with his death for years. For now, all we have is the texts, and his greatest legacy, his thinking and his teaching. At any rate, I urge you to read Premises, which I have been carrying around in my bag for months now. It is an enormous achievement by an enormous mind. He will be sorely missed.

Plots of stories I’ve written or rewritten in the past year: a poem

A church burns, someone dies.
Sentient poop takes over, no lies.
A man with a prehensile tail
In love with a whale
becomes a refugee and then cries.

A flower blooms, a woman is sad.
A trip to Macedonia, a woman is mad.
A science fiction story
about poets and glory
someone dies, someone cries, and someone is glad.

I also have some drafts about suicide,
those stories never turn out quite right.
They live on
unlovèd spawn
on this laptop, offline. Good night.

(I am not sorry)

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.

#Translation and Heartbreak

I review a lot of translated literature on this here blog thing. I also advocate for translating German literature. I love translation (I may be of two minds about poetry translation) as I love literature. I also think that ethically, translation is an extremely difficult business. I don’t, at this point, want to wade in further in the issue, but this post is just to reflect my sadness and heartbreak about the recent news about Han Kang’s English translator.

Personally, I stay away from German translation because it is *as a rule* either sloppy or rather distanced from the text. There are whole generations of translators who are taught to “improve” the text. I heard that at university when i studied Romance languages in Bonn. Germans have no issues translating a Japanese text from the English translation. It’s bizarre and offensive. So I try to read English and French translations. And with some languages, particularly Romance languages, you can guess. When I read the Villalobos I reviewed yesterday, I double checked a few things in my Spanish dictionary and I think I can make an educated guess at some of the translation’s flaws (this is not in the review; I didn’t want to be a sourpuss). But with, say, Korean, I am out on a raft on the empty sea. I don’t speak any Asian language to my great shame and embarrassment and so my guesses, well, let me quote from my review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian:

The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides.

And

The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around.

As I found out this week, I was severely off-base. I recommend you read this essay by Charse Yung with some urgency if you haven’t yet. I share none of its positive attitude and spin to the facts it lays out. I read (and reread) this with a profound sense of heartbreak. Sure, the numerical parts are questionable (how do you quantify how much has been added since no good translation is a 1-to-1 interlinear equivalent) without reading the paper mentioned (but not cited) within. But even with some allowance for that, the rest of the autopsy here is absolutely atrocious. I am heartbroken. As someone as profoundly and shamefully limited as me with languages, translation is a trust excercise. Egregious cases like this one feel like a betrayal to me. I know I may take literature too seriously, people tell me that, but this is a stunning case. Let me repeat: you want to read this article. And I don’t see how you (or anyone) can ever read another Smith-translated book again.

Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

Villalobos, Juan Pablo (2010), Down The Rabbit Hole, And Other Stories
[Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
ISBN 978-1-908276-00-1

I was emailed an article two days ago about someone or other who was decapitated by the MS-13 gang in Mississippi and in my head I went, “…and he wasn’t even a king.” This is not a story about my opinions regarding monarchy. What it is instead is a testament to how deeply a vivid – if short- book can burrow into my subconscious sometimes. So after figuring out where my brain came up with that idea, I reread the culprit, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and the very first book published by the excellent people at And Other Stories. I’ll be frank: both on my reread and on my first read of the book, I didn’t like it at first. It took me a while to get into and to understand that the voice of the narrator and its mannerisms are not just preciousness. Indeed it is surprising to me how much my opinion of the book changed as I made my way through it despite how small, in terms of pages, it is. This is a very short book and while I don’t want to spoil it, I will say that, like Yuri Herrera’s magnificent oeuvre (see my review here), it’s another writer from Mexico (though living in Spain) who wrote a complex work of fiction that engages the so-called narcoliteratura, but really tells a story about something else. In this case: innocence and identity. Judging from this book, Villalobos is not nearly the writer Herrera is, but that’s stiff competition anyway. Down the Rabbit Hole is an engrossing read, with a lot of good ideas, a very firm sense of form, and a bit of debut novelist exuberance. There are a few books like this, but the context and some specific ideas here make this a very intriguing read. It’s very re-readable, and as my initial anecdote shows, the narrative voice is distinctive enough to stick around in your brain days after you finished the book. I tend to end these first paragraphs with a quick yay or nay about whether or not to read this book, but I’m not sure with this one. I, personally, enjoyed it a lot, and I suspect you will too, whoever you are, but there’s also a chance that some of its mannerisms may grate too much for you to enjoy it completely.

The main “mannerism” is the narrator himself. Tochtli is a boy who lives in a major drug kingpin’s palace, who lives secluded, knowing only sixteen people and craves owning a Liberian Pigmy Hippopotamus. That “rare and secretive animal” serves as a mirror of sorts for the young boy who shares a disdain for pure book knowledge with his drug dealer father, but who is reduced to experience life from a distance. Villalobos’s structuring of the book is extraordinary: we learn about how distanced from life the boy is on multiple levels, including elements of syntax and paragraph construction. Some of this is connected to a sense of physicality. Villalobos introduces multiple small but potent doses of physicality into the book, from physical pain to fat bottomed girls who vanish into back rooms with his father doing things Tochtli has no words or concepts for. The physicality builds until it is released in a brutal scene towards the end of the novel – yet even there, Villalobos handles his protagonist carefully, moving him along in a certain distance from that ripe, dark, suppurated physicality. In the end, even that physicality is found to be contained, and moved back into the closed, self-referential world in the palace. But as much as I admire the control Villalobos has over all the elements of his book, the voice of the narrator is terribly grating. We meet him on page one as a practically self declared genius with great memory who reads dictionaries and uses big words. The big words at the beginning will turn out to have a greater predictive value for the plot of the novel rather than its style as Villalobos gives his protagonist not per se a childish voice, but the kind of simple, funny, deadpan voice that adult writers often think children have. And that’s a thing you really, really notice in the first parts of the book, how artificial that voice is, how it lacks depth, musicality, even real humanity. It opens a discourse on innocence precisely because its artificial creation of an “innocent” voice creates a sinister counter-flow to the novel, the opposite, if anything, of innocence. That’s what annoyed me the first time I read the book, and that’s what bothered me on my reread, as well. It’s good, then, that as one continues reading the book, this sense of annoyance at a contrived style disappears completely.

As it turns out and as I already suggested, the contrived nature is the very point, I think, of this kind of writing. Villalobos creates a forest of symbols, an “empire of signs,” to slightly misuse Barthes (though, if you read the book, you know why I associate the phrase here). I know nothing about him personally, but much of it reads like someone used the furniture and grammar of narcoliteratura to furnish the colder abstract rooms of poststructuralist theories about reality and language. I mean, that is how the book works, in my opinion. There are so many places you could start – for example the way this child tells its stories in a repetitive way. Now, the language (in translation) may not be musical, but the way phrases and descriptions appear and reappear does suggest a certain musicality. On the one hand, it does put us in mind of certain children and the circular (and sometimes, frankly, annoying) way they tell stories. On the other hand, we are offered a metatextual hint about how to read the texts repetitions pretty much exactly halfway through the book when some of its characters tell each other jokes. Mind you, we don’t hear the jokes, just Tochtli’s summary of the jokes which is a mini-thesis on difference and repetition (I don’t want to mention you-know-who in every review, but you know). It also serves as a key of how to read some of the book’s language, especially since it comes in a part of the story where everybody has changed their names, and the kid’s use of their names implies a connection of names and selfhood, and language. Language in the book is whispered, yelled, withheld. Understood, misunderstood, used as code, as self-revelation and as lie. There’s a thing in the opening pages of the The Night Circus where the child prodigy does not understand the magician adults around her because they spoke in a way that was intentionally (magically) not understandable to the child. So in this particular mediocre novel it’s particularly lazy, but Villalobos shows us how much movement and magic, really, a gifted writer can wring from language without fairy tales and witchcraft. The list of things he does is long and I could continue for a while, but let me just say that ultimately, Down the Rabbit Hole is about how constructed our narratives of villainy and politics are, of masculinity and femininity. It’s not a new claim, this, but then the novel isn’t a nonfiction essay: it merely happens to illustrate the situation exceptionally well.

And this is where, I think, comparisons to Herrera’s own take on the Mexican literature of drug kingpins and their life come up and distinguish Villalobos’s novel from what it is and what it could be in the hands of an even better (or just maybe more experienced) writer. Like Herrera, Villalobos covers his novel in a web of Mexican culture and religion, starting with the fact that everybody from the main “cast” has a Nahuatl name. Like Herrera, Villalobos toys with the musicality of pulp, and with the complicated relationship Mexican culture and literature has with European history. As with Herrera, the condensed, allusive and precise workings of the novel made me worry about overreading it (is the combination of interest in French revolution and reclusive protagonist a humorous allusion to Thoreau? Probably not.). But unlike Herrera, I get the feeling from Villalobos that he is primarily interested in his metafictional web (is this a Mexican thing?), and not as much in human aspects of his fiction. It may be that I am reading this in an age of Trump and Brexit, and so lack a certain patience for a certain kind of writing, but Villalobos comes awfully close to being just too precious and cold here and there. Herrera’s books are masterpieces not just for structure, writing and intellectual weight, but also for the way he manages to incorporate the lived experience of many Mexicans into his books. The pain, blood and struggle of ordinary people under the weight of the system and their various loyalties within that system come out with a kind of shattering purity in Herrera’s books. Villalobos, instead, opts to move to another metafictional pun at the end of his book. Herrera’s work strikes me as absolutely necessary and vital, just as it is masterful. He’s a truly great writer. Villalobos seems minor by comparison. He is very very good at what he does, sometimes stunningly so, but what he does seems so small, and I am not talking about page length here. I recommend you read Villalobos, but you absolutely have to read all three novels by Yuri Herrera that have been published by & Other Stories, which is quickly becoming a favorite publisher of mine.

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#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

Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept

Jones, Gwyneth (2017), Proof of Concept, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9144-5

So I am biased, I suppose. I love science fiction, and I love every Gwyneth Jones book I have ever read. Regrettably, that’s not a ton, because she hasn’t written that much. So coming across a new novel, however short, by this outstanding writer in the genre was a great delight for me, and I would have probably liked this book even had it been remarkably mediocre (see Williams, Tad). Thankfully, Proof of Concept is absolutely excellent. This is everything you want from science fiction: a riveting plot, plausible (to the layman) science, and most importantly, a brilliant literary mind using the unique narrative and tropological tools offered by SF to say something interesting, complex and maybe profound. Jones has done it before: in her novels about the Aleutians and their invasion she took the science fictional tradition about physicality, race and identity and ran with it, creating a meaningful literary discourse about these issues. If you have read any of her recent novels there can be no doubt she should be counted among the major British writers. Compare the Booker shortlist with her 2010 novel Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant. Using the language developed in earlier books she takes on James, Conrad, Greene and contemporary discourses of identity with an ease that puts the whole shortlist to shame (and I liked that Galgut novel). Proof of Concept is not on the same level as those novels, but it’s a smaller novella, anyway, working through its ideas on just over 100 pages. This is the closest that I can remember Jones coming to a technological thriller, and the best, most condensed example of an interrogation of that form itself that I can remember reading. The assumptions regarding knowledge, necessity and, again, identity are all put into play here, and a complete, complicated plot is introduced and seen through all the way to the end. If you like science fiction at all, you want to read this. I cannot vouch for a scientist’s view of the science here, but if you are an interested layman, proceed.

This will be one of my shorter reviews because I am loath to give away anything of the plot and the scientific concept, because the slow, precise unraveling of these two things is one of the major pleasures of reading the book in the first place. The novel is set in a future where earth has been horribly affected by climate change. Humans have colonized the nearby planets, but that’s not a solution in a situation where all of humanity is in danger of being wiped out. All humans live in so-called hives. They keep up the pretense of nationality, but really, they are all part of one of three distinct clusters of humanity, all three controlled by corporations. Outside the livable cluster is the Dead Zone. It’s not really “dead,” but the plant- and wildlife is largely poisonous to eat, and one cannot survive without gas masks, if survival is possible at all. The book itself explicitly connects the Dead Zone to Chernobyl, with all the attendant tropes and traditions. Here, as in other places, Gwyneth Jones gestures towards a genre and asks of us to follow and understand. There’s a specific discussion half way through the book that reads very metatextually, where a character, deprived of the main bulk of some important information, infers the majority of it through allusion and metainformation. Jones, in her fiction generally but in particular here, asks of us to do the same. The same applies to her vision of the future, dominated by corporations, and a dying earth. It’s not new, but very blatantly and carefully so: Jones relies on us seeing and understanding the trope so she can move on. The future of mankind hinges on getting everybody off the planet and far, far away. To achieve this, Dan Orsted, a populist, and Margrethe Patel, a scientist, pool their public funds and influence and embark on a year-long experiment underground called The Needle. The team consists partly of Orsted’s team, mostly young, virile people whose life is one big live-streamed social media feast, and Patel’s team, a group of younger and older scientists who will work on the actual engineering and science. Jones’ protagonist is the most essential member: a young woman named Kir, who was rescued from the Dead Zone as a child and had a quantum computer implanted in her head without her consent. Kir is brilliant, but as the book develops, she notices that the computer in her brain, an AI called Altair, has some doubts about the project. And then, people get murdered.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? And it really is! Having a suspense plot turn around an intellectual mystery and a murder is what moves this novella so forcefully into technothriller territory. I am very fond (see this review and this one) of comparing science fiction novels to the works of Michael Crichton, due to his outsize influence on the literature of suspense and (bad) science, and the way various ideologies come together in his books. Additionally, Crichton, no stranger to bending science to serve his ideology (see particularly the “climate change is a hoax by fat cat scientists” novel State of Fear) or plot (Timeline seems particularly worth noting here) always seemed curiously self-limiting in what he could say or show, keeping certain ontological assumptions close to the vest, and I feel, among the “technothriller” SF, you can distinguish hacks (Charles Stross) from real, intelligent writers (Jones or Scalzi) by the way they deal with the genre as coded. I think many of the good recent works of SF can be read with Giorgio Agamben’s work in mind. The idea of a state of exception and the way he explores, in his recent Stasis, how a civil war, for example, draws on the private and the public but is of neither, can, I think, be considered in connection with Jones’ novel and the way it deals with sexuality, identity and humanity. Also, after finishing it, I pulled Malthus from my shelf to look up some things, and wandered over to Deleuze and ideas of becoming. I really enjoy science fiction that invites me to look at the philosophy shelves behind my desk and consider some of its implications. Agamben, Malthus, Deleuze, I think that’s the core of the book, with some light waffle about social media as an appetizer. But I think I am drifting off course. This book is primarily a thriller. A very well done one, with a moving emotional resolution and a complicated moral arc. It doesn’t talk down to you, but it does cajole you into keeping up, rereading older texts and finding a way in which this story fits into how you think about the issues it raises. It’s playful more than anything.

As for the writing, well, it’s hard to say. It’s good, but it’s not as exact as it could be. It’s the kind of writing where you don’t notice it – it won’t bother you, but you also won’t stop to admire sentence construction. Strike that – I went back to the book after writing the last sentence: Jones’ writing here is definitely beyond what one might call dismissively ‘serviceable’ – her prose in this book has to do a lot of work: moving a plot forward, making scientific concepts understandable all while not losing sight of the emotional core of the narrative, and it does this remarkably well. In fact, of you look at the language on the page, you can tell how well Jones manages the limited real estate offered by a novella, how she shifts perspectives and manages events and dialogue. So, while I didn’t notice anything while reading the book, I can see the writing’s power now that I go back to the page. I don’t teach an MFA course, but some of these pages could easily be used as illustrative material. I just looked at last year’s Booker nominees and except for Levy and the tumultuous Beatty, none of the writers, including the inexplicably lauded David Szalay, are as remarkable on the page as Jones is, if you look closely what the language has to achieve and what it does achieve.

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Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart

Elmiger, Dorothee (2010), Einladung an die Waghalsigen, Dumont
ISBN 9-783832-161941
[translated into English by Katy Derbyshire:
Elmiger, Dorothee (2011), Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, Seagull Press
ISBN 978-0-85742-019-0

This is a curious little book. Dorothee Elmiger’s debut novel Einladung an die Waghalsigen, translated by Katy Derbyshire as Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, is often billed as “postapocalyptic” and many German critics have expressed irritation at its constructed form, an irritation that I think is gendered. Elmiger’s novel sits somewhere between modernism and postmodernism, realism and metatextualism. It uses the tropes of exploration and of rugged reality in the same way postmodern novelists have done for a long time. But she does it without being male. One reads in review after review, the disappointment over the lack of realism, authenticity, of felt, emotional truth. A critic called it “arrogant” – but unless, like Gore Vidal, they reject postmodern literature out of hand, there is no obvious reason to be hostile to this book. Because whatever you might think of what it does, it does what it does with extraordinary skill. Sure, you can see the MLA-schooled writer here, you can see the excitement of a young novelist trying out a new idea, playing with literature, tradition and form, and not always hitting the mark. But of all the authors who graduated from Leipzig and Hildesheim, the awful German MFA mills, Elmiger’s book actually feels like she has something to say. There is a forcefulness to the book that dives deep into our shared sense of cultural heritage, and what it is lacking in emotional immediacy, the novel replaces with the emotional repositories of music, childhood and literary classics. This is on the surface a novel about a vanishing village in the mining areas of West Germany, but it is also a novel about loneliness and selfhood, about the way we as readers and writers need to connect – to reconnect – to a world sometimes burning up around us. And literature is an extraordinary way to do this. The writing is simple and direct, but it doesn’t slip into the shoddiness of style that is apparently taught in Hildesheim and Leipzig as a stand-in for simplicity and directness (see Hischmann, Fabian). Elmiger’s style is always weighed and exact, carefully shaped and directed. The titular invitation doesn’t come until the end of the book, but in a way the whole book is an invitation: to all of us. I’m glad Katy Derbyshire (whose taste in picking translations has to be commended. I already reviewed Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman on this blog, also a Derbyshire translation) accepted the invitation and translated the novel, a mere year after the original translation.

The book’s plot – itself a metatextual device – is swallowed by the many textual references (listed in the appendix), allusions and tricks the text plays with its readers. Like many German writers in the 2010s, Elmiger opts for an apocalyptic scenario (the list of writers to choose a science fictional/postapocalyptic setting includes young writers like Elmiger and Leif Randt, as well as stalwarts of German literature like Jirgl and Georg Klein.), but the predominant, I think, reference for the novel is one not named in its appendix: Arno Schmidt’s Nobodaddy trilogy. Like Schmidt, Elmiger’s scenario draws on the imagery and tropes of the postapocalypse, all while feeding it with elements of the real: there’s a true sense of place, in Schmidt’s case, the Lüneburger Heide specifically, in Elmiger’s case a sense of the Ruhrgebiet, the vast mining areas along the river Ruhr, comparable maybe to England’s north, from Newcastle to Manchester. The Ruhr area is so undertunneled with mining that occasionally streets will collapse. The novel is set in a village devasted by a fire where a coal seam underground has started burning and the burning has started affecting aboveground life. As a Goethe quote in the novel shows, this is not a fantastical invention, this sort of thing can happen – at the same time, Elmiger does not examine a specific event in the Ruhr area (as far as I can tell). Instead, she assembles a dusty, dirty, firm sense of an abandoned village in the area, affected by some real event. The postapocalyptic feeling is fueled by the strange sounding local catastrophe, but also by the images of an industrialized area that’s largely empty of people. There are still normal people beyond this particular village, normal life, but in this village, the narrator, her sister, and some occasional strangers are the only ones left. And this is important: postapocalyptic literature is often too liberal in deploying that metaphor to do a minor point. Elmiger by contrast is exceptionally precise: the very real abandonment of old industrial areas, abandoned by young men, by companies, and by the benevolent hand of the state is recreated here in miniature format. The book’s final invitation for the bold to come back, to join the sisters on their fantastical discovery of an underground river, in a way it is a call against the way capitalism has chewed up and abandoned the working class of vast areas – again, people living in the north of England will understand which social stratum I am referring to.

Another writer whose presence I feel in this book (and maybe that’s just because I am currently re-reading his work) is Andreas Neumeister. This writer, as of yet untranslated into English, is one of the few living German masters of prose, as in, writers from Germany, not writers writing in German. The deplorable fact that Neumeister has not won the Büchnerpreis yet, but Jan Wagner, the Billy Collins of contemporary German poetry, has, explains much about this country’s literary culture. Neumeister’s novels show a steady development towards a sense of how speech and language shapes our perceptions of places and memory in a way that I should write about at length some other time. When I was reading Elmiger’s novel, I got a sense of a similar investment in reality, language and literature from her. Neumeister uses music in interesting ways, employing both cultural connotations and rhythmical implications in his work, and Elmiger, though to a much less experimental and forceful degree, also uses music in her references (she quotes from Godspeed! You Black Emperor) and rhythms. That said, with Neumeister as with Schmidt, there’s always a connection of writer and place. But Dorothee Elmiger was born in a rural part of Switzerland. She’s not from the Ruhr area – and the sense of dedication to and evocation of a specific place isn’t part of an authentic discourse about a specific home. On the contrary: what we encounter is a discourse about home itself. Elmiger draws in her quotes from 19th century ethnologists to evoke a specific view of reality, turning the imperialist gaze of the profession to a piece of European heartland. The search for a secret river interiorizes the mythological narratives of 19th century imperialism without actually needing to overtly interrogate that tradition. Much of what she uses, even when she uses well known texts, relies on us understanding the texts immediately, implicitly. She marks quotes in the text, but some of the sources are obscure and she doesn’t offer a source for each quote (there’s a list of texts in the appendix, but no correlation of quotes and text). What she wants us to see, instead, is what musical and cultural quality each quote adds to the text, with its unique rhythms. We can sort of tell where everything is from, even if we cannot pinpoint the exact source. Elmiger is appealing to our cultural understanding, while making this method explicit in the marking the quotes as quotes.

Let me, finally, return to the question of autobiography and authenticity. I’m not doing this because I have a personal obsession with the topic – it’s because so much of the text is artfully woven around these questions. I just said that sources are marked but not named – that is true except for a small handful of exceptions, three of which are the epigraphs to the novel. Of those three, the longest is from Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit. Now, if you followed me so far, you might think it’s cited here because of the book’s central position in the canon of the classics of autobiographical literature – more than that: Dichtung und Wahrheit moves away from the immediate personal memory as the sole source for autobiography. Goethe in fact makes heavy use of other people’s statements and in his time, the book was criticized by some as too artificial. But the quote in the epigraph isn’t about life writing at all: it describes a coal seam burning and affecting life aboveground. The very “postapocalyptic” description of life in the novel is taken from this classic of autobiography, allowing Elmiger, as the author, to create a complex building of references, and hide herself and her remarkable voice in between the walls. It is, ultimately, the urgency that fuels the eponymous invitation, that makes the book worth reading, that makes it more than an idle game of postmodern chess. Indeed, another reference of the book, marked but not annotated, is from Ferdinand Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (“The Sickness of Youth”) – the play dates back to 1926, but its searing evocation of young love and desperation leads to occasional revivals on German stages. A character in it says “you either become a part of the bourgeoisie or you commit suicide.” This tension, between becoming part of the adult world as it is constituted by capitalism (Elmiger also quotes Engels), and of giving up on life, voluntarily leaving this world, is, in a way, also felt in this book. Trying to fight for their reality, their place, the characters of the novel marshal the magic of myth, of books, of our shared magical memory to save their village, but also to save them. A task that requires, truly, boldness.

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Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson

Trondheim, Lewis and Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrison: Fais un Sourire, Maggy, Dupuis
ISBN 9-782800-160788

“Sometimes, winning just means not losing.” This, said by the protagonist of Lewis Trondheim’s book with Stéphane Oiry, just about sums up the darkly humorous tone of this quite excellent first volume. I cannot remember reading something quite like this. I picked it off the shelf in anticipation of my flight to London today (I’m packing and leaving in half an hour and need to stay awake, so here we are), and was surprised at the way Trondheim and Oiry create a sense of space and density at the same time. Maggy Garrisson manages to both sympathetically portray an unusual character with remarkable depth, and tell a noir crime story that follows genre conventions and thumbs its nose at them at the same time. There’s also a sense, partly due to my limited reading in the genre, that in this book, the francobelgian influence on American comics has ‘come home,’ in the sense that some of the rooms and atmosphere in the book are more common in the great American artists that are all influenced by the Belgian ligne claire tradition. I was particularly reminded of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, not in the way Oiry draws his characters (though that also plays a role), but in the way Trondheim and Oiry use the space in rooms, streets and landscapes, and combine it with the real estate on the page, to create a sense of emptiness, loss, longing and loneliness. The writing itself is equally remarkable: Trondheim’s characters never say too much or too little. There’s never a sense of the writer posturing to create a sense of drama or sadness: all the dialogue is just right, sometimes driving the story forward, sometimes just filling in a gap in how we understand the characters and the socioeconomic background. This is very good, and I am looking forward to acquiring and reading the second volume, but I’d like to stress how much of a complete experience this slim album really is. I’m currently also very excited about Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, but every 120 page trade feels like half an episode, half a story, just dragging me along in a half-glimpsed plot (I really love Lazarus, but that’s not the point). Trondheim’s pacing is much different – a book by a writer who is correctly admired by many readers of comic books.

The most remarkable scene is just one page somewhere in the middle. Maggy is in the supermarket as she notices a man stealing a package of cookies. Outside, she catches up with him and asks him: why did you steal these cookies? Why not the much more expensive kind, the artisanal cookies? He answers: the camera would have picked him up stealing those cookies. That’s it. The book moves on and doesn’t return to the cookie stealing, shop-lifting or this particular thief. There is no sense of overdramatizing it, but Trondheim needs it to illustrate three different points: the commonness of crime, and how much it is woven into the way poorer people make ends meet (stealing food always has important literary connections, to Hugo and others) is one element. Another is the pragmatics of crime – there is no romanticization of criminals or crime. You take what you can get, when you can get it. Crime is not a story of elaborate ego-pleasing capers. It’s a question of survival for many people, and not an evil deed, but part of pragmatic evaluations. Both of those points are relevant to the larger story of the book, and the small observation of the cookie theft ends up offering a metaphor of sorts for the other crimes committed in the book and the other criminals portrayed in it. There are criminals who we meet as criminals, and criminals who turn out to be criminals as the plot unfolds, and criminals who are not particularly criminal after all. We don’t hear about all of their motivations, but this one page with its story of cookie theft compromise serves as an illumination of everything else that happens in the book. And Trondheim and Oiry do all this without offering us an explicit summary or moral, and they manage to sidestep the saccharine melancholy of many American comics this reminded me of. I mean, it’s interesting to me how similar many scene set-ups are, especially when compared to the most similar francobelgian comics I can remember reading. And yet, the difference to Ware, Burns, Tomine and company is so striking, that it’s hard not to see the distance as intentional somehow.

Some of this difference, surely, is owned to the female protagonist. Trondheim’s Maggy approaches many portrayals we know from other media, but Trondheim sharply differentiates her from them. First of all, this is a story about Maggy. I’m a bit worried about the ending and what it could mean for a second volume, hut taking just the first book, Maggy’s main motivation is – well, it’s Maggy. Maggy is unemployed but scrappy, trying to make her way. The story is started when she gets a job in a private detective’s office, though that job quickly turns sour. You could imagine a Maggy existing in a Chandler novel, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the books, at all – noir protagonists are usually oblivious to the role and presence of women who are not either attractive or rich, and Maggy’s attractiveness is not of the glossy noir kind, and she’s certainly not rich. She picks up something that doesn’t belong to her, and foils whatever plan her alcoholic gumshoe boss had, and you can imagine him seeing it as a nuisance or bad luck and moving on at his job that apparently involves real crime, as well as the riveting case of a cat that ate a canary (literally). One of the emotionally most affecting turns is not Maggy’s connection to a man, but a connection she built to a female police officer, and one of their bonding moments involves the examination of (subpar) men at a bar, and the groping of men with the help of a trick. As a scene later shows, Maggy is attractive enough to distract men during the commission of a crime, but her attractiveness isn’t the point. She’s charming and intelligent, but that isn’t the point either. She has a manic pixie dreamgirl-like effect on a man, but that doesn’t define or limit her character, and it doesn’t dominate the book either. Maggy is just Maggy and for her, sometimes, “winning just means not losing.”

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Notes from Boston (III)

So I had notes for two more “Notes” but somewhere at the conference venue I lost my notebook full of drafts, notes and poems, which isn’t great, but there you go. I lost some of my notes on theory and things, and so, sitting here in Bonn, note-less, very, very exhausted and in a bit of stress, my Boston trip mildly merges with the day I spent in Amsterdam during my layover on the way home, and I have to type this very quickly straight into WordPress so I hope it makes sense. (Notes from Boston Part One and Part Two)

But here you go: I have personal interest in, and written about, memory. Boston is an interesting town that way. Much like Amsterdam’s central parts, Boston’s central parts are basically a celebration of its past, with extraordinarily old buildings, rich in history and memory. Some of that memory is difficult, but Boston doesn’t insist in discussing the issue with you. Take Boston Common. Across the street from it is the Mass. House of representatives, or rather the Massachusetts State House, as the building is called. Right there where Boston Common and the State House meet, separated by a street, is the Robert Gould Shaw memorial. Lowell describes this permanent encounter like this in “For the Union Dead,” a poem everyone’s probably read: “A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief.” Shaw’s regiment, as you can glean from Lowell’s lines, was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. They weren’t paid the same and, of course, not treated the same afterwards. The monument is a reminder of the sacrifices paid in war by people the country treats badly before, during and after the war. This of course continues in the US. Did you know that Mexican immigrants are “allowed” to serve in the US Army and are then often nevertheless deported? For a country that prides itself on its hollow war machine and guns and all the obscene patriotism, this treatment of actual US veterans is bizarre. And the Shaw monument shows how far back this goes. And yet, as I suggested in my first note, I am not sure it has a real impact on the city. Lowell writes “Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat,” but walking through Boston for many hours, it doesn’t seem like it does.

It is a strange assemblage of power and memory in that city, driven by the need to venerate the powerful, and the problem with having a history partly built on revolution and fights for civil rights. There’s not much “sticking” in people’s throats if you remember ROAR and other violent protests against desegregation in Boston. “The Soiling of Old Glory” is a particularly powerful image of, well, Boston, really. This happened all over the US, but the combination of elements seems typical of Boston. Boston has given up on busing today, but even when desegregation was declared a success, some schools remained segregated, but that was fine, Boston’s courts declared, because “the racial imbalance is rooted not in discrimination but in more intractable demographic obstacles.” – Which, I mean. I can’t currently locate my copies of Mike Davis books, but I wonder whether there’s an equivalent story of Boston to Davis’ narrative of Los Angeles and its shifting interests of power that moved poverty through the city. Much, also, in the area of Boston that I lived, reminded me of Davis’ discussion of an “informal proletariat.” Without wanting to misuse both of these writers, I think one interesting aspect of Boston is that it has not become one of Deleuze’s fields of becoming, of possibilities. Boston’s racially segregated areas are more like Geertz’s “splinters.” Maybe it’s not a huge surprise that some of the theories of global assemblages that came out of the current re-evaluation of Deleuze’s work, particularly his seductive, but vaguely defined term of “becoming,” are often connected to personal or academic privilege; I mean there’s a lot of criticism of class and race that seems quite oblivious to the writer’s own position in these issues. I think writers like Davis have a much more accurate and unromantic view of the structural strictures of power. Agamben doesn’t necessarily apply here, because black life is clearly circumscribed by power. But then, there’s Shaw’s regiment. Or, in central Amsterdam, the prostitution. Prostitution there, as in many places, is often /though not always) based on an exploitative model, and has always had an odd place regarding legality. As a tool of patriarchy, the industry has always come close to what Agamben describes as “bare life” (incidentally – I wonder whether there are studies on how to apply the first three books of the “Homo Sacer” project to prostitution). In Netherlands, prostitution is legal, but there are around 7,000 trafficked women there, including many in the so-called “window prostitution.” The popular red light district in Amsterdam, 5 minutes by foot from Amsterdam Centraal, is dotted with brothels, and women who present themselves to an international male audience. This physical transparency doesn’t lead to more safety necessarily. And there’s an odd phenomenon that I haven’t noticed last time I was there. There was always the odd encounter of the brothels surrounding Oude Kerk, the big old church in the middle of the red light district. Now there are a few bars that are advertised on being in the rooms of old brothels, and a “prostitution museum” right next door to sketchy looking brothels. The ideological structure of museums is replicated by the streets surrounding that specific museum, in a strange assemblage of power, ideology and patriarchy. Amsterdam’s old houses represent the country’s connection to (and profits from) colonialism, and the foreign prostitutes, 7,000 of which (it bears repeating) are trafficked, mirror the same thing on a smaller level.

Lowell’s comment about the Shaw memorial representing a “fishbone in the city’s throat” contrasts to Berryman’s much longer poem about “Boston Commons.” At that period, Berryman lacked the sharpness and instinct of his later poetry and the poem, in all its meandering length, lacks Lowell’s view of history. It’s difficult to write the poem Lowell wrote any better than he did. But Berryman’s poem achieves something else. Into the faux-heroic platitudes, and the silliness of lines like “(q)uestion / Your official heroes in a magazine,” Berryman mixes, in small doses the questioning, confused mind of a middle aged man trying to grapple with everything. The poem is bracketed by “the impressive genitals / Of the bronze charger” and a slumped, lifeless body. The tension between Shaw’s memorial on one side of the street and the State House on the other is resolved by the two poets in different ways. Lowell offers a broad historical view and a criticism of the city and its history. Berryman doesn’t have that in him. But his confusion is more true, I feel to the reality of Boston I saw, and this applies to Amsterdam too. Somehow, both cities have inoculated themselves against the bug of criticism as visible in the way the cities support these intense tensions within less than a minute of walking distance. But they have not moved on to a clear, clean space. They are suspended where Berryman’s poem is, in the darkness of ideology, and the pushing forces of ideology. Erik Wolf writes about how ideology transmutes class difference and how it asks for minor histories to be folded into the larger history of a people or a country. In an interesting way, Boston, by resisting the global assemblages, by refusing to turn into a Deleuzian Body without Organs, does an enormous job of retaining the structure of power. An open air museum, repressive, but beautiful.

Notes from Boston (II)

I find Boston an odd city, beyond the way that the center of it is intensely European. I have difficulties “letting go,” i.e. not working on some project or another, doing research, writing, something like that. I came here to present a paper and as I am wont, I spent much of the previous days rereading sources, cutting and adding some 1000 words. I don’t know how it turned out but what I do know is that now I have “nothing to do” – and I am bad at just relaxing. And I dislike densely planned touristing. What I instead prefer is a kind of dérive. I like feeling out cities by walking in – not a random motion, but one mostly inspired by quick decisions, attractions and angles. People around me don’t like it, but it is my preferred mode of discovering cities. Boston, however, is strangely resistant to it. There is the area where I am staying, an area of large grids, but interesting situations. But “downtown,” between Copley and Harvard Square, and between Packard’s Corner and Boston Harbor seems strangely resistant to that and I am not entirely sure why. Here is the oddest thing about this – sometimes this city makes me think of London. I mean, London is my favorite or second favorite city, and sometimes, when my mind is wandering, my brain prompts me to expect a London landmark. However, I love drifting through London, even with suitcases or tired, or when stressed. London, to me, opens up that way, almost as beautifully as Moscow does, my favorite city to drift through. And yet, despite the similarities, I do not get the same feeling from Boston. None of this is real or objective, but there you go.

Notes from Boston (I)

I suppose this is true for many cities, but it is remarkable nonetheless: I am staying in a part of Boston that is roughly 30 minutes by bus away from downtown Boston. The area I live in is majority black. I say “majority” but I’ve looked at the clock: it usually takes ~25 minutes until I see the first white person on the bus or on the street, the first person, that is, that isn’t me. The difference to not just downtown but even just the parts that are more equally split is stunning. Just the way healthcare is delivered alone – and the astonishing frequency of churches, many of which are just inside regular houses. On the bus route I am taking there is on average one church per block. But also the poverty. Many of the bus stops are near clinics or “health centers,” and I see people entering and leaving. A disquieting visual, certainly, and it reminds me of how rarely truly open questions about economics are raised here. Someone once said that debates about racial justice, and policing are supplanting debates about economic equity in the US and sometimes, in Boston, it seems like those people are right. In the most affluent part of the center, just off Commonwealth Avenue and Boston Commons, on and around Newbury Street, there are a handful of churches, all of which have banners proclaiming (sometimes in arabic script) that refugees and Muslims are welcome. Two unitarian (I think?) churches even hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner in their window. And yet I wonder how concerned these same churches are about the lack of economic opportunities for the black people whose lives supposedly matter, how concerned they are with the fact that Boston is among the most segregated cities in the country. In an hour, I will get on that bus again, and will take a trip through a part of Boston that many Bostonians I talked to said they wouldn’t set foot in. They say it’s because it’s dangerous. What they mean is, it’s because it’s black.

Silence? Broke!

I’m sorry for the relative silence here. I’ve been finishing my PhD draft and several conference papers and am generally trying to find some financing for said conferences which isn’t looking great, so this is all a bit stressful. Too broke to blog, is, I suppose, the summary of this blog post. But I have a bunch of book reviews in the pipeline. June should be better. I’m giving a paper on Pasternak in Boston this week and I can see a review of Dr. Zhivago coming out of the whole stressful mess. 🙂 So, stick around, come by now and then and maybe you’ll be surprised. 🙂 Have a lovely week. PS. SHould I blog from Boston?

A short note to my Mother

I feel like I should tell you this but you are not someone who likes this kind of soppy sentimentality, so I am saying it here in a language you do not understand.

Today I talked to you on Mother’s Day and you expressed your feeling of maybe not having been a particularly great mother. I cannot possibly stress enough how wrong you are.

I have always had difficult emotions, have had emotional and personal conflicts that have led me all the way to a mental hospital. Through all this time I have been able to rely on your love. We all have in our family. For the longest time, my idea of love and family was a group of people that stick together even through the worst trouble, who may argue and fight, but who, ultimately, stick it out. That I lost it isn’t your fault. And these days, as I am slowly regaining it, I lean on your love, even at my advanced age.

I have never quite fit the categories and expectations placed upon me. Uncomfortable with professional, religious and gender categories, I have never felt pressure at home to conform to any particular role. The only thing you always wanted from me was my happiness. I cannot tell you how important that was to a strange teenager who read books on trees, secretly used nail polish sometimes and is erratically agnostic in his religious beliefs.

I have needed protection from my father in various ways throughout most of my life – and I have always been able to rely on you to provide it; even when I should have been able to protect myself, at least emotionally, you had my back, literally. In our small family, our almost claustrophobic family life, you created room for me to be safe, to be myself, to simply be.

You don’t know that I am a poet today, but I wouldn’t have been a poet without you, without your example of being willful and creative. I couldn’t have pushed past reasonable limits into trying to still work academically and poetically without having you in my life whether you know it or not. I have always tried to make you proud, even if you don’t know.

From you I learned how to love, how to be myself, how to persevere even in the most difficult situations. I am currently tangled in the manifold webs of your native language which isn’t mine. I don’t know whether I can ever truly communicate as clearly with you as I wish I could. As I appear to be the most healthy member of my family, despite all my unhealthy habits, I am terrified by the idea of losing you. I cannot possibly express my gratitude for the enormity of your influence on my life.

Thank you, mom.

Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury

Greg, Wioletta, Swallowing Mercury, Portobello
ISBN 978-1-84627-607-1
[Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak]

Look, it’s not that I regretted reading this book; it was, after all, fairly short. On the other hand, I’m not particularly elated about the fact either. The novel by Wioletta Grzegorzewska (who writes under the name Wioletta Greg) is fine. It’s okay. Swallowing Mercury is a solid entry into the canon of books on growing up. Much like many books in the genre, it’s written in short vignettes, which largely center around the way the world of things shaped this young Polish girl’s early life. It’s actually quite remarkable how overall pleasant this book is despite the decidedly unpleasant things that have apparently happened to Greg’s protagonist, young Wiola, including sexual assault and the death of her father. Part of that impression is due to the calm voice of the protagonist who talks about her life with a kind of detached air of curiosity and equanimity. Much of the book follows story-lines we probably expect from this kind of fiction. The overlap of objects and bodies, the examination of religion in her life, some elements of village humor (a trickster figure, here, the grandfather) and grotesquery and some unpleasant evocation of the discovery of sexuality. The incipient dullness of it all is forestalled by the author’s deft use of these elements and her intelligent connection of various elements, making the novel resonate with its themes again and again. The book is well written – or maybe well edited, that’s hard to tell, because all of the skill in the novel is structural. The writing is lamentably flat. Since I don’t know any Polish, I cannot tell whether the dullness of the writing is the author’s fault or the translators, but the novel exemplifies the worst qualities of so-called sparse and simple writing. Writing simply is, as I probably said before, much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose. Swallowing Mercury’s prose isn’t always bad, but it is always inconsistent, and never particularly interesting. This is the kind of prose narrative where one gets the distinct impression that the author (or the translator) wasn’t extraordinarily interested in how the book works on a sentence by sentence level (in contrast to “genre” writers like Brian Evenson, by the way). This is not necessarily bad, but when that approach is wedded to a “simple” style, the result is not particularly enchanting. And in a book that uses so many well-worn elements, with political asides sometimes awkwardly shoehorned in, the writing is particularly important. As it is, Swallowing Mercury is a light, pleasant read. You won’t regret it, but with so many other books to read, I mean, why would you read this one?

Wioletta Greg is a poet, which makes me think the blame for the writing should be placed at the feet of the translator maybe. But maybe I’m just a bit put out by the “Translator’s Note.” Usually that note explains words and terms, explains why certain choices were made over others, sometimes maybe some background is offered, but in this case, the “note” is basically like a regular afterword, offering a cohesive reading of the book in light of its political and historical background. It doesn’t just explain facts that are unclear to the reader who isn’t well versed in the history of Poland in the 1980s, it also explains and elaborates on suggestions that are clear to the reader. The only real “translator’s note,” i.e. the only remark that discusses her work on the novel, is a short paragraph towards the end: in it we discover that the book’s title, which is also the title of one of its chapters/anecdotes, wasn’t the title of the book when it was published in Polish. It was, in English, “unripe fruit,” which, in hindsight, makes a ton of sense, as the novel consistently alludes to its title directly and indirectly. After I spent an hour reading a book and connecting its various elements to the title and that specific story in my head (after all, it is a book that asks for, even requires this kind of reading, spinning a web like the holy spiders that recur in the novel), I was a bit put out that the structure I imagined was created by the translator or the publisher or both; who knows. So maybe that’s why I suspect a sloppy translation here rather than a carelessly prosaic writer.

The book has two main themes threaded throughout: one are the fruits of the (original) title. Ripe and unripe fruits are present in many moments of Wiola’s life. The sticky juice from raspberries is smeared over her face as she first meets her father after his release from prison, she is arms deep in sour cherries when she meets, dirty and disheveled, an ex-boyfriend at a fair, unripe fruit are eaten, strawberries and finally, her father, who leaves her again at the end of the novel, tells her he always considered himself an unripe fruit on the inside. There are echoes of fruits in the way the body treats bodily fluids and other wet things, most remarkably, her period and the mercury of the (English) title. The insistent, and sometimes quite gently and skillfully done, mirroring of different elements connects these various things in sometimes powerful and interesting ways. The book begins with various Catholic rites, but never allows religion to be a transformative element. Neither eucharist nor confirmation are accorded that place – instead, we have Wiola “swallowing mercury,” an element associated with transformation, and we have the pagan webs of various juices and fluids that are involved in shaping this girl. It is accidents that push her to become who she is. This novel is very emphatically not a Bildungsroman. Wiola is nudged, pushed, and she demurs, acquiesces, follows the paths suggested by others. Not until the very final page do we see her make a firm, autonomous decision, and even then, it is presented as Wiola choosing one current to drag her rather than another. In this, Wiola is certainly her father’s child – he still considers himself an unripe fruit, internally. If you start reading a novel about childhood called “unripe fruit,” as polish readers of the novel did, the expectation is to see the fruit ripen, expectations formed by many other books in the genre. But, the novel suggests, maybe some people always remain unripe fruit inside, aging only outside, from the years and events that the world has forced on them.

The second theme of the novel is the father. His presence and absence form, more or less, the beginning and end of the book, and his travails offer the book’s most potent metaphor: taxidermy. Wiola’s father is a passionate taxidermist, who cannot keep up with the dead animals in his house. As we learned in the 1980s from Donna Haraway’s magnificent essay on taxidermy (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), modern taxidermy was put in the service of realism, of creating the magic of epiphany from within the world of modern man’s tools and concepts. If I don’t misremember, Haraway insists that this is a continuation of the enlightenment-borne attempts to contain and categorize nature, but to offer, to the audience, a magic situation that appears to remove all traces of man’s hand from the created product. It is creating a story and then hiding all the elements of creation. Wioletta Greg’s use of taxidermy as the father’s predominant metaphor (much as his daughter’s are fruits, ripe and unripe) is her most impressive trick. It allows her to connect the various single stories in the book, about childhood, about womanhood, as well as the single story of socialism, using the opaque figure of taxidermy as the connecting element. It is also an explanation for the novel’s refusal of the enlightenment genre of the Bildungsroman, built right into the narrative. In many ways, Swallowing Mercury is a novel about secrets, but really, it is a novel about that which we cannot know or contain. The animal elements of our world prove to be uncontainable for the father, who is poisoned by an angry critter; similarly, adulthood, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl, is something that is opaque. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t plan for it. You just go. Wiola, Greg’s protagonist, is pushed, and occasionally resists, but she goes on, inevitably. One wishes Wioletta Greg (or her translator) had found a better language for this the overall interestingly structured book. Grzegorzewska lives in England. Maybe she’ll write her next novel in English and allow us to take a full measurement of her achievement as a writer without the tempering pen of a translator.

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Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die

Chessex, Jacques (2009), Un Juif Pour L’exemple, Grasset
ISBN 09782253129615-4
[English edition: Chessex, Jacques, A Jew Must Die, Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN 9781904738510
translated by W. Donald Wilson]

I’ve long meant to write something about the Swiss novelist and poet Jacques Chessex, whose work I admire greatly. Today’s election pushed me to reread the last novel he published during his lifetime (it’s not his final novel, two additional novels were published posthumously), the searing and quite excellent A Jew Must Die. The sensational English title hides the matter-of-fact nature of the book. In French, its title is Un Juif Pour L’Exemple (~ “a Jew to make an example of”) and while some of the leading characters in the book are indeed subsumed by hate, the murder at the center of the book is based on political calculations, in addition to antisemitic hatred. The story had been told in a book and documentary in the 1970s (“Le crime nazi de Payerne – Un juif tué pour l’exemple”), hence the title of the original novel. The murder and its description is horrifying, but this is not about the murder per se. Chessex wrote a novel about the village he was born in and the social context in which a murder like this could have arisen. The novel shows us the complacent, maybe complicit village population, and a police force that doesn’t particularly care about the fate of this missing Jew. The reaction to the novel’s publication, finally, that treated Chessex with anger and derision, confirms the quiet anger that spurred Chessex to write a book about an event that both anticipates the Shoah and exemplifies much that led to it. Chessex’s writing in the novel is excellent, using a nominally neutral, sober style, but infusing it with passion, with occasional cascades of rhetoric and description. The description of the murder, with its three entrances, like a dark mirror of a fairy tale quest, is terrifying and compelling. Everything about this novel, except for its size, is enormous; towering above it all is the conscience and care of Chessex and his literary and historical conscience. I don’t think it is his best novel necessarily (from the ones I read, I think both L’Ogre and Hosanna are slightly better?), but it is a very good novel and certainly better than most fiction that is published about the Shoah these days. Chessex was a great writer and this novel shows why: a sharp intelligence, sense of style and conscience combined to create this dense but essential book. I have not read the translation, and while the change in titles makes me worry a bit, the novel doesn’t pose obvious linguistic puzzles, so I can’t see why the translation shouldn’t be fine. Read this book in whatever form you can find it. It is very good.

A Jew Must Die is based on a true story which the inhabitants of the village in question would love to forget. It’s ancient history! tells him one of the antisemites he portrays in the book upon meeting him 25 years after the events (though this particular person regrets nothing). An ardent Nazi, an antisemitic priest, and some farmers get together and decide to murder a Jew as a sign to all the other Jews who are sucking the lifeblood from the country, as they see it. Chessex is clear to distinguish between the general opinion and resentment towards Jews, which is generally shared in the area at the time, and the gruesome murder of the specific Jew in the novel, which is undertaken in secret by a small group of people. They decide to make an example of one of the Jews and pick a local merchant. After murdering him (in a spectacularly written scene, as I said), they cut him up and stuff him into milk cans like the one on the cover of the English edition. I’m not really spoiling you here – Chessex doesn’t rely on that kind of suspense. He introduces the Jew who will be murdered pretty late – he’s more interested in the social and psychological description of the murderers. Villages being villages, eventually they are found out, and convicted to jail sentences of varying lengths. The antisemitic priest fled the country and moved to Germany where he was arrested after the war and extradited to Switzerland. Yet there is no sense of relief in that. No jail can erase the tragedy from history – and moreover, the fellow villagers, murmuring assent to calumnies hurled at Jews in bars and casual conversations, have not been jailed or even prosecuted, not having committed a crime in the conventional sense.

While the events have happened as described, and all the people in the novel go by their real names, Chessex never makes the documentary character of the novel into a character in the book that competes with the horrifying events described within, in stark contrast to the vain self-reflections in books like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I like less with every year that passes. My too favorable review is here. There are a few asides, some conversations with the reader about plausibility but they don’t serve to undercut the story, they just underline the authorial urgency that powers the whole novel. Chessex never discusses or cites his sources, but since he was a boy when the murder happened, and the principal actors all went on trial, he has access to both firsthand knowledge and an obvious source of documentation. Yet by not discussing this, we are not asked to admire his skill or ability to research or present the information, we are free to deal with the nature of what happened. He devotes one single chapter to reflections about himself and his motivations in writing the book, but he closes with remarks on the murder victim’s funeral. The self-reflections are primarily meant to assuage the writer’s guilt – not in inventing details, but in writing fiction about the Shoah at all. “Je raconte une histoire immonde et j’ai honte d’en ecrire le moindre mot,” he writes, and it is a testament to his writing that we fully believe that he feels conflicted and shameful about writing this book. In Binet’s book, an assertion like that would have smelled of a performance of shame, and yet in Chessex writing, it becomes part of the urgent fabric of the book. Writing about the events makes the author complicit, in a sense, but coming from the same village, going to school with the children of the murderers already puts the author in a difficult situation. The novel ends on a prayer for forgiveness and we understand. There are people who are able to shrug off the way they are complicit in the horrors of this world, and it never fails to stun me. Chessex goes down a different path: understanding what happened and why it happened is step one to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I may have reread the book today because of the possibility of Marine LePen becoming President of France, in connection with the French language of the book and the rural support of the FN in France. It seemed fitting. However. Chessex is a Swiss writer and the two books that most came to mind upon rereading this one are also Swiss. They are two plays by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, two of Switzerland’s best writers in all of that country’s literary history. Both spent a good deal of their writing life criticizing Switzerland, and criticizing the Swiss role during the Third Reich. Frisch’s play Andorra, read by practically all German high school students at some point, focuses on the mob mentality of hate, as does Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. Frisch doesn’t name anyone, in fact, his play is a thought exercise, not even naming Jews as the persecuted group, and Dürrenmatt’s play is even further removed from the historical background. Both, however, manage to describe with remarkable skill how volatile villages and small towns can be if given the right ideology and the right solution to perceived problems. However, their playful distance to historical events, the authorial insistence on cleverness and skill over historical urgency has always felt a bit off to me. If you look at Frisch’s reaction to and treatment of Celan, you should feel an even stronger sense of unease. Jacques Chessex wrote a novel that insists on the historical and local roots of the events that happened; you can’t abstract from the facts without losing some vital elements. Both Frisch and Dürrenmatt’s plays are important, but the extraordinary quality of Chessex novel becomes more pronounced when you compare it to the work of fellow French writers.

Chessex’s novel caused outrage in his home village. Insults rained, ranging from articles, speeches to a carnival float showing the writer pulling a bunch of milk cans out of which bones poked, in essence confirming much the author didn’t make entirely explicit. Payenne, even many decades after the murder, is still Payenne. There is a straight line leading from the events of the novel to us today, the contingency of history, and this book, quiet and angry, gruesome and sad, offers us a link. As a German, this link between 1940s hate and today’s population rings true, as does the wish to forget about history. My East German grandmother’s village used to have a small, but infamous concentration camp but nobody in the village ever mentions it or likes it being mentioned. It’s a village full of people complicit in unbelievable crimes against humanity where nobody ever talks about it, except to discuss tales of being sometimes hungry during war time. Today, the village’s youth is full of current or former neo-nazis and nobody sees the connection. German culture and literature performs shame, dishonest, with a slight self-righteous twist. It is what makes so much of German literature not written by immigrants so dull, as I’ve noted here and there. Care and honesty in this literature is rare these days. So as someone feeling the need for an écriture like that, Jacques Chessex’ achievement shines even brighter. Jacques Chessex was a fantastic writer and Un Juif Pour L’Exemple is an important, a great novel – and I’m not sure the title and layout picked by Bitter Lemon Press are entirely appropriate, but my misgivings are entirely overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for the fact that they translated this book to begin with. There’s also a movie out, directed by Jacob Berger. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy, virtual or physical, yet, but as far as I can tell, Berger includes the reaction to the novel as part of the movie’s story, which is an interesting and laudable decision. I cannot vouch for the movie but I can vouch for the novel. Read it. That is all. PS. If you have an idea how I can get my fingers on that dang movie, please tell me.

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My Personal Canon

Anthony (on Twitter as @timesflow) asked people on Twitter to talk about their personal canon – and since I am emotionally unwell today and can’t get anything done I decided to give this a stab. It’s hard, I love making lists as much as anyone and I admire a great many writers and novels, but I’m going to list the writers and books that 1) I would take with me if I had to move and get rid of 99% of my personal library or that I would immediately rebuy if my apartment burns to the ground and 2) had the biggest impact on me as a writer and reader. As a result this list skews more German and more towards older books, despite so many excellent books coming out recently. I’m also limiting myself to 20 fiction books, 20 nonfiction books and 20 poets because, I mean, you know. I’m also writing this in one sitting. I mean the list would probably look different tomorrow. Who knows. Finally, only one book per writer.

Writers

I have one exception: the following 15 writers I cannot possibly pick one book and skip all others. Their whole oeuvre is important to me, in different genres  and across many volumes (paradigmatic here is probably Thomas Bernhard who is one of my favorite poets, playwrights and novelists and whose books in all three genres I’ve been reading since I was a teenager). Not on this particular list, but on lists lower, writers where I do place importance on their complete work, but whose complete work basically fits into one book (i.e. Emily Dickinson, Hertha Kräftner).

  • Ingeborg Bachmann (Malina is the single novel by anyone. living or dead, that is most important to me)
  • Herman Melville
  • Uwe Johnson
  • Paul Celan
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Sarah Kane
  • Sam Beckett
  • Thomas Bernhard
  • Alfred Döblin
  • Christa Wolf
  • Heinrich v. Kleist
  • Elfriede Jelinek
  • Jean Rhys
  • Heiner Müller
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Gerald Murnane

Poetry

  • John Berryman
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Boris Pasternak
  • Hilde Domin
  • James Merrill
  • Cavafy
  • Delmore Schwartz
  • Hart Crane
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Peter Huchel
  • Rose Ausländer
  • Ted Hughes
  • Elizabeth Bishop
  • Philip Larkin
  • Ezra Pound
  • Christine Lavant
  • Thomas Brasch
  • John Ashbery
  • James Wright
  • Hans-Magnus Enzensberger

Fiction

  • Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
  • William Gaddis, Recognitions
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (narrowly didn’t make the list of 15 writers, because I dislike The Idiot)
  • Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks
  • Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (really, would be on 15 writers list above, if not for my dislike of early prose and Lot 49)
  • Don DeLillo, Libra
  • Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans
  • Proust, the whole Récherche, but particularly Le côté de Guermantes
  • Irmtraud Morgner, Trobadora Beatriz
  • Samuel R. Delany, Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (should probably be on the 15 writers list above)
  • Hans Henny Jahnn, Fluß ohne Ufer
  • A.L. Kennedy, Everything You Need
  • Henry James, Wings of the Dove
  • Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
  • Lawrence Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros
  • Josef Winkler, Das wilde Kärnten
  • Harold Brodkey, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
  • Patrick White, The Vivisector
  • Robert Walser, Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet
  • Hemingway, The Sun Als0 Rises
  • Yukio Mishima, The Sea of Fertility

Non-Fiction

  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
  • Wilhelm Reich, Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus 
  • Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen
  • Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
  • Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa
  • Thomas Browne, The Major Works
  • Adorno/Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung
  • Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
  • Louis Althusser et al., Lire Le Capital
  • James Clifford, Routes
  • Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man
  • Wilhelm Dilthey, Der Aufbau der Geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften
  • Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et Infini
  • Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
  • Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Soziologische Theorie der Erkenntnis
  • Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History
  • Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode
  • Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse

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

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

Strout, Elizabeth (2016), My Name is Lucy Barton, Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-7952-7

I’ve actually read this novel twice. Twice! And I am still not sure what to think about it. It appears to be written and conceived so clearly in many ways, with various structures and strictures in place to deal with some forms of sentimentality, a style that conveys emotionality and openness without lapsing into soft and soppy imitations of poetic diction, qualities I am particularly receptive to after trying to get through Janet Mock’s interesting but horrendously written memoir in the past week. And yet – particularly as the plot or rather the protagonist’s life story unravels (or develops), the book’s previous flirts with cute sentimentality (“And yet I think: nobody comes from nothing.”) become more of a foregrounded stylistic element or annoyance, depending on your taste. Yet even that is reflected in the book itself, which is on many levels a metafictional exercise about how to write the life of a woman in 21st century America. Thus, narrative structures in the text come to be equivalent to family structures in the plot, for example and it becomes hard to see any sentimental streaks in the novel as having an existence beyond signifying the stylistic element “sentimentalities” for the literary discourse of the novel. It is all very interesting, and in many ways very accomplished and honestly intermittently moving, even, but to me, it sometimes also felt like a very dull undergrad MFA course on how to write and not to write a novel about female experience in our time. I cannot tell from the author’s bio whether she’s ever taught a course like that, but this novel feels like a very didactic (but very nimble) result of a course of that nature. The way the novel looks at life, love, nature, family and art with the same didactic lens that it then also turns upon itself feels greatly like some 18th and 19th classics in the very development of the genre. So. Is this a good novel? Maybe? Will I read a new book by Strout? Probably not? Here’s where I stand: it does what it does pretty darn well. I may not care a ton about what it does. But a lot of people love it. You may too. I liked it. I think.

The split that passes right down the middle of the book – of intellectual thinking and sentimental wallowing is something that has been part of literary history for a while. There’s this recent-ish study on the legacy of Charlotte Smith by Claire Knowles that is very insistent on the difficulties of female writers and poet to deal with the charge of sentimentality and the attempts to get out from under it. The result can sometimes be a meatless over-structuring, as in Valeria Luiselli’s novel(la) Faces in the Crowd (see my review here). Writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the rich emotionalism of female life stories are on the other side of the divide, I suppose. And in the middle are books like this. Toward the end, the protagonist’s daughter says: “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it but when you live with someone for twenty years that is the novel and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” The last fourth of the novel is full of those kinds of remarks, peppered with “my dear daughter” and “my most tenderhearted daughter” – and despite all the emotional or sentimental value of these remarks, they are also serious comments on structure and on female life writing. After all, the novel’s very title invokes unreliable narrators like Moby Dick’s (who starts the novel with the invitation: “Call me Ishmael”) and a whole genre of biographical fiction. The split I feel dominates the book – it’s also right there in the book’s language. Much of it is clean and sharp, shepherding the book’s many small stories and memories into short chapters that never extend long enough for sentimental whimsy, but sometimes, usually compartmentalized into individual paragraphs, the book blossoms into small, warm, emotional dictums, analogies or just pure declarations of emotional loyalty. None of this really breaks with the overall structure and narrative, until the last fourth of the novel, which, in turn, is specifically framed as a text with a freer relationship to structure. And yet, despite this intellectual framing of everything, most of the stories in the novel are filled with life, plausibility, warmth, the kind of storytelling skill that Luiselli’s book lacked.

All of this is extraordinarily well controlled, in part, one feels, as a way to combat the generic expectations of this kind of book, the (feigned) autobiography of a female writer. In her study, Knowles cites a movie review by Philip Hensher, mediocre novelist in his own right, who reviewed the movie Sylvia. Hensher disapproves of the treatment of the two poets as equals with, perhaps, Plath coming out on top. “Hughes’ [story],” he writes, is “too complex and rich to be reduced to a weepy narrative.” Plath’s own life, however, isn’t granted the same complexity by Hensher. This critical suspicion is, one feels, one of the impulses driving My Name is Lucy Barton‘s construction, and at the same time, Strout isn’t giving in to the gendered critique – she offers an écriture that is both feminine and intellectually sharp enough to escape the charge of being a mere “weepy narrative.” In this, I feel, the main intertext here is The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s classic novella, a terminal illness leads the protagonist to reevaluate his life. His relationship to his family, to his own life, to progress, all of these things get an airing, and none of these things fare well as Ivan Ilyich shambles towards death. Yet as he comes to accept his family, comes to see his life and theirs with compassion, the fearful presence of death disappears. The central conceit of Strout’s book is also a mysterious illness that ties Lucy Barton to her bed and forces her to reconnect with her mother. Most of the novel is set in the hospital room, with the relationship to her mother as the main storytelling impetus. Much like the elements of the room, the illness and the restricted choice of visitors shapes Lucy Barton’s life, these same elements shape the novel. The shortness of chapters, the sharpness and sometimes simplicity of the writing, the resistance to sentimentality, they can also be read as symptoms of the cautious, insecure relationship of the protagonist to her mother. In other words, the cagey, resistant kind of writing may reflect a resistance towards a certain relationship with motherhood and feminity, and as the character connects with her mother, so the book connects with a different literary tradition, leaving critical suspicions behind as we, in comparatively few pages, catch up with the rest of Barton’s life.

This, of course, also has a literary tradition. I believe it was Teresa de Lauretis who coined the term “the maternal imaginary” for the wave of books of fiction, poetry and literary criticism that explored the relationships of female writers with their mothers, often explicitly meant to provide a counternarrative to Harold Bloom’s Portnoyian obsession with writers and fathers. In one of her last books, Barbara Johnson suggested that poetry is an attempt to hear the voice of the mother, and it is surely no accident that My Name is Lucy Barton is a story about a woman writing her life, who, in the story, meets a writer who teaches her some fundamentals about writing, and who, for the largest portion of the book, finds herself locked into a small room with her mother, forced to talk to her, listen to her, re-assess her memories of herself, her life and her marriage. And in a book that isn’t exactly short on metafictional narrative devices, the central one is one of the most famous ones: a serious lingering illness. Susan Sontag wrote a whole essay about the way illnesses are misused as metaphors for all kinds of things, including narratives of “strength and weakness.” Particularly relevant to Strout’s novel are a few remarks by Sontag regarding illness and cities: according to Sontag, “[b]efore the city was understood as, literally, a cancer-causing environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer.” This connection of city life with a false, unsustainable, unconnected, unnatural life is maintained in Strout’s novel, as well. That’s also where the main connection to the “maternal imagery” of the novel is from: Barton is originally from a poor rural area, and many of the stories her mother initially tells are stories about people “back home” – reconnecting Barton not just to her mother, but also to her community roots, and, later, to a more natural, unrestricted kind of writing. There are more themes like this, the way the curious way the novel treats gay people and HIV, the way it works with insider/outsider figures, but after a while one returns to the initial impression: there’s a lot of stuff in here, and the book certainly has enough material for a whole book of undergrad essays, but the sum of it all, the controlled, hyper-determined way all the levels of the book appear to be examples and mirrors for other elements of the book on lower/higher levels, it feels too much like a textbook for an MFA course.

And going through reviews, this impression of mine may be my own problem. Certainly, many people only read the book on an emotional, emotive level. But that would, I think, underrate the author’s considerable achievement here. I don’t know that I like this book a lot – but I can certainly admire its execution. If this sounds like equivocating – it is. I wish I had stronger emotions about this book, positive or negative, really. But, apart from admiration for its craft, I don’t. I can appreciate it as a book in a long tradition that books like Claire Knowles’ have illuminated, and I can appreciate the nuance in Strout’s prose, but there’s a limit to my appreciation. I’m sorry if this has made my first review after a longer break a bit of an odd read but there you go. I think you should read this novel, if you care at all about the themes I laid out. That’s it.

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Happy New Year, Everyone

15780902_10211866012072810_2728734389601758620_nHave a great 2017 everyone. I’m listening to an Otis live records right now, drinking a lovely gin. Who knows how long I will be around, any of us really. Have a drink on me, on you and the new year.

Read poetry, write poetry, read books, punch a fascist, you know, you do you next year.

Love,

Marcel

My Year in Reviewing: 2016

dsc_3252So after posting 26 reviews last year, I happened to post the exact same number this year, despite some quiet months without reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary. I wrote about three very notable books that I didn’t get around to reviewing (but will probably review next year) here. If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.

Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist. Not a genius writer of comic books. Two more volumes coming early next year.

Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown. The less talented Dillon brother. The art is good. The overall impression is meh. His brother died this year. A genuine loss.

David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl. Terrible book. One of the top 3 worst books I read last year, overall. Dubious America-centric revisions to history that, given recent elections, seems somehow symptomatic

Brian Evenson: The Warren. Science fiction, I suppose? One of my three favorite books of the year.

Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me. Writing about depression while fetishizing the psychopharma industry.

Tomer Gardi: Broken German. One of the best German novels of the year, written by an Israeli citizen in his German language debut. Hilarious, sharp, brilliant.

Claire Gibson, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland: From Under Mountains, Vol. 1 One of my favorite comics of the year. Art and writing perfectly complement each other.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night. Quiet little book. Not as good as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. Won’t be reading more of his stuff, I don’t think.

Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat. Excellently crafted little story/novel/novella about a cat, Japanese modernity and a marriage.

Line Hoven: Love Looks Away. I’ve read a couple of German comics this year and this is easily my favorite. Will post a review of the thoroughly mediocre Kinderland by Mawil next year. Hoven’s book is smart, poetic and the art is spectacular.

Paulette Jiles: News of the World. Award-winning piece of Americana drivel. Good for a present for your badly read relative. Solidly done, enough to dazzle some. One of the worst books I’ve reviewed (if not read) this year.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian. Genuine, absolute masterpiece. There’s an odd connection between Kang and Evenson in how they approach physicality.

Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King. Swedish comic. Interesting, well made, a bit racist. Overall a recommendation.

Phil LaMarche: American Youth. Eh. So it’s MFA Americana fare with good ideas, but dull execution.

Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. Laroui is a profoundly interesting writer. In this I introduce you a bit to his work. Not a very popular review with editors (sigh) but in a reduced form, it’s done well on this blog this year.

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda: Monstress. Very good comic book. Among my favorites this year. Doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Tom King’s Vision or Lemire’s Descender, but very good nonetheless.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd. Overrated book. Overdetermined, too disinterested in the idea of making a story cohere.

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity. Otoo won one of the most prestigious German awards this year and she’s one of the most interesting German writers (she’s not German).

Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Overrated piece of crap. Genre fiction by the book. No surprise. Nothing interesting.

Fran Ross: Oreo. A forgotten American masterpiece. Read it. Now.

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan. Excellent, slyly complex piece of horror fiction. Deservedly considered a classic.

Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley. Bad novel, translated badly. No point in mincing words. Shame on the publisher who did a disservice to the cause of translated literature in English. Shame.

Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer. Crime novel from Japan. Exceptionally well excecuted, but appeals strictly only to people interested in genre, I’d say.

lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for. A novel written in shorter segments about growing up foreign in the US. This is very good.

Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune. A masterpiece of Japanese fiction. Truly astounding.

Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning. African novelist of genius, sadly deceased. Novel is very good.

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This has languished on the occasional fantasy discussion list, while it, and its sequel/prequel A Taste of Honey are really among the best books published this year. Tor inexplicably marketed this to fantasy fans; this should be read by all fiction fans, period. I’ve never wished more that a book had landed with a different publisher. FSG Originals, for example. They’ve been doing amazing work. I’ve read Kristin Dombek on Narcissism this year, weird fiction by Amelia Gray, and science fiction by Jeff Vandermeer, all published by FSG Originals. Well designed, well pitched. Wilson should be on many of the lists summarizing this year’s best fiction, yet he’s not. It’s hard not to feel Tor is a bit at fault for that.

Three Unreviewed Books

This has been a fairly good year for books (albeit not for literature as a whole, which is no longer allowed at the cool table, apparently), but not necessarily for me. Many books published this year – among them novels by John Wray, Nicola Barker, AL Kennedy, Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead, all of them among my very favorite writers, I have not read (most of them I don’t even own), let alone reviewed here (or elsewhere). There are three novels of note, however, which I do not wish to leave unmentioned this year. I’ve read all three, yet have not managed to write a review due to time constraints etc.

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1. Paul Beatty: The Sellout

I mentioned Paul Beatty in my review of Fran Ross’ underrated classic Oreo. Beatty’s debut novel did some remarkable things with language and myth, serving up a rich stew of poetry and politics. The Sellout is similarly rich fare, but more carefully calibrated. It is one of the best books of the year, whatever else you out on your list and it puts poor self satisfied novels like Paulette Jiles’ shitty one to shame which has no place on a best of list that also includes Beatty. Beatty touches on power, language, law, politics, and he does it all in an exuberant, poetic style that never lets up, that has no weak spots, nothing. Beatty is one of the best American novelists and this novel should cement his stature, if there is any fairness in canon formation (there isn’t). Read it, please. It may be too much, it may seem overwhelming, but I plead with you, persevere.

2. Rachel Cantor: Good On Paper

I have not read Rachel Cantor’s debut novel, but her sophomore effort Good On Paper is ridiculously smart, clever and, most of all: fun. The story of a translator who has given up on her craft, but is now, out of the blue, offered to translate the forthcoming work by one of the great poets of the time, feels a lot like comfort food for me, but without the bloating and unease. Reading it is a light and pleasant experience that touches on our knowledge of Dante, translation, poetry, with a hint of Celan and other poets like that. Honest to god, I have rarely seen a novel appeal this directly to what I find enjoyable. The writing is crisp and clean. I marvel at the impression of ease and fluidity that Cantor affects in this book that wears its complexities lightly. If you are among the three people reading this blog, I promise you will enjoy this novel, cross my heart. It’s impossible not to. Read this book.

3. Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen

Eileen is probably one of this year’s most overrated novels. Not because it’s not good – much of it is very good, and sections of it are remarkably well executed (read the first chapter for a masterclass on how to pull off an introduction to a character), but it was sold as a literary masterpiece, which it is not. It is not tight enough, not concise enough, not clear enough for that. And for a novel that eschews the literary pleasures of Beatty’s and Cantor’s novels, opting instead for a plain, sharply spoken style, it does not excel at that particular kind of writing, which is, admittedly, more difficult to pull off. On this blog I have repeatedly complained about the vicissitudes of writing simply. Moshfegh’s novel is elegantly structured, but ultimately does not rise to the challenges it sets itself to. And yet you should read it. Moshfegh does some interesting things with some very old narratives and structures. Whatever the problems with this novel, Moshfegh is a writer to watch who, in some moments, can truly make you gasp with admiration.

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Paulette Jiles: News of the World

Jiles, Paulette (2016), News of the World, William Morrow
ISBN 978-0-06-240920-1

img_20161213_091117“Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” – If you think this is a great sentence, many of my criticisms of Paulette Jiles’ novel in my review will not apply to you as a reader. You’re bound to maybe like it. News of the World is a widely-praised work of fiction after all, turning up on end-of-the-year lists, shortlisted for the National Book Award and more. The sentence I quoted, stylistically, isn’t atypical of the novel’s style. Certainly, much of the writing in the novel is deliberate, albeit without the care and elegance you’ll find, for example, in Brian Evenson’s most recent book The Warren. Deliberate – in a way that reminds me of the writing in E. Annie Proulx’ novels, of which William T. Vollmann has offered a thorough, accurate and uncharitable assessment this year. It is certainly the kind of writing that lures some reviewers and readers into calling it poetic. It is not, finally, all bad. News of the World is tighter, more well written and sharper than much of the seemingly poetic guff that gets turned out by many of the MFA institutions around the US. There is a sense of Jiles understanding her material, working with cliché and tropes to do something that’s certainly unique enough to deserve recognition. This is not a bad novel, but it is also not a very good one. This is partly due to the material – it is enormously hard to do something interesting with the Western that hasn’t been done before, and been done better. This novel in particular raises themes variously treated by novels like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers, or Lonesome Dove, and by movies like The Searchers. Jiles’ novel is different – that much is true, but it is not necessarily an important or worthwhile difference. In many ways, Jiles, writing in a genre that has been constantly modernized and updated in the past decades, offers a quietly reactionary take on many of the themes of the Western. I find it really hard to come up with reasons why you should pick up this book – unless you want an inoffensive book present. It is indeed largely inoffensive (though reactionary and mildly racist), mostly reasonably written and hits enough of the right emotional beats (think Lifetime movie) to offer a pleasant overall reading experience. If you are looking for a present for a colleague, this is a reasonable option. If you are looking for a book for yourself – don’t bother. I promise you you’ve read much better and there are much better books out there dealing with these same topics.

News of the World is set during Reconstruction and its protagonist, retired Captain Kidd (yes, very humorous) is traveling through Texas, reading the newspaper to audiences for a small fee. He makes a small amount of money but he’s not motivated by money – he likes informing his audience by giving them a good mixture of news from the US (“Texas Readmitted to the US!”) and stranger news from abroad, say England or the Orient, almost fairy-tale like news items. His readings are performances, and he selects and paces his news items accordingly. There is an interesting tradition on the nexus between the Wild West and performance, from the ubiquitous saloons and dancing, to the multilevel meditations on performance and reality of contemporary TV shows like Westworld. I’d also count movies like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, I suppose. One of the connections these texts establish is the one between creating narrative and creating a national narrative, but they always also introduce a moment of unruliness, the carnivalesque, interrogating with one hand the same national narrative that they appear to establish with the other. It’s worth looking at these movies and books in terms of these negotiations and each text resolves these tensions differently. News of the World is a bit of an oddity in this respect – there is performance in the text on so many levels, but the novel is also absolutely unwilling to allow for any kind of shifting knowledge loyalties. Kidd as the curator of news is absolutely sure that what he does is, performance aside, a fair and balanced account of the world outside. The most telling aspect of this is one night when he arrives in a city where two gun-toting hotheads live who are absolutely sure that the newspapers just have to be full of accounts of their heroics. They expect the famous reader of newspapers to include lavish, ideally illustrated, recitations of their (frankly murderous) exploits. Kidd declines and doesn’t read at all. The choice between embellishing his usual readings or to give a straight reading that endangers his life leads him to decline giving a performance altogether. Surely it is no accident that in these times of slanted news and partisan embellishments of facts, Paulette Jiles chose to write a book revolving around a man of impeccable news-related ethics. In some ways, Jiles’ Captain Kidd is the Civil War era equivalent of a curated Facebook news feed. In News of the World, performance doesn’t undercut the serious national narrative – the national narrative and the straight-laced seriousness of truth and history kneecaps the possible literary effects of performativity, contributing to the dutiful dourness pervading the whole novel.

It’s not that the novel is without humor, there’s quite a bit of it, but it is the gentle, chuckling kind, primarily connected to the second protagonist of the novel, the ten year old Johanna Leonberger, a girl abducted by the Native American tribe of the Kiowa and recovered by the US army. Jiles did a bit of research into the matter and apparently, abductees quickly developed a loyalty to their tribe and unlearned the use of English, extending to basic matters of pronounciation. The tribe Jiles picked for Johanna is the Kiowa who are unable to pronounce an . So throughout the novel we see Johanna either elide the consonant or replace it with an . That has some slightly unfortunate consequences for the novel because Jiles insists on rendering all of Johanna’s dialog, even when its protagonists understand it perfectly. Thus, one of the more adorable aspects is Johanna saying “KEP-DUN” when referring to Captain Kidd. The plot of the novel involves Kidd being paid to take Johanna from north Texas all the way to the south to return her to her relatives. On the way, Jiles insists on parading her trek of oddballs past a lineup of Western cliché, including a very drawn out gunfight. There is the sultry widow, the gunslinger and his Native American henchmen, and different well known varieties of Civil War vets. I discussed the Caprtain’s occupation before the plot, because that occupation is the only thing in the novel that does not feel like a mosaic of themes and characters, mildly remixed, but essentially untouched. If you have seen some classic Hollywood Western movies, you have seem multiple versions of these same characters. Jiles does provide some odd quirks, but they are mostly to do with pacing. A suprisingly large portion of the novel is dedicated to one long gunfight while half the journey is summarized in about ten brisk pages. This imbalance is also mirrored in the novel’s descriptions: Jiles provides very long, detailed, almost jarring descriptions of defunct guns; while I suppose it is possible to read these as reflections of the Captain’s limited mind, we know he has other obsessions, and we know he does not provide nearly the same amount of detail on these. In these descriptions, as well as other places, we find the vicissitudes of a historical novel and the research needed for accuracy. Jiles lacks the light touch with reseach that would make for an overall harmonious narrative. I mean, I’m sure it impresses some readers, as so-called historical accuracy often does, but in the text I found it odd – and not in a good way.

searchersposter-billgoldResearch also mars the issue of Native Americans. It is not just Johanna’s unfortunately rendered speech, which bears the marks of decades of racially charged use of language. The contrast of Johanna’s speech with the overall modern and clear speech of people around her is problematic. The whole thing is reinforced by research: Jiles’ conviction that the stories about abductions are right, and her thorough reading of them leads her to focus her novel mostly on non-Natives. Johanna, a girl of German ethnicity who speaks better German than English, is the novel’s representation of Indian-ness, in speech and behavior. She yells out the Kiowa war cry, she has to be physically restrained from scalping an enemy and she’s flabbergasted that she wouldn’t be allowed to bathe in the nude in the middle of a small town. She is curageous because the Kiowa are courageous and so on. The tired character tropes I mentioned previously have here found an ideological equivalent. We have all heard these kinds of stories. As a German, I know some of these stories from white Germans who have never been to the US, most famously Karl May (whose late work was adored by Arno Schmitt), a thief, liar and literary prodigy who wrote fantastical stories about courageous Indians and the white people who encounter them in wonder. Yet while the character archetypes Jiles uses are common throughout the history of the Western genre, Jiles’ attitude towards Natives is not very common among more recent novels. And by recent I mean most significant cultural output since the 1970s. Johanna is the Good Indian, and is contrasted not by one, but by multiple groups of Bad Indians. Dangerous Kiowa, plus the henchmen in the aformentioned firefight who are not just mean and dangerous, but also cowards, running away after hearing Johanna’s intonation of the Kiowa war cry. It is truly the oddest thing. The movie that is the closest comparison, The Searchers, from 1956(!), is a masterpiece with a difficult moral narrative. Its protagonist, played by John Wayne in arguably his best role, is an unabashed racist, someone who thinks miscegenation is evil and Indians having no place in polite white society. The racial politics of the movie undercut this character, and offer various gradations of other characters, including Martin, who is partially Native American and the abducted girl in question. The Searchers is genuinely interested in interrogating the nation-building narratives around race, which, as I said earlier, are so important to some aspects of the genre. And much as Jiles’ newsreader offers a contrast with that aspect, the novel as a whole also rejects the trajectory of the genre. In Jiles’ novel, white people are white people and Native Americans are Indians. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the novel of all colors (including Johanna’s relatives), but that’s never what nationalist narratives rely on. What’s important is the role of the other and as the novel comes to an end, the Other is safely banished, Johanna is married to a farmer and somehow, in their marriage and family, we can see a glowing image of Texas rising off the page.

Paulette Jiles is a Canadian poet, living on a farm in Texas, as far as I can tell and that means very little for the book. Her being a poet is not a boon to the language (unless you adore that first sentence), but then, Dorothea Lasky is a prizewinning poet and Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel prize, so, you know… And as for the Canadianness – somehow, comparing Jiles to some other excellent Canadian novelists who have written about the West, from Ondaatje to Kroetsch, one gets the feeling that living in Texas is more impactful for Jiles’ writing than anything else. There is nothing really redeeming about News of the World, outside of a general pleasantness of writing and tone, and, honestly, how an esteemed publication like LitHub decided to put it on a list of best novels of the year (and was slightly miffed the NYT didn’t do the same) eludes me completely. Maybe it’s me. But it’s not.

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Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune

Tsushima, Yuko (1983 [1978]), Child of Fortune, Kodansha
[Translated from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt]
ISBN 4-7700-1524-0

yukoSometimes accidents have interesting results: the only reason I heard from Yuko Tsushima in the first place is Jake Waalk’s essay on this blog. You can (and should) read it here. And so, almost by accident, I picked up her novel Child of Fortune, but really, if you’ll permit me the terrible joke, it was my ‘fortune’ that I did so. This novel is not like any other novel you’ve read. I know I say that a lot and maybe I’m just very discerning about the books I pick, but it is true in this case. Not, however, very obviously so, I have to add. Yuko Tsushima’s novel about a middle aged woman’s coming to terms with her daughter, her pregnancy and the men in her life contains many beats we expect of novels of this kind, particularly those published in the late 1970s, as Tsushima’s was. I don’t know the cultural context well, but Geraldine Harcourt’s introduction clarifies some points about it. Yet even so, the book’s effect and strengths are not dependent on being weighed against tradition and context. The book holds up fairly well on its own. It’s a truly terrific novel about physicality and the needs of a woman who is trying to navigate closeness, about motherhood and adulthood at the same time. More importantly, Tsushima writes extremely well, both in the way the novel is structured and narrated, as well as on a line by line basis. The latter effect may not be remarkable if you pick any line from a random page, but as you continue to read on, pretty much every time, you’ll notice small shifts in emphasis. Three, four sentences on, there’s invariable something that will set you back on your heels lightly. I could truly quote progression after progression from the book. This is of course not solely or entirely something that can be chalked up to Tsushima. Clearly, Geraldine Harcourt’s translation (without being credited anywhere on the cover, of course) is extraordinarily successful here. I cannot possibly judge how close she came to being faithful about the Japanese original text, but Tsushima’s novel is a celebrated, prize-winning novel in Japan, and it is truly excellent in English, so at least that has been preserved. What’s more, the text may sound a bit odd here and there, but it always feels like something belonging to the text itself. The novel never reads translated, it is a rich and full text as it is, without needing the sometimes condescending praise afforded to translations. It does not appear to be in print, which is a damn shame. You should read it and it should definitely be in print. Damn it, this should be taught in writing classes. I am not exaggerating. I’ve just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s celebrated debut novel and I’ll be damned if she couldn’t stand to read some Tsushima with attention and a notepad. As should we all. Child of Fortune isn’t flashy. Nobody dies, nobody is tied up in the attic, no great discoveries are made. It is a small narrative of a woman’s life for a few weeks and months. Yet the execution, and conception, of this unremarkable-seeming story are stellar.

Child of Fortune is, on the surface, fairly simple. It starts with Koko, a single mother, who teaches the piano and is not happy with who she is, and not on the best of terms with her daughter, who primarily stays with her aunt. The pressures of loneliness, of economic problems as well as the vicissitudes of keeping a daughter in middle school happy and in (fashionable) clothes are all taking a toll on Koko. Things come up in her life, and then go away again and at the end, she is, apparently, in the same situation: single, on difficult terms with her daughter, and in financial trouble. Through it all, Koko mostly maintains a placid emotional state, with a few exceptions here and there and so one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens in this book. Instead, what we find is a quiet revolution, a woman standing up for herself, even if she does it only internally, a woman stepping away from social pressures for a quick, ludic moment. Tsushima did not inscribe a future for Koko into the text, but the final moment, involving an invocation of play and childhood serves to inject a moment of deviance, of deviation into the text and the structures it struggles with. Koko rejects the “featureless but comfortable place known as ‘common sense’,” but the novel is not a triumphant resolution (or indeed a dark one). It feels more as if Tsushima has constructed a discourse on an ethics of self care in the novel and how the physical autonomy of women (or of that specific woman) plays into that. I could say it’s a discourse about self care in general, and certainly, parts of it read true to me, as a profoundly failed man in his 30s, but Tsushima’s novel is centered around pregnancy. The pregnancy is the disruptive event, the thing that triggers the ending, that threatens to change all her relationships: with family, her ex-husband and with her current lover. Remarkably, it doesn’t appear as if Tsushima works from any obvious literary patterns, this is not a play on a tradition, or anything. The novel reads like a genuine literary encounter with the phenomenon of pregnancy in a woman in her mid-to-late 30s, working through it. I do not mean to suggest meandering. Tsushima isn’t making up her mind as she develops her character. No, the thinking underlies the whole structure of the book. Every part of the narrative is tightly strapped onto the engine of the author’s thinking about pregnancy, common sense and physicality. Her protagonist, Koko, apparently, at first, a cog in the engine of common sense society, turns out to be more of a moving part, shifting slowly against a stiff background. The interior voice, both worried and aloof, both confused and surprised, plays a major role in this, as does the frequently surprising language. Tsushima manages to bridge the divide between a cerebral, intellectual novel – and a moving, immersive one, with admirable ease.

Now, all this said, I can hear the objections. After all, the 20th century has seen a vast array of novels about womanhood in a modern age come forth, many of them among the best books published in the past century. Jelinek, Elsner, Drabble, Jong, Lessing, I mean it’s an endless list of excellence. So what’s different here? The difference is that with Tsushima one has the feeling that a writer is finding new expressions for a situation, without relying on darkness, the grotesque or working within the contradictions of language. It is a subtle work that we are presented here, with contradictions, gently worked. One is Koko’s interest in sex. She “dwelled so fixedly on the existence of men,” and that “greedy desire of hers had indeed been there since childhood, differing little from an adult’s.” She loves her daughter and yet she “could never guarantee that she wouldn’t abandon her in some remote place if that were the only way she could have Doi.” Koko labels it selfishness, but selfishness, in the same chapter, also leads her to resolve to clear up a relationship. Koko’s appetite appears clear, “the molten lava of her sexuality,” but Tsushima shows us the complexities of that. She may have an affair with a weak, “plump,” boyish man, reminiscent of, for example, the husband in Gisela Elsner’s fiery feminist novel Die Zähmung, but eschews the simple rhetorical angles of this. Instead, she insists on her physicality being “misunderstood.” Men too often draw her into sex, and Koko wants to escape the limits of those relationships. Indeed, when she, somewhat by accident, seduces the eventual cause of her pregnancy, she finds it “hard to suppress a deep disappointment with [his] arousal – as deep as her joy at coming into contact with a human body.” Koko is both interested and disinterested in sex. The main problem with it, for her, is the way sex implies a certain sequence of events. She likes closeness, intimacy – mere fucking is not what she is looking for. She wants to break with the way things go, usually. It’s interesting – almost as if the novel itself interrogated this sequentiality of human relationships, without overtly breaking with it to the point of modernist collages or postmodernist fragments. The fragments are still there, but they are embedded in the expectations of how to write these characters. I found a brief 1984 review of the novel in WLT, where the reviewer expresses some irritation at the inconsistent characterization and the author’s insistence on not embedding the characterization in a normal narrative. This irritation is clearly something created by the author – much as Koko turns out to be a bit of an irritation to the people around her, the novel provides its own -subtle- thorn in the unprepared reader’s side. The untroubled, unhurried tone of the novel, which avoids (sometimes narrowly) cascades of obsession or anger contributes to this, even as it describes the protagonist being “shaken” by one revelation about herself or another.

Georges Bataille’s theory of religion starts on an interesting premise. It’s a comparison of humans with animals – or animality. Animals, Bataille writes, are in the world like water in water. Completely contingent, and nothing to shake them from it. Humans have tools. The profane, simple tool introduces exteriority into a world of contingency. In some ways, it strikes me as if Tsushima has examined the ties that bind female experience to the workings of the world and suggested a way, a tool of introducing exteriority, of prying someone loose. Why, she asks, do some people go on living despite an utter lack of a “compelling reason” to do so. Koko, looking at herself, cannot find “a single redeeming feature” and yet she’s shaken to discover “that the will to live is still there.” Maybe that is the theme of the book: finding, if not a compelling, then an acceptable reason to continue to live. The point is not political – it’s personal. Yet it is also about female experience in a world with sometimes cruel expectations of women, so it’s also political. Child of Fortune isn’t a long book, but it is very good. It contains its own contradictions, it is well narrated and paced. It contains, finally, some hope that there is a way to go forward.

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Marjorie Liu et al.: Monstress

Liu, Marjorie and Sana Takeda (2016), Monstress, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632157096

Gibson, Claire, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland (2016), From Under Mountains, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632159441

_20161215_142408Marjorie Liu is slowly but surely growing into one of the mainstream comic industry’s most interesting figures, at least for me. She is not one of the steady writers, who write creator owned or licensed titles every year, but she’s also not one of those novelists who dip a toe into comic books here and there like Brad Meltzer or China Mieville. Liu has only a few titles to her name, but they are all important and worth reading, working with Marvel characters like X-23 (who is the new Wolverine in the current line of Marvel comics) and the X-Men (where she engineered the first gay wedding). This year, she wrote Monstress, a creator owned comic full of gorgeousness and brutality for Image comics that I would consider one of the four most beautiful and original comics to come out of mainstream comics this year, two of which I will review here. The second one under review is From Under Mountains, co-written by Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland. From Under Mountains is a comic by a writer and artist who I never heard of and I don’t remember what made me preorder the trade, but I am very glad I did, because its story of war and peace, of spirits and men, is worth reading and rereading. Both it and Monstress have created their own mythology, both of them based in fantasy worlds other than the typical European medieval environments we usually find. And both comics are true collaborations between writers and artists that found a unique visual language for a story that is complex but also as simple as any myth is. Sana Takeda’s sumptuous, rich art, which barely requires Liu’s dialog, is just as essential for Monstress as Sloane Leong’s angular lines and flat colors are for From Under Mountains. Neither comic is without flaws, but I recommend both very strongly.

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The first page from “Monstress.” Protagonist gets sold off in a slave auction, naked and without an arm.

Monstress, despite the adorable young girl on the cover, is brutal. Its story is a rough retelling of the aftermath of colonialism, as it happens in our world, but heightened with myth and metaphor. Liu’s story is set at the frontline of an uneasy truce between humans and a world of magical beings, the Arcanic. The book’s events are informed by the brutal war that preceded the truce, with a horrifying calamity forcing humans to accept a temporary peace. Humans are superior in every way to the retreating world of magical beings, but the unspecified calamity has convinced humans that the magical army possesses a terrible weapon that they will deploy with unspeakable ruthlessness. The basic opposition of modernity and myth has played out in many stories and movies, but I’ve never seen it expressed in such a physical, grounded way. Liu’s characters are former or current soldiers. They bear the scars, inside and out, of war, and the traumas thereof. The politics of the world Liu portrays are full of shifting loyalties and betrayals – the horrors of war makes people change sides, hide secrets and offer cruel compromises. The most convincing element, however, is the physicality of it all. Like a handful of good writers, Liu’s concept of magic involves the bodies of its practitioners. Magic is an ability that is bred into people, it is in their blood, and using it is a physical skill. So far, so common. Yet Liu, writing a world of realpolitik and brutal war, follows through with her ideas, and invents a specialized cadre among humans, the Cumaea, the so-called nun-witches, who extract material from the magical beings through various methods, none of them pleasant. People lose limbs, by and by, to satisfy the appetite of the voracious human military apparatus, which is increasingly dependent on its magical cadre.

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A temple of the Ancients from “Monstress”

It’s easy to see these elements, as I said, as metaphors for acts undertaken by colonial powers in our world. The greed for knowledge and the piecemeal devouring of the native people are framed in ways that make them enormously fitting, and makes much of the book’s story ride piggyback on our cultural memories of war and colonialism. There is an emotional narrative, but the book only occasionally touches on it, with the biggest revelation coming as a cliffhanger at the book’s end. The main impact is, so to say, political. It makes us feel the cruelty and brutality of slavery, genocide and colonialism. Yet Liu interestingly balances these metaphorical effects, where she blends a thing in our world with a similar (but different) thing in the world of the book, with clashing effects, such as her interrogation of the role of women in our histories. Liu’s book is centered completely on its female characters, which has interesting implications, as has her use of the trope of the witch. Sana Takeda’s art is more than just helpful in all of this. She creates an overwhelmingly decadent visual language for the book, replete in browns and blues and gold. The décor seems sometimes Asian, I think, without really using orientalist stereotypes. It draws from multiple sources including fin de siècle decadence. It is impossible to express the enormity of Takeda’s achievement, who creates full landscapes and buildings, deep in color and rich in detail. Nothing is neglected, everything has the patina of history. Going through the book’s amazing art, you get the feeling that Liu had to write a story as harsh and impactful as she did, just to keep up with the extraordinary power of Takeda’s art nouveau panels. Takeda’s art mirrors the complicated strategies of metaphoricity that Liu pursues in her writing by offering art that is both recognizable and alien, giving us details that remind us of things we know, and elements seemingly plucked straight from a drawing room in 1900 in Paris or Shanghai.

dsc_3157Monstress is, thus, both beautifully disorienting and gloriously immersive. Just so we’re clear: it’s not a perfect book. Liu’s dialog is nowhere near as good as Takeda’s art and the contrast is sometimes not entirely pleasant, and Takeda’s art forces the book into a very slow pace, with its preference for big, immersive panels rather than quick story-oriented smaller sequences. Liu’s decision to drop us into medias res without long expositions adds to the book’s atmosphere, but also gives the reader an impression of having to catch up sometimes. But these are small quibbles in an overall greatly entertaining book. Small quibbles are also the only things I can mention on the negative side when it comes to From Under Mountains. I have not heard of any of its creators up until I read the comic, so the book’s quality took me by surprise. Much as Monstress, it does not offer any slow world building at the start, throwing us right in the middle of a court intrigue, a wizard’s scheme and the aftermath of a war, expecting us to catch up and add up all the elements to a coherent background. The writing is much sharper than Liu’s, but the story, despite its intrigues and complications, is simpler and not as complex as Liu’s, because Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland are not as interested in creating a similarly complex web of myth and reality, history and fantasy as Liu did. This may be due to the fact that From Under Mountains is a spin-off of sorts from a creative project masterminded by Brandon Graham, one of comic’s most original writers, whose run on Prophet is a breathtakingly brilliant science fiction comic. I have not read any comics from that project called 8House, since none have been collected into trades yet, but if Graham’s past work is any indication, they won’t be simple. Thus, it stands to reason From Under Mountains was conceived as a simpler tale told in a more turbulent universe. I don’t know. In any case, the simpler structure of the book is not a bad thing. And it just means less complicated than the byzantine world of Monstress. Gibson and Churchland have written a world that is not without its own complications and difficulties.

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full page from “From Under Mountains”

At its center are three characters, whose stories intersect: Lady Elena, daughter of the Lord of Karsgate, Tomas Fisher, a war hero with a dark secret past and a present full of debauchery and shame. The final protagonist, bleeding through the stories, connecting them, is a young thief who one night witnesses Lady Elena’s brother, the heir to Karsgate, get murdered by a spirit. From this murder, the three stories fan out. An impending war has to be prevented, the murderous spirit needs to be caught and personal demons need to be encountered and dealt with. Like Monstress, Gibson, Leong and Churchwell work with a large backdrop of history and intrigue and have no exposition to deal with any of it. In fact, the broader politics of the realm, with its apparently incapacitated king, its marriage policies and its way of dealing with supernatural threats, is barely touched upon in the pages of the first volume, simplifying much. Indeed, the clarity of the art and the less overwhelming politics of the book may give From Under Mountains an appearance of simplicity, but Gibson and Churchland approach narrative almost associatively. The three protagonists and some side characters slip in and out of their story so that when one of these stories, the arc of the Lord of Karsgate, is somewhat resolved, there’s a great feeling of narrative tension being released, with a myriad of other threads still in the air. The complicated arrangement of the protagonists’s stories makes for compelling reading in a trade but I cannot honestly imagine how this worked for readers of individual issues. The series appears to be on a hiatus for now, and if that had anything to do with sales, I can guess why. Much as with Monstress (and Prophet), this book appears to reap the benefits of a less tight editorial reign. From Under Mountains reads and looks like a completely realized artistic vision. The story is excellently orchestrated, and the dialog is much better – moreover, the book frequently contains silent panels, sometimes for several pages at a time, never losing narrative tension.

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Silent full page vision from “From Under Mountains”

Much as with Monstress‘s Sana Takeda, this book is unthinkable without Sloane Leong’s art. It mirrors the flow of the narrative, it sometimes provides the book’s only language and overall dominates the whole book. Leong uses panels very freely, using the whole page for her effects. All pages are set in specific pastel hues, and the space between panels, when there’s such space, is colored in that hue so as to increase the immersive effect. Leong’s control of pace is masterful. Her broad, flat art is very static, but she uses panels within panels and blending with other panels to create time and focuses on attention as needed. Whereas Takeda in Monstress prefers big splashy pages deep and rich in detail, Leong’s backgrounds are sparse, but the artist constantly zooms in on small details, giving panels to hand gestures, flowers, flying insects, creating a story that draws you in without overwhelming you. As you can tell, I clearly lack the vocabulary or training for these descriptions, but suffice to say that visually, From Under Mountains is at least as virtuoso a performance as Monstress. And this doesn’t even include the attention lavished on dresses (there is a primer in the back about the different dresses for the different classes of people in the book, from peasants to nobles) and presentation. The way the book presents gender and race, visually, is intriguing, and the creative team appears to have decided to move some of its ideas in that department onto the visual level rather than have a disquisition on those ideas in the story which is exciting but conventional. If you’ve read mainstream fantasy comics these days, the story may have reminded you, for example, of Anthony Johnston’s very good Umbral, but whereas Johnston’s collaborator Christopher Mitten is fairly conventional (if very good), the end result of From Under Mountains is much more unique. This makes it so puzzling (and intriguing to see, on the comic’s final page, that the next trade/issues with end Leong’s run on the book and Gibson will continue with a new artist.

Anyway. If you trust me, you should go read these two books. You’re almost certainly not going to regret it.

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Brian Evenson: The Warren

Evenon, Brian (2016), The Warren, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9315-9

warrenThe Warren is a short book – and one of the best books I read all year. In it, Evenson condenses a science fiction story about what it means to be a person, what it means to be alive, what it means to remember, into about 100 pages where not a single word is wasted. This is, in some ways, the antithesis to The Martian, a book which I expressed some misgivings towards in my review – the writing is that of“hard sci-fi,” but imbued with a strong sense of the stakes inherent in the topics broached. Physicality and the limits thereof are often used in fiction as toys, tropes employed by able-bodied writers whose imagination doesn’t stretch far enough to understand how physicality ties into language, memory and culture. Brian Evenson’s novel(la?) is almost painfully precise about the abyss of the body. Not to mention that Evenson is also an absurdly good writer. The writing is always sharp and manages to keep the reader moving forward, but Evenson is a genuinely good writer, line by line. His elegant and poetic writing is never obtrusive, but you can open this book to any page and find sentences that you’d like to show people: this is how you write! This is the first science fiction book by Evenson I’ve read but he’s written several and he’s clearly comfortable in the idioms of the genre, comfortable enough to burrow into them, and question many of its assumptions. It shares similarities with many sci-fi novels published recently, but easily outstrips them all. Evenson’s work that I have read often deals with religion and fanaticism, and without making it explicit, The Warren is certainly informed by that kind of thinking, by questions of truth and knowledge, and of the things we cannot speak about or don’t. This is the second time I find such a gem published as a slim Tor paperback, and all my complaints about design aside (read my review here), I am very impressed by whoever holds the editorial reigns here. You should buy this book, read this book, and then buy more copies of this book as a present for people in your life. This is almost certainly the best science fiction you’ll read all year and one of the best books, period, you’ll come across.

As I said before, I’ve read a couple of books by Evenson (review here and here), and interviewed him on Bookbabble, but I truly was not prepared for The Warren. Evenson’s work deals, I’d say, with the way communities control truth and certainty, at least in the books I have read, and he’s extraordinarily good at writing violence as something more than a transgressive action. There is a palpable connection of violence to the community around the violent event, and violent action is produced by less visible violence in the theology of the community, political and religious. I have always admited Evenson as a writer, but The Warren seems to be a high point even for him. The whole book is written in an interior voice, mastering it like few writers have since Kafka, from whom Evenson borrows some of the structure of the novella. Like we can’t all be Hemingway – we also can’t all be Kafka. In the hands of a lesser writer, that can get dull and formulaic fast – needing action and challenges to liven up the monologue. Not so here. While things happen, and twists are plotted, it is the interior voice that is the truly exciting part of the book. I cannot tell you “what happens” because discovering what Evenson has in store for his reader is part of the process. There are similarities between this book and The Girl with All the Gifts, a novel by comics scribe M.R. Carey. But Carey’s novel takes a unique point of view without being interested in what this means to language, self and contructions of reality. Instead, he quickly abstracts a few narrative parameters from his set-up and proceeds to unfold an extremely conservative zombie novel which gets more boring with every passing page. The early Deleuzian suggestions go by the wayside really quickly, and while he comes up with good ideas later on, as well, he treats them with the same intellectual incuriosity. Evenson’s interest, by contrast, is in the set-up. A person wakes up, tries to understand their environment, tries to understand their situation. The events of the book are not there for the events’ sake alone. Everything that happens sharpens the protagonist’s sense of their own situation, furthers their understanding, develops their sense of reality.

Despite its brevity, Evenson’s book contains multitudes. On some levels, it is a (blasphemous, I suppose) discourse on Creation, and in the purpose imbued in the natural world through Creation. It also offers, certainly, a gloss on various ideas of selfhood, and on the way we construct the world with set assumptions about who we are and who Others are. It is hard not to see in many of the book’s twists and turns an engagement with Levinas, who, in texts like Noms Propres, suggests that even in solitude, we encounter an Other. Leaning on a reading of Proust, Levinas unfolds before us the idea of a true alterity which is an absence, a reflection of a self, a strangeness of encounters with a mysterious Other. Not to mention Levinas’ ethics of the Other, the way that encountering another person creates an ethical situation in which we are not free. There are two kinds of encounters in Evenson’s novel(la) and he carefully shifts and adapts them as the book goes on. I can easily imagine a science fiction novel written from the point of view of another character in the book, enountered by Evenson’s protagonist, and that route is the easier one to take – exploration, not understanding, interrogation, not self-examination. Again, I apologize for being nebulous about the book’s plot and characters but it is such a rush, such a delight to have the book unfold as it does without knowing what’s coming that I cannot possibly take that away from you. Apart from Levinas, and maybe a Deleuzian sense of becoming, there’s also an engagement with theories of the body as found in the work of Butler and particularly Donna Haraway. How do we create our bodies, how does technology interact with our sense of self and how do we negotiate thinking and understanding with these augmented or remastered, altered physical realities. What does it mean to be complete and how much of what we consider selfhood is intricately connected to what we consider an intact physical form? Who speaks when we speak and to what degree can we separate our body from the tools we use?

Evenson’s discipline in telling this story is quite astonishing, There is no fat on the bones here – the story is all muscle fiber. There are no long expositions, no indulgent explanations of history and technology. Evenson explains things here and there, but only exactly as much as he has to for his readers not to get lost. And despite this, the intellectual and narrative density, the book is also emotionally powerful, almost exhausting, really. I sometimes complain about science fiction books. THIS is why I read science fiction. This is why I read books.

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Tomer Gardi: Broken German

Gardi, Tomer (2016), Broken German, Droschl
ISBN 978-3-85420-979-9

Gardi1This novel is German – its author is not. This helps, I think, explain why its author is one of the most vital German literary voices to emerge in 2016. Like Sharon Dodua Otoo, Gardi read a portion of his book at this year’s Bachmannpreis, and even more than Otoo, his reading caused the jury to debate questions of nationality and language. How German is it? What does it mean to write in German – what are the limits of nationalism when it comes to languages? Overall, Gardi’s text was one of the four or five best ones read at the competition, and so I was genuinely excited to read his novel, called Broken German – and I was not let down. Broken German is written in, indeed, broken German, and Tomer Gardi’s mastery of his invented idio/sociolect is profound and impressive. The writer that comes to mind most readily as a comparison is the Scottish master James Kelman. Like Kelman, Gardi is interested in the way language reflects on the personal, social and ethnic background of its speaker/writer. And like Kelman, Gardi eschews overly artificial literary games for the sake of literary one-upmanship. Despite all the metafictional comments scattered throughout this little novel, and the games with literary allusions, Gardi never loses sight of the inherent importance of using language in a social context. I suppose I must sound like a broken record at this point, but German literature has grown so dull in the last decade, repeating old patterns of self satisfied literary masturbation over and over that without the influx of immigrant literature, it would already have died a dull and boring death. Tomer Gardi and Sharon Otoo, neither of whom are German, are in the process of injecting this threadbare literature with a much-needed shot of urgency, awareness and stupendous literary skill. There is a joy in writing in this book, a sense of the worth of words, which almost made me applaud as I was reading its final sentences. Broken German is a deeply flawed, imperfect novel, and one of the best German novels of the past decade.

Tomer Gardi is an Israeli writer, usually writing in Hebrew. This is not, as far as I can tell, the beginning of a career of writing in German, and one supposes that part of this novel’s extraordinary power is derived from the author’s imperfect command of the language. To be clear: nobody really knows, as far as I can tell, how good Gardi’s German really is. When questioned, Gardi tends to tease his interlocutors, toying with them, giving us a performance that underlines how silly the question is, to begin with. Everything is inscribed into the book itself, which is never 100% serious about almost anything. There is a passage towards the end where Gardi gives his book to a friend who remarks that as Gardi’s German improves, the book suffers. I mentioned Kelman as a reference, but, really, I’ve never in my life read anything ressembling Broken German. Gardi’s novel is not written in a well-defined sociolect. There is no immigrant or deviant grammar underwriting it. No “Kanak Sprak,” to cite Feridun Zaimoglu’s famous book which invented a term for a turkish-German sociolect. The book is not written in Turkish (or Hebrew) German. It’s written in “broken German” – Gardi invents a language of mistakes. We are aware of two levels in his work: the spoken level, the broken language of immigrants, a mixture of deviations due to language of origin, and deviations aligning with certain sociolects common among German immigrants. What makes the novel such a success, however, is the second level: the writing. Intentional or not, the novel is wildly inconsistent when it comes to spelling German words. There is no consistent way mistakes are made, and any given word can be misspelled in a variety of ways throughout the book. What’s more, Gardi will sometimes misspell simple, short words, yet get more complicated grammatical and orthographic constructions perfectly right. The effect of this sort of randomness is an emphasis on the process of writing, highlighting the author’s social and political contexts even further.

poopGerman literature, with the advance of writers graduating from the MFA mills in Leipzig and Hildesheim, has increasingly moved away from acknowledging these contexts. Increasingly, German writers will produce literature as oblivious to contexts as some of the more laughable post-war writers did. Well-off, middle class writers creating a nationalist literature of Germans touring the world, uninterested in anything but navel-gazing. One of the most egregious examples is Fabian Hischmann’s debut novel. It was largely reviewed negatively in Germany, but it reached some shortlists and its author won multiple fellowships. It is impossible to overstate how bad Hischmann’s novel is. I’m singling it out here because, when it was published, it became a focal point for some frustration with MFA-style writing, exemplifying an écriture unconnected to experience for some critics. The book’s main flaws, however, are not unique to Hischmann or even to MFA writing. In it we find the sloppy prose that is a characteristic of a lot of contemporary writing, some of it award winning, and in it we also find the aforementioned insouciant treatment of countries other than German. Of course, this is not unique to Germany. There is plenty of French literature or American literature that treats foreign places with an unpleasantly ethnocentric condescension, but German literature has had a difficult to define quality about it that somehow made it worse. The best summary of this is a short essay by Rudolf Borchardt, an early 20th century conservative German writer, who published an anthology called “Der Deutsche in der Landschaft” and wrote an introduction wherein he claims that Germans have a particular knack for analyzing other countries, when, really, German literature, with a few notable exceptions, is full of strange phantasmagorias of the abroad. In Hischmann’s book, we are treated to an unpleasant trip to Greece, and an even stranger trip to the US, at the center of which is some odd fantasy of shooting up some drug dealers in New York with a gun purchased on the black market. The book is a mess, but the idea of Germans traveling to other countries to sort out the less rational, less intelligent, less literate citizens of those countries is incredibly consistent and common. Hischmann’s bad luck is that he’s a shit writer, but Bodo Kirchhoff, winner of this year’s German Book Prize, is a much better author and his awardwinning novel(la) is basically the same chauvinist fantasy.

This is the context in which Tomer Gardi’s book appears this year, exploding all these conventions and ideologies. There is no certainty here, and no concession to German expectations of order and hierarchy. It’s not clear what’s intentional and what isn’t, and this is written into the substance of the book itself. Tomer Gardi’s German turns on itself. He uses, like Jelinek, idioms and clichés in order to subvert the ideologies inscribed into German. He references Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in a novel that has a lot in common with that masterpiece, which both undercuts the seriousness of his plot, and reinforces the sense of density, urgency and determination. Early on, Gardi states that language is the focal point of his novel (but by stating this, instead makes the discourse about language and novels the focal point, of course), and laments it. And indeed, 1200 words into this review I haven’t even mentioned the book’s plot, because the language’s power appears to overwhelm the plot. What a plot it is, though! It includes mistaken identities, buried knives, lies, dead bodies shoved into closets and the question of whether a Jewish visitor to the Jewish Museum automatically becomes an exhibit in said museum. It includes history, truth and memory, it includes butchers with their arms up to the ellbows in the blood of murdered Jews. It includes a disquisition on authorship that may or may not be related to works like Philip Roth’s knotty Counterlife or the more sombre Operation: Shylock. And as I write all this I worry about over-analyzing this book – it is, apart from being dense and brilliant, also just a ton of fun. I marked 2/3rds of its pages. It is endlessly quotable and readable and rereadable. So it is all that. But it is also important.

gardi 2In this age of Trump and Le Pen and the German AfD, immigration has become an object of suspicion, and language (or rather: the correct use of language) has become one of the battlegrounds of the immigration debate. The disorderly language of the book, the “broken German,” is an attempt, I think, to decline to perform otherness without also assimilating. When Gardi read his excerpt at the Bachmannpreis, the jury asked him: do you really speak German this badly? Is this language artificial or is this just how you speak? At issue was Gardi’s ability to write otherness, perform it, make it palatable, rather than just being other. Being other is no art, it is a deficiency in an age of chauvinism, racism and nationalism. Gardi declines an answer. He gums up the works. Being a Jew in today’s Germany is complicated. Gardi places his protagonist in the heart of the German memorializing complex, complicating the simple narratives. He declines to take part in the literary and political games. Broken German – that title sounds like a deficiency. Yet maybe in a time of resurgent racism in a country that committed two genocides in the 20th century, German needs some breaking. Tomer Gardi’s book is necessary. It is also very good.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to mytwitter.)

Thompsoning

tumblr_oh8286wvu11r0z5aoo1_540I’ve been rereading Hunter S Thompson because ‘tis the season.

“Let’s face it – the yo-yo president of the U.S.A. knows NOTHING. […] This is never an easy thing for the voters of this country to accept. No. Nonsense. The president cannot be a Fool. Not at this moment in time – when the last living vestiges of the American Dream are on the line. This is not the time to have a bogus rich kid in charge of the White House. […] Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? […] They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up […]. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us. – they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis.”

– Hunter S. Thompson (on GWB)

Nobel Prize 2017: My picks.

So we now live in a post-Dylan world, a world where Bob Dylan won literature’s highest award. Maybe Buchi Emecheta didn’t do enough Chrysler commercials? Read Björn’s excellent appreciation if you want to see why Dylan might have won it. The overwhelming whiteness of Mr. Zimmermann might have contributed (or else, why not award Caetano Veloso, who truly revolutionized a country’s music, who was jailed, exiled and is still a respected voice in the political conversation of his country. Read his excellent memoir for details), it wouldn’t have been the first time. After all, the last black winner of the Nobel Prize was Toni Morrison, and the last black African winner was Wole Soyinka. The last winner for engaging with oral tradition was Dario Fo, a writer, like Veloso, who was politically active, powerful and a significant voice. Fo died the day of the award, and one wonders how soon after his burial he started spinning in his grave*. Anyway. Because I’m probably not doing the Nobel Picks next year (here is this year’s edition), given that WHO KNOWS what Danius and company will do next, here are already my picks. As Björn has pointed out – with this award, how can the Academy refuse an award to any art form that involves writing of some kind? The picks are all excellent artists who, in a post-Dylan world, might receive the award, which should more honestly be called The Nobel Prize for Writing Things.

1. Michael Haneke. Haneke, narrowly beating out Tarantino and Malick, is cinema’s best living writer-director. You could argue this with me but you’d be wrong. Sure, there are others, but Haneke’s movies are finely crafted, complex, brilliant pieces of writing, politically, emotionally, philosophically resonant. They don’t hold up on the page, because they are written by one of the finest living cinematic minds, with the cinematic resolution in mind, but neither do Dylan’s songs, so that’s clearly not a criterion.

2. William Michael Griffin, Jr., better known under his stage name Rakim. So there is some argument that Dylan invented something truly novel in the American tradition, but no new musical invention has been as transformative as rap, which allowed black artists to fully reap the fruits of their own musical inventions. Rakim’s work with the art form is historically significant: he is something of a link between the classic beginnings and the more fluid, broadly skilled shape of the art form today. Rakim’s influence on the shape of rap – and the shape of music in general cannot be overstated. It would have been silly to give the award to any musician, but Rakim would have been a better, more interesting choice than Bob Dylan. In the post-Dylan years to come, when the academy looks for worthy candidates, Rakim should be hard to overlook, although, with black candidates, the Academy has a history of being truly, uniquely, dazzlingly talented at overlooking black people. So who knows

3. Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51. Suda51 is a video game creator of genius. A true master of the art. In a post-Dylan world, it would be stupid to overlook video game writing, as this art form will be one of the most valuable and important contributions to the creative arts in the near future. Jesse Singal recently wrote about how video game writing appears to be graded on a curve, and he’s not wrong. However, the achievements of the greats of the genre, though you couldn’t really print them, are standout achievements. They are made with the medium in mind -there is no way to pin Suda51’s creative energies to the printed page. But the Nobel Prize in Writing Things has liberated itself from mere books. Suda51, however, is very young, despite the size and excellence of his work. He has also not been as influential on the genre as some older writers. Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango and Psychonauts is brilliant and influential, as is Sid Meier, inventor of Civilization, not to forget Ron Gilbert, who was involved in the creation not just of some of the most important adventure games (Secret of Monkey Island, Zak McKracken) but also scripted the software that was used for many of them. I picked Suda51 because I think he is one of the most brilliant people working in video games, period, a creator of lesser influence but more genius than any other creator I mentioned here.

4. Should Coding count as writing? Because, really, if we’re past the event horizon here, why not? I honestly see no reason why not. So as choice #4 I propose Linus Torvalds. It would give the Swedish minority in Finland a Nobel Prize, which is politically interesting, and would stress the global nature of the Nobel Prize in Writing Things. It would also award the prize to yet another white Western man, which, I mean, clearly, is a priority for this generation of the academy. This is what I think went down last year when they postponed the award:

“Oh God I think we have to give it to Ngugi this year.” “Really?” “Yeah I see no way out. Or do you want to give it to that Syrian fellow? We have enough refugees in Sweden as is!” “Shit.” “OH OH Hang on! Dylan!” “What?” “Yeah, let’s give it to Dylan, it’ll make us look unconventional and look how white he is! He’s even wearing a Clark Gable mustache!”

Jokes aside, apart from luminaries like Jean Sammet (ETA: she died in the meantime.), Torvald’s achievement is truly remarkable and hard to ignore when you hand out the Nobel Prize in Writing Things. In an interview with tech crunch, Torvalds said that most of his work today involves integrating other people’s code, and only 2% of the Linux kernel was written by him personally (which, snark aside, is actually quite a lot), so he’s a truly worthy successor to Bob Dylan.

Looking forward to a bright and lovely future for the Nobel Prize in Writing Things, kind of.

*Yes, yes, I know Fo was actually a supporter of the award going to Dylan. Though I wonder how much of this was a rhetorical stance targeted at an institution, and how much of it a literary appreciation.

ETA: But of course.

Dylan 2

One curious aspect of Thursday’s bizarre decision is the fact that Bob Dylan’s lyrics are, in Romania, translated by Mircea Cartarescu, who is slowly becoming one of those perennial Nobel candidates himself, rumored every year, high up on the Ladbrokes list, losing to a singer who likes simple rhyme schemes and stealing from blacker and poorer artists. I mean, “inventing a form,” of course. My bad. Cartarescu is a bit sad these days, expecting as he does the Nobel prize any day now. It’s becoming a bit embarrassing, tbh. 14666063_1225403344148560_8719303579896981442_n

Nobel Disagreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

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

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a