Jul 122016


Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. —Joseph Schreiber


Life in the Court of Matane
Eric Dupont
Translated by Peter McCambridge
QC Fiction, July 2016
$20.00, 265 pages


Growing up in a broken home is rarely easy. Too often children become pawns on the emotional battlefield as their parents face off against one another. This is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in which the eponymous narrator of Life in the Court of Matane and his sister find themselves at an early age. So it’s little wonder that they would recognize their predicament in the feats of a certain young Romanian gymnast swinging between the uneven parallel bars at 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But Nadia Comaneci is only one of a number of personalities evoked in this inventive coming-of-age story. She joins the re-imagined court of Henry VIII, key figures in the debate between Québec Separatists and Federalists, and a menagerie of assorted birds and beasts in Eric Dupont’s engaging account of a childhood defined by divorce.

Originally published as Bestiaire in 2008, Peter McCambridge’s translation of this acclaimed novel heralds the debut of QC Fiction, an ambitious publishing initiative dedicated to introducing readers to an new generation of Québec literature. Their goal is to be able to offer “surprising, interesting novels in flawless English translation” to a wide audience through a subscription funded model inspired by publishers such as And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, and Open Letter Books. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine a more enchanting and original novel to launch this new imprint than Life in the Court of Matane.

Eric Dupont was born in 1970 in Amqui, Québec and, like his protagonist, grew up in Matane, a town on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River some 400 kilometres east of Quebec City. He completed his post-secondary education in Ottawa, Salzburg, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto and presently he lives and works in Montreal. A bright light on the Québec literary landscape, he has been called “one of the province’s most daring and original writers” by La Presse. An eager reader, haunting the town library from an early age, Dupont lists Apollinaire, Anouilh, and the surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues among the writers that first delighted him when he began to study literature in university. He would go on to encounter Calvino, Cortázar and, with particular enthusiasm, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As he confesses: “We each take our secret weapons where we can find them.”

In keeping with its original French title, Life in the Court of Matane takes its structure from the medieval Bestiary, a series of allegorical or moralizing fables based on the appearance and habits of real or mythical creatures. Each chapter is named for and features a different bird or animal. Some take on magical qualities, engaging young Eric in conversations that may or may not be imagined, whereas others have more grounded, albeit symbolic, roles. However, the English title speaks to one of the most provocative features of Dupont’s childhood reality as he presents it—his fragmented family is governed by a skewed reincarnation of a Tudor king and his despotic queen. In this portrait, he invites the reader to imagine his police officer father as a woman-obsessed Henry VIII collecting wives “like others collect cars.” His mother, the fun-loving and playful Micheline Raymond, professional cook, as her children refer to her, is cast as Catherine of Aragon, the first queen who has been deposed by decree of the Family Court system. In her former throne sits wife number two, Anne Boleyn, a woman enamored with science, numbers, and order. In the newly reformed household, she sets the tone:

It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded. Thanks to Anne Boleyn and her books, I foresaw the chance to walk toward the future a new man. Memories would be no use to me. They compromised my relations with the crown. Before the monarchs, it was simply a matter of feigning approval of all their dreams and projects, all the while imagining their disappearance behind their backs and the day when Henry VIII would come to his senses. I waited and learned.

Our precocious protagonist is but seven years of age when the summer of 1977 brings the Great Upheaval and a life once delicately balanced between the uneven parallel bars of the post-divorce parental gymnastics routine is suddenly disrupted by placing an impossible distance between the two bars. With the impending arrival of an heir apparent, a younger half-brother, the court decides to relocate 300 kilometers to the east from Rivière-du-Loup to Matane. Eric will find himself marooned on the Gaspé Peninsula for nearly a decade, facing a new existence marked by years of relentless school bullying and daring dreams of escape until, at the age of sixteen, he will finally manage to fly the coop.

Lest there be any doubt, the king’s children from his first marriage quickly realize that the past is past. Over the years, new rules of memory are introduced through a series of royal edicts. Edict 101 strictly forbids the utterance of the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Beyond that, along with the expected edicts extolling cleanliness and academic achievement; Cadbury chocolate products are outlawed, all talk of religion is banned, and unconditional support for the sovereignty movement is commanded. Under the reign of Anne Boleyn, the vassals must learn to adapt or, at best, disguise their transgressions.

Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a near photographic memory, Eric Dupont—the author that is, not his narrator alter ego—has a deep and abiding interest in remembering and forgetting in literature. Memory is a theme appears repeatedly throughout this novel. Edicts notwithstanding, the queen can no more force the children to forget their mother than young Eric can fill his theoretically finite mental real estate with facts and figures in an effort to drive his memories of her into the distance. The longing he and his sister feel for their mother is, quite naturally, profound and heartbreaking. But, in the spirit of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and Melville’s Bartleby, they embark on their own form of passive resistance. If the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook, cannot be spoken, it can be celebrated through a collaborative effort to reproduce their mother’s infectious idiosyncratic laugh. Memory contained in the joyous eruption of sound becomes remembering as inability to forget.

The corollary of being unable to forget someone you love, is the fear that they will forget you. This concern is echoed in the longest and most magically inclined chapter, “The Dog (1980).” As Eric bonds, however uneasily, with Anne Boleyn by mastering the Rubik’s Cube and sharing her interest in stamp collecting, he invites the reader to imagine a series of late night encounters on the wharf with a stray dog who will talk if one cares to listen and comes well stocked with meatballs to encourage her to engage in conversation. This dog, it turns out is the ghost of Laika, the ill-fated proto-Cosmonaut, somehow rescued miraculously from her doomed Sputnik mission in the late 1950’s to be forever condemned to wander the misty streets of Matane steadfast in her faith that Oleg, her beloved trainer, is searching for her and will soon arrive to take her home to Moscow. She cannot relinquish her memories of the one human she believes ever truly cared for her. Eric’s dreams of Laika, whom he first discovered on a Romanian stamp, will fuel his own fantasies of stealing away aboard a ship bound for the USSR, to heroically sacrifice himself to the Soviet space program. Six years later, when at last he truly makes good his escape, this time to study in Austria, the narrative once again turns to the magical, involving memory and a Baudelaire quoting owl. By that point though, he is fully prepared to move on and, if he is anxious to forget anything, it is his long years of subjugation under Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the succession of erstwhile queens that follow in her wake.

Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. It is rich and intentionally enthusiastic in the bold effort to stuff in everything including the kitchen sink. The ins and outs of a Catholic education, fallout from Québec Referendum, Cold War politics, the reproductive strategies of the brown-headed cowbird, Grimm’s fairytales, Heidi, the economics of egg production, Micmac folklore and much more are all washed down with copious amounts of Château Rancour. However, there are distinct challenges and risks involved in sustaining a consciously comic tone over what can be painful personal terrain, and successfully navigating excursions that extend from exaggerated metaphor to tip into the realm of magical realism then pull back again. Dupont manages all of this with an admirable measure of control. There is the sense that the royal imagery he is playing with, within a structure derived from the Bestiary template, allows him to blur the line between memoir and fiction, and tell a story that may in truth be very close to home. The real sorrow of growing up in a divorce fractured family rings through, and serves to solidly ground the wildly imaginative tales that he delights in spinning.

Voice is also critical. Narrated from the perspective of early mid-life, this novel strikes the just right balance between the adult’s telling and the child’s logic, or the adult’s sarcastic humour and the child’s naiveté. This is wonderfully illustrated in twelve year-old Eric’s long standing confusion around the epitaph “faggot,” as in this scene from a time during which the family lived in a village outside of Matane:

The school yard was a sad place where tensions between the village and rural parents were atoned for on a smaller—albeit no less cruel—scale. I learned all kinds of fascinating things there. Some children’s parents, for instance, were convinced that police officers pocketed the fines they handed out for themselves and that this was how they were paid. And so the day the king came home with a second-hand Volvo, they shouted at me that the car had been basically stolen from the people of Saint-Ulric. Or rather they didn’t shout. They grunted, and the grunting was followed with a shove to the ground. As a narrative epilogue to the violent episode, they shouted “faggot,” a word whose true meaning I was unsure of and that never failed to spark a deep epistemological crisis. For the longest time, I thought that a faggot was someone who knew how to read. I tried to explain that, in point of fact, police officer’s salaries were paid by… But really, what was the point?

Literature is littered with dysfunctional families. Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families aside, unhappy families often have much in common, and their stories can run the risk of falling into a certain routine, with a sameness that blunts the edge of the drama and emotion. Not so with Eric Dupont. His penchant for story telling allows him to create a world that brims with larger-than-life vitality while capturing the tensions of growing up in a family divided by divorce, ideology and distance. The result is a remarkably sensitive and intelligent coming-of-age story told with an irresistible blend of heartache, humour and magic.

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts


Jun 302016

Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic…the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” —Jason DeYoung


Vaseline Buddha
Jung Young Moon
Translated by Jung Yewon
Deep Vellum, 2016
$ 14.95


What lies at the source of thought, the nameless narrator of Vaseline Buddha asks, what do you finally reach when you cast thought back to its source, “like a fish that swims upstream”? Nothing, he promptly tells us, nothing is to be found at the source of thought. The source of thought is just more empty thoughts, “just as nothing lies at the source of everything.”

Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic, Vaseline Buddha is an enigmatic, time-bending odyssey through one man’s thoughts and memories. But these are the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” Can we trust what he tells us? No, as he often explains at the end of his stories, some things really happened, others didn’t, or perhaps did happen but at a different time, which he manipulates through narrative into happening simultaneously with other events. “How easy is it for such words to be without truth?” This Vaseline Buddha, it’s slippery.

Described as South Korea’s tallest, most handsome author—just look at the introspective guy above, and that hair!—Jung Young Moon was born in 1965. His literary debut was in 1996 with A Man Who Barely Exists, a title that hints at another character staring down the liminal. He has since published several novels and collections of short fiction, and he has translated nearly forty books by such authors as John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer. Vaseline Buddha is the first novel of Moon’s to come out in English this year: Dalkey Archive Press will release A Contrived World soon. Dalkey Archive also released a mesmerizing short story collection by Moon called A Most Ambiguous Sunday in 2014. This collection was my first experience with Moon’s work and I remember being beguiled by how uncommonly strict and topographically flat his prose read, and how confidently he wrote about boredom and doing nothing and made it work. Here’s passage from “The Afternoon of the Faun”:

I felt bored, and thought dimly that boredom was saturated in nature and was one of nature’s primary characteristics, and thus what a person would feel when they became a part of nature; I had the vague thought that the boredom of nature was different from the boredom of the city, the streets, or the house, because out of all the various types of boredom, the boredom of nature gives you the most dense and intense feeling.

Vaseline Buddha­, fresh out from Deep Vellum, is also about ennui, as much of Moon’s work is. It opens with the narrator (who is also a professional translator) sitting on his windowsill, thinking about writing a story, when he sees a thief attempting to climb into a window. The thief is startled, falls, and runs off. This incident is the inspiration that starts the meditative text that then runs for 226 pages and begins with: “For some time, I’d been in a constant state of lethargy… But an urge to write was awakened within me as if the thief, who went away without actually doing anything, had done something to me…The vague stories that I’d tried to write down but had escaped me began to blossom little by little, and I wanted to give them a vague form that suited them.”

His vague form, in the end, is circular. Vaseline Buddha is written presumably over the course of a year, starting in summer and wrapping up in late spring. Images that appear in the beginning reappear at the end, and in between there is always this push toward not making meaning or of writing something without substance. It is these things, those without substance, which “exerts the greatest influence” on narrator’s life, hence he sees no option but “to clumsily write something without substance.”

Parts of Vaseline Buddha read like automatic writing, wandering associatively topic-to-topic, while other parts are clearly designed to feed into the narrator’s intention, such as his mediation on the following line of poetry from John Hollander’s “Coiled Alizarin”—“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The line, we are told, is an example of a grammatically correct sentence “that has a logical form but makes no semantic sense and thus has no intelligible meaning, and can be discussed at different levels.” This idea of something that’s logical in form yet without intelligible meaning is what the narrator of Vaseline Buddha is after.

So what comprises a non-novel novel? The narrator would like for you to think that there’s no structure to this work, a work he would like for you enter and “get lost, like setting foot in a world from which you can’t extricate yourself.” But there are clear repetitions and patterns at play here that, yes, deny the design of the conventional novel, but function as stand-ins for traditional form.

Take for instance the overall plot, which is to write something without substance. He’ll return to make this point in various ways, reiterating it, reflecting on how he’s doing. The subplots of Vaseline Buddha, in turn, are stories meant to demonstrate or exercise this wish for senselessness. They include philosophical discussions about the nature of writing and reality, travelogues that are intentionally pointless and meandering, description of the narrator’s dizziness and the rooms he lies in while trying to recover, asides and fantasies about animals for which the narrator is particularly drawn, various and unsatisfying encounters with women, and the narrator’s fondness for Paul Morrissey’s Trash, a movie that he watches “without an expectation,” and shows him “how powerful saying nothing could be,” and becomes one of the best movie he’s seen.

YouTube Preview Image Trash, Paul Morrissey (NSFW)

Among the eclectic comic tales in the novel which range from Yasser Arafat’s affection for Tom & Jerry, a farting German woman on a trampoline, and a turtle-licking cow is an existential seriousness. “[T]here were no grounds for my existence anywhere,” says the narrator, “the idea that everything in existence existed by accident, that inevitability was only a part of a tremendous accident, was something I could never shake off, and made my life so difficult, and yet so easy.” In addressing this difficulty and ease, he ends up overloading the novel with the “everyday,” with the stuff of his existence, with the banalities of his life, in an effort to show how most of life is fairly pointless. The title itself is part of this spew of life-stuff. Toward the end of the novel, a friend gives the narrator a cheap wooden[1] Buddha statue which the narrator suddenly has the cockamamie thought of covering in bandages and Vaseline, which he then thinks would be a good title for what he has been writing. All these vague little stories and thought about writing, he thinks, could be titled Vaseline Buddha—”the name was something that could be given to something indefinable, something unnamable, and also meant untitled.” It sounds good, but its meaningless, empty, just the sort of things that would go above some vague text.

Vaseline Buddha never gets too deep into Buddhist teachings, or at least not in a direct way like when when the narrator starts going on about Wittgenstein, whom he admires for his gardening. But there is definitely Buddhist thought at play, especially when the narrator writes about accepting all human emotions and the nature of reality, which might be beyond the grasp of our linear vocabulary:

I imagined creating a self-contained world of my own in which communication was impossible and unnecessary. Perhaps the very thing that constitutes a person’s inherent nature is something that can’t be understood by others. Only the thoughts that I couldn’t share in their entirety with another person seemed to be my genuine thoughts. I thought that the emphasis on communication, rampant among people and even forced upon them, was so excessive that, in a way, it kept a man from squarely facing the fact that he was, in the end, alone.

Eastern and Western philosophies merge in this text, and echoes can be heard of Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and Dōgen’s admonition “If you want to travel the Way of the Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.” What the narrator seems to be saying is that the life is is important, and it isn’t. It’s meaningful, and it isn’t. The novel is important, and it isn’t.  It’s perhaps best to accept these duel natures.[2]

A lot of the publicity materials around Moon’s work call him Korea’s Beckett, and tag his work Kafkaesque, which is true, but the influence of Thomas Bernhard (without all the disgust and aversion) can be felt too. The novel is marked by a hyper-precise language that often wrest the surreal from the weary reality of its narrator, and translator Yewon Jung deserves credit for a masterful translation of what is presumably difficult Korean into English sentences that boldly loop and twist:

I kept on thinking that I should, not submitting to it, in a way, commit an atrocious act of some kind. But it helped to have had my fill of such undesirable thoughts about swans. By having various thoughts about swans, I could keep myself from actually doing something to them. Thinking a lot about something was a great way to keep yourself from carrying your thoughts out into action, although, of course, it depended on the way you thought. By thinking a certain thought, you could think that you’ve carried the thought out in action, or done something more.

Jung Young Moon’s work is remarkable for its eccentric modes of thought and how it tests the limits of the novel and our notions of what fiction can do. It looks beyond the basic form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go. It also reveals crisply the cryptic nature of everyday life, which if examined with deep seriousness, will inevitably lead to deep absurdity—and that makes its futility somewhat pleasing.

—Jason DeYoung

N5Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not to be confused with a “Vaseline glass Buddha”—although I’m sure Moon delights in the possible confusion.
  2. “Our body and mind are both two and one…our life is not only plural, but also singular.” Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shambhala Publication, Inc., 1987. Page 7.
Jun 132016


Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. —Mark Sampson


The Fat Artist and Other Stories
By Benjamin Hale
Simon & Schuster, 2016
288 pgs.;$26.00


Call it book reviewer’s pride. I was infinitely pleased with myself that I had caught, without prompting, the literary reference in the title of Benjamin Hale’s new short story collection. Because I am a responsible critic, I went back and reread Kafka’s fabled tale “A Hunger Artist” before I even cracked the covers of Hale’s book, thinking it would prepare me for what I assumed was an album of short fiction that wears a Kafkaesque homage heavily.

But Hale resists this temptation. While the title story does acknowledge its antecedent in Kafka and borrows from his dark, absurdist world view, The Fat Artist and Other Stories is, on the whole, influenced more by famed footnoter David Foster Wallace, and by the gritty, violent realism of, say, Raymond Chandler, than it is by that Czech scribbler writing prescient tales about the looming horrors of the twentieth century. What’s more, Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. Hale is the author of a previous novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and he has been (forgive the pun) hailed as a dark, comic risk taker in his fiction, someone unafraid to mix together tenderness and the weird. This new book lives up to such a reputation. It’s about what to do with bodies: bodies that have died and need disposing of, bodies that have aged and betrayed their owners; bodies that need nourishment and respect; bodies that have grown fat for the sake of art.

Indeed, the title story here is an unalloyed masterpiece. Tristan Hurt is an avant-garde artist who slogs through the duo battles of staying on top of the New York art world and hiding from everyone that he is, more or less, a fraud. He shares with the reader some of his more embarrassing secrets:

As a person, I was nearly as lazy as I was self-absorbed. I had never actually read very much. Almost nothing, really. All that critical theory in college and graduate school? All that heady French gobbledygook? Not counting the front and back covers, I probably read a cumulative fifteen pages of it … I knew the names of the writers I was supposed to have read, and could pronounce them with haughty accuracy and ironclad confidence that withered on the spot those who had actually read them.

(Despite his general disinterest in reading, Tristan does possess a rich vocabulary of ten-dollar words that had me digging with glee into the dictionary: bloviate, piccolo, petrichor, soporate, etc.)

Tristan begins a shaky romance with a creative writing instructor named Olivia who can see through his ruses. As a gift, she gives him a copy of her beloved collected stories of Franz Kafka, leaving a condescendingly harsh inscription inside: “Tristan— Here you go. Most of them are pretty short. Olivia.” (We soon learn just how precarious this romance is: Tristan discovers that she had bought a previous copy for him, but had to get a new one after she accidentally wrote “Love, Olivia” in the inscription.) Being what he is, Tristan immediately latches on to the story “A Hunger Artist” included in the book, a tale of a man who sits in a cage and starves himself as a work of art. But when Olivia breaks things off with Tristan, he goes in the opposite direction. Exiling himself to his New York City condo, he spends 10 months in near-total isolation, doing nothing but eating, drinking, doing drugs and watching online pornography. He emerges as a 500-pound fatso, broke and in desperate need to re-establish himself in the art world. After attending a hoity-toity party, he gets an idea: he will become his own artwork, the inverse of Kafka’s creation, gaining even more weight in full public display with the aim of reaching 1,600 pounds and thus becoming the largest human being ever recorded in history. Here’s his rationale:

The concept was elegant in its simplicity: to turn Kafka on his head. “A Hunger Artist” in part derives the power of its allegory from the sheer horror of self-abnegation. Why on earth would anyone deliberately starve himself to death? But in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self abnegation no longer retains the primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior.

The project is thus: Tristan is set up on a large bed-cum-weight scale in a museum, with catheters attached to his anus and penis to pump waste away unseen from his body. The public lines up around the block day after day to both see him and bring him something to eat. Provided the gifts are edible, Tristan sets a rule for himself that he must eat everything his audience brings him: buckles of fried chicken, boxes of pizzas, plates of spaghetti, bags upon bags of candy. He inhales it all, and his weight climbs accordingly. The installation is a smash! Glowing reviews appear in the media, and the crowds keep coming. Tristan’s weight soon plateaus around 1,360 pounds as he tries to push through to his goal.

But then, just as quickly as the public embraced him, it soon loses interest in his project. The crowds disappear and Tristan’s visitors dwindle to a trickle. He actually begins to lose some weight. Here, Hale’s commentary is subtle but clear: even when the artwork involves our bodies, the interest in that artwork is capricious at best. The story is both rib-cracklingly hilarious and a little bit sad, especially when Olivia shows up at the end to visit Tristan in his now morbid state. She comes with news of the death of his father, and brings Tristan flowers as a gesture of condolence. What he does with those flowers after she leaves the museum is both deeply comic and wholly heart-wrenching.

It would seem the haughty, art-world humour in “The Fat Artist” comes naturally to Hale, which makes the fact that he is able to write in other, equally adept registers in this collection all the more impressive. One story that feels like the polar opposite of the title piece is “If I had Possession over Judgment Day”, a dark and intricately laced narrative set in a hardscrabble, blue-collar world. There are several threads and tropes weaving throughout this piece, and Hale leads us through them with a skilled hand. The story opens with images of satellites orbiting the earth, hovering like silent observers to the violence about to unfold. The narrative shifts and introduces us to two characters, Caleb and Maggie, whose relationship begins in childhood with an act of unmistakable cruelty. Caleb, age nine, is the habit of pinning Maggie, age seven, down on the ground after they’ve gotten off the school bus in order to spit in her face. But the way Hale describes this attack hints at a more sexualized overtone that foreshadows events later in the story:

[Caleb] would dredge up a glob of snot from the back of his throat with these exaggerated sucking noises, mix it with his spit, let it dribble out, coil onto her face in a long string. He liked to get it in her eyes and her hair … [H]e would slurp it back up like a yo-yo, chew on it some more, until he could no longer abstain from the pleasure of seeing it slopped on her face.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caleb and Maggie fall in love with each other much later on, in high school, and eventually move in together for a time. But then Maggie leaves him for a guy named Kelly, and the two soon marry and have a child together named Gabriel. Caleb, however, remains on the periphery of Maggie’s life.

The narrative then shifts to describe Kelly in his struggles as a breadwinner and father. Maggie becomes a plumping, unemployed stay-at-home mom, and Kelly needs to work two grueling jobs in order to support them. The first is working on a construction site by day, and the second is delivering newspapers overnight using his frequently unreliable pick-up truck. Hale takes us into the very core of Kelly’s misery: he loves Maggie and Gabriel but knows that he is failing them, failing life, and that he is not quite man enough. The pressures of his hanging-on-by-a-thread poverty imbues each day with whetted despair.

Things take a turn when Maggie accuses Caleb of coming over one night while Kelly is at work and raping her. The narrative shifts once more and adopts the gritty, street-lingo diction of one of Kelly’s coworkers as the two of them plan their revenge on Caleb. The idea is to lure him to a deserted park at night and assault him with a crowbar. Meanwhile, the satellites in their sky look on.

While all of this happens, there is a subplot to “If I had Possession over Judgment Day” involving a photographer named Fred looking to take artful nude photographs of his intellectually precocious 16-year-old niece, Lana. Their conversations are charged with flirty literary allusions, and there is something deeply sexual about their interactions even though Lana wears full body paint for the photo shoot. The two of them end up in the same park as Kelly and Caleb during the attack with the crowbar, and the way these two narrative threads loop into each other is nothing short of brilliant. Indeed, all of the elements that have been in play for several dozen pages – the constantly stalling truck, the naked teenager, Maggie’s scolding over Kelly’s lack of manliness (“I want you to grow a dick,” she tells him at one point) come to a head beautifully.

Another stand-out in this outstanding collection is “Leftovers,” a tale similar to “Judgment Day” in its subject matter and well-plotted narrative. A soon-to-be-retired corporate lawyer in southern Texas named Phil Grassley is having an affair behind the back of Diane, his wife of 30+ years, with a young woman from his office named Veronica. While Diane is out of town at a conference, Phil invites Veronica over for an evening of dinner, margaritas, and fucking. Over the course of this date, we learn just how shallow and entitled Phil is: he looks forward to a retirement of drinking beer, sailing his catamaran, and enjoying these dalliances behind his wife’s back, without a care about how hurtful his actions are. As he takes Veronica on a tour of the house, we learn about Phil’s three children, the middle of whom is a screwed-up drug addict named Julian that nobody has heard from in over a month.

It comes to pass that, after Phil and Veronica have had sex in the bed he shares with his wife and fallen asleep, Julian arrives at the house in the middle of the night looking to steal the TV in order to, presumably, sell it for drugs. Phil hears the intruder and creeps down in the darkness to confront him. Whereas “Judgment Day” uses a crowbar as its weapon of choice, “Leftovers” finds Phil taking up the rolling pin he had used to crush the ice for the margaritas to defend his home and property. He doesn’t discover that the invader is his own son until he’s cracked him over the head. Not that it much matters – the assault reveals just how callous Phil really is, and it’s Veronica, now emerged from the bedroom, who shows Julian some kindness.

But things grow complicated when Julian comes to and discovers that his father is cheating on his mother. The broader intent of the story becomes clear: Phil, we see, has a life full of what Alice Munro would call the kindness of women, and yet he is completely oblivious to his great fortune, and cannot see past his anger at Julian for being such a fuck-up.

And a fuck-up he is: the boy is still in rough shape, a stoned and wrecked-out mess. And when he dosses down on the couch and then dies in his sleep after choking on his own vomit, Phil has an opportunity to rid his son from his life for good and also hide his sexual dalliances from his wife. He conscripts Veronica in his plan:

“Nobody knew where the hell Julian was for a month, or more. He was totally incommunicado. We still don’t know, actually, and probably never will at this point. Point is, this didn’t have to happen. You see what I mean?”

Eventually, she saw what he meant.

It’s striking how little editorializing Hale does as Phil concocts a plan to use his catamaran to dispose of his own son’s body in the Gulf of Mexico. The author keeps the moral gauge at neutral and does not lose the story’s propulsion despite the fact that his protagonist is an entirely vile human being. It’s an impressive feat in a tale – much like “Judgment Day” before it – about keeping a murder secret.

This authorial detachment is just one of Hale’s skills. Throughout The Fat Artist, he shows a talent for writing in multiple registers, for tackling a variety of subject matter and giving each of his stories its own rich, believable world. In “Venus in Her Mirror”, we have another dead body that someone is unsure what to do with. Rebecca is in her late thirties and working as a BDSM call girl under the name “Mistress Dalilah.” Divorced and wanting a child, she’s developed a close bond with a client, a high-profile Democrat in Washington whose name is Sam but goes by “The Representative” in their sex play. When he dies suddenly from a heart attack during one of their engagements, Rebecca is forced to confront both the realities of her own life as well as the secrets of the man whose corpse she must now deal with.

“Beautiful Boy”, meanwhile, shows us the confluence in early 1980s New York City of the murder of John Lennon, drag queen culture, and the rise of AIDS. The final piece in the book, “The Minus World”, set in Boston, shares a kinship with “Judgment Day”: Peter is fresh out of prison/rehab and down on his luck, turning to his brother Greg and his wife Megan to help him get his life turned around. Greg lands Peter a job driving a truck that delivers squid from the wharf to the biology lab at MIT. But like Kelly in “Judgment Day”, Peter just cannot get a handle on his various vices, and the story ends with a violent vehicle accident that snaps into focus just how desperate his life has become.

Individually, these stories are immensely compelling and brilliantly imagined. Taken together, they reveal a broader vision that is so much more enriching than that Kafkaesque tease in the title would suggest. I suspect it will be a long, long time before I enjoy a short story collection as much as I enjoyed this one.

—Mark Sampson

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.


Jun 092016


I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. —Dorthe Nors

So Much For Winter

So Much for That Winter
Dorthe Nors
Trans. Misha Hoekstra
Graywolf Press, 2016
160 pages, $15.00

I. So Much for That Winter comprises two novellas, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days” by the Danish author Dorthe Nors. In the first, she employs simple sentences (as rendered in the translation) that often begin with the first name of the main character, Minna, or someone she knows. “Days” is the diary of an unnamed female narrator with most quotidian details left aside. In both works there is inventiveness and emotion, angst and loss, puzzles and minor epiphanies.

Nors is the author of novels, as well, and a breakout collection of short stories, Karate Chop (Graywolf, 2014), that introduced North American audiences to her. In his review of Karate Chop and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (Pushkin) in the Guardian, John Self declared:

For those whose attention span has been shot to pieces by social media, parenthood and other excuses, who struggle to read even a 20-page story in one sweep: this is the book for us. Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, contains 15 stories in 82 pages. The stories don’t feel minimalist – they’re full of life and ripe with death – but they’re brief because there is no fat on them. This makes them moreish, and if you don’t like one, there will be another along in a minute.

Similarly, these two novellas occupy a small amount of space and are, at the same time, big with themes and passion.


In “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” the sentences are quite short, offering minimal background information oscillating between two topics: Minna’s broken heart, and her need for a place to practice her music. Everything is given in lists of sentences. Here is passage where Minna is with her older, domineering sister:

It’s a miracle.
Elisabeth’s visiting Minna’s apartment.
Elisabeth stands in the middle of the living room.
Elisabeth’s in stocking feet.
The face as hard as enamel.
Elisabeth’s rage is family legend.
The examples are legion:
Elisabeth removes bikes in Potato Row.
Nothing may shade the house.
Nothing may destroy the harmony of the façade.
Elisabeth doesn’t move the bikes a couple yards.
Elisabeth walks around to other streets with the bikes.
No one should think they’re safe.
Elisabeth threatens people with lawsuits and
psychotic episodes.

(An unpredictable force, Elisabeth brings into the novella a crackling energy. Perhaps we’re meant to see that she robbed Minna of her share of verve and iron control by coming first into the world by ten years—but what a burglary gone wrong! The contrast between the sisters on this level does not obscure their kinship when it comes to single-mindedness.)

There are at least two things one can draw from this sample. First, the presentation calls to mind works by, to choose two writers, Édouard Levé (if he had separated his sentences and cared about plot) and David Markson (with his index card notes). Each effectively compiled lists or banal utterances to get across the content of a narrator’s mind. (One can say that in the case of the Ten Commandments both a religion and a culture’s concerns are codified with the same succinctness.) These previous works are mentioned to avoid the risk of claiming too much for Nors’ work, and not to take away from the arrangement of the material.

Second, that focus on this and then this moment in Minna’s life (and that of the few others who make an appearance), each thought separated by space at the end of a line, allows for the kind of breathing associated with mindfulness, albeit a mindfulness more evident on the part of Nors than her unhappy character who, as each page shows, goes from mood to mood as she urinates (defecation occurs often), sweats, cries, unfriends people on social media, indulges in self-pity, resents hearing about the sex lives of her female friends and her former boyfriend, and reads, aghast, her mother’s blog that “is more intimate than Mom’s Christmas letter to the family.” Minna is regularly nonplused by what people do and the confidences they want to share. Though she has friends, she is a lonely woman, and alone as a composer (“Paper sonatas don’t write themselves”). Her sole source of male company is represented by the written works of a film-maker, though this relationship is one-sided and a source of frustration:

Ingmar Bergman opens up for her.
Bergman’s wearing the beret.
Bergman’s gaze peers deep into Minna.
Bergman wants to get in under Minna’s persona.
Minna’s persona attempts to make way for him.
Minna wants Bergman all the way inside…
Bergman’s words don’t work.
Minna’s lower lip quivers.
Minna whispers, I used to sing.

Always around, more insistent at some times than others, is the requirement for a room of Minna’s own where her music can open up. This is both a ‘real-world’ requirement demanded by the fiction, and emblematic of how the lead character is going through something that, one suspects, she has done before—breakup and recovery—but that hurts more keenly than past experience. Rehearsals help us learn something by heart. What is Minna supposed to learn that she hasn’t yet? Often in her thoughts is her father, who spent a lot of time with Minna and taught her many things. This male figure, the template for the kind of partner she’s looking for—though never fully described, we gather he provided support, kindness, and love—is present and absent (much like the idea of the rehearsal space), and someone like Lars will come up short of the mark. When Minna does find her room and her voice—and it would be a spoiler to describe that episode—the threads of this intimate novella come together.

In the TLS, Alison Kelly described “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” as experimental and almost a “verse novel,” while at the same time charging Nors with choosing a form that resisted letting out the emotions; in her phrase, “[d]espite this somewhat self-conscious format, rather than thanks to it, the novella offers poignant insights into rejection…”[1] This misses a point, I believe. The intimations we get of the future—a throwaway line from early on resounds in the last pages—and the palpable emotions would come off as melodramatic if not restrained by the form Nors has chosen. We can see her awareness of the restriction in the imagery of Minna singing at the top of her voice when out alone on a spit of rocks. She can only feel unconfined when far away from everyone else, but she rarely feels such release. We can sympathize with her quest for the right space and can join in when she “doesn’t pull her punches” in the freedom she discovers. Or to put it another way, escaping from the normal modes of writing allows Nors to let out Minna’s thoughts and feelings.


“Days” also stays in the world of one female narrator, and while the sentences are longer Nors has kept to a form that limits what can be said. List follows list, ranging from 11 to 22 items. Here is the opening:

1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.
5. Chewed out an entire school because a single sentence bugged me
6. and drank my hot chocolate, sweet/bitter.
7. Worked,
8. considered traveling somewhere I never imagined I’d find myself
9. yet stayed where I was
10. and banged on my neighbor’s wall,
11. was in doubt, but sure,
12. was insecure,
13. stood still by the window,
14. let my gaze move from running shoes to wool socks
15. and lay down on the bed.

These lists, resembling what’s found on the Internet, rarely concern themselves with people, though a former lover and her parents do make appearances. News stories and mundane parts of a day largely are left out. Instead, poetic insights, pregnant images, and flashes of emotions are recorded, with emphasis added through italicization. We learn of the narrator’s desire to change from the person she was, involved with a man in some way, to something else with “gills, paws, antennae.” She is caught in her life, bicycling and jogging, translating books, or crying. Shifts from speculation to personal philosophy to optimism, in a wry humour at times, are registered, as here:

3. went for a run through Søndermarken and through the cemeteries, for now it is spring, and it’s tough to be happy on schedule, and rarely does anyone get what they deserve, yet now it is spring.
4. Took notes that later might prove useful, and everything’s dicey, but quiet.
5. Thought of the people you’re allowed to like, the ones you’re not allowed to, and the ones you really do anyway but never mention a word about.
6. Gave my secrets a good going-over.
7. and I haven’t given up hope, I still believe that things can open and become soft and alive, German bunkers, Berlin walls, abandoned abattoirs, it’s only a question of time and it’s all well in the end, I thought in line at the grocer’s…

The “art of loving in the right way” is a theme of “Days,” and however far the entries might seem to stray from that topic it rises up, often exposing the rage that lies just under the surface of the narrator’s entries. She can feel possessed by Kali, goddess of creation and destruction: “Felt the fury drawing up from the floor through my body like a soundless roar…” and this can be provoked by a simple act. Eating an ice cream cone leads into a fight for her own individualized way of thinking about life: “for people who don’t know how I feel should stop feeling for me, and if they can’t think my thoughts to their conclusion, they should think about something else, maybe they should think about their own lives, and when they think about them, they should ask themselves if their lives make more sense…”

Each list shows the narrator in a different light, and while we see facets rather than a rounded picture, nevertheless, patterns and concerns recur, while others appear at random, true to any list we might want to compile about ourselves. “Agreed with myself never to wear a large hat, not even if I could use some class” shares with note 6 above both humour and self-questioning, this time on a more superficial level. Who does the narrator want to impress, or not impress, through the acquisition of class? In the same list, commenting on pigeons mating, she says: “…those of us over here in our segment know that nothing done is undone… and that you have to take the consequence.” Mating has meant more to her than the animal act, we glean, and this reveals a tiny bit about her past relationship, but what is more intriguing is the word “segment.” Like finding herself lacking in class—and therefore in some other, lower category—segment separates her (and many others, though perhaps not all) from the non-human animal world. There is pain under the words “nothing done is undone” and the “consequence” of those actions, whereas the pigeons’ biological function is uncomplicated by feeling. We are left to wonder if she envies them. As the entries continue there are shifts, improvements in mood, regressions, losses and gains, and a small measure of peace at the conclusion.

As with “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” this work is far from disconnected—the lists are as plot-driven as traditionalists might want—and one can view both works as fictions made up of fragments. S.D. Chrostowska’s philosophical novel Matches (2015), itself a fragmentary work, offers a useful interpretation:

The aphorism, the romantic fragment, the sketch, the kleines Stück, and a host of other diminutive artistic forms share a resistance to the spirit of system, whether the latter unfolds primarily in time, as it does for instance in music or literature… or in space, as in visual representation… The freedom of art is best exercised, best “captured,” in small pieces; they let us come and go at will, without a key or address. They require no submission to creative force, no suspension of judgment or disbelief. Rarely do they define the artist who produced them. In a society that rewards consistency and individualism, they assume the character of common property, if not its form, without (for this very reason) becoming common.

That “freedom of art” sits alongside Self’s words from the opening of this review: “For those whose attention span has been shot to pieces by social media…” Yet Nors packs much into her telegraphic works; readers are given what’s required, but not in a mingy fashion when it comes to style or emotion.


In an interview with the Paris Review, Dorthe Nors expresses a definite position on what, for her, writing should offer:

I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. Some minimalist writers, they want to have the literary language, but they don’t want to have the passion or they don’t want to risk too much. That kind of writing is cheap. It doesn’t dare to stand out there naked. When I see that kind of writing, I always wonder, as a reader, Am I not worth it? Why don’t you want to give me any of your skin?

What a very provocative last question. “Skin in the game” is the overused demand of personal investment (does it replace asking for a pound of flesh?). While the novellas that make up So Much for That Winter may look slight, they contain despair, grief, family conflicts, aesthetic pursuits, and the mundane; the two narrators are present, flesh, bone, heart, and spirit.

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Alison Kelly, “How nature acts,” Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 2015, No. 5847, 20.
Jun 062016


Far from fostering monotony, Bernhard’s sardonic wit and sensitivity to the musical rhythms of language seem to fuel endless variations on his favourite obsessions. These include madness, suicide, stifling family environments, and strained, sometimes near incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters. —Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Goethe Dies
Thomas Bernhard
Translated by James Reidel
Seagull Books,  2016
87 pages, $21.00


Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

A prolific poet, playwright and novelist who so often placed himself at the heart of his writing, Bernhard, the man behind the work, has remained somewhat of an elusive character. In interviews he could be as contradictory and misanthropic as one of his own narrators, or thoughtfully philosophical, depending on his mood.[1] Born to an unwed mother in 1931, Bernhard lived with his grandparents in Vienna until he moved with his mother and stepfather to Traunstein, Bavaria, in 1937. He never knew his natural father who had died under suspicious circumstances, but he was very close to his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, an author of some local renown who insisted that his grandson have a firm grounding in the arts. Bernhard’s great love was, and would remain, music. However, tuberculosis contracted in his youth left him with chronic lung disease and made his desired career as an opera singer impossible. Once he turned his attention to writing full-time, he would bequeath his illness to many of his protagonists. He never married, but spent almost thirty-five years in a close relationship with a woman thirty-seven years his senior, personally caring for her at the end of her life. The exact nature of their relationship is not known, but Bernhard managed to project the image of the socially uncomfortable loner until his own death in 1989 at the age of fifty-eight.

Over the course of his career, Bernhard developed a unique and distinctive style and form. His major novels are conceived and elaborated within a structural framework that exploits repetition as an essential and insistent narrative device. His stories revisit the same themes again and again; key phrases, words and ideas are repeatedly invoked, dismantled and reworked; and the narrator often stands to the side of the story, or plays a secondary role, reporting what has been told to him by the protagonist or first-hand observers. At times, as in the novel Concrete, the formal narrator has receded so far into the background that he exists only to bookend the ostensible first person narrative, a letter written by the doomed musicologist at the heart of the story.

With Bernhard’s tendency to return to the same themes repeatedly, a reader encountering almost any of his prose pieces, long or short, will have some sense of entering familiar terrain. But far from fostering monotony, Bernhard’s sardonic wit and sensitivity to the musical rhythms of language seem to fuel endless variations on his favourite obsessions. These include madness, suicide, stifling family environments, and strained, sometimes near incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters. His narrators tend to come from or aspire to the arts and sciences. They are typically self-absorbed and internally focused, often to the point that they become paralyzed by their own thought processes, with perseveration replacing action. His protagonists often suffer from chronic diseases, are preoccupied by their own physical well being, burdened with serious persecution complexes, and prone to excessive, often vitriolic rants targeted at people or places. Austria fares particularly poorly in this regard. Bernhard paints his native country as corrupt, its citizens as facile. But, in the end, every treasured institution or art form, city or country is a fair target.

The pieces in Goethe Dies, first released together in Germany in 2010, offer an indication of Bernhard’s maturity and confidence as a writer at this point in his career. Written during the period that would see the publication of Concrete, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, and The Loser, his creative energy is closely focused to fit within the smaller format. And although this is, after all, an author accustomed to a much longer runway, nothing is sacrificed in spirit.

The title story, written to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Goethe’s death in 1982 is possibly the most elaborate piece, structurally and thematically. It opens, significantly, on the 22nd of March, as the narrator, presumably Bernhard himself, is being prepared for an impending meeting with Goethe who is by this time, confined to bed, subject to moments of apparent absence, and stone deaf in one ear. The end is near. The narrator’s mediator and primary source of information is the German scholar and historian Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer, a factotum to Goethe who jealously guards his closeness to the great man against two of Goethe’s secretaries who also feature in this tale, Friedrich Kräuter and Johann Eckermann. And then, there is the one man whom Goethe himself longs to meet before he dies, the thinker whose small volume he believes has superseded everything that he, Goethe, produced in his entire lifetime, the philosopher whose dictum, as Bernhard imagines it, The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing has come to obsess the German writer in his final months—Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the span of 19 pages, Bernhard skillfully constructs and unwraps a conceit as absurd, elaborate and thoroughly entertaining as that contained in any of his novels. Temporal continuity is tossed to the wind as Bernhard conducts the intellectual intersection of two great minds and allows himself a supporting role as reporter and assistant in the effort to facilitate a meeting in person. Mind you, it is never really clear that away in “Oxford or Cambridge”, Wittgenstein has any knowledge of or interest in Goethe, but elaborate plans are made to send Kräuter to invite the philosopher to visit his ailing admirer and stay at his home. True to form, repetition is key to the story’s structural framework, one that, even in this small format, is multi-dimensional. Wittgenstein’s skeptical philosophy is echoed in Goethe’s preoccupations and obsessions that are in turn channeled through and expanded in the possessive attentions of Riemer, which are ultimately shared with and reported by Bernhard as narrator. It might even be argued that the rhythm of the prose calls to mind the flow of the systematic logical expositions that form the core of the argument laid out in Wittgenstein’s most famous text:

When I am with him again this evening, thus said Riemer in respect to Goethe, I will ask him to expound further about The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing. We will organize the topic and, thus said Goethe always, attack and destroy it. Everything he has read and thought until now is either nothing or almost nothing when compared to the Wittgensteinian. He no longer knows who or what brought him to Wittgenstein. Perhaps that small booklet bound in a red cover from the Suhrkamp Library, Goethe once told Riemer, thus said Riemer, I can’t say any more to it than that. But it was my lifesaver. Hopefully, as Goethe said to Riemer, thus said Riemer, Kräuter will come through in Oxford or Cambridge and soon Wittgenstein will come. Allegedly Goethe spent all day in his bedchamber and, as Riemer thinks, simply waited for Wittegenstein. And that is what happened, he simply waited for Wittgenstein, who is to him the one man and thing highest, thus said Riemer. He had slipped the Tractatus under his pillow. The tautology has no truth conditions, for it is unconditionally true; and the contradiction is on no condition true, so he, Goethe, often said trembling in these days.

The fact that the story is staged around the day of the anticipated visit from Wittgenstein which also happens to be the actual date of Goethe’s death allows Bernhard a delicious opportunity to illuminate the “truth” of his famed last words: “More light.” And will a certain Austrian philosopher be present? In a fitting end to the game, Bernhard plays out his absurd hand beyond its logical extreme—Wittgenstein, it is learned, has died before the invitation can be extended, but it is decided by his attendants that is best that Goethe, still waiting, not be told.

Invoking Wittgenstein to honour Goethe is at once a contrary and appropriate gesture. Wittgenstein was one of the many models Bernhard drew inspiration from and quoted regularly in his work. But unlike Schopenhauer, Montaigne, or Pascal, for example, his relationship with the philosopher was more complicated—not only did their timelines overlap by twenty-years, but his grand-nephew Paul had been good friend, the tragedy of their relationship immortalized in the autobiographical novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew which appeared the same year as this story. One might wonder if, in imagining Goethe in awe of Wittgenstein, he is not reflecting himself:

Bernhard had memorably expressed the potentially destructive effect of the encounter between the admired master and his disciple when he described his problematic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The question is whether I can write even for a moment about Wittgenstein without destroying either him (Wittgenstein) or myself (Bernhard). . . . Wittgenstein is a summons to which I cannot respond. . . . Thus, I do not write about Wittgenstein not because I cannot, but rather because I cannot respond to him.” [2]

The second story in this collection also involves, in a different manner, another of Bernhard’s heroes. “Montaigne: A Story in Twenty-Two Installments” first appeared in Die Zeit in October of 1982 to inaugurate a series of “miniature serial novels”. As translator James Reidel informs us in his generous endnotes, in keeping with his reputation for breathless, single paragraph narratives, Bernhard playfully supplied the first novel in miniature form as one continuous text marked up into twenty-two paragraphs or “installments.” The theme is a common one, a narrator with chronic lung disease retreats to a tower to read his precious Montaigne, but rather than reading he launches into a tirade against his family and the injustices they continually inflict upon him.

The crippling effects of a suffocating family environment are similarly central to the narrative that drives the third and longest piece, “Reunion.” Here the narrator carries out an intense, one-sided conversation with a childhood friend he has chanced to meet, calling to mind their parents’ soul destroying cruelty, exercised explicitly by forcing them to endure endless Alpine holidays (“And your parents always had on bright green caps in their bright green stockings, I said, mine bright red.”). Again, hallmark Bernhard themes are on display here, pushed within the narrow focus of the story, about as far as they can go. It is a perfect illustration of the way that he can take a few key concepts, build them up by running them them back and forth against each other, employing contradiction and counterpoint to create tension and drive the narrative forward to an ultimate climactic moment. At its most basic, as in this instance, it’s a solo dance—one self-obsessed character cataloging the litany of indecencies perpetrated against him, continually framing and reframing his experiences against others, empathy turning caustic as the rant builds.

Within the limited scope of the stories in Goethe Dies, some of the intensity of Bernhard’s longer works is necessarily dialed back a notch. However, that is not to imply that in short form he becomes complacent. There is always room for a little hyperbolic vitriol. In the fourth and shortest story, “Going up in Flames: A Travelogue to an Erstwhile Friend” Bernhard manages to unleash a vision worthy of Revelations in a mere eight pages.

For the Bernhard fan, Goethe Dies is a welcome addition to any serious collection. It is unlikely to disappoint. And for those who have been a little anxious to dive straight into a longer work, it may even be an ideal place to become acquainted with one of the most original and engaging prose stylists of the 20th century. Kolkata based Seagull Books, a publisher with a very strong list of German translations and a particular fondness for Bernhard, never fails to produce well-crafted, beautiful books and this little gem is no exception.

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A selection of interviews can be found here.
  2. Thomas Cousineau, “Thomas Bernhard: an introductory essay”, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 21, No.2 (2001), reproduced with permission at www.thomasbernhard.org
May 132016


Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. —Jason DeYoung

Dyer_border 1

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
Geoff Dyer
Pantheon Books, 2016
256 pages, $25


In his Paris Review interview, Geoff Dyer says this about his travels: “I like—and am on the lookout for—places where time has stood its ground… I like being in new places, having adventures, and examining the point where the place and the self interact or merge.”

Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. He is also a man who has a point, but has to arrive at it in his own way, on is own time, lest he never get there at all. And the point that he does get to is never what you expected, and it doesn’t quite live up to the promises or the possibilities of his narrative, because he’s an artist of disappointment and inverted expectations. In some ways, he does it to be funny. It’s part of his British humor to make peace with things less than perfect: “I’m English. Ninety-eight percent of anything always sounds good to me,” he says after being told by a doctor that he might not regain one-hundred percent of his eyesight back after a small stroke. But he also does it as an observant and attentive traveler, as when he describes the ruination of outdoor artwork by fencing.

Disarming, humorous prose aside, Dyer’s writing is multi-layered and complex. He tells us that he wants to understand and apply meaning to what he sees and experiences. Yes, he might be disappointed, but he makes something of it, often reshaping what is clearly a non-experience into something worth experiencing: fully accepting the moss-sheading counsel of Annie Dillard, who supplies one of the opening epigraphs to White Sands:

The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It’s simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.

Geoff Dyer is the author of gobs of books, including novels, essay collections, and book-length works of nonfiction, and it’s his nonfiction for which is his best known. His two most recent books are Zona (which I reviewed for Numéro Cinq) and Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. But White Sands is in some ways a gathering point, a return perhaps, to Dyer’s various interests that he explored in other books such as But Beautiful (on jazz), The Ongoing Moment (on photography), and Out of Seer Rage (a quasi-memoir devoted to Dyer’s own desire to write a “sober academic study” of DH Lawrence —he never does; he just writes a book about wanting to write one). He is not necessarily retreading ground in White Sands, but as he says in the book, he has been feeling things from his youth—such as the music of Pharoah Sanders and Coltrane—gripping him like they haven’t in decades.

Pharoah Sander’s “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” Somehow a song made to accompany Dyer’s work, as he writes in White Sands, “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” is “ten minutes of random percussion and bass and plonking around that never seems like getting anywhere.”

It isn’t easy to say what White Sands is—an essay collection or a collection of narratives?—because of a rather confounding Author’s Note. “[T]his book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction,” it reads, “What’s the difference? Well, in fiction stuff can be made up or altered….The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line…it is presumed to stand. In this regard White Sands is both the figure at the center of the carpet and a blank space on the map.”[1] Dyer’s also on record of saying that he doesn’t like the term “travel essay,” and that he has created personas for himself in his “non-fiction” before, notably in Out of Seer Rage, all of which tells me that taxonomies be damned here.

Hence, despite reading like a collection of essays in tone and form, for this review, I’m going to call White Sands a collection of narratives, which ought to be a baggy enough label to hold it. It includes nine large narratives, most around twenty to thirty pages in length, with ten mini chapter narratives framing the larger ones—it kind of reminds you of Hemingway’s In Our Time, with its flash-length chapters wedged between full-length stories. These short chapters act as the through line on which the larger, more in-depth narratives hang, and they give shape to the book. The opening chapter, for instance, is about a “hump” of land that Dyer and his friends played on in school. This hump is part of his “personal landscape”—“if we had decided to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmate, this is where we would have done it,” he writes. The following, larger narrative deals tangentially with the landscape of Polynesia, where Dyer glumly retraces the footsteps of Gauguin. These mini narratives have various degrees of connection to the larger ones, but they’re important to White Sands overall structure and focus, because it’s where themes are introduced and patterns of thought are reinforced, most notably is DH Lawrence’s idea of “nodality.”

In an essay on Taos, New Mexico, Lawrence says that there are “choice spots on the earth, where the spirit dwelt,” places that create “nodality,” where “when you get there you feel something final. There is an arrival.” These places form due to some fluke of geomorphology or develop a special quality, generally prehistoric. These are places in olden days where people believed that sterility could be cured or sacrifice could be laid and rain would come. Often, it has been forgotten what makes these places so special, with just its ruins as reminders of their singularity. Stonehenge, in popular imagination, might be something of the sort; for DH Lawrence, it was Taos, New Mexico.

White Sands is Dyer’s travels to find secular “nodalities”—areas that have acquired “the bleak gravity and elemental aura of prehistory,” places where time has perhaps stood its ground. He visits the aforementioned Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—a name that sounds more exciting than the actual artwork. He ventures to far northern Norway to glimpse the Northern Lights, and takes pilgrimages to the Brentwood homes of German philosophers who had fled the Nazis. He spends a day in China’s Forbidden City. And, of course, he visits White Sands, New Mexico, but he’s there for only a single paragraph.


Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970

Compared to Lawrence’s rapturous writing—“[T]he moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul”[2] —Dyer’s accounts of these places are calmer, sedate at times, except for his expression of discomfort, for which there are many. His discomfort, however, is our laughter, and this is when Dyer is at his best. At heart he’s a clever guy with a droll sense of humor, and I want to quote a few choice passages here:

I changed into one of those hospital gowns that tie up at the back, the purpose of which seems to be to enfeeble you, to reduce your capacity for independent action. To walk even few steps risks the ignominy of exposing your bottom to the world. (“Stroke of Luck”)

Nevertheless, we did what you do when you come to a place for a Euro city break: we went for a walk, one of the most horrible walks we had ever embarked on. The Norwegian word for ‘stroll’ is best translated as ‘grim battle for survival…’ (“Northern Lights”)

My heart sank. My heart is prone to sinking, and although few words have the capacity to make it sink as rapidly or deeply as the word ‘guide,’ plenty of others make it sink like a slow stone: words like ‘having to’ or ‘listen to,’ as in having to listen to a guide tell me stuff about the Forbidden City I could read about in a book back home, by which time any desire to do so would have sunk without trace. (“Forbidden City”)

Many of Gauguin’s most famous paintings are of Tahitian babes who were young and sexy and ate fruit and looked like they were always happy to go to bed with a syphilitic old letch whose legs were covered in weeping eczema.…. [In truth] the missionaries made them wear something called a Mother Hubbard. (“Where? What? Where”)[3]

Notwithstanding a clear label to put on the works in White Sands (and why the hell should we need one?!) Dyer is a master of smartly structured narrative form. The pieces here range from straight up personal narratives to hybridized works of storytelling, essay, and criticism. He deploys techniques of iteration of conflict, “power of three,” and estrangement, all the while delightfully dipping and diving through jazz lore and the works from academic heavyweights such as Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and Robert Hughes. Even his shaggy-dog-ness is carefully structured. “Pilgrimage” is a good example of this, because the narrative flows cosmically through the landscape of a Sunday morning in Los Angles, to the front door of Theodore Adorno’s Brentwood home, then passes into a contemporary reflection on Minima Moralia (text Adorno started in the depths of World War II and finished in sunny LA in 1949, while in exile), before surfacing with the narrator opining on age, acro adagio, Susan Sontag’s own pilgrimage to visit Thomas Mann, and the photography of Antoine Wilson, who calls himself “the slow paparazzo,” taking pictures of places where celebrities were within minutes of their leaving. The piece is really quite something, recharging and recycling the themes and thoughts of the entire book, yet never seeming to repeat the same story, as if turning a multifaceted cut crystal, continually finding new angles.

The Questioner of the SphinxThe Questioner of the Sphinx, Elihu Vedders, 1863

In Chapter Four, Dyer spells out what these broad experiences in the book sum up to be. To illustrate it, he call on a painting by Elihu Vedders called The Questioner of the Sphinx. Dyer writes: “His painting seems emblematic of the experience that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.” Yes, this is there, in the book, but there’s something else too, and that is negative space, and lots of it. In narrative after narrative, we have descriptions of missed opportunities, of the time and space enclosing experiences that weren’t special or didn’t live up to their “marketing,” or of a lifelong desire for an “elsewhere.” In one of the chapter narratives, the narrator, presumably Dyer himself, talks about his rich aunt sending postcards to him a child from the American Southwest which gave the young Geoffery his “first sense of elsewhere; an elsewhere that seemed the opposite of everywhere and everything I knew” in Cheltenham, England.

Finding this “elsewhere,” whether good or bad, is what he strives for in his “experiences from the outside world” (another phrase from DH Lawrence). In this search he finds mostly the mysterious negative space surrounding fulfillment. He struggles to know what to make of it, and White Sands second epigraph, from Kafka, might shed some light on this struggle. It reads:

There remains the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of the substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.

Inexplicable, ineffable, a deep space or inner space, places to lose one self: we see this over and over in Dyer’s work. “I would have liked to spend hours in there, a whole day even,” he writes about an art installation that desensitized its participants with beat-less music and saturating, soft blue lights—it’s a place to escape the chafe of time, perhaps.

White Sands is a remarkably well-thought out work. The more you pull at it the more it reveals to have additional streams of life and layers. In spite of all Dyer’s disappointments, it’s a hopeful and satisfying read, too. It’s a book one can’t help but feel some inspiration from, especially when Dyer writes from his Romantic heritage: “Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around forever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.”

—Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Again from the Paris Review interview: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.”
  2. DH Lawrence, Selected Essays. “Mexico and New Mexico,” Page 182. Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.
  3. But the drollest passage I know in Dyer’s work comes from a wonderful book called Otherwise Know as the Human Condition (2011) in an essay called “Sex and Hotels.” Just for chuckles, here it is: “Hotels are synonymous with sex. Sex in a hotel is romantic, daring, unbridled, wild. Sex in a hotel is sexy. If you’ve been having a sexy time at home you’ll have a sexier time in a hotel. And it’s even more fun if there are two of you.”
May 122016


Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. —Joseph Schreiber


Quiet Creature on the Corner
João Gilberto Noll
Translated by Adam Morris
Two Lines Press, May 2016
120 pages; $9.95


We humans tend to fancy ourselves rational beings. We hold to the convention of cause and effect. We imagine that if faced with strange and unusual situations, we would respond with curiosity, anxiety, or alarm and make an effort to act appropriately. We are inclined to believe that we need to understand what is happening to us and around us at all times. But, is that truly the way we actually exist in the world?

João Gilberto Noll is an author who dares to challenge that assumption. His novel, Quiet Creature on the Corner is, on the surface, a spare and modestly surreal tale of a young man who surrenders himself to a life that is inexplicably handed to him without seriously questioning his circumstances until he is deeply absorbed in a situation that is rapidly growing stranger and more uncertain. Newly released from Two Lines Press, in a measured, wonderfully restrained translation by Adam Morris, this novel offers an English language audience an absorbing introduction to this esteemed Brazilian author.

Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1946, Noll began his studies in literature in 1967, but left school two years later to work as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. He would eventually return to university, completing his degree in 1979. Participation in the University of Iowa Writer’s Program in 1982 brought him to international attention when one of his stories was included in an anthology of new Brazilian authors published in Germany in 1983. Over the following twenty years he would be invited to teach in Berkley, California; Bellagio, Italy; and London, UK. Quiet Creature on the Corner (O quieto animal da esquina), his fifth novel, was originally published in 1991.

Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. Like many of his Brazilian literary cohorts he was nourished on a “robust” existentialism and reflects that this, combined with his own innate sense of himself as a human being, may have been critical in forming his view of literature as having:

. . . a universal, maybe even atemporal core, to the extent that one can say that . . . for we’re not here to deny the material conditions of time and space. But it’s my impression that there’s something pretty common at the heart of the phenomenon of literary creation, the fact that it’s born out of tremendous unease, a tremendous discomfort, a feeling of enormous insufficiency in the face of what is real.[1]

He describes himself as more interested, more committed to speaking about the impossible than the possible. And, although he is typically considered a postmodern writer, he is not entirely comfortable with that classification, insofar as he sees it as legitimizing cynicism. “I am in no way at all cynical,” he insists, “I’m tragic the whole time, I take everything in strict seriousness, that’s why I don’t consider myself post-modern.”[2]

Written and set during the years marking Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy, the surreal atmosphere that filters through the narrative of Quiet Creature on the Corner reflects the shifting and uncertain dynamics of a society in flux. The book opens with the unnamed narrator, a nineteen-year-old living in Porto Alegre, washing from his hands the grease of the job he has just lost. There is the immediate sense that he is relieved to rid himself of this manual labour even if it means joining the growing ranks of the unemployed. He prefers to see himself as a poet, a purveyor of verse. He spends his days wandering around town, and shares a squat with his mother in an unfinished building at night. The streets of his impoverished neighbourhood are littered with signs of decay and economic ruin.

One day, following a back alley sexual encounter with a neighbour, he finds himself arrested and charged with rape. However, our hero does not spend long in jail, the next morning a mysterious German man hands him a package containing poetry books and paper, and informs him that he is going to a psychiatric clinic. No matter how odd this turn of events may be, his reaction is positive: “Wow, . . . my entire life looks like it’s about to change,” he remarks. He is still young but he feels that he has been waiting, impatiently, for his life to get itself sorted out. He gives the impression he almost imagines this is his due.

His time at the clinic appears to be spent in some kind of dream-like state. He describes an idyllic life on a farm with the same girl who had charged him with rape, caring for horses and cows, and becoming a father. When he emerges from this condition he is surprised to find he is still in his room at the clinic, his experiences had seemed so real. However he notices that the German man, whom he will soon learn is named Kurt, appears considerably older than he remembers. He asks to see a mirror and discovers that he himself has grown long hair and a thick beard. He wonders how much time has passed.

From the clinic, rather than returning to his old life, the narrator is pleased to see that he being taken out to a large estate in the country where he will live with Kurt, his wife Gerda, a man named Otávio, and the servant girl, Amália. Again he takes this development in stride. The atmosphere in the household is oddly tense; the dynamic between the residents is strained, pierced with silences and marked by some very strange interactions that our protagonist chances to observe. Nonetheless, he seems quite content to see how this new life will proceed. After all, he has a comfortable place to live, his needs are all taken care of, and the only thing he seems to be expected to do is write poetry. There is an element of passive opportunism in his attitude that is somewhat unnerving—he quickly becomes sexually involved with Amália and studies Kurt for indications of how he might assure his continued patronage.

As time goes on he learns that Gerda has cancer. This brings him into a closer proximity with Kurt, serving to deepen the mystery around this enigmatic man, rather than revealing secrets. After she succumbs to her illness, Kurt’s rapid aging accelerates. It is at this point that our protagonist seriously begins to question how quickly time is passing and realizes that he has lost his ability to judge. He notices that the remaining members of the household are also aging, and that he himself is no longer the young man he was when he arrived. He becomes increasingly troubled by the strange and surreal quality of his existence, and the curious nature of his benefactor. This impassive man seems to exercise a strange hold that keeps Otávio and Amália circling around him like satellites. What is it?

Yet, as much as he is worried about losing whatever potential financial advantage that might still await him, our protagonist still seems to be uncertain just how much he really wants to know, how much he wants to give, and how close he is willing to get to anyone to figure things out. One senses that so much remains unknown, simply because the narrator makes no real effort to understand, to fully engage. And herein lies the heart of the unsettling, haunting power of this novel.

Quiet Creature is a short work, easily read in one or two sittings. The language is spare, measured, with a matter-of-fact tone that holds level throughout. For our narrator, the past is best forgotten, the future uncertain but, with luck, ripe to be exploited. Whether he is recounting experiences that are mundane or extraordinary, his ambivalent, mildly irritated mood rarely wavers:

The late afternoon shadows had already insinuated themselves among the branches of the Protestant cemetery, the discreet headstones engraved almost exclusively with German names. Kurt and I were walking down a path and our steps made a cadence on the flagstones. Ahead of us, a gravedigger was pushing a little cart that carried Gerda’s casket. The wheels could’ve used an oiling, they made an infernal noise. From time to time the vision of an iron cross, stark, made my head pulse. Gerda’s grave just wouldn’t arrive. The gravedigger was really putting an effort into pushing the little cart, steeply bent over, his ass sticking out at us, pants straining at the seam between his enormous buttocks. I noticed it was getting darker. And the gravedigger started down another path.

At that time of day it was hard to discern the bottom of the grave. The gravedigger asked Kurt if he’d like to open the casket one last time. Kurt shook his head no, and nearby a bell began to toll.

I threw a shovelful of earth into the hole.

Time passes in an uneven, disjointed manner; a sensation heightened by the absence of any type of chapter or section breaks. Periodically there are abrupt jumps in time and place from one paragraph to the next, jarring when encountered in the narrative but effectively reminiscent of the shifts between scenes in a movie, lending a distinctly filmic quality to the dream-like, non-rational story. It is not surprising that critics have referenced filmmakers like David Lynch and Werner Herzog in an attempt to describe this book. Noll’s focus on light and dark, sounds and silence, further enhances this effect.

However, I would argue that it is the author’s exploitation of the inherent instability between the ordinary and the exceptional, and the social and the ontological that gives Quiet Creature on the Corner its distinctive, unsettling feel. As readers we have access to no reality outside the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a man who maintains an attitude that is at once entirely self-interested yet emotionally disengaged. Like Camus’ Meursault or Handke’s Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, he demonstrates neither remorse nor regret for his crime. And why should he? It is, as far as he is concerned, the best thing that ever happened to him, lifting him out of a life of poverty and dead end jobs. He states on more than one occasion that he will do whatever is necessary to come out of this to his advantage even if he has no idea what that might entail.

Most disturbing is the startling lack of regard for others that our hero demonstrates. Only Kurt is important because he holds the key to his future security. As political events, blockades and rallies, intrude on his life he reacts with frustration—especially if they threaten something he wants. One is left to wonder at this desire to turn his back on everything he has known, including his mother, and his willingness to submit to such a strange, surreal world that might well exact a high price as his aging benefactor rapidly declines and his country moves on to democratic reform. But then, especially in times of instability and major change, who’s to say where the truth lies and whether denial of reality in the hope of another possibility is not the only sensible response?

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His reviews have also been published at 3:AM and Three Percent. He tweets @roughghosts.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. David Treece, “Interview with João Gilberto Noll,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 6:2 (1997): 123
  2. Ibid., 129
May 092016


When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. —David Wojahn

the road

The Road in is Not the Same as The Road Out
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 104 pp.
Hardcover, $25.00

The Living Option: Selected Poems
Bloodaxe Books, 2014, 160 pp.
Paperback, $9.95


In 2014, upon the British publication of The Living Option, a volume of Karen Solie’s new and selected poems, the poet-critic Michael Hofmann, writing in The London Review of Books, lauded the collection in a manner that surely surpasses any poet’s most delicious fantasies about what constitutes a positive review. Hofmann heaped on the tributes so thickly that a reader unfamiliar with Solie’s work could easily have been lead to wonder if Hofmann had written the piece under the influence of some sort prescription mood enhancer so appealing that you’d love to get your hands on some of it—though perhaps not for the sake of writing about a poetry collection. By the end of the second paragraph of the review Solie was seen by Hofmann as the peer not only of well-regarded contemporary poets such as Frederick Seidel, Les Murray, and Lawrence Joseph, but also Big Shots from the pantheon—Brecht, Brodksy, Whitman, and Stevens got namechecked as well. That Hofmann would lavish such praise on a writer who had published only three collections before her Selected, all from small presses in her native Canada—she was born in on a farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1966, and now resides in Toronto—made the review all the more remarkable. Solie’s nationality also offered Hofmann an opportunity to tartly disparage the chauvinism of the UK and US literary establishments, who tend to regard other Anglophone literatures as what he witheringly characterized as “apocrypha or appendix, the province of specialists or pity.” Reviews of such unabashed ardor are exceedingly rare in the world of poetry, particularly when they arise from the subculture of Pavlovian snarkiness that passes for poetry reviewing in the UK. And when such reviews do appear, their claims tend to be hyperbolic or just plain wrong. But about Solie Hofmann was for the most part spot on. I’ll refrain from the Whitman, Brecht, and Stevens comparisons here, but I have no hesitation in saying that Solie is one of the most exciting poets at work today. And with the US publication of The Road in is Not the Same as the Road Out, a volume of Solie’s recent work, readers in the States can see something of the breadth of Solie’s accomplishment.

I hasten to add that something, for neither The Road in…. nor the perplexingly skimpy selection of Solie’s poetry included in The Living Option allows a reader to accurately assess the niceties of Solie’s development, nor to appreciate the remarkable consistency of the quality of her work. The Solie of The Road in… is a garrulous and impishly meditative poet. The poems start with oddball but tangible subject matter (with titles such as “Roof Repair and Squirrel Control,” and “A Good Hotel in Rotterdam”), but then immediately grow loopily digressive (or darkly sardonic) and tend to wander about engagingly (or scathingly) for several pages. Solie’s earlier work, however, is somewhat different from this later style: many of the poems are short, acerbic lyrics—and in subject matter they are deeply reflective of the flatness, vastness and desolation of Canada’s prairie provinces. The work is regional in the best, Wordsworthian, sense, always keen to give itself “a local habitation and a name.” In Solie’s case, this fidelity to the local means a preponderance of poems that take place during stultifyingly long car rides, in strip malls, in barely half-star roadside motels, in dive bars, or on those scary puddle-jumper jet flights from one unremarkable city to another, where determining the right mixture of Xanax and vial-sized booze bottles becomes a kind of survival skill. Some of these poems appear in The Living Option, but not enough of them. One really has to seek out her early Canadian collections, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005) and 2009’s magisterial Pigeon to get a complete picture of Solie’s accomplishment.[1]

The only reasonably priced copy of Short Haul Engine I could find on Amazon when I was composing this essay has a very large stamp on its inner cover that reads, “WITHDRAWN FROM THE COLLECTION / WINDSOR PUBLIC LIBRARY BUDIMIR BRANCH.” And in my library copy of Modern and Normal, a reader has used a pink highlighter pen to single out poems that she especially likes, along with handwritten notes in the margins, set down with the careful but shaky penmanship of someone more skilled with keyboards than with writing implements. Still, Ms. Highlighter Pen is some places a fairly astute critic. Here are the margin notes which accompany a characteristic early Solie poem, entitled “Nice”:
fleeting thoughts
calm, shrug

And here is the poem itself, complete with its epigraph from Diane Arbus:


“I think I’m kind of two-faced. I’m very ingratiating. It
really annoys me. I’m just sort of a little too nice. Everything
is Oooo”   –Diane Arbus

Still dark, but just. The alarm
kicks on. A voice like a nice hairdo
squeaks People get ready
for another nice one, Low 20s,
soft breeze, ridge of high pressure
settling nicely. Songbirds swallowing, ruffling,
starting in. Does anyone curse
the winter wren, calling in Christ’s name
for one bloody minute of silence?
Of course not. They sound nice.
I pull away and he asks why I can’t
be nicer to him. Well,
I have work, I say, and wouldn’t it be nice
if someone made some money today?
Very nice, he quavers, rolling
his face to the wall. A nice face.
A nice wall. We agreed on the green
down to hue and shade right away.
That was a very nice day.

Quite an acrid little meditation, this, and not an unfamiliar one if you’re conversant with what we’ve now come to reductively call post-modern style. And Ms. Pink Highlighter Pen has unwittingly listed many of the rudiments of that style, with its discontinuity, its irony, its offhanded critiques of the vapid platitudes of media and consumerist culture (“…get ready/ for another nice one…:” “We agreed on the green/down to hue and shade right away”); its associative slipperiness. And yet, although “Nice” shows us how skillfully Solie can walk the po-mo walk, she shows just as strong an allegiance to more traditional poetic devices. There’s the Hopkinsian linguistic tour de force of “Songbirds swallowing, ruffling,/starting in,” and the Eliotic diction of “Does anyone curse the winter wren?” as well as the loose tetrameter of the poem’s key lines. Furthermore, “Nice” is quite cunningly structured, seeming to free associate in its opening, before ending with an old-fangled narrative description of domestic discord and regret. Although Solie has almost bludgeoned us with her examples of how the word “nice” has been debased in our vernacular, the poem’s final line asks to be read with pathos rather than irony. This realignment does not come without warning. The ambivalence and self-criticism of the Arbus quote has prepared us for it. Like Philip Larkin at his best, Solie here—and in many other poems as well—begins with dyspepsia, but slowly and methodically turns her bile into something bracing. The poem closes not with a calm shrug (or “calm, shrug”), but with a gesture of guarded epiphany.

Solie is, above all, a voice-driven poet. Of course, so are countless numbers of her peers. But she differs from her peers in no small measure because she has found that voice through a hybridization of a very unlikely pairing of masters. She has obviously learned much from John Ashbery, and has cited him as an influence. You see this in her abrupt shifts of tone and diction, in her use of found poetry and goofy titles (among my favorites are “Your Premiums Will Never Increase,” “Self-Portrait in a Series of Professional Evaluations,” and “When Asked Why He Was Talking To Himself, Pryrrho Replied He Was Practicing to be a Nice Fellow”); in the ways in which her whimsy often gives way to dread, and in her delight in mixing high and low culture references. This latter quality is especially appealing. On the one hand she offers us poems with titles such as “Meeting Walter Benjamin” and “Sleeping with Wittgenstein,” while on other she relentlessly samples lyrics and song titles from classic and post-punk rock, sometimes with attribution, but mostly not. There are nods to the Band, John Lee Hooker, X, REM, Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among others. But Solie also understands that the effete cosmopolitanism of Ashbery doesn’t in the long run speak to her milieu. A poem such as “Medicine Hat Calgary One Way” takes places about as far from New York and the New York School as one can get, both geographically and aesthetically—the speaker is on a bus, passing “Strip malls and big box stores whose/ faces regard with solemn appreciation/the shifting congress of late model vehicles/ who attend them” and a “downtown deserted as the coda/ to a biological disaster.”

You need an entirely different model to describe this sort of landscape and the particular melancholy which attends it. And Solie has found that model in another poet she has cited in an interview as an abiding influence, and evokes in an epigraph to a section of Short Haul Engine. Regrettably, he is a figure who has fallen out of fashion—Richard Hugo, known today, if he is known at all, as the author of a classic creative writing textbook, The Triggering Town. But Hugo is among the most significant poets to have emerged from the North American West. He is also in almost every conceivable way the opposite of Ashbery: he is baldly confessional where Ashbery is self-concealing; he is largely narrative in his approach where Ashbery is militantly non-linear. And his allegiance to the Romantic tradition is a far cry from Ashbery’s Duchampian nihilism. Hugo doggedly adheres to the Wordsworthian notion that nature is a metaphor for the self—and vice versa. But Hugo is also a wounded Romantic: for Hugo, whatever natural grandeur the West once had has been despoiled. It is now a quietly dystopian realm of half-deserted mining towns, crummy roadside bars, long unvarying drives on the Interstates, and unhappy and impoverished childhoods that morph into similarly unhappy (and usually alcoholic) adulthoods. And it often seems as though Hugo is constitutionally (rather than merely aesthetically) unable to distinguish self from landscape, identity from setting. In “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” his best-known poem, after offering a brutal tour of a nearly deserted mining town, Hugo makes the connection unequivocally clear: “Isn’t this your life?…../ Isn’t this defeat/ so accurate the church bell simply seems/ a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?” What saves Hugo’s work from too frequently succumbing to the maudlin—and what saves Solie’s poetry from this as well—is a kind of laconic humor that leavens even his most disconsolate efforts, offhanded observations along the lines of “George played rotten trombone/ Easters when they flew the flag.” I think it’s safe to say that Hugo’s West is strikingly similar to Solie’s West, and her move to Toronto has not significantly diminished her preoccupation with her prairie province upbringing. And her particular command of tone, of a biting wit that barely conceals a deeper distress, derives in no small part from Hugo as well. At the start of a grimly ironic Solie poem entitled “Possibility,” she and Hugo might as well be traveling in the same rental car, and checking into the same Day’s Inn:

A rented late-model car, Strewn gear. Clothes,
books, liquor, one good knife for slicing
limes. Motel the orange of an old rind. Bud green
and remaindered blue for trim. Some schemes

shouldn’t work, but do. A square room
with balcony two floors above the strip. Real
keys. A man sleeping on the bed,
or pretending to. It will be alright. It’s not

too late. We left on the sly and nothing bad

I hasten to add that Solie has been influenced by a number of other figures, though none as profoundly as Ashbery and Hugo. You can detect a debt to Symborska in her use of tone, and one to Transtromer in her approach to imagery. And—although I may be presumptive in thinking she reads, or has needed to read, a great many poets residing south of the 49th Parallel—you can also discern a smidgen of Dean Young and Tony Hoagland in her associative see-sawing, although she never succumbs to Hoagland’s curdled misanthropy.

But I should also hasten to add that no poet as good as Solie is the mere product of her influences. And I must confess that by spending so much time tracing her various aesthetic pedigrees, however interesting that investigation may have been, I’ve been derelict in what should have been my primary intention—of trying to define what makes her an original. So allow me to make a tentative attempt to reach that goal. Canadian poet Jim Johnstone, in an otherwise rather stilted assessment of Solie printed last year in Poetry, astutely praises what he calls her “carefully controlled unpredictability.” Despite her tendency to pursue quirky associative tangents, despite her wise-cracking persona, her poems possess a rich lyric and narrative precision. More importantly, they possess what Adam Zagajewski calls a “moral seriousness,” a stance that both reflects the bewildering complexity of contemporary culture and sternly condemns the ethical lassitude that arises from it. In this respect her poems are much like the work of Auden in his great period of the late 1930s: we are initially so impressed by the technical brilliance and wit of his writing that it takes some time for us to recognize the intensity of its moral outrage. And Solie, subtly but insistently, reminds us that there is plenty to be outraged about. The poems touch upon social injustice, ecological destruction, political chicanery (take a look at a merciless little poem entitled “The Prime Minister” and you can see why Hofmann likens Solie to Brecht), and our ADHD-addled addiction to the web—a realm of limitless data, factoids, and nattering, much of it pernicious and trivial. Solie is not so ideological a poet that she cares to posit solutions to these dilemmas. Her desire is instead to console us, and to allow us to draw some insights from her unflappable example. She is our cultural tour guide, fulfilling the role that Mandelstam tells us Vergil plays in The Inferno, always striving to “amend and redirect the course [of our seeing].” These are high claims, I know, but I make them without hyperbole. If you want evidence, allow me to look more closely at two fairly recent poems. One, “Life Is a Carnival,” is included in The Road in is Not the Same as the Road Out. The second, “Cave Bear,” appeared in the 2009’s Pigeon.

“Life Is a Carnival,” uses as its title another of Solie’s musical samplings—in this case she co-opts the name of a song by the Band, one with lyrics that decidedly belie the title’s apparent breeziness. Life may be a carnival, but for the Band this also means our masters are unscrupulous carnies. (My favorite lines in the song could have come from Solie’s own pen—“We’re all in the same boat ready to float off the edge of the world,” and “Hey buddy, would you like to buy a watch real cheap?”). The song is not so much about self-deception as it is about our puzzling nonplussed willingness to be conned. The poem commences innocently enough, but the subject of delusion soon becomes its controlling motif:

Dinner finished, wine in hand, in a vaguely competitive spirit
of disclosure, we trail Google Earth’s invisible pervert
through the streets of our hometowns, but find them shabbier, or grossly

contemporized, denuded of childhood’s native flora,
stuccoed or in some other way hostile
to the historical reenactments we expect of or former

settings. What sadness in the disused curling rinks, their illegal
basement bars imploding, in the seed of a Wal-Mart
sprouting in the demographic, in Street View’s perpetual noon. With pale

and bloated production values, hits of AM radio rise
to the surface of a network of social relations long obsolete. We sense
a loss of rapport. But how sweet the persistence

of angle parking!

As dramatic situations go, this one is priceless. “Dinner finished, wine in hand” leads us to suspect that the couple in the poem are readying for a tryst, or at the very least are snuggling up to a night with Netflix, but instead they tour their respective childhoods, courtesy of “Google Earth’s invisible pervert,” a characteristically inventive Solie trope—clever, but at the same time disconcerting. The couple is quickly disbursed of that quintessential human desire to see the past nostalgically. We’re offered “shabby” hometowns “denuded of childhood’s native fauna.” It’s all Wal-Marts and “disused curling rinks.” “Angle parking” may persist unchanged—but nothing else will. Yet the dose of reality which the couple is offered “in Street View’s perpetual noon” is too mediated and abstracted to register as realistic. (I’m also lead to wonder if Solie had Elizabeth Bishop as well as the Band in mind during the composition of this poem: the disconnect between a couple’s idealized wistfulness and an accurate perception of their past is examined in a fashion almost identical to that of Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”) As the poem continues to unfold, the couple’s anxiety only intensifies:

Would we burn those places rather than see them
change? , or simply burn them, the sites of wreckage
from which we staggered from our formative injuries into the rest

of our lives. They cannot be consigned to the fourfold.
Though the age we were belongs to someone else. Like our old
house. Look what they’ve done to it. Who thought this would be fun?

This passage also offers us one of those shifts in diction that are a hallmark of Solie’s style. “The age we were belongs to someone else,” with its precise iambs and charged rhetoric, is immediately undercut by the vernacular (and pyrric-laden) “Who thought this would be fun?” This contrast, with its admixture of abjection and absurdity, is a perfect culmination of what the poem has been working toward all along. A lesser writer would have been tempted to end the poem here—but Solie carries on, and brilliantly. Here’s the conclusion:

A concert then. YouTube from those inconceivable days before
YouTube, an era boarded over like a bankrupt country store,
cans on its shelves, so hastily did we leave it. How beautiful

they are in their pouncey clothes, their youthful higher
registers, fullscreen, two of them dead now. Is this
eternity? Encore, applause, encore; it’s almost like being there.

This ending manages to be both cautionary and revelatory. The web is addictive in no small measure because it allows us to instantaneously dispel discomfort. A couple of clicks, and we can move from uncomfortable reckonings with our pasts to pure escapism. And it goes without saying that the web enables more monstrous segues to take place as well—were you so inclined, you could watch an Isis beheading video and immediately follow it with grainy footage of a pet doing something cute. Solie is canny enough to admit that she is as complicit in this state of affairs as any of the rest of us. But she also knows, as Pound would have said, “that what thou lovest well remains”—remains in this case through majesty of the Band during their final performance in 1976, as captured by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, a film that has been rightly called the best rock documentary of all time. Never mind that this performance is being seen by a disgruntled couple peering into a tiny laptop screen, that the version of the film they are watching is likely a pirated one, that the Band are quaintly dressed in bellbottoms, flouncy shirts, and other cringe-worthy ‘70s regalia, or that two of the figures occupying the Winterland Ballroom stage on which they perform are now in their graves. (Sadly, with the death of Levon Helm, the number now stands at three.) And let’s remember that Solie is not a callow millennial who takes the clutter, benumbing over-stimulation, and maniacal web-surfing of the digital era for granted. No, to witness the abiding art of the past through a medium that the speaker is old enough to find estranging and compromised is not really “almost like being there.” But, on the other hand, it is as close to being there as we can venture. However fractured and debased, an aura persists, a rightness. It’s hard to read Solie’s closure as embittered. The poem’s final gesturer—and forgive me if I keep seeing so many overt literary homages in Solie’s work—is not so far removed from the closing of Frank O’Hara’s great elegy for Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died.” The couple may be sipping cheap chardonnay and watching ghostly figures on a 13-inch Mac, but the moment they experience is one in which, as O’Hara puts it, “everyone and I stopped breathing.”

If “The Last Waltz” is ultimately about what we preserve from the past, against all odds, “Cave Bear” is about extinction and the paucity of historical memory. Yet the poem also insists that nothing is so extinct or so forgotten that it cannot be exploited and commodified. (Tellingly, we eventually discover that the poem is set in Alberta, the site of those behemoth, stygian and ecologically toxic strip mines that turn tar sands into crude: the land not of drill, baby, drill, but of gouge, baby, gouge.) The poem’s opening reads like a send-up of a motivational speaker’s Power Point presentation, but then, in typical Solie fashion, everything soon gets wiggier:

The longer dead, the more expensive.
Extinction adds value.
Value appreciates.
This may demonstrate a complex cultural mechanism
but in any case, buyers get interested.
And nothing’s worth anything without the buyers.
No one knows that better than the United Mine Workers of America.

A hired team catalogued the skeleton,
took it from its cave to put on the open market.
retail bought it, flew it over to reassemble
and sell again. Imagine him
foraging low Croatian mountains in the Pleistocene.
And now he’s flying. Now propped at an aggressive posture
in the foyer of a tourist shop in the Canadian Rockies
and going for roughly forty.

One could hardly imagine a more bizarre journey than that of the skeleton from a cave floor in Eastern Europe to a high-end tourist shop in Alberta. This is cutthroat capitalism at its strangest, and a writer as erudite as Solie would likely know that the commodification of a cave bear skeleton is also a kind of spiritual profanation: mounted cave bear skulls are often found in the painted caves of Paleolithic Europe, among them Chauvet, site of the oldest cave art yet to be discovered.

The poem takes an even weirder and more surprising turn in its final stanza:

The pit extends its undivided attention.
When the gas ignited off the slant at Hillcrest
Old Level One, 93 years ago
June, they were carried out by the hundreds,
alive or dead, the bratticemen, carpenters,
timbermen, rope-riders, hoistmen,
labourers, miners, all but me, Stanley Bainbridge,
the one man never found.

Although the poem has suddenly swerved to a detailed description of a little-known historical disaster—in this case the Hillcrest, Alberta, mine explosion of 1914, which killed 189—I doubt if anyone encountering this passage for the first time would stop reading in order to do a web search on this event. As with Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piemont,” the impact of the description is so acute and visceral that we really don’t care about the historical circumstances—not at first, at least. Nor are we especially puzzled when Solie tells us, in the poem’s very last lines, that its speaker is one of the dead miners. As with “The Last Waltz,” Solie is unafraid to make a radical associative leap just as the poem seems ready to wind down. It is also a perfectly fitting gesture, yoking the Brechtian social satire of the opening to a specific human tragedy, and managing to link the demise the cave bear to the death of Stanley Bainbridge. The latter is an especially risky analogy. But Solie brings it off, and without willfulness or bathos.

When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. Just as importantly, the work immediately prompted a dumbfounded question—how did the writer do that? I look forward to asking that last question about Solie’s work for as long as she continues to write poetry. I see that I have now matched Michael Hofmann in extravagant comparisons, but so be it.

—David Wojahn



David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.”


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Editor’s Note: Solie’s first two collections Short Haul Engine (2001) and Modern and Normal (2005) have always been available since their publication and available through Brick Books and through Amazon – Short Haul Engine is in its 6th printing while Modern and Normal in its 8th printing.
Apr 192016

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024 Sam Savage


It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife. —David Wojahn


Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015) — Sam Savage
Numéro Cinq, Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016


The poems of Sam Savage are quietly revelatory and informed by a certain oddness of perception that derives in some respects from surrealism—but to link his poems to any literary movement does them a disservice. Savage is a party of one, and it is baffling that his poetry has not found the readership that his fiction has enjoyed. His poems have a fictionist’s command of narrative, but his story lines are always implicit, and always compliment an astringent lyric acuity. Above all, his verse reminds me of something Stanley Kunitz observed about the poetry of James Wright, in which “things are capable of changing into their opposites, as suffering into joy, despair into radiance.”

As often as not, Savage’s poems emerge from the experience of uncertainty and pain, of the body in rebellion. Here is a characteristic passage, a description of patient being x-rayed: “Oh yes, says someone/ you don’t know, pointing to a bird-wing-like/ blur behind the white bars,/…………There’s this.” Yet Savage’s pervasive awareness of mortality almost invariably gives way to buoyancy, even to a kind of whimsy. We see this latter quality in especially satisfying fashion in his poems about an alter-ego named Kiffler, a character in the mode of Zbigniew Herbert’s indispensable creation, Mr. Cogito. That Savage can forge a poetry of such emotive complexity within the confines of a decidedly spare and minimalist style is a very significant accomplishment indeed. Witness the epigrammatic concision of the following poem, which I quote in full:   

My Father’s Death

The sun had just come up
when all the light of my father died.

A lizard in its crept place opened one eye.
Ants climbed in spiral motion a stem of tall grass.

In that instant an instant was given.
It was shining as on the first day.

Birds sang brightly from the trees
and nothing was left that was obscure.

God is in the details, quipped LeCorbusier, and that is certainly the case here. I adore the description of the “lizard in its crept place,” and the grimly playful conundrum of “in that instant an instant was given.” And, above all, there’s the exquisite and pained epiphany of the poem’s final line.

Literary reputation, as we all know, is fickle. And to even employ a term such as “literary reputation” in respect to contemporary poetry seems more than a little absurd. Yes, a handful of poets at work today will be remembered, but that handful is not likely to include those figures who are currently at the top of the food chain. It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife.

—David Wojahn



David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry  FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.”




Apr 082016


With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. — Benjamin Woodard


The Reactive
Masande Ntshanga
Two Dollar Radio
174 pages ($15.99)
ISBN 978-1-937512-43-9


Topping 6 million infections, South Africa is home to the largest number of HIV cases in the world, and it’s an understatement to say that the country’s government has paved a rocky road in its reluctant battle against the lentivirus. Though educational programs flourish today, as does a substantial antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment program, ramifications from past decades linger. Without proper identification and care, infection numbers rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the early 2000s saw high-ranking officials, particularly then president Thabo Mbeki, actively engaged in AIDS denialism, claiming tenuous links between HIV and AIDS and chastising aggressive medicinal assistance. During this time, ARVs were scarce, despite offers from international manufacturers to supply patients with inexpensive medication, and those who received such treatments were few and far between.

Masande Ntshanga’s engrossing debut novel, The Reactive, unfolds during the Mbeki presidency. It’s 2003, and Lindanathi, a young HIV infected man in Cape Town, spends his days huffing industrial glue with his friends Cecelia and Ruan. When they’re not slumming in an apartment, the trio work together to illegally sell Lindanathi’s extra ARV supply—Cecelia and Ruan are not infected, and Lindanathi is a lucky ARV recipient—to local reactives for quick cash. In lieu of chapters, the novel is broken into five parts, and the first dedicates itself to establishing the relationship between Lindanathi, or Nathi, and his friends, who casually float in and out of day jobs, HI Virus group meetings, parties, and cloudy conversations. Nathi tells his story in first-person POV, and the reader is swiftly immersed into the daily ennui of the gang. Two Dollar Radio, the novel’s American publisher, sells Ntshanga’s narrative on its website as “James Baldwin + Transpotting + Harmony Korine,” and the comparison is apt. More than once, I was reminded of the closing line of “Sonny’s Blues”—“For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling”—while reading. Like the Biblical cup of suffering tenuously hovering over Baldwin’s character, waiting to be acknowledged or shunned, in many ways, Nathi’s life is one of limbo, of both life and death, and death’s inevitability frequently crops up, whether Nathi claims, “It’s still a long stretch of time before I die,” or plays games like Last Life, which “is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet.”

The novel’s main antagonist arrives early in part two, when word arrives that a potential new client desires to purchase Nathi’s entire drug stash. The mystery man floods the group’s bank account with a life-changing amount of money and, to show his power and seriousness, he emails information to the three that proves he knows their identities. Though the idea of selling to only one client appeals to the trio, an underlying sense of menace from the man—and the possibility that he’s police—leaves the dealers on edge. With Nathi, Cecelia, and Ruan metaphorically pinned under the client’s thumb, it would be easy at this point for Ntshanga’s novel to devolve into a generic narrative of cat-and-mouse, yet such objectives never surface in The Reactive. Instead, this new assignment subverts expectations, leading to an unexpected, subdued climax, and it allows Nathi to reflect on his own past and come to terms with the death of his brother, Luthando, who expired at the hands of initiation school workers years earlier. As Nathi begins his engagement with his new client, he receives text messages from an estranged uncle, Bhut’ Vuyo, that urge him to return home. These notes, combined with the futility of his current lifestyle, open Nathi to ruminations on those he left behind. A short prologue reveals that Nathi blames himself for Luthando’s death: as teens, the two had planned on stowing away together at an initiation school (a multi-week excursion where each would be circumcised and achieved manhood), but Nathi stayed behind at the last minute, leaving his brother to go it alone. Luthando’s cutting, like many others, was botched, and his death inspired Nathi’s relocation to Cape Town, where he eventually shut his family from his life.

With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. By setting his narrative in the early 2000s, before the widespread availability of ARVs, Ntshanga entrenches his characters in a realm of political denial, which in turn results in physical denial, yet much of Nathi’s own narrative finds root in emotional renouncement: he refuses to consider a return to his family, shuns his uncle’s messages, and despite his own decent upbringing, he sabotages himself in order to reject a potential life of happiness. Early, Nathi admits that he, Cecelia, and Ruan are not stereotypical stoners, but that “each wrote matric in the country’s first batch of Model C” private schools. Ruan is a computer programmer; Cecelia works at a daycare center. Nathi went to university, worked in a lab testing strands of HIV, and was infected while on the job. The life he leads after becoming HIV-positive is chosen precisely because it allows him to deny himself happiness and upward progress. His guilty conscience prevents him from wanting success and promotes his limbo state. Without revealing too much, this same kind of denial eventually surfaces in The Reactive’s mysterious drug client subplot, as well.

Beyond thematic bonds, Ntshanga’s novel succeeds thanks to the author’s gift for language. Characters come to life via precise descriptions. For example, here’s how we meet  Bhut’ Vuyo:

“Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s.”

The economy on display here is enviable, for the reader is able to fully engage and understand Bhut’ Vuyo with only one sentence. And the sentence itself flows with a lyrical quality that continues throughout the novel. As Nathi tries to come down from a glue high, he notes, “The atmosphere feels warm and slippery on my skin, and my mind instructs me to glide, so I push my arms out and try to do that.” When speaking to prostitutes, Nathi mentions “how shattered their faces looked, as if they were the survivors of a protracted battle,” and as the group firsts encounters their severely burned and scarred mystery client, Ntshanga speaks volumes of the man’s physical appearance with Nathi’s unpretentious line, “If he’s smiling, then none of us can tell.”

It’s worth mentioning that this client also occasionally wears a tin mask to hide his true visage, and this literal idea of a man having two faces echoes metaphorically in Nathi’s life. Beyond the fact that he feels as if he’s missing part of himself without his brother, and beyond the multiple lives he has led, the protagonist is named after a girl, and the moniker, the reader is told, means “wait with us.” This definition inserts plurality directly into Lindanathi from birth, and as he struggles with the decision to return to visit his family, his multiple faces emerge.

Writing this review as a thirty-seven year old white male in the United States, I wonder why Nathi’s story strikes so close to my own emotions. And then I realize that, as a child of the 1980s, I grew up under the cowering fear of HIV, convinced in my youth that the infection was inevitable. That any shot or finger prick could spell disaster. I remember Ryan White and Ronald Reagan’s own denial. I was shaken when Freddie Mercury died, dumbfounded by Magic Johnson’s abrupt retirement announcement in 1991 and, come 1994, I rocked my No Alternative CD at top volume. In essence, I, like so many of my generation, have matured to the threatening rattle of HIV and AIDS, have seen the way it has been confused and unfairly stigmatized over four decades, and so, despite never having stepped foot on South African soil, there is an immediate recognition of, if not kinship, then memory that comes from engaging a novel like Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive. This is a powerful, compassionate story that refuses to rest or shuffle off into the murk of the mind. It exists so that we never forget.

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, StorychordCorium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia Review, 5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.


Apr 032016


The infinite suggestiveness of common things… —Patrick Madden


Sublime Physick: Essays
Patrick Madden
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
244 pages, $24.95


In the last sentence of his postscript to “Independent Redundancy,” the mammoth centerpiece essay of his new collection, Patrick Madden quotes Gide: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” This might be just a bit too morose to serve as an unqualified summation of Madden’s essayistic perspective, but it’s pretty close. To read a Patrick Madden essay is to interface with the mind of an engaged, self-conscious thinker. Actually, that’s not quite right: It is to interface with Madden’s curation of the minds of many thinkers within the expanse of his own.

Madden is not a hoarder of his thoughts or his words, or the words of his many sources, and he frequently seems more interested in exploring mysteries than creating them. In his first collection Quotidiana (2010), Madden declared the essay “an open, leisurely form, somewhat allergic to sensationalism,” and the primary intention of the essayist to “make the mundane resplendent with their meditative thoughts.” In Sublime Physick, his second collection, he continues exploring “the infinite suggestiveness of common things”—spitting hockers, turning 35, being recognized in a public place, temporarily losing his children—while expanding upon a tendency he intimated in Quotidiana of blending his sources into his own thoughts and sentences to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where his own thoughts begin or end. This will probably be the most divisive element of Sublime Physick’s otherwise gentle, reflective style: Either you are carried away into the free-flowing stream of voices commingling under Madden’s umbrella, or you are confounded by his seeming unwillingness to settle on a central voice or thematic concern.

Madden does his part to prepare the reader in “Fisica Sublime,” the “introduction” which is also the second essay of the collection. After explaining his choice of placing the “introduction” second in the collection, Madden spends most of the essay giving the etymology, metaphorical significance, personal associations, multiple spellings, and binary structure of the essay’s and the book’s title(s), concluding:

Perhaps, I’m beginning to think, everything we think we know is a kind of sublime physic, an abstraction derived from concretion and a double-aspected entity that we think we know in two distinct forms, yet is really a unity: matter-energy, space-time, mind-body, emotion-intellect, self-others, inside-outside, nonfiction-fiction; you could go on and on listing apparently opposed binaries and find, again and again, that where they meet is beauty.

These beautiful binaries comprise the nucleus of the collection’s essays, whose ostensible subjects range from Madden’s travels with recently deceased Uruguayan poet/storyteller Eduardo Galeano, to the brief disappearances of two of his six children, to a midlife non-crisis, numerous meditations on time and its discontents, and the acquisition of a bass guitar.

And that’s just the first half of the book. Much of the second half is taken up with just two essays, the first of which, “Independent Redundancy,” can fairly be called the opus of the collection. In thirty-six sections that seem to be written from at least eighteen points of view, Madden explores the phenomenon of the title, a term Madden coins “to describe the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” The essay trots out a set of cultural referents seemingly impossible for one head to hold, unified mostly by representing different cliques of the same school of thought. Following are some notable juxtapositions and conversations.

Madden opens the essay and comes back numerous times to the phenomenon in popular music of the independently redundant melody, like the one shared by George Harrison in “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons in “He’s So Fine,” and by Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly.” He even traces back the latter pair, in a connection one can guess only he has made, to the Argentine band Enanitos Verdes (Little Green Men). At least as interestingly, Madden also addresses the more obvious technique in modern hip-hop and mashup culture of sampling – direct “quotation” of previously recorded material, most times without citation, a technique, interestingly, that Madden consciously practices in his own essaying. As usual, most musical references somehow lead back to Montaigne or the band Rush.

He spends less space but as much energy on the nature of innovation and discovery in the sciences, positing most great advances as the cumulative work of many— “the result of convergences in ideas, materials, and possibilities”—rather than “the result of genius operating in isolation.” He points out that though the discovery of sunspots, the law of conservation of energy, and the invention of the airplane were all products of independent, synchronous work by numerous thinkers, “our mythologies tend to give full credit to a single inventor.” This leads Madden to ponder the place of free will in this process:

It occurs to me that the struggle between models of determinism…applies to invention as much as individual (or group) destiny, invention being a subset of destiny, and that all are opposed, in some way, to any real model of creativity. Rather, if we stipulatively determine (determine!) that invention means an unpredictable, unexpected, not inevitable creation and that discovery, as is binary, is that which—like a rock in the path of a tiller—will inevitably be turned up, then that is the same struggle. And this would mean that those who believe invention inevitable really really mean that there is only discovery, not invention…

Of course, Madden is not afraid to turn the scope inward. He peppers examinations of his own writing style throughout the essay, from examination of influences like Woolf, Borges, Lamb, and Hazlitt, to farcical interactions with various artificial intelligence devices, robots, and computer-generated feedback services, to his surprised reaction and subsequent self-analysis after a friend tells him he’s a postmodern writer. He decides he’s postmodern mostly in that “I am painfully metaliterary in my thinking.” Perhaps the most singular purpose to this self-analysis (or written-self-analysis) is, in his words, “to wave at the attentive reader, calling attention to the artifice, the fact that this is a creation made of language; it is not the thing it describes.”

Each of the 36 parts echoes independently and redundantly, while Madden stops for breath only occasionally to project himself on the reader:

What if we are our book but our book is not us? What if this independent redundancy spins out of control and the inadvertent plagiarism becomes complete? (184)

…whatever we may convince ourselves, we will never know it all, and no matter our cries of originality, we are ever repeating, singing back the melodies we heard somewhere before, whether we remember or not. (222-3)

As if to pull in the reins after the freewheeling “Independent Redundancy,” Madden finishes the collection by meditating in its final essay on fixity. As if in counterpoint to the multitude of voices, influences, and points of view in the previous essay, Madden situates “Fixity” firmly in his own, starting at a centuries-old grave in Greenwich, England and moving outward to the situation of Greenwich as earth’s prime meridian and finally addressing the gathered crowd with “how you necessarily apprehend my essay, dear reader: by depending on my observations as I in turn depend on the observations of others, near and far, here and long gone.”

Which is all fine and would be a fitting theoretical tie-in to, even justification for, the multitude of voices and echoes he invokes through the previous essay. But Madden goes deeper into himself, deeper into his own fixed point in the landscape, or rather a fixed point adjoining his. As he was traipsing through Greenwich, “111 degrees 52 minutes 24.1608 seconds west of me,” Madden’s wife felt the surging limbs of what would be their fifth child within her and remembered the ghost-child they lost a year and a half earlier, “realiz[ing] with a start that had this lost child come to term, there would have been no time for this new person inside her now, so strikingly active so near to advent; that the loss of one is the profit of another.”

And thus the essay and the book end with a beginning, a birth, that might have been a continuation had circumstances, fate, or whatever shrugged and begun a family a year and a half earlier. The forces that shaped Madden’s life and words would have had an entirely different prime meridian, his family started from a different point, the quotidian moments given substantially different context, all built upon “rigid foundations and relative freedom” from which “we flail against nothingness or take stock from temporary origins and movable objects.”


—John Proctor



John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. His publications include Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, and Underwater New York. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.


Mar 142016

Lina Wolff

The real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. — Mark  Sampson

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs
Lina Wolff
Translation by Frank Perry
And Other Stories, 2016


Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Wolff’s own life seems as kaleidoscopic as the story she has created. She has done stints in both Spain and Italy, and now lives in southern Sweden. She has published one previous book, a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You; Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2009), which was met by strong reviews. She writes with an unmistakable focus on feminism – but it is a peripatetic feminism, one that looks to travel widely across the expanse of gender dynamics, and to hit them from a multitude of angles. Ironically, one of her biggest literary influences appears to be French shit disturber Michel Houellebecq, whose own work makes a deliciously comic appearance in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs.

Wolff’s novel’s title is explained by the back-cover copy, but readers will be misled if they think the following is a summation of the whole book: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat.” In actuality, this sequence comes relatively late in the novel, and yet captures the very essence of book’s theme. Here it is, narrated by character named Rodrigo Auscias, a man who once had a threesome with Alba and one of her casual boyfriends:

We’ve got a kennel and the dogs in it are all named after famous writers, she had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat. I couldn’t help laughing at the whole idea at the time. Passive rebellion is what they call that, I informed her. When you’re powerless, passive rebellion is what you come up with. It’s also called projection. You make the dogs suffer for what the men have done to you because the dogs are weaker than you. It’s like a father who abuses his children because the factory owner has forced him to work too hard.

Rodrigo goes on to ask where the women got the idea from, and the say they were once visited by an “intellectual feminist” who planted the seed in their minds. This term, passive rebellion (one might also dub it a kind of low-level terrorism), has, the reader will now realize, played a huge role in the various chapters that have preceded this scene. This idea of punishing an animal for the sins of a person has appeared a couple of times already in the novel, with the murder of a canary in one chapter and the boiling of a cat in the other. With a sharp, unflinching eye, Wolff shows us that revenge can take many strange, off-kilter forms.

Yet the real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. This lack of a traditional narrative arc allows Wolff’s imagination and talent to sore: there were several points throughout the novel’s episodic approach where I was wowed by her out-of-left-field audacity and the unexpected twists in the turn of events.

A summary of these sequences would prove to be as disjointed as the novel itself. The story begins with an unnamed narrator recounting the time that Alba was spending time with one of her lovers, a man named Valentino, and informed him after a romantic episode together that she was in fact dying from cancer and would not be around for very much longer. The novel then shifts and we soon learn who this narrator is: a young girl named Araceli Villalobos, who lives in the same apartment building in Barcelona as Alba. We learn that Alba is gaining notoriety in the neighbourhood for publishing a series of brutal, feminist-infused short stories in a magazine called Semejanzas (Spanish for “Similarities.”) The most memorable of these pieces involves a man who kills himself after humiliating himself at his own surprise party by farting loudly just before turning on the lights.

The story soon shifts as Araceli learns of a woman from South America named Blosom who is living with Alba. Alba attempts to pawn off Blosom to Araceli and her mother as a kind of live-in housekeeper. After that happens, Wolff takes us on a detailed, first-person tour of Blosom’s life. We learn that she was once married and had a young son who was killed in a traffic accident. We also learn that Blosom began an affair with a married man while working as his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose. The tension in the household comes to a head during a scene in which Blosom is helping the wife, whose name is Jessica, take a bath. This was one of the most audacious scenes in a novel full of them:

“You’re a pretentious little ignorant cow,” Jessica cried. “Is that what got drilled into you while you were growing up, that there’s nothing more important than giving a man a child? Hah. Along with all those Venezuelan soaps you watch. that’s soft porn for old ladies, all of them thinking the best thing you can do for a man is to give him a child and then the women are left with chains around the ankles and a ring through the nose, stuck with life in a cage. Fortunately, Vicente doesn’t belong to the old school. He doesn’t actually want to have children.”

Our eyes met in the mirror on the other side of the bathtub. I hate you, I thought. I hate you so much it’s killing me.

“You’ve got something in your hair,” she said.


“It looks like sperm.”

“Well it’s not that.”

“Would you mind washing it off, please.”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is full of these kinds of jarring, shocking sequences, and they infuse the novel with an inventiveness rarely seen in contemporary fiction. As we go along, the perspective of the book changes once more. By the time we meet a girl named Muriel, a classmate of Araceli’s at the translation school where she is studying, we get a sense of just how decentralized this book’s structure is.

Eventually we loop around to the story of Rodrigo. He has his threesome with Albo and her casual boyfriend Ilich. Ilich uses his cell phone to film part of the encounter and threatens to reveal the video to Rodrigo’s wife, Encarnación, unless Rodrigo agrees to help him. What does Ilich want? He wants Rodrigo’s help breaking in the Spain’s competitive timber market. It’s actually more compelling than it sounds. Rodrigo does what Ilich wants of him and he comes to think he is now free of the man. But Ilich shows up one day at Rodrigo and Encarnación’s apartment in a scene that is rife with domestic tension. The section concludes with Rodrigo watching as his wife descends into a harrowing alcoholism that he cannot stop.

Themes of cruelty and of vengeance churn through this book at every turn, to the point where such acts feel completely normalized. Yet Rodrigo, in detailing his encounters with Alba and Ilich, offers a powerful counterbalance to the notion “passive rebellion” discussed above:

I have no political convictions. I don’t give a damn about politics. People with political convictions frighten me. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for an idea are also willing to sacrifice other people for the same idea. That applies to people who have been the victims of injustice as well. They are the most dangerous people of all because they believe themselves entitled to revenge.

This one passage helps to snap so much of this novel into focus. The idea that revenge is an entitlement, even if (or, in the case of passive rebellion, especially if) the victims of that revenge are not the same individuals who victimized you in the first place, feels very much like a contemporary preoccupation. The entire world, this book is seeming to say, is full of randomized violence and cruelty, and ideas of “motive” or “blame” may very well be passé in this new reality. Wolff’s dark vision of how our world now operates is a disturbing, but deeply compelling, one.

— Mark Sampson


Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Mar 132016


In Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. —Natalia Sarkissian

party headquarters

Party Headquarters
Georgi Tenev
Translation by Angela Rodel
Open Letter, 2016
Paper, 123 pp., $12.95


Almost thirty years ago, in the early hours of April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, staff and emergency workers rushed headlong into the exploding core, oblivious to the chunks of smoldering graphite leaching radioactivity. Nearby, the water in the Pripyat River boiled. Fires burned. Ash rained down. Bodies melted, or they sickened, shriveled, died. Evacuation was slow for those living in towns closest to the catastrophe, while for others—for example in Communist Bulgaria—the news was kept from the populace. In fact, in Bulgaria, in the days and months afterward, only the families of elite Communist party officials were tested and cared for. Because Chernobyl had shown that the Soviet atom was unsafe—perhaps the Soviet system itself—the average Borises and Natashas were kept in the dark, their bodies left to soak up iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90 and radionuclides. Then, a mere three years later, the Bulgarian Communist Party Boss was deposed; the year after that Communist Party Headquarters in Sofia were torched by demonstrators. A new, transitional era was ushered in.

These historical events—the fallout, both radioactive and political—loom large in Georgi Tenev’s short novel, Party Headquarters. Set during the transition from communism to democracy (1989-1990s), Party Headquarters was first published in 2006, and now, with Angela Rodel’s translation into English, is available for the first time in English from Open Letter books.

An experimental work, organized into three short chapters which are, in turn, divided into non-chronological, discrete sections of memory, fantasy, and thinly disguised historical fact, Party Headquarters tells of tortured relationships and revenge. Gradually the reader pieces together the story. The protagonist, a nameless, ex Pioneer/Comsomol member who is obsessed by the past, must retrieve a suitcase full of money ($1.5 million)—an ill-gotten slush fund—from a Hamburg bank for an old communist party boss, “K-shev”.

 K-shev bears a close resemblance to real-life strongman Todor Zhivkov. Not only does K-shev (like Zhivkov) keep quiet about Chernobyl, but he inflicted “the whole horror of experiencing communism, or socialism—call it what you will” on the country. But unlike Zhivkov, in an ironic twist of fate, K-shev is infected with leukemia and languishes in a Hamburg clinic. This may or may not be the “final proof needed to deify him once and all. [Because he is] A strange sort of god ready to die […] from an illness […] we ourselves all feared becoming infected with.”

 Symbolically, the protagonist is K-shev’s son:

“He, the old man, makes love with the body of the motherland. This love gives birth to thousands of children and he organizes them into Pioneer battalions….”

The protagonist may even be K-shev’s son-in-law; the reader is never quite certain. What is clear is that he dreams of thwarting the old man’s wishes for glory after death by having his body cremated and his ashes scattered in outer space where “everything brought along from earth will lose its significance.” His revenge also includes “collision[s] of love” with a body/the bodies of women who may be either K-shev’s biological daughter or they may be symbolic daughters of the motherland. As the protagonist explains, “she is still a part of his body and he is present in hers…[It would be] the mirror of my masculinity, if it didn’t represent above all the risk of being accused of a crime.”

The novel opens in the middle of one vengeful physical encounter:

Even without the tears I still want to hit her, painfully hard. But when she cries it just gets out of control. The victim’s magnetic attraction inflames the perpetrator. I’m driven to tears myself—out of frustration that I can’t force myself to finish it off, to do absolutely everything I want to her. In exactly the order I would like.

If anyone were to see us at this moment, bawling, locked in this torture chamber at opposite ends of the bed—in the middle the bloody sheets are stained with wet spots, but not from blood, lymph, vaginal secretions, sperm, or who knows what else—could it be that some other beings are copulating here with us?—at that moment the shocked outside observer would think we are crying for each other, for ourselves.

Wrong. An incorrect judgement, a faulty interpretation of ambiguous facts. I’m not sorry. What can I say?

The protagonist’s desire for revenge resides in the exposure—to radiation, to socialism—that he suffered as a child, participating in Communist children’s Pioneer camp activities:

We had no way of knowing […] a few days earlier, a thousand kilometers to the north and east, Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl had exploded, under the watch of the Fifth Shift [….] A strange taste invade[d] my lungs, the scent of ozone—what does ozone smell like anyway?—at least that’s what I tell myself now as I try to grasp something more, a greater meaning and importance held in those last few moments.

And the question I add to all this today: why didn’t anybody call out to us, tell us to come back? So many secrets in such a short time….

Just as under socialism—we do and did everything correctly, yet life, the world, continues to collapse beneath our feet like a reactor that has entered a runaway state of nuclear meltdown. Is there any need to explain what those two great liberating words mean: chain reaction?

A reaction that breaks chains.

With Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev won the 2007 Vick Prize for the Bulgarian novel of the year. A 1994 graduate of Bulgaria’s National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, Tenev (b. Sofia, 1969) studied under experimental Bulgarian artists such as Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev. A founder of the Triumviratus Art Group, he has written a number of novels, short stories, plays and screenplays that have been performed in Russia, Germany and France. In a recent interview, Tenev says his background in theater has strongly influenced him. “[It] taught me self-discipline: no mercy for the text, no respect for verbal beauty merely for the bon mots.”

It is evident that Tenev also experiments with structure. In Party Headquarters he reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. Roland Barthes’ zero point of literature may have been one influence. As the author states through his protagonist: “I had discovered the zero point within the system of coordinates. The place where everything begins and ends.”

The text has been skillfully translated by American Angela Rodel, one of the most prolific translators of Bulgarian literature today. The recipient of a PEN grant for the translation of Tenev’s collection of short stories, Rodel’s collaboration with Tenev here has yielded a book of haunting beauty built upon unexpected imagery. Pared down to the essential, there is no room for sentimentality.


She, of course, is a virgin. And I press down on that barrier with the whole weight of my body, as if poured into a funnel. A whirlpool that changes my own anatomy: at the very bottom, in the center, the point that I flow through—this is where my heart is. And my belly button as well, and maybe even some steaming spot on my back has been sucked down into this vortex. While up above, all at once my head, legs, and bangs are the leftover silt in the funnel.


I’m radiating rays, I’m lit up. Glittering nucleotides bursting from my body in all directions. The water tastes unbelievably bitter in my mouth, the stinging air envelops my hands, all the hairs standing on end in my skin shoot out arrows. Butterflies fall all around me, along with stunned spring sparrows, the frogs in the marshes don’t finish their jet-propelled jumps. The water fleas, legs splayed on the surface of the pond scum, lose their electrical footing. The miracle of walking on translucency has broken down.

Populated by bodies—corpses, near corpses, prostitutes, Pioneers, astronauts, lovers grappling with each other—Party Headquarters is a “bodily adventure,” as the protagonist says; fittingly so for survivors of nuclear catastrophe:

“The body, the flesh transforms itself according to its own laws [.…] no connection is more bodily than inheritance, which makes up the whole of you, yet which you also desperately want to get rid of more than anything.”

A disoriented and disorienting world, with bodies shattered or glowing with unnatural light, is Tenev’s dazing yet dazzling result.

—Natalia Sarkissian


Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.

Mar 122016


Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict.  —Jeff Bursey



A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
Trans. Daniel Hahn
Archipelago Books
Paper, 249 pp., $18.00


I. José Eduardo Agualusa (b. 1960) often treats the troubled past of his native Angola, a former Portuguese colony, in an ostensibly light manner, the hints of violence, treachery, conflicted identity, and desperation communicating the meanness of life during the War of Independence (1961-1974) and, especially, the civil war that followed (1975-2002).

In his International Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The Book of Chameleons (2004, English translation published in 2007) Agualusa mixes the tale of a gecko infused with the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges with the daily life of his owner, Félix Ventura, a man who reinvents the histories of clients eager to cover over their civil war activities. Several characters Ventura has dealings with serve to fill in the picture of a country undergoing an uneasy and fragile transition from hostilities to peace. There is menace in this tightly wrapped story to both main parties, from different sources, and without giving anything away, it can be said that the atmosphere around the amusing or profound thoughts of the Borges gecko act like a lantern held up against a darkness that could swallow everything.

My Father’s Wives (2007, English translation published in 2008) examines racial issues and mediums that people choose to share stories: music, oral history, and literature. Agualusa undercuts their truthfulness (emotional and factitious) by mingling the tales of characters who seem real with those we are told, almost assured, are not. Well before the end of this clever, poignant novel we are becalmed in a sea of lies, half-truths, and possible realities, forced, like those we’re reading about, to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Where we land depends on what we choose to believe. Here, as in The Book of Chameleons, there is a fine degree of control over a debilitating existence lived under almost constant strife and mayhem.


Many of the same themes are present in A General Theory of Oblivion (2013; English translation published in 2015), which is set between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. (It would be wrong to regard or dismiss the persistence of Agualusa’s themes as obsessive or tiresome sifting and resifting of material. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Dos Passos, and William Vollmann, along with many more, have rescued important and hidden facts from historical oblivion and worked to keep alive the memory of incidents that plunged entire peoples into despair or periods of ferocious activity, and they have contributed new angles from which to analyze obscure and well-known events. Similarly, Agualusa is mining a rich and deep national memory and has much to tell readers.) The cast recalls those from the previous books: strong women, women praised for their beauty, ignorant men, thick-headed and greedy men, victims of tragedy, and the kind-hearted. Above them all is Ludovica (Ludo) who has accompanied her sister, Odete, and her new brother-in-law, Orlando, from Portugal to Angola just before independence is brought about. She is the figure Agualusa focuses on. Through her, despite her isolation in an apartment building, we are given an overview of Angolan history and society.

Well before leaving for a new life in Africa, Ludo could not stand being outdoors (she “never liked having to face the sky”), which means she is drugged for the flight to Luanda, the Angolan capital. When unrest first breaks out in the city streets, with demonstrations preceding armed warfare, followed by the overthrow of a government, a brief cessation of complete hostilities, and then the decades of factional fighting involving Angolan, Cuban, South African, and other soldiers or insurrectionists, she stays, as she always has, in her missing relatives’ apartment—they attend a party one night and never return—fending off robbers with a pistol before erecting a wall that seals off the apartment entrance from the rest of the building. As conditions throughout the capital and the nation deteriorate and people flee the country, the other tenants vanish until Ludo is, perhaps, the only one remaining. Her company is an albino German shepherd (perhaps a sly allusion to German South-West Africa, an older, colonial name for Namibia, Angola’s southern neighbour) she christens Phantom. She has many books to read and, for a short period, a working telephone, radio, and phonograph. For food she at first relies on a stuffed pantry and crops from seeds Orlando had planted in his terrace. Covered in a cardboard box with eye and armholes to protect her from the sky, she attends to this tiny, life-sustaining garden, catching water from rainfalls when the municipal systems start to fail. But it is often dry, electricity dies, and supplies eventually run out:

The hunger came. For weeks, weeks as long as months, Ludo barely ate. She fed Phantom on a flour porridge. The nights merged into the days. She would wake to find the dog watching over her with a fierce eagerness. She would fall asleep and feel his burning breath. She went to the kitchen to fetch a knife, the one with the longest blade there was, the sharpest one, and took to carrying it around attached to her waist like a sword. She, too, would lean over the animal as he slept. Several times she brought the knife to his throat.

Over the course of the many years spent without other human company that she wishes to contact—for after a while the apartment building attracts new residents—the window is her sole connection with the outside world. It is also a protection against it, and an apparatus to help her eat, for with the appliances long dead Ludo can only cook on sunny days, thanks to Orlando’s magnifying glasses that focus the sun’s heat. When a monkey enters her garden she is ruthless. Eventually the crops she planted assist with her and Phantom’s food needs.

Ludo writes her thoughts down in a series of notebooks, and Agualusa gives us some of those entries, as well as later ones using other surfaces (always presented in italics):

The days slide by as if they were liquid. I have no more notebooks to write in. I have no more pens either. I write on the walls, with pieces of charcoal, brief lines.

I save on food, on water, on fire, and on adjectives.


I carve out verses
as prayers

words are legions
of demons

I cut adverbs

I spare my wrists[1]

Burning furniture, books, and paintings keeps her warm. Her eyesight is going. Life is getting truly desperate, and then a young boy, Sabalu, begins bringing her food, though he starts as a thief entering her apartment through the window while she sleeps and stealing what looks valuable. His own life story changes once they talk. By the time he shows up, well past the halfway mark, we have met others who, while unaware of Ludo, are linked to her and to each other.

Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict. Angola’s almost unremittingly traumatic modern history is an immense and complex set of subjects that here is addressed using Ludo’s panoramic view (but a view, as stated, that is decreasing in ability until she has only “peripheral vision”). While her solitary position doesn’t allow her to become involved with anyone but Sabalu, indirectly, through her family and location, she plays a part in the lives of many others as they, in time, come to do in hers. One of the people who, early in the novel, had been after Orlando’s “‘jewels’,” about which Ludo knew nothing at the time, and a Marxist officer he once was in conflict with, meet just outside the apartment on the same day that others, whose lives we have seen in partial ways, also congregate there. Sabalu had broken through the defending wall, with Ludo’s consent. As in a murder mystery—and there are aspects of the detective novel present—the loose threads are tied up, old wounds are given a chance to heal, mysterious sounds explained, a “sea goddess called the Kianda” finally accounted for, and a long-standing absence is revealed at the midway point.

Many of the other characters—Arnaldo Cruz (a sometime political activist turned businessman, more commonly referred to as Little Chief), Magno Moreira Monte (an intelligence officer), Jeremias (a Portuguese soldier), and Daniel Benchimol (a journalist), to name a few—receive time in the narrative for their stories to be fleshed out. Their lives contribute to the seediness and criminality (societal criminality as distinct from crooks) of Angola, as does advocacy journalism, to dovetail with Ludo’s singular story. It’s by design that she is in an equivalent of a Panopticon overlooking a lawless, somewhat formless state where, as Agualusa has shown in earlier novels, no one feels safe, identities and fortunes are fluid, ideologies (Marxism and capitalism) are opportunistic equally, and outside interests (Cold War powers, smaller countries near and far) and factions work to dismember the nation. Splintering the narrative among these assorted characters helps convey their society’s pandemonium and recklessness.

That centre point is also a symbol for something else. Only a boy can break into the apartment, through the window that is Ludo’s eye; that same orphaned boy, who calls Ludo Grandma, breaks down the wall she constructed as a barrier against the world so he and she can emerge. Windows, walls, and doors can be many things, including hymens, and in a metaphorical sense Sebalu and Ludo are reborn when the wall comes down, this time into a changed world, surrounded by those who are not quite family, but close. At the close of the novel what we hear of Ludo’s childhood might make us reconsider what’s gone before, ponder the multiple meanings residing in the imagery, and appreciate the connection of Ludo’s early life to her acceptance of Sabalu.


In addition to what’s been discussed above, there are other significant features about this book: the first concerns the language of the writing itself, the second Angolan history.

As with other books by Agualusa, each translated by Daniel Hahn, there is attention paid to how to phrase characters’ thoughts and on how to squeeze just the right amount from certain conceits. Trapped and cut off from news, Ludo speculates about what is going on, often in language inspired, perhaps, by the many books she has read: “I’m afraid of what’s outside the window, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it…. I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river.” In order to explain one man’s disappearance another man invents the tale of his being swallowed by the ground, which matches the vanishing of planes and villages. There is a dancing hippo. People are not recognized for who they are: everyone has an opportunity (and a motive) to be new, or at least camouflaged, in this country that’s a work-in-progress. When Ludo has to convert her library into fuel she feels “…as though she was incinerating the whole planet. When she burned Jorge Amado she stopped being able to visit Ilhéus and São Salvador. Burning Ulysses, by Joyce, she had lost Dublin. Getting rid of Three Trapped Tigers, she had incinerated old Havana.” (This reflects Angola’s own hellish environment.) Descriptions of scenery and nature are used sparingly but effectively: “That afternoon they knocked down the fence and crossed to the other side. They found a bit of water. Good pastures. The wind began to blow. The wind carried heavy shadows along with it, as though it were carrying night, in shreds, yanked away from some other, even more distant desert.” Plain speech used by such people as soldiers and Little Chief is as carefully written:

There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking, and others for not having stood to attention during the raising of the flag. Some of the prisoners had been important leaders in the party. They took pride in their friendship with the President.

“Only yesterday the Old Man and I went fishing together,” one of them boasted to Little Chief. “When he finds out what’s happened, he’ll get me out of here and have the morons who did this to me arrested.”

He was shot the following week.

As in The Book of Chameleons and My Father’s Wives, one feels safely guided by Hahn through the multiple voices and tones of this diverse cast.

The second topic arises from Agualusa’s interest in making sure there aren’t any loose ends: Is history over for Angola? What I mean to suggest is not that the history of a nation can be wrapped up once and for all in narratives (there will always be more stories, and then there are the counter-narratives), but that, to my mind, the conclusion of A General Theory of Oblivion unwittingly indicates that events can come to a neat close. Agualusa’s propensity to connect the actions of his characters, and the characters themselves, as attenuated as they might appear, though it functioned well in the earlier novels, comes off here as overtly predetermined. Ludo, for example, has a background that is useful to link her to Sebalu, but since they become family quickly enough as it is, when the narrative provides us with that story it is, by then, unrequired and in any case too familiar. Certain characters glance off each other and are forever paired, and this happens many times, too many when you dwell on the length of time of the action—decades—and the gigantic sprawl of the canvas, thereby provoking a disbelief, and shutting down critical sympathy. Less reliance on clearing up every mystery could have resulted in a more satisfying novel, especially since there is so much that is bloody and messy. The communal and personal histories combine, as they often can, but more disorder and loss—what Ludo described as being swept along by her adopted country in its long state of turmoil—would have removed the feeling that we are reading something that is artistically schematic and contrived to finish in a burst of sentimentality.

Despite that reservation, one that may be chalked up to personal preference, José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion has much to recommend it. This short novel, written with confidence and poise, contains sharply sketched characters, an evolving and engaging main narrative around Ludo, and years of conflict succinctly summarized and easily understandable.

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In the acknowledgements Agualusa thanks “the Brazilian poet Christiana Nóvoa, who at my request wrote Ludo’s poems…”
Mar 102016

Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.” — Frank Richardson


End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions, 2016
Paperback $15.95, 240 pages


When I discovered Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, I remember how disappointed I was that I would never get to review this remarkable novel. Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Aller Tage Abend had been published in 2014 by New Directions, had won major literary awards, and had received a plethora of accolades from critics across the globe. Damn it, I thought—how often does one get the opportunity to write about such a gem? But, it’d been done and done well, and I had a thesis to write anyway. Six months later, while trolling publishers’ websites, I was delighted to see the novel was being released as a New Directions paperback. Fate and a generous editor would grant me a second chance. Erpenbeck has penned a novel of rare excellence and beauty, a novel of questions that lets you swim in possibility, and it’s all about second chances.

Born in 1967 in East Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck studied theater directing with Heiner Müller, has worked with Werner Herzog, and has had a distinguished career directing in opera houses in Germany and Austria. In 1999, she published her first prose fiction—the eerie, fable-like novella The Old Child—which quickly garnered international attention. For her first novel, Visitation, she won the Hertha König Prize 2008, and for The End of Days she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2015) and the Hans Fallada Prize (2014). Her most recent novel—Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Knaus, 2015)—was short-listed for the 2015 German Book Prize. An English translation from Erpenbeck’s long-time collaborator Susan Bernofsky is, hopefully, forthcoming. The End of Days is the fourth of Erpenbeck’s books translated by multi-award-winning Bernofsky, noted for her translations of Robert Walser, Hermann Hess, and Franz Kafka. Her translations of Erpenbeck’s fiction have won numerous prizes including the 2005 PEN Translation Fund Award (The Old Child), and for The End of Days she won the 2015 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the 2015 Ungar German Translation Award.

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.”


It is the year 1902 in a small provincial town in Galicia, present day Ukraine, near the border with Poland. A mother drops handfuls of dirt into the open grave of her baby girl who died mysteriously, her breathing simply stopped. She will not be consoled and imagines her daughter’s life—her playing the piano, her coppery hair, her aiding her mother in old age. She thinks about the mound of earth that tops all fresh graves, that for her child’s it should be as “huge as the Alps,” symbolic of the potential her daughter has lost. The eighteen-month old girl is, however, the protagonist of this story, and she will be resurrected and die four more times.

The 240-page novel is organized as a series of five numbered books of roughly equal length. Each book explores a possible life for the central character, unnamed until book three. The books are separated by short (three-to-eight page) “intermezzos” that serve as segues; here especially the narrator explores what might have been. The concept of a multiverse—that all possible lives are lived in all possible universes—isn’t new, and many authors have used the conceit of parallel universes, but The End of Days isn’t that kind of novel. Not really. The main plot, loosely based on Erpenbeck’s family, follows a single character (let’s call her H.) from her birth in Brody to her life in post WWI Vienna, her joining the Communist Party and emigration to the Soviet Union, and her career as a writer in the German Democratic Republic. Periodically, throughout the course of this plot arc, Erpenbeck’s narrator presents a scenario where H. dies. She then presents a contrary scenario in an intermezzo and subtly opens a new, yet linked narrative. The resulting effect suggests multiple lives, and while her solution looks straightforward and easy, it is a testament to Erpenbeck’s artistry that she can shift the direction of her narrative so effortlessly.

Great characters ground great books, and H.’s diverse histories reflect her complex character. She is courageous, stubborn, willful, loving and loyal, but capable of spite. She is an artist, a writer of novels, stories, and radio plays, who writes “in defense of the beautiful and true.” With each book, her desires shift with her fortunes: in Vienna she falls in love with her best friend’s fiancé while struggling to avoid starvation; in Moscow she must literally write for her life, either to succeed and become a Soviet citizen, or fail and die in a gulag; and in East Berlin, at the height of a brilliant literary career, when faced with losing all she has ever known, she longs most for contact with her son. In an interview Erpenbeck said she wanted “to look at the question of how present death is in our lives, and how our paths change when people close to us remain or leave.” And so, while H. is the focal point, the subplots of richly imagined secondary characters swirl around her. Here, Erpenbeck doesn’t waste a word showing us the regret of H.’s grandmother:

That morning, for the sake of her daughter’s happiness, she had sold her daughter’s happiness. Sometimes the price one pays for something continues to grow after the fact, becoming too expensive long after it has been paid.

Each book comprises numerous short chapters (many only a paragraph long). A third-person omniscient narrator limits herself to a single character in each chapter and shifts focalization with chapter breaks. After some focalization shifts Erpenbeck uses pronouns without antecedents, deliberately blurring the point of view, asking us to acknowledge that all her characters could share the life she describes. This can be slightly confusing, but the character’s identity becomes clear from the context before confusion turns to frustration and rereading. Few characters have proper names, one of the author’s trademarks. Although the linear chronology begins in 1902 and ends ninety years later, in some books Erpenbeck employs nonlinear time as she shifts character focalization, e.g. in the fourth book, while days pass for one character, for another character time is suspended in an instant. Despite multiple books and chapters, changes in character focalization, and use of nonlinear time, the narrative is a harmonious, resonant whole, a vision of the ramification of our lives and the consequences of our choices.

Forking Paths


Erpenbeck leaves no detail unexamined in her intricately interwoven patterns of images, metaphors, and symbolic associations. Given that she grew up in East Berlin, perhaps it is not a coincidence that the primary images of The End of Days are borders, although she writes (Paris Review) and speaks fondly of her childhood and adolescence.

First, there are the geographic borders: H. is born in a border town, and after both World Wars, the borders of Europe are redrawn; Germany is divided. There are subtler borders of place, and propriety—for example, a friend must drop a letter across the threshold of a window since to hand it to the receiver would constitute working on the Sabbath. Then there is the border between faiths: after marrying a Christian, H.’s Jewish mother is left “hanging between two worlds.” While trying to reconcile her imminent death in the Soviet Union with her decision to join the Communist Party, H. questions the “irreversibility of good and evil” and “whether hope had boundaries or not.” And, at the end of her life, ninety years old and slipping into dementia, H. confronts the border between memory and oblivion. As in reality, the link to the ultimate border, death, comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the vagaries of nature—a cold front results in a frozen puddle that turns one’s course toward a deadly encounter. Sometimes the cause is a conscious decision, suicide the only answer. Sometimes the whim of a petty bureaucrat sends you to Siberia, and sometimes it is just the inexplicable, absurd folly of falling down the stairs.

While this strong pattern of boundaries serves as the backbone of her novel, Erpenbeck uses a myriad of other recurring, interconnected images. To cite just one example, H.’s heirloom collection of Goethe’s complete works appears throughout the course of the novel. The books figure prominently during the episode when H.’s grandparents are attacked; the scene is replete with border imagery, including: the boundary between inside and outside their home; the threshold of an opening onto the roof and the violent tug of war between the mob and those who are trying to flee; and the boundary of life itself. Each time the books appear, including volume nine with its scraped spine from where a rock hit it during the attack, we are brought back to this scene. Sometimes specific poem titles or lines of Goethe’s poetry are used to tie the associated images together. Of course, books are made of words, and language becomes a fixation of H.’s father, who concludes we each have our own vocabulary for the “constant translation between far outside and deep within.” The books accumulate various associations as the story progresses and become, in the end, a focal point of sublime reminiscence.



On Style

Jenny Erpenbeck’s style of prose and her choices for the novel’s organization demonstrate a deep sensitivity to language. The intermezzos serve as borders between possible lives, stylistically mimicking the imagery of boundaries. The last chapter of the first book is an amalgamation of points of view from all the characters up to that moment. From one sentence to the next, then within a sentence, then from word to word, Erpenbeck tells us what the characters are doing (she shifts to the present tense) and what their lives have become in a montage that culminates with the single question that plagues the father, the mother, and the grandmother: why did the baby die? After the reader turns the page, the next logical thought is “But if . . .” and the baby is saved from its mysterious loss of breath by a handful of snow rubbed against her chest. She is revived, and in the first intermezzo we are asked to imagine an alternate life for the young family, the parents never having been burdened with a devastating loss, and the daughter who becomes a young woman. The intermezzo provides an opportunity for reflection, for imagining multiple scenarios beyond the one continued in the narrative.

While it may be imprudent to address prose style in a translated work—after all, isn’t so much of style untranslatable?—nevertheless, Bernofsky’s translation is so expert, so pitch-perfect, it is worth the risk. Regarding the translation, Erpenbeck said in an interview:

I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used.

Erpenbeck’s prose swings between the concise precision of a proverb: “The forest provides the wood for the axe that will chop it down” to the lyrical sinuosity of memory:

For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim—that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now—and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowered within the earth . . .

Erpenbeck’s longer sentences are not inchoate stream of consciousness demonstrations. They serve, beautifully, the needs of her scenes, her characters, and her themes. When immigrants wait at Ellis Island (a border, intermezzo place), pensive about their admittance into America, the anaphora and rhythm of the sentence becomes the tolling of Donne’s bell:

The people squat, lie on the ground, or sit on benches: people with bundles, bedding, and crates, with samovars, people without any baggage at all, children running about . . . people who are filled with hope, with despair, people who are homesick, frightened, people who don’t know what’s in store for them, people who are wondering where they’ll find the twenty-five dollars for their immigration fee, people who suddenly want to go back . . .

And it’s not an accident that this scene, which occurs in the first book, is echoed in a memory only a few pages from the end of the novel.


The End of Days, a book of elegant style and penetrating insight, filled with arresting characters and provocative questions, is a book to come back to a second time, and a third, and . . . who knows how many times? Erpenbeck writes with a gentle intensity—a feeling light as a dream yet so grounded in the moment that if a grenade exploded outside your window, you wouldn’t jump. Although death frames the novel, The End of Days celebrates the beginning of days, for it affirms life’s multiplicity and the potential of every human life. Erpenbeck quotes W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz in an epigraph; in part, he asks—“where will we be going now?” This question vibrates throughout her novel and remains with us as we move on from this book, and this life, to the next.

— Frank Richardson


Frank Richardson bio pict 2

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Mar 082016


There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.” —Allan Cooper



If we’re lucky, once or twice in a generation an artist comes along who changes the complexion of our entire landscape and gives us a way of seeing the world as we have never experienced it before. Often these artists receive little or no recognition in their lifetimes, and it takes years–sometimes generations–for their genius to be acknowledged. I think of the work of William Blake and John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh, Paula Modersohn-Becker and the haunting, other-worldly poems of Frank Stanford.

Frank Stanford’s creative life spanned a little more than ten years. During that period he wrote the nearly 700 pages of poetry collected in What About This, and the epic poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (over 500 pages when it was first published in 1977, 15,283 lines of poetry. A little over 600 lines are printed in What About This). Other uncollected poems will surely come to light with time.

Stanford corresponded with a number of poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thomas Lux, and Alan Dugan, who served as a sounding board, confidante, advocate and friend. It was Dugan who urged him to publish Battlefield without further revision: “Received your blockbuster of a ms. and am reading it. It’s wonderful so far, and I think that it should be published as it is in a small edition of books: it could sleep for a number of years and then explode.”

Among the many fine poems in What About This one poem in particular has stood out for me for nearly forty years, a modern masterpiece as poignant as Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The poem lives somewhere between the domestic and the wild, between what we know and what we don’t know. It transforms the earthly and familiar into something else:

Place on a Grave

It’s not hard to forget what they ate
Every winter, when the father
And the oldest brother went back to do time,
Cowpeas and smoked goat, all winter
The same muddy supper, their voices
Thick as pan bread, the hollering
At dawn when the mother went out
To the pens in cowboy boots
With a bucket of feed and a roll
Of toilet paper, finding a swatch
Of her daughter’s nightgown
Fluttering on the barbed wire,
The hollering and calling
The rest of them did when they
Raised up from their cold beds
And went out searching at first light
For their crippled sister, who dreamed
Walking over the mountains
In the dead of winter, the smell
Of cooking in her hair, believing
She was gone from there, dignified
Like a wooden figure on the prow
Of a ship with no horizon.

There’s no other poem in the immense body of Stanford’s work that better contains the haunting beauty that is the trademark of his writing and of his life.


Frank Stanford was born Francis Gildart Smith on August 1, 1948 to a single mother. He was given up by his birth mother, and soon after was adopted by Dorothy Gilbert Alter, who became the first female manager of Firestone. She married Albert Franklin Stanford, a levee engineer, in 1952. By all accounts Frank Stanford had a comfortable middle class childhood. In the summer his father took the family with him when he worked:

“Unlike most levee contractors, his adoptive father lived in the levee camps with his family during the summer months, and this is the speech Stanford imbibed as a child. It saturated his long, hot, and humid days and his radiant, lunar dreams.” (C. D. Wright, The Poet Frank Stanford, Between Love and Death, from American Poets Magazine. Posted April 1, 2015, poets.org)

The men, women and children he met there populated his poems from the beginning. Many of their names are real. Here’s a small list from “The Blood Brothers”, the first poem in his first book The Singing Knives, published in 1971 by Irv Broughton, editor and publisher of Mill Mountain Press, and Stanford’s lone publisher throughout his life:

Born In The Camp With Six Toes
Baby Gauge
Ray Baby
Charlie B. Lemon
Mose Jackson
BoBo Washington

Some of these are nicknames, but many recur throughout his body of work, especially in The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. It’s as if his themes, his images, and his concerns were formed at a very early age. Stanford himself claimed that there were poems in his early collections that were written when he was ten years old. This may seem preposterous to us–and Stanford could be a teller of tall tales–but at least one of the poems in What About This was written when he was seventeen years old. It’s feasible that his dreamlike poetic landscape came to him during those childhood summers on the levees, and provided the directive for his entire body of work.


It’s imperative that a poet find his or her external landscape, the touchstone or cornerstone from which the poems flow and grow. For Stanford it was Arkansas.

That was his home, his place of living, where he worked as an unlicensed land surveyor to support himself. Many of his best poems are narratives, and Stanford was an acute listener of stories and voices and a watcher of people. Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Irv Broughton in What About This:

I B: You’re a great observer–delaying trips at bus stations.

F S: Not so much just to observe. I did it so I could meet a person; I wanted to talk. Not just to meet but I wanted there to be words, too…. I’m sad when I see really indigent people, people that are down in their heart and their soul. I wanted to help them, but I don’t know how I can.

I B: Have you ever felt that by talking to people you were actually helping them?

F S: If they thought they could truthfully confide in me, if I took a load off by maybe saying a few kind words, maybe so…. But I just helped because I talked to them. Maybe anybody could have talked to them.

Stanford found his influences wherever he could. There’s a whole chapbook of previously unpublished improvisations and versions of the poems of Jean Follain called Plainsongs in this collected, echoing and expanding Follain, set in Stanford’s Arkansas landscape. Here’s one poem from that manuscript, “The Dream Near The Witness Tree”:

Death uses a beautiful rock as its perch
you don’t know what it feels like
how cold and bright it is
until it snows and a blackbird leaves there
the wind blows through its crag
and holds up a branch in the night
like the last peach on the tree
or a woman who has lost a breast
and thinks she will lose you too
Death makes a point of saying I will lose you

We can feel Stanford’s empathy near the end of this poem, and sense that there’s a much larger story behind figure of the woman–the single peach leading to the single breast. Stanford listens and watches, and then selects and amplifies details like a painter. He’s a master of what should be kept and what should be left out.

A poem from One-Finger Zen, another previously unpublished manuscript shows just how much he learned from Follain:


a man by himself in a bar
feels a shadow behind him
thinks of his wife eating
bleeding meat
hears the rain by the sea
tries to forget his day laid out like dresses for the dead
he knows his heart is closed up for the night
and the people
who are poor and cannot sleep look through the blinds

Stanford’s empathy was immense. He postponed bus trips to listen to others. He cared about the lost and forgotten, the poor and afraid. And he brought them into his poems where their despair and hopelessness could shine clearly, “cold and bright.” His poems should be a wake up call for all of us.


Franz Wright has called Stanford “one of the great voices of death.” I think that’s fair. But the myths and misinformation that grow up around poets who die young—Frank Stanford, John Thompson, Sylvia Plath—rarely do the poets justice. In fact their death, in many ways, tends to be a mirror reflecting the reader away from the work. There’s the urge to look for all the sordid details in the poems, and if they’re not there, we seem to have many curious ways of trying to convince ourselves that they are.

While a poet’s work is always more important than the details of his life, sometimes a few details are helpful. Stanford once said “Let’s put on a pot of coffee and write all night.” While he was at the University of Arkansas (he never completed a degree) he was probably writing The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You late at night in his room. He could write anywhere, but he had his favourite places. Again, from the interview with Irv Broughton:

I B: Talk about the ideal writing environment.

F S: During my college days, it seems the best circumstances were for me to spend long periods of time in a given place that I felt some affinity for, that I’d gotten used to, like this cabin. This cabin had a lot of magic feeling to it. I could get up any time of the day, any time of the night, and I could write in it. I felt so at home in this place. It was so strange, when I think of it now, getting up in the winter, building a fire at three o’clock in the morning, making coffee, going down there and writing or reading. It’s a strange feeling. I really became one with that place. It wasn’t a possession. It was just a place you could exist in. It was my place, where I spent all of my time.


I want to return briefly to the Follain influence. At his best, Stanford could write a small poem that had the power and depth of a good short story. Again, as in Follain’s work, only a few crucial details are there–a hint of dialogue, three or four condensed images, but they are enough. This poem is from his collection You, published posthumously in 1979:


At the end of the war there weren’t many
Men left.

So the widows traveled
To the gallows on hanging days
To look for a blindfolded man.

Any woman could save a bandit then,
And maybe two
If she had a thousand acres or a daughter.

All she had to do was bring another horse
And tell the sheriff, him.


I keep thinking about the rhythms of Stanford’s lines, their sway and lilt. They’ve always reminded me of blues and jazz rhythms, the leaps of jazz, the smoke of the blues, especially in the long Whitman-like lines of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You:

I said I love you in the field of honour
and she was like a colt
and she was water I held in my hands
and she was the canoe I worked through the river
and she was the flash at two-thirty in the morning of the suicidal knife
and she was a fire of pine cones who ran like a deer
and she was a butterfly that lit on the float of my pole
and she was the night herself

In Hidden Water (Third Man Books, Nashville, Tennessee, 2015), a companion book to What About This, there are further unpublished poems, facsimiles of letters and photographs, hand written notes, and a partial list of Stanford’s record collection: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Roland Kirk, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed–over 120 records, and the list goes on and on. Stanford wrote several poems which touch on the blues. Part of it might have been due to his feeling of having lost that Edenic world of his childhood, those summers spent near the levees with his family. Here’s a poem from his first book, The Singing Knives:


I had my quiet time early in the morning
Eating Almond Joys with Mother.
We’d sit on the back porch and talk to God.
We really had a good time.

Later on,
I’d sort baseball cards
Or look for bottles.
In the afternoon I’d shoot blackbirds.

Jimmy would go by the house for ice water
And make the truck backfire.
Oh, I really liked that.
That was the reason he did it.

In the evenings the cottontails ran across the groves.
I shot one and put him in the backseat.
He went to the bathroom.
Jimmy said I knocked the shit out of him.

At night we would listen to the ballgame.
Then to the Hoss Man.
Jimmy liked “Take Some Insurance On Me Baby” by Jimmy Reed.

By the time Stanford wrote the following lines from a longer uncollected poem, perhaps a fragment itself, there was no more talking to God, no more good time. The poem begins with night and shadows:


Night is nothing
but the small shadow a woman-child’s foot casts
when she puts on her boots
when the taichi lesson is over.


As you can see
I have the blues.


I believe the farmer who stays awake all night,
sacking his mind like oats
for a name for his farm,
is more of a poet than most.

It’s about time the white men
got wise to blue guitars
of the delta.

I’m a two-timer and a drifter
so I won’t ask you to stay very long with me.

I don’t want anyone else to get
two steps from the blues.

Closer is a word the wise and foolish lovers use.
The incestuous roosters of dawn
are all of the time tracking it down.

The ones who follow wicked routine
are always saying, “Make ends meet.”

If we have to meet, then I want to
meet you like smoke. Yes, I’d like
to chop the kindling of my childhood once more,
we’re the same there. But those days are gone,
for better or worse. So, if we meet at all,
whoever you are, let us meet like horses
smelling one another out
before they mate.

All great poets go deep into their own inner landscapes, and that journey can be dangerous, sometimes fatal. Theodore Roethke wrote in one of his notebooks, ” To write poetry: you have to be prepared to die.” The old saying “he wrote with his blood” isn’t just some romantic aphorism. How far did Stanford go? Was he dogged, as the delta blues musician Robert Johnson was when he wrote “Hellhound on My Trail”?

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail…


Stanford didn’t write a lot about his poetics. He made a short autobiographical documentary film with the help of Irv Broughton titled It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood. Some of his ideas about poetry are found in two short pieces in What About This: the interview with Broughton, and six pages of prose that first appeared in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. An excerpt from that piece, “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes,” is printed below:

I don’t believe in a tame poetry. When poetry hears its own name, it runs, flies, swims off for fear of its own life. You can bet your boots on that. Jean Cocteau said a poet rarely bothers about poetry. Does a gardener perfume his roses?

Truthfully, it is the lure of the other fields, of other forces which draw me into a poem, not the techniques of a self-conscious poetics. A book like The Secret Life of Plants would have more influence on my poetry, add more in explaining and understanding the other systems of poetry, than would certain texts.

Every poet has a field of force not presently understood.


Stanford wrote a few poems from his experience as a land surveyor. To me it seems his physical work laid a grid or template over his poems, and showed him the boundaries in which his poems could percolate and grow, like the frame around a painting. In this previously uncollected poem, we sense how deeply he had gone into his psychic landscape near the end of his life:

How I Showed the Men No-Man’s-Land

The party of lost surveyors
Gathered at my fire
Dead and weary
While I cleaned my fish

“See this creek” the field chief
Told his chainmen
“It doesn’t appear on the map”

It was dusk
And my fire was going down
Like the sun on the ridge

They looked in the sky
For a star to follow
The wind blew
But the branches were still

“It’s odd here men
There must be something underground
The compass won’t work
The needle’s still
As a ship in dead calm”

I came out of the dark with my deaf dog
I asked them wouldn’t they
Take their rest

They whispered among themselves

I offered them biscuits and liquor

“Stranger all we want to know
Is where we are”
So I drew them a map in the dirt
Quietly with my knife

And when they understood
How deep they’d traversed
They looked one another in the eye
And parted company

That night every man looked for his own stone
To lie down beside and die alone

And in the background of the poem, that “ship in dead calm” rocks slowly like Charon’s boat on the bayou.


Poets of Stanford’s generation were nurtured by older poets who believed that another aspect of a poet’s work was to start a magazine, or a small poetry publishing house, or translate from other languages—all a part of giving back to the gene pool of poetry. Part of this process is to search out new and overlooked voices and give their work a place to be.

Stanford understood this, and established his poetry publishing house, Lost Roads in 1977. The first title from the press was well-known American poet C.D. Wright’s first collection of poems, Room Rented by A Single Woman. Stanford and Wright had a relationship for most of the last three years of his life.

Shortly before his death, Stanford prepared his will. He had reportedly visited his mother more frequently than usual in the weeks leading up to his death. On the evening of June 3, 1978 he returned to his home and took his own life.

His wife, Ginny Crouch Stanford, and C. D. Wright were in the house at the time of his death. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Wright and Crouch Stanford became co-executors of Frank Stanford’s estate and carefully preserved his many manuscripts over the last four decades. This story is not unlike that of Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who preserved many of his famous paintings that we cherish today.

I find a commingling of many of the themes in Frank Stanford’s poems in this previously unpublished fragment:

The night, the child, the moon, the drunken sailor,
the woman who wears through her ring like
a pair of Levis that last and last,
the blind Negro who taught me how to strut
when I was six, the look you gave me
the other day, whoever you are, the brave
and the lonely, the animals that see us,
a long time before we shoot them, the bank robber,
the drifter, all of us drink
from the same pool. So, when we meet,
let’s float down together, sane,
stoned, drunk, whatever, like those indigo
dragonflies of spring that will be here


There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.”

—Allan Cooper


allan cooper.

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.


Mar 062016


It is a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is also a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism — Natalie Helberg

dutton book covr

Margaret the First: A Novel
Danielle Dutton
Catapult, 2016
Paper, 167 pages, $15.95


Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is a fictive recreation of the life of Lady Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century word-smith, scripter, raging oddball, and wheeling brain. This was a woman who ventured to publish her outlandish thoughts and writings when there was very little precedent for acts of this kind (she was, after all, a woman, and constrained by the conventions which dogged her era). In some ways reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Dutton’s book unfurls in prose which is arrestingly poetic; it concentrates on the small moments, emotions, and sensuous details which make up Margaret’s life, though without forgetting about the larger, less fleeting events which might be termed her life’s frame. It is a work in which colourful linguistic molecules reign, a work whose language is perhaps as excessive and stunning as Lady Cavendish’s own wardrobe was said to be.

It is also a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism (“Hadn’t I thoughts, after all?…It cannot be infamy, I reasoned, to run or seek after glory, to love perfection, desire praise…”; “I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”). On another level, it is a novel about a woman being pushed along the line that is her life, a woman being buffeted about and subjected to forces she has no control over—wars, illness, her own body—while others, including loved ones, drop away: “In March, in London, my niece died from consumption. In April, my sister Mary. In Ireland that summer my brother Tom was crushed by his horse. The following autumn, our mother was taken…Alone in my room in Paris, I felt oblivion creep near.”

Margaret Cavendish, the character Dutton has fashioned, is at once bold and insecure, audacious and isolated (she is often more daring on the page than it is possible for her to be in person); even when she is all the rage (because her writing or eccentric attire is garnering attention) she is without community; she is by turns an object of praise, admiration, ridicule and resentment. The novel sweeps breathtakingly along from her birth to a noble family and early childhood in Colchester, England, to her death on a garden bench one winter’s morning. In between these events, the young Margaret Lucas serves the queen as a lady-in-waiting, marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat with no money but good connections (they dine and otherwise socialize with the best minds of the time: Hobbes, Descartes, Dryden, and others—all of whom more or less ignore Margaret), writes copiously (though she has her crises), and moves with him, in exile, from place to place: They are Royalists and the English Civil War is raging.

It is interesting to consider Margaret the First in light of Dutton’s other works. Dutton, who identifies as a writer of fiction, is nonetheless preoccupied with forms of narrative which resist the very distinction between poetry and prose. Neither her collection of short stories, Attempts at a Life, nor her first novel, SPRAWL, make use of conventional plot. Both are works which appear to let the sentence guide ‘what happens’ in the writing: the only rule seems to be that whatever comes next must be linguistically surprising, or refreshing. (Carla Harryman is another American prose-writer who works in something like this way, and Dutton is of course familiar with her.)

Today there’s no use for descriptions of the past. But life changes on a dial, in a garden, a clinking of beetle wings, a shrimp bush and dry pink petals of Chinese lanterns dangling. Once I thought: I’ll just plant things until there’s no time to be afraid. But storms are furious in their own way, green lightning and bullets as big as hail in the desert, as frogs.

My tongue reveals something faintly audible here. But birds come in off the low-slung roof and confess themselves atop cupboards. Even the occasional warm bird sandwich is prohibited. I spend a term untouched, living in an abandoned chophouse, pulling weeds. I post banns up and down the avenue, on palm trees and street signs. I drive a simple bargain. (“20C Pastoral” in Attempts at a Life)

Whereas Attempts at a Life consists of very short pieces which coalesce like poems (it is almost tempting to think of them as prose-poems), SPRAWL, whose structure is supposed to reinforce its theme, consists of a single, stream-of-consciousness-like paragraph whose sentences inventory the phenomena making up an equally sprawling suburbia:

We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipefitters, fences… So we sit on the couch and drink cocktails with umbrellas and are strongly on this one side of taxation, with an emphasis on judges, unpleasant violent crime, serenity, the good life, biographies of famous leaders, science fiction, and marijuana. I say, “Thanks for coming.” Then I say, “Sakes alive!” then “Mendicant!”

Both books are textured, so to speak, like fiction, but the linguistic parts which make that texture up are allowed to sit next to each other in ways which are perhaps more mysterious than conventional fiction would allow (and how do the elements making up a poem fit together?—often they fit together illogically, which is to say: magically). In this vein, Dutton is an adept maker of lists. Many of her sentences, and paragraphs, too, assume the form of a list whose elements are motley enough to startle expectation, but coordinated enough to sustain a kind of sense overall. This kind of slightly discontinuous listing, if we can call it that, makes Dutton seem aesthetically close to Gertrude Stein, who is one of her acknowledged influences (Virginia Woolf and Georges Perec are others).

Margaret the First makes use of this technique as well, though the items which make up its various lists are slightly more coordinated than they are motley. This is perhaps because the novel, unlike Attempts at a Life, say, although it too is made up of short, poetically-cohering sections, strives to transcend its parts to sustain a longer, unified story. In this respect it is like Dutton’s first novel, though Margaret the First labours under an even greater constraint than the rather open-ended SPRAWL, since, however fictionalized it is, it is about a specific historical figure, whose life it promises to animate. ‘The list’ serves precisely this end; its recurring presence is one of the reasons the book’s prose is so sumptuous, and the world it conveys so vivid. It is also one of the reasons the mundane details of Margaret’s life become entirely engrossing:

One morning that June, I took only a conserve of marigold for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough, and, after wandering the halls, went to the garden with two hard plums in my pocket. I ate; the church bell tolled. Eventually, in petal-flecked shoes, I found my way to the sitting room, where my mother dozed and John’s pregnant wife stood absently by the settle. The room was remarkably hot, for Mother believed in keeping windows shut, and a fat summer fly bumped against the glass. I stood at a table fiddling with a vase. I counted thirty-seven stems and dreamt up a ruby coat for a Chinese empress, a watery dress for Ophelia, a series of towering crystalline hats that rattled, sparkled, and shook—until from the hall came a series of noises.

The kind of writing fictionalized Lady Cavendish does appears in the novel, too. It is also described. At times, it almost seems as if lodged in Dutton’s book is a poetic—a theoretical articulation of a writing practice (Cavendish’s)—which exceeds the poetic the book itself (that is, Dutton’s) partakes in. This poetic is presented in a positive light, as if it is radical and desirable, fully endorsed, even loved. Perhaps it is loved all the more because it does not speak to the novel’s actual style; instead, it is held at a distance, a condition for eros:

Margaret writes everything: poetry, plays, essays, fancies, alternative philosophy. The structure of many of her texts is chaotic, directionless (“just a jumble of speeches and scenes” without structure—though, of course, even a mess has structure: life’s chaos is structured, and Margaret wishes her texts would unfold “like the natural course of things”). Her writing also embraces hybridity (she produces a book which is both fictional and theoretical, both fanciful and philosophical, for example), and switches styles on a whim (“Might not language be as a closet full of gowns?”). It disregards grammatical requirements as well, mainly because Margaret is unfamiliar with them, but refuses to be held back. In a word, her text is wild. It is as wild as she is inexorable. It cuts what seems like it must be an impossible figure of freedom, but which is precisely not impossible: We could say that in Dutton’s novel lies an unformulated manifesto for writing, which in principle, but so rarely in practice, is open to every possibility.

Margaret’s theoretical thinking, too, is feral and fantastical. She disapproves of many of the scientific trends of her day (including experimentation on animals) and produces, we can gather from certain snippets, a kind of alternative metaphysics (which reads like a ‘pataphysical critique): “I rejected any clock-like vision of the world. I chastised men who hunt for sport. The moon might be a ball of water…” When she is finally able to attend one of the Royal Society’s meetings (she has to nudge, but she does get in), she is silent however. Internally, she is enraged; externally, she is docile. “Gentleman,” she says disingenuously, “I am all admiration.” Later, she tells her husband that the meeting was only “more chatter,” and we are given a fuller idea of her own sense of impotence; her docility, her agreeableness at the meeting, was just a throwing up of arms; her speech was the silence of one whose speech is dictated, of one who is trapped or cornered, of one whose genuine thoughts, if they do not provoke violence, will fall on deaf ears, of one who is alone in the world, while the rest of the world bears down.

Psychologically acute moments like this, subtle emotional swivels, rather than action per se, give this narrative shape and depth. The single constant Margaret has in the world, besides her writing, is her husband, William, but even her relationship with him sours and sweetens. He is initially supportive of her writing, even proud, going so far as to distribute copies of it to his eminent friends, but he becomes peevish later on (at one point he even tells her—more or less—that women should be seen and not heard). She does not help matters, either: for all her shyness, she is a shameless self-promoter, and is perhaps too preoccupied with her own doings to realize when she is stepping on his toes: She attends the opening night for a play he has written with her breasts bared and nipples painted—something of a fashion experiment, which is much noted during the performance. “Congratulations,” she tells him afterwards. “No, no,” he says, “Congratulations to you.”

Lady Cavendish is undoubtedly a complex, perhaps even contradictory, character: she is a character one for the most part sympathizes with, though she has it in her to be mortifying. She is an awkward character, to put this another way: both very public and extraordinarily private. The text holds a part of her in reserve, or seems to refrain from disclosing her fully. She wonders if William has forgiven her after the play-incident, but we are given little other insight into her anxiety: we know enough to know it is there; we know enough to know she suffers; still, these things are cloaked with silence. Dutton’s striking novel has its own way of wrapping things in silence: it leaves us with a winter’s tomb after giving us page after page ashake with leaves and petals, orations and courtships, wars and corpses, air pumps and eldritch grammars, seas and sciences, itinerancy and gossip, plums and manuscripts, ups and downs, birds and debt, kings and crates, fancies and Fox-men, wit and infertility, stupor and chewed goose, poems and autumn roses, Spanish stews and steady love. Its energy is inimitable; its curious aura—its curious beauty—burns a long while.

— Natalie Helberg


Natalie Helberg

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently won The Capilano Review’s Fifth Annual Robin Blaser Award for poetry. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.


Feb 142016

Ben Jelloun

Although Ben Jellouns writing is simple and straightforward, he does take chances in structure and effect. The narrative shape of The Happy Marriage is corrugated and layered—like the broken and fretful marriage it depicts. It is problematized by withheld information and the character’s anguish and paranoia. —Jason DeYoung

the Happy marriage
The Happy Marriage
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Melville House, 2016


“If we knew what went on between women and men,” Mavis Gallant once said, “we wouldn’t need literature.” This quotation played over in my mind as I read The Happy Marriage, a novel that at times I thought uninspired and clichéd (albeit self-aware of it), and yet at other moments heartbreaking and authentic. The Happy Marriage is about that most ancient and indefatigable topic: betrayal. Only in The Happy Marriage we glimpse it through the eyes of a man and woman during social changes in Moroccan laws and customs, when men no longer hold all the power to determine when a marriage has ended, and when women are enacting more control over their own lives.

Born in Morocco in 1944, Tahar Ben Jelloun was the first North African writer to win the Prix Goncourt Prize for his novel The Sacred Night (1987) and has been short listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of over fifteen novels, he’s is best known for a trilogy about the life of Ahmde/Zahra, a girl who is raised in Morocco as a boy. More recently, he won The International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel This Blinding Absence of Light (2000), a novel that depicts the real-life, twenty-three-year prison sentence of a survivor of King Hassan II’s desert concentration camp, where political enemies were kept in lightless, underground cells with little food or water. Most of his novels, however, are more like The Happy Marriage, preoccupied by the daily life and relationships between men and women in Muslim society. They often focus on escaping its dogmas (Leaving Tangiers) or returning to its comforts (The Palace in the Old Village).

Ben Jelloun lists the typical Western pantheon of influences—Joyce, Cervantes, Pessoa. But he is on record of saying that he doesn’t really identify with other writers, “rather with certain filmmakers: Orson Wells, Federico Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni.” These cinematic influences inform nearly all of is fiction, generally through one of his characters being a movie aficionado. He does, however, state in interviews that Jean Genet, who he knew in the 1970s, gave him one piece of important advice, which Ben Jelloun has followed: “When you are writing, think of the reader, be simple,” Genet advised.

Although Ben Jellouns writing is simple and straightforward, he does take chances in structure and effect. The narrative shape of The Happy Marriage is corrugated and layered—like the broken and fretful marriage it depicts. It is problematized by withheld information and the character’s anguish and paranoia. It is novel in two parts—one male, the other female. Part One is entitled “The Man Who Loved Women Too Much” and Part Two is “My Version of Events: A response to The Man Who Loved Women Too Much.” It’s a tit-for-tat kind of book, similar to another of Ben Jelloun’s novels, The Last Friend (2006).

Part One is the man’s side of things. Known only as the painter, his narrative opens in Casablanca, February 4, 2000. He is bedridden after a stroke, and he is unable to paint. At one time he was a celebrated artist, but now he lives out his days being cared for by a pair of twins who helps him get a round, and is visited by Imane, a physiotherapist, who is helping him regain muscle control. It is a portrait of an invalid that Ben Jelloun presents, but the painter’s mind is still alive, vivid, and over the course of the first part of the novel, he reflect back over his life, dwelling mostly on his unhappy marriage.

At first the marriage is indeed a happy one. The painter and his bride are very much in love. They are, however, from two different strata of Moroccan society (he from something higher than she), and there is also fourteen-year difference in their ages (he is 38; she is 24). “Nobody present [at their wedding] had been happy, apart from the painter and his wife,” we are told. “Nobody had wanted them to get married. One had to be absolutely crazy to want to bring such different worlds together.”

It’s difficult for the painter to trace the beginnings of their marital troubles, saying, “once their son was born, his wife gained a great deal of confidence and her attitude and behavior underwent a vast transformation.” Slowly the small moments of martial discord become a stridency of outrages and indignities. The wife is portrayed as irascible, irrational, and prone to fits. The painter freely confesses to a multitude of affairs, some as short as one night, others that went on for years, followed with heartbreak. Yet, he never sees himself completely in the wrong: “At no point did the painter feel guilty,” we’re told. “He was doing nothing wrong, he was simply looking for some equilibrium outside of his marriage, which only functioned intermittently.”

What’s not revealed until late in the novel is that the painter’s section is being written by an amateur writer, who visits the painter regularly during his convalesce. The two friends chat, the writer types and polishes (reshapes, I often wondered) the story the painter has told, and the pages are kept in the painter’s safe. It is this manuscript—in which the painter blames his wife for all his misery and illness—that the wife finds and prompts her to pen her response.

Part Two is a first-person narrative and a rejoinder to the painter’s side of the story. Unlike the painter who never reveals his own identity, the wife proudly states her name—Amina Wakrine. In comparison to the painter, Amina doesn’t seem to shy from her flaws. Her first words sum up how she sees herself: “Before giving you my version of events, I must warn you that I am nasty.” The wife has a cold eye for herself and for others. What we learn from her more clinical approach to the story of their marriage is that the painter, whom she calls Foulane, an Arabic word used to refer to “any old guy,” is that their marriage had more complexity that he revealed. Yes, there were the infidelities, but also he withheld money from her, despite earning more than enough from his paintings. But his family—not the one he created with Amina, but his siblings—was always his first concern, and he made his wife and children live off a small allowance.

For a while we take the wife’s side of the story as truer—both her petty and principal complaints seem more sincere than the husband’s—until she begins to edge into paranoia, and rants about all the evil spells she believes the painter’s family have cast on her:

Foulane said he didn’t believe in such things, but I had proof that the women in his family were using sorcery against me… I cleaned the house from top to bottom. My friends helped me and we found little packets wrapped in tin foil all over the house, tucked under each bed and inside the toilets. The house was overrun by spells designed to make me ill.

And just like in the painter’s half, we begin to doubt her integrity. Suspicious spreads like an epidemic in this work.

The end of the novel leaves us with our own decision to make (if we care to, that is). Who’s right? Who’s wrong? In both parts, we have common statements of awareness:

While he’d never necessarily wanted his wife to one day grow docile and submissive, he had always harbored a secret hope that she would at least become loving and obliging, calm and reasonable, in short, a wife who could help him build a family life and then share it with him. It had been his dream. But he’d been misguided and he had instead oppressed his wife, forgetting to acknowledge his share of responsibility for that failure. (The Painter)

My mistake was to think people can change. None of us change, not least of which a man who’s already lived out most of his life… (The Wife)

Clearly, both narrators are flawed, and Ben Jelloun does a fine job of not betraying loyalty or agreement with one character over the other—unless you equate giving the wife the last word as consensus. In a Paris Review interview with Ben Jelloun, he says that his “job is not to give answers or to find solutions, but to ask questions, to testify in a human situation….[to] tell a story in hopes that it will incite reflection, provoke thought.” If provoking thought is his goal, I feel he’s done so. As I sit here parsing out this book, I keep coming back to the fact that I just don’t like these characters, neither one. The painter is an ass; the wife is mentally cracked. But then, why do I think these things? Why do I judge them so harshly?

The novel is keenly aware of the changing tensions between men and women in Moroccan society. Often the painter’s section reeks of chauvinism, while the wife’s section smartly leans in a more feminist direction. The infidelities and betrayals, which are damaging yet described quite rightly as “banal,” are in some ways pretense to show the changing political values. Whereas a lesser novelist might have chosen younger characters to portray this change, Ben Jelloun chooses middle-age characters, those whom perhaps would feel the change more intensely. Amina acknowledges “in our culture, a woman who cheats on her husband no longer has any rights, everyone thinks badly of her, even if she was victimized by a lying, violent husband.” Thusly, she enacts her revenge through the changed marriage laws, refusing to divorce the painter, stating:

I’ll never leave Foulane, I’ll never leave him alone. He has to assume his responsibilities. I couldn’t care less about his health, mood or state of mind. I’ll never stop hating him so long as my thirst for revenge isn’t quenched. One day I’ll rebuild my life, but not before he’s paid the price. So long as he refuses to atone for what he’d done to me, or publicly confess in front of everyone, I’ll revue to let go! I’m too proud to leave him. I’m full of hate, and if anyone were to shake me, drops of poison would inevitably fall out.

If this is a happy marriage, it’s not a sense of happiness that many will identity as such. Despite their early nuptial contentment, these are two miserable people, made so by life, ego, family, and conflicting desires and ambitions. One of the tropes that Ben Jelloun uses in the novel is montage: the painter dives deep in his memory, pulling images of the women he loved up and remembering their time together. The Happy Marriage in many ways is part of montage of unhappy marriages that I’ve seen, and perhaps you’ve seen, too. I can’t say this is a good place to start reading Ben Jelloun in English—I’d give that to The Last Friend or Leaving Tangiers. But what The Happy Marriage does do well is give us a solid portrait of two flawed individuals, and their example, one can only hope, might help to make the next marriage a happier one.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Feb 132016


It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. —Jeff Bursey


Matches: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
Paper, 538 pp., $25.00


An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. The pyrotechnics continue on the copyright page—that overlooked dead leaf in most books (would that there existed a work made up solely of idiosyncratic copyright pages)—where Punctum states:

This work carries a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license, which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors (but not in a way that suggests the authors or punctum endorses you and your work), you do not use this work for commercial gain in any form whatsoever, and that for any remixing and transformation, you distribute your rebuild under the same license.

Anything goes, then, this book is practically a box or kit filled with gears and levers, you can make out of its contents a soapbox racer or a towering edifice to Marxism, a paean to the life of the public intellectual or a scrap with philosopher-sociologist Bruno Latour, and the book performs its own self-transubstantiation from the top line on the back cover where booksellers are aided in commodifying it by the heading “Philosophy/Essays,” like that first word will propel sales or encapsulate the pith of Matches by offering a partial truth—a fragment of the truth—of what Chrostowska has achieved, for what we have here is a multi-sided work: the unnamed narrator (hereafter referred to as N.) as a goad, as a cynic despairing of humanity’s chances, watching while the world comes to a slow and distasteful end, and occasionally winking at this or that outrageous statement. (Who’s to say that essays can’t be spoken by a persona?) The decline is presented in stages, with themes, walk-on parts for minor figures, costumes (verbal dressing of arguments), and sharp attacks (verbal dressing downs). “Before you level at me the charge of inkhorn writer, you must try to understand my reason for choosing ‘bookish words’: they remind me there used to be such things as books” (“Inkhorn”).

Nostalgia, sentiment (not sentimentality), days of golden glory long gone to rust, a cultural milieu fast disappearing, a long battle with inanition and lowering standards—what is this all for? While it contains philosophy, Matches is more an intellectual biography of a fractious mind in contact with long-standing and current crises engendered by politics and science as well as fads and paradigm shifts, sparing scant glances at the stuff of the sensory world. Real people are almost absent, and when they are encountered it’s dramatic and disturbing:

As the bus pulled into the station at the end of the line, I took a tactical position and, passing him, ran my shoulder into his—instantly realizing, however, that my puniness may have left the wrong impression (of an accident, not deliberate aggression). Fearing cowardice and loss of composure, with shame already coming on, I turned around to give him one final look with all the urgency I could muster. (“Angel of Death”)

Instead of a moment of significant impact there is an instance of insubstantiality. Wispiness of N.’s physical self, a life that does not include many descriptions of meals, surfing, broken bones, or guitars, is countered by vigorous cerebral activity. But to be as precise as N., the scene of his running into a man dressed in the regalia of a Nazi SS officer is as vaporous as this: “It is a comforting thought that the extremes of good and
evil as we knew them are a thing of the past, that in our attention-deficit economy good and evil are losing their edge, growing closer together” (“The Gulf of Inattention”). We pause to take in both the humour and the sting. Yet there’s nothing actually going on beyond the press of ink on paper; nothing has happened. Despite the acknowledged limitations of the page Matches makes clear a larger world lies beyond it. But it’s not a safe place, as N. notes: “No scaffold is too elevated for a writer’s execution. He has come into being as a public figure, and it is only fitting that he be helped to die as one” (“Literary Public Execution).


Matches has seven sections: Proem (a kind of preface), Books I-V, and Paralipomena (defined as things omitted but added as a supplement). Proem as a whole is a joy to read aloud, and here is the first paragraph:

I had a vision of a book that shed light. A torch book to light my way. A comet book, its luminous tail to leave a trace for me. Its brightness so intense that closing it submerged whoever broke it open in deeper darkness than before. I fancied a kind of sempiternal flame that shot up again as one resumed where one had left off.

Notice the small steps that lead from a personal light to an object “whoever” can use, and then the subtly implied external (and therefore potentially larger) audience of “one” that may find illumination in what’s to come. Attention to assonance and consonance in service to both the embrace of a widening audience and an abiding metaphor persists to the book’s final, slippery words: “Endings: Can be eelusory.”

The bulk of Matches contains threads of discussion, picked up and dropped as N. loses interest, on writing and books, indigenous people, the pursuit of knowledge, Utopia and what that recurrent idea says about the world we inhabit, sensitivity, art, and dreams, but these categories only hint at what resides in this book. Here are random examples:

This work of art may have been made by your neighbour, but in it he seems a stranger. (“Work of Exception”)

What, at base, is resentment, if not the need for equality clumsily expressed? (“Resentment”)

Nature seems never
 to have cared less for our micro-minded designs for self-preservation than in our present age. Twice marked, once wise, we make do in the killing fields without admitting this bleak and ageist thought. And our horrid work isn’t exactly getting any easier. But when our turn comes, let’s not flatter one another. It is nature that pulls the trigger—not in our name, no, but in its own. (“Sapiens sapiens, or Nil Admirari”)

Matches is a work that is replete with fragmentation, a literary incendiary device that changes a marathon reading to a deliberate exercise in sifting cultural rubble. “What do all these fragments have in common?” asks N. “What unites them? Or is their fragmentariness meant to point us in the direction of the titular ‘threshold’?” (“Cannonball”) That question isn’t directed inwards; it’s left to readers to discern what we can from the one-liners, the puns, the pastiches, the wry tone, and the longer considerations of this or that topic. Perhaps figuring out the narrator might help the book cohere.


What is N.’s nature? I built in my mind over the course of 450 pages the following figure: a garrulous aunt you primarily see at weddings, funerals, and festive celebrations, stationed by the food, drink in hand but not drunk, a little shorter than average, maybe known as Madge, peppery, quick-tongued, cognitively aware, and unafraid to say what came to mind, a woman wearily aware of the passing of time and the ends of things, nearer to pessimism than meliorism. In “Making Up Lives” N. says: “My biographer might write, based on my work: he was interested in X because he had experienced something like, or something of, X.” He. Everything I had concocted exploded by this pronoun. Recalibration of motivations began, but why had I led myself astray? Does gender change ideas that much? In Chrostowska’s novel Permission (2013), where a one-sided epistolary affair collects tension as to whether or not the recipient of the letters will refrain from responding, the action is made up of recollections and hypotheses, to the point where one might feel bored, until there is a sudden shift, a confession from the letter writer (Fern) that cautions the reader from making complacent assumptions. Chrostowska has executed a similarly smart move in Matches dislocating the point of view so casually and so deep in the work that I’m left questioning myself.

When N. writes about commerce, culture, and civilization, bracing his remarks with long and short quotations from this or that public intellectual, there is a reserve of anger that emerges in flashes of impatience or, more commonly, a forced resignation (or powerlessness) to accept the way things are or look to be going. Matches can be seen as protest literature, though without strikes, demonstrations or civil disobedience. Whatever action the narrator might contemplate is never more than a thought. Passion and humour are present, yet what’s most prevalent is the ambivalence and melancholy about everything from political activity to the use of aphorisms (in a book filled with them), and skeptical or dismissive of such things as “the grasping hand of Christianity in the shape of the modern capitalist state,” life coaches, and “the revolutionary power of social media.” In “Faster! Faster!” N. addresses technology: “Some say that we are modern if and when we accelerate. Such a modernity would be worth celebrating only if things were moving faster and in the right direction.” This leads him to speak on efforts to forestall climate change: “And technological acceleration as a way of outpacing nature’s decline—to save it at the other end—is something of a vicious circle. Has anyone ever succeeded in catching someone they had themselves pushed off a roof?” The Anthropocene age is embraced decisively (as is “the Age of the Troll” [“Naming Contest”]). How to not descend into an even more drastic state is, as any newspaper or newscast will show, a question left to those in power: billionaires and their factotums (so-called world leaders), corporations, and advocates of globalization.

As the entries mount N. comes across as an impotent, ineffectual, dejected liberal who, at times, sounds like a neoliberal or a conservative. The thinkers brought in to bolster a case on this or that topic—de Man, Foucault, Habermas, Nietzsche—are flawed or far removed from the public they ostensibly understand and seek to represent. N. is most withering when he invokes Marx (pilloried not long ago but Lazarus-like since the Great Recession started) in this passage from “Mutatio mundi”:

But Marx’s words cannot themselves accomplish what they call for, which is new to philosophy. They are conscious of communicating a novelty to thought. They are a call for a new totality (the world), in the making of which philosophy can—must—cannot but participate, and the enormity of the task requires marshalling the totality of philosophy, a move so revolutionary as to pull thought out of its orbit. In theology, exegesis, prayer, the task of thought exceeded its worldly limit; with modern philosophy, thought sets for itself a task at once greater than itself and within its new limits, which it projects and identifies with those of the world. The last Feuerbach thesis is furthest out in this respect, jutting out like a pier into swelling waters, its pillars firmly planted in the ocean floor. At the end of it stands the revolutionary visionary. Diverting his gaze from the dreamy horizon now back towards dry land, now down into the depths below, is the tension in his breast between the beachcomber and the pearl diver. (253-254)

In this image there is the liminal space between earth-bound reality and liquid illusions (hopes), and the visionary—the philosophical visionary only—is hesitancy incarnate. A ditherer. The poor, as N. states in “Means without End,” though willing to take some course of action, are unable to act: “After all, how can the slavishly exploited. . ., the truly solidary who willingly gave up their spare and excess means in return for the truth of struggle against ‘scarcity,’ who make ends meet in the struggle’s day to day, who instead of ‘minding the gap’ between where they are and where they’d like to be have wound up dwelling in it bodily—how can they actively prefigure a collective utopia?” The book is redolent of what might be termed negative Whiggishness—a view that everything declines, and that that is natural.

To draw such a clever image as that revolutionary on a pier—pointedly not at a barricade—is to indulge, as N. frequently does, in binary oppositions. This Manichean view of issues—in politics, criticism, social theory—requires false dilemmas and straw men. Far from being a weakness, that suits one of the narrative’s intentions, I believe: through polemics, to make us side (or not) with N.’s black-and-white positions and then catch ourselves for not considering every side. (Men of action will get on with things.) N. has a short entry that removes the option of empathy: “A soft spot for the opponent in a political debate indexes decay in one’s own position” (“Mushy Criticism”). Politics is a blood sport, but not a team one, as shown when religious imagery is used to illustrate more about the individual than about God or His people (the public is often invoked but is never a felt presence):

The simpler the life, the more pronounced its religious features. We carry the world’s expectations of us into our hermitage, priding ourselves on our private orderliness. As long as the mind does not deviate, we feel our days have been well-spent, and we have fulfilled our duty to the world: rising, the first meal, light or heavy, the first stimulant of the day. Morning ablutions, drying and dressing of the body. Choice of activity, planning out the rest of the day, exercise, a look at the budget, concluded with entertainment of some sort. We know it all well enough, take pleasure in this simple discipline, and yet when other things come to occupy our mind, these private rituals quickly lose their gravity and precision. It is still possible to be devout, as long as mind and body worship each other without interruption or intermediary.

A pleasant, unruffled, and still life sanitized of children, pets, parents and siblings, employers, neighbours, and their needs. Nowadays even the ring of a telephone is disruptive. Everything has to have a filter. No wonder social media is so pleasing.

In “Heart & Home” N. looks at this splendid isolation from another angle:

Political ignorance extends to the idea that the nation-state is just a bigger home, in which all the nation’s families live in harmony as in a communal dwelling.

The cosmopolitan, whose knowledge of political community breaks with such sentiments, rejects this Aristotelian conception of the state as home-land—as much as the idea that politics needs a fixed abode—fixed by familial-national attachment. Regardless of what he calls home, his true home is his heart—his cosmopolitan heart. And this home is his politics.

Syrian refugees? Forget about them. And there’s no wish to side with the 99% when your heart is the only residence you need. Who wants to contain multitudes these days? Isn’t selfishness more appropriate for this world than, say, a return to the demeaning German conceit of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, taken on in the last century by the English, and seemingly doing well in the Republican Party?

Narrowness of vision, attributed to the entire populace and shared, to some degree, by N., has contributed to the degradation of practically everything. Yet N. is at times blind to what is glaringly obvious, as when he writes: “Thieves need banks to deposit their stash without accounting for it. This to keep it from being stolen by others like them” (“Safety Deposits”). The 99% believe the real thieves are the banks and bankers, as N. knows, but he sits alone, diagnosing the maladies afflicting the body politic yet barely raising his own pulse through taking part in a struggle for change. He always has more words to buffer his heart, however grimly, as in this creed:

Thinking as source of certainty, and its mouth.

Thinking as the bed of certainty, and its bank.

Thinking as the cradle of certainty, and its grave. (“Three Clear Thoughts”)

There are set pieces when N. distances himself from his own thoughts, perhaps to explore alternate viewpoints in external form. In addition to quotations from Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Cioran, Gombrowicz, and daily papers, which allow for debates on items major and minor, there are dialogues between entities labelled A and B and A and A1. After a while you start to think of A and B as a refined Statler and Waldorf. They glide along in their speeches about what is human and what isn’t, on publishing, and nostalgia, as examples—though we are reminded by N. of “the naive embrace of the benefits of eloquence” with TED talks the epitome, for him, of the debasement of communication—and have a patter that, while occasionally showing irritation, reinforces the notion that they’ve gotten used to each other over time and enjoy their parole. Never mind the camouflage, however; this is N. thinking through subjects.

It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. The comparison to Robert Musil’s work finds some underpinning in “Not Taken Lightly,” where N. writes:

. . . what better evidence that 
we are more discerning when we negate? Surely no one 
today would draw the more obvious conclusion: that there are more reasons to believe or more things to affirm than to disbelieve or disaffirm. But that won’t do. Refusal is often dangerous in going against the ruling consensus, it is courage to belief’s cowardice; it is safer and therefore easier to say yes. You don’t need much brains to say yes or no, but it takes nerve even to jangle your chains—sometimes conscious nerve. Negators expect to be held to account for their nos rather than patted and fed for their yeses. What’s more, negation is not always the result of whim or contrarian adolescence; not infrequently, it comes after thinking things over, thinking them twice (considering the risks of opposition). And expecting to be made to defend itself, it arms itself with arguments so as not to appear irresponsible. Either way you look at it, obviously a form of cognitive refinement.

N. doesn’t fight vigorously against anything, so he has chosen to put down his thoughts while attempting to fix himself in the shifting world. What started as notes has become, over time, a rough profile of his internal life. The fragments can’t be glued together, but they do suggest a lost wholeness that is impossible to reclaim in this breaking world. Has N. unwittingly shown more than he imagined?


In “‘The younger the more clear-sighted’” N. offers this opinion:

Why should we look up to the future as we do? Why should we expect it to go where we cannot lead it by example? Time will not separate the good from the bad. It will not judge better, only similarly or differently. Posterity will not know to hold in high regard what we now fail to appreciate. But we can be sure that it will look down on us—not because we deserve it, but just because it has superseded us.

Posterity contains condescension and youthfulness, and it’s not a smarter time or a safe repository for deferred respect. What does that mean when applied to Matches: A Light Book?

It must be apparent that the 538 pages that make up this book offer an abundance of streams for critics to attempt to chart and cross, choosing to pay attention to certain ones over others. (One could just as easily focus on N.’s aesthetic views as his politics, for example.) N. has many acute and, at times, severe remarks about those who write on books, and the most fitting may be this: “Critics today need to feel the writer had reason for what they did, reason to innovate, reason to be daring” (“Novel Experiments”). Is this work in need of justification? Not solely critics, of course, but any reader of Matches, now and in the future, will offer an answer to that and an interpretation if they’re open to its arguments, ready to disagree or to be persuaded, after which revelation will follow on revelation, an oecumenical group activity, as each person makes of it what he or she wants, and perhaps needs, since its fragments can be read in numerous ways, under bright and dim light shining straight on or pitched at an angle to throw up facets as the shards are handled gingerly or roughly caressed. No one can piece these entries together to form one wholly, catholic, and postulated assemblage. That’s part of its genius, to allow for and provoke debate on its essence, on the identity of N., and, since this is the way things go, what its creator meant by writing it.

A truly thorough examination of Matches: A Light Book would map all the terrain and take an unusual form: a multi-week course containing lectures, slides, video, theatre, playtime, and interactivity. S.D. Chrostowska is a writer of importance, and with this work she has raised her own personal bar, as well as challenged her countrymen to do the same.

The final words go to N.’s stand-ins where the occasional gloominess is relieved by mordant wit:

A The life of the mind is nearly extinct.
B Leave it to brains-in-vats! Leave it to the machines . . .
A You think they’ll revive it?
B But of course! We’ll transmit to them what we admire but have no more time for. (“Vita contemplativa”)

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East

Feb 102016


Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. – Joseph Schreiber


On the Edge
Rafael Chirbes
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions, January 2016
464 pages

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:

A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.

This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction[1], should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.

Born in 1949, in a small town in the province of Valencia, into a family with republican roots—that is, on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War—Rafael Chirbes would be influenced and shaped by the post-war environment in which he was raised and educated. When he was four years old, his father committed suicide, but not before teaching his precocious son to read. His mother, who worked as a switchman until she herself was detained by the authorities, was unable to afford to support him; so young Rafael was sent to an orphanage for the children of railway workers. His schooling would soon take him away from the Mediterranean coastal community of his birth; he spent his childhood and adolescence in the landlocked Castile region of Spain during one of the bleakest eras of the dictatorship. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Madrid to study Modern and Contemporary History. There he became involved in underground anti-Franco activities that would see him spend time in prison.

Always a voracious reader, Chirbes supported himself working in bookstores and writing literary criticism prior to heading to Morocco to teach Spanish. Returning to Europe he spent time in Paris, Barcelona, La Coruña, and Extremadura before ultimately making his way back to Valencia. He engaged in a variety of journalistic activities until 1988 when, at the age of 39, he released his first novel, Mimoun. From that point on, he would produce a series of novels that merged elements of realism and introspection with history and storytelling to fashion caustic portrayals of modern Spain.

Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. And through Esteban, the anguished protagonist at the heart of On the Edge, the last of his novels to be published before his death from cancer in August of 2015, he has created a powerful testimony to the devastating personal impact of the economic crisis on his fellow countrymen. And, without preaching, he deftly sheds light on the broader currents flowing through a society plagued by concerns about poverty, violence, xenophobia, Islamophobia, human trafficking, prostitution, moral corruption, and environmental degradation.

Originally published as En la orilla in 2013, On the Edge opens with a gruesome discovery on the morning of December 26, 2010. Ahmed, a Moroccan migrant worker, presently unemployed, spends his days fishing in the marshlands outside the fictional communities of Olba and Misent where, as in other regions of the country and the continent, the economic collapse of 2008 has left its mark. Unemployment is high and climbing higher, while the detritus of the burst housing bubble can be seen along the roads lined with building projects left abandoned in various stages of conception and construction. Two dogs fighting over a piece of carrion attracts Ahmed’s attention, disturbing his quiet interlude; but when he realizes, to his horror, that the contested meat is, in fact, a human hand, he panics, making a hasty retreat lest he be wrongly connected with the scene of a possible crime. The lagoon, he knows, hides a decaying legacy of discarded goods, the spoils and evidence of all manner of legal and illegal activities.

Moving back almost two weeks in time, the majority of Chirbes’ novel will unfold over the course of a single winter day. Seventy year-old Esteban is a man at the end of his rope. Swept up in the euphoria of greed when it seemed there was no end to the burgeoning property explosion, he mortgaged all his father’s land and possessions, including the carpentry workshop and the family home above it, to enter into a partnership with Pedrós, a local developer with grand schemes—a man who has now suddenly disappeared leaving his creditors in the lurch and Esteban completely bankrupt. Forced to lay off his employees and say good-bye to Liliana, his cherished Colombian housekeeper, he is left with the thankless task of attending to his aged father’s personal care while awaiting imminent foreclosure and the loss of absolutely everything.

On the crisp, clear day in question, Esteban leaves his father secured to a chair in front of the TV, and heads out to the marshlands with his dog. As he makes his way through the reeds, along wet, obscured trails, ripe with the pervasive smell of rot and decomposition, he engages in a long and convoluted series of melancholic soliloquies. He recalls his Uncle Ramón, his father’s younger brother, who taught him to hunt and fish, made him toys and was more of a true father figure than the cold, gruff man, now aged and decrepit, presently tied to into an armchair at home. The blunt lessons about life and death that Ramón passed on to his young nephew on their hunting and fishing expeditions to the marshes will haunt Esteban’s own reasoning to the very end:

[T]he fisherman who fails to choose the right bait does so because he doesn’t know how fish think, and a fisherman or a hunter has to become the thing he’s hunting, the real fisherman falls in love with his victim: he’s hunting himself. Hold the hook like this, no, we’re not going to use the dough we normally use for bait, today we’ll use this stuff. Smell it. Disgusting, isn’t it? What a stink! Well, fish love that smell. And so do crabs. Everything rots. We’ll end up rotting as well and we’ll smell quite a lot worse. Many years from now, you’ll rot too—and it’s that rotten smell that the fish like. When you get older, you’ll realize that they’re like humans in that respect. Don’t go thinking you’re not going to end up smelling like a dead fish, Esteban.

Some sixty years on from these marshland lessons, Esteban is, as he combs the area—the lagoon, the canals, and the muddy pathways—closer to being both hunter and his own prey than he has ever been.

Another ghost that inhabits his retrospective musings is Leonor, his first love; the woman for whom he had returned to the town of his birth after a brief attempt to flee. She would soon abandon him, in effect condemning him to a lonely life of sawdust and wood glue, beside his father in the family carpentry workshop while she headed off to Europe to marry his best friend, Francisco—a man who did manage to escape and would, for decades, lead a life of glamour and prestige, before returning, after Leonor’s death, to assume an existence of cultured semi-seclusion in the finest house in town.

Lack of ambition, environmental factors—I used to think: I am the owner of my own deficiencies. The only thing I own is what I lack, what I cannot reach, what I’ve lost, that’s what I have, what is actually mine, the empty vacuum that is me. I have what I don’t have. And I felt infinitely sorry for myself, filled with a bitterness that sometimes verged on hatred of her, a false hatred (no, I don’t think I ever hated her, I still felt aroused whenever I saw her, I desired her, yes, I desired her right up until the end, she was the only woman for me), and a false hatred of Francisco which extended to my father (and did I really hate him, do I still hate him?), or vice versa: love in absentia. They were two sides of the same coin—on one side, what seemed to me unattainable and, on the other, what was denied to me: Francisco showing me what could have been, and my father showing me the depths of the nothingness that had become my sole property.

Chirbes allows his protagonist ample space for extended, rambling rants and remembrances—long sentences unwind in single paragraphs that stretch on for pages—peppered with asides, often directed at his father, who is silent, or to Liliana, from whom he imagines and integrates affectionate responses. Rhythms of resentment, nostalgia, and regret play out against each other, driving Esteban’s restless inner monologues forward as he catalogues and re-catalogues his history of failures and betrayals. Repetitiveness often arises, one part perseveration, one part forgetfulness; balanced by a healthy measure of witty observation and philosophical musings. In spite of himself, Esteban is a captivating narrator.

He is however, no less a complicated, conflicted and paranoid human being. Over the course of more than 400 pages we spend so much time inside his ruminations that it can be tempting, as Chirbes himself might warn us, to only see what our protagonist is choosing to see. And this is where On the Edge is so much more than the claustrophobic internalized ravings of one isolated man. No social situation is ever that simple. And the stage on which Esteban stands, in fact where he is planning to orchestrate and perform his own denouement, is inextricably bound to, and echoes, the whirlpool of rapidly declining economic circumstances around him.

So, other voices are invited to contribute. First there is a recurring Greek chorus of sorts, mediated by Esteban, mind you, who take turns speculating on the present state of social and economic affairs (Where could Pedrós have disappeared to?) over nightly card games at the local bar. These are, for the most part, Esteban’s peers—old friends—each carrying their own baggage, secrets and culpabilities. Yet, are their pasts really as shady as our guilt ridden and suspicious narrator imagines?

Then there are the recurring passages where otherwise silent supporting characters are granted an opportunity to step up and own the stage for a moment. Background stories briefly surface. We hear from disgruntled former employees of the carpentry shop, or their beleaguered spouses; their lonely, frustrated, and weary accounts cut through Esteban’s monologue. His father even speaks from the past through reflections recorded on the pages of an old calendar, and, eventually, his precious Liliana is allowed to offer her own brutal perspective. But perhaps even more revealing is the fact that some of the most important players—Ramón, Francisco and Leonor—essentially remain silent, known primarily through our protagonist’s memories and perceptions.

Esteban’s small corner of Spain, the one in which he finds himself in late middle age, belongs to the ordinary man, the small town resident—running a business on the bright or shady side of the law, or perhaps both. One imagines that it would have been almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of economic promise; an excitement that might have sounded more loudly for a the citizens of a nation that had come, relatively speaking, late to democracy. Here our narrator stands divided between his resentment of his father’s stubborn adherence to the socialist values that restricted his expansion of the carpentry business; and his bitter envy of Francisco, the son of a family with a dark fascist past, who fled Olba to ride the coattails of a world enamoured with the pleasures of fine wine and dining (with a line of coke and a beautiful escort on the side, of course). But as he nurses his regrets and calculates the sum of the injustices life has dealt him, Esteban’s strongest emotion is one of resignation to his fate, the one last thing over which he can exercise any control.

In her Afterward, Valerie Miles describes On the Edge as a “poetic spasm, an epic of the garbage dump written by a witness who breaks the underclass’ legacy of silence during a crisis that is not merely economic, but social and acutely moral.” The setting reinforces this reality most vividly: the fetid, polluted marshes, with the blue glint of the sea shining in the distance. Here the solidity of the ground can be dangerously deceptive and even the beautiful blooms betray their origins in their scent. Chirbes’ Mediterranean is no romantic playground—it is harsh, unforgiving, and unforgettable—like the monumental novel that he anchors in this desolate wasteland.

– Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He tweets @roughghosts.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Valerie Miles, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2014), electronic edition.