Jun 162017
 

Rodrigo Fresán elegantly balances the strange with the common.
— Benjamin Woodard

The Invented Part
Rodrigo Fresán
Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
Open Letter, 2017
$18.95, 552 pages

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The opening of Rodrigo Fresán’s ingenious, postmodern page-turner, The Invented Part, feels something like a soft focused cinematic dream that gradually sharpens. Movie buffs, of which Fresán is a longstanding ally, may conjure an early scene from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life here: Joseph tells fellow guardian angel Clarence to examine the town of Bedford Falls, but because Clarence hasn’t received his angel’s wings, everything he sees is a blur. It’s only after Joseph assists (“Oh, I forgot. You haven’t got your wings yet”) that shapes emerge, lines taper. Now, imagine that same visual, only textually: a haze of words, a series of threads—on the ideas of beginnings, punctuation marks, and novel construction—that feel unconnected, but which slowly tie together with extraordinary verbal dexterity, seducing the reader into Fresán’s world. Passages like:

To breathe like this: the way they breathed back then, opening and stepping inside one of those books that have the scent of book and not, as noted, the scent of machine and electric engine, of speed and lightness and short sentences, not for the wise power of synthesis but on the crass basis of abbreviation. To breathe differently, slowly and deep down inside. To breathe in books that readers, with any luck if they’re lucky, will come to enjoy like the pure oxygen of a green forest after a long time lost in the black depths of a carbon mine.

create not only a bewitching rhythm via word repetition, but also relay narrative intention: Fresán is interested in stepping both in and out of what we consider linear fiction, of jostling expectations while tunneling deep within scientific and emotional philosophies. And as these intentions comingle, Fresán reveals a scene on a beach, where a young boy (referred to as The Boy) frolics in the water while his parents bicker and read separate copies of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. This boy, “a restless child,” who nearly drowns at that beach, is Fresán’s protagonist, and he grows up to become a respected author—in addition to being The Boy, he is also credited as The Writer, The Lonely Man, and X in various chapters—who, now in his fifties, decides to throw his body into the Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and become one with the God particle, existing in everything, throughout history, at all time, space, and place.

Why does The Writer/The Boy/X/The Lonely Man decide to do this? He’s depressed. Specifically, he’s fed up with the technological world, of 140 character missives, of seeking answers online rather than asking questions:

“But everything I’m telling you, if you’re so intrigued, you could’ve found out in a matter of seconds via Google…Why didn’t you just do that?”

And the Lonely Man doesn’t have the strength to tell him that, if that’d been the case, they’d never have had that conversation.

He does not feel at home in the world, and so he figures that becoming omnipresent may allow him to adjust history to his liking. Not that The Invented Part doles this information out in a remotely traditionally narrative style. Broken into three sections and seven chapters, the novel spends as much time with its protagonist as it does without, leaping—like a being at one with the universe, perhaps—throughout time and from characters to explain itself in a piecemeal fashion. For example, after the long setup and scene on the beach, Fresán shifts to the present, introducing two young filmmakers (credited as The Young Man and The Young Woman, naturally) constructing a documentary on The Writer, who has recently gone missing. From here, Fresán transitions into a nearly unbroken 100-plus-page block of text that recounts the story of The Writer’s sister’s strange marriage to a man from a clandestine secret society, before again returning to The Young Man and The Young Woman. Such fractures continue until the novel’s final page, and it’s enough to make one think that, due to its pell-mell construction, the book can be consumed in any order. After all, for another chunk of the book, Fresán’s hero discusses Chinese bijis, a genre of literature that roughly translates to “notebook.” Filled with lists, anecdotes, and other curiosities:

… it’s possible to read them not according to any order, opening a path for ourselves, starting at any point and jumping back and forth or up and down or side to side. Beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. The idea is that, one way or another, each reader ends up discovering a story as unique as her reading.

Yet as The Invented Part continues, Fresán’s seemingly scattershot unveiling of detail, while often fulfilling a biji’s requirement of inventories and anecdotes, reveals itself to be extremely controlled, filled with image patterns and references that make the novel impossible to read in any other configuration. This arrangement also lends itself to hours of flipping back through the text, hunting for scenes that overlap, or objects that provide key emotional transformations further down the road, like the wind-up tin toy first found by The Young Man in The Writer’s home, which reappears later (and, in the timeline, earlier) in the hands of a boy at a hospital. The tin man shows up a third time when it is spied in a shop window by a friend of The Writer, Tom, who is told by his young son that the toy should be placed on the cover of his next novel. When Tom reminds his son he’s not a writer, but a musician, his son replies, “That’s here, Papi; but in another of the many space-time wrinkles, you’re a writer.” (It should be noted that both the English and the original Spanish edition of the novel do, in fact, feature renditions of the tin man on their covers.) The toy returns even later, too, but to reveal its significance in these final scenes would be like explaining the prestige of a magic trick. Mentioning that the toy carries a suitcase, however, may be enough of a hint.

In addition to the wind-up traveler, multiple appearances from William S. Burroughs, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel, Tender Is the Night, pockmark the text. This last object not only serves as the favorite book of The Writer’s parents, but also is subject to a lengthy dissection, linking the novel to the parents—famous models who die in a politically-charged hostage situation—through the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s real-life inspirations, while simultaneously provoking potential critics of Fresán’s novel-in-progress by noting that initial reviews of Tender Is the Night “question[ed] its structure with the long central flashback. And they consider[ed] the decadence and fall of Dick Diver as excessively melodramatic and implausible.” Coincidentally, by this point in the novel, The Invented Part has featured several long diversions (including the analysis of Tender Is the Night), and has done little to explain the “fall” of The Writer. Though these similarities are hardly faults (I’d argue that they make for a more compelling read), Fresán’s self-awareness in these passages is witty and daring, practically taunting potential criticism of his style by beating it to the punch.

This kind of self-awareness materializes many times in The Invented Part, but it never feels precious or hokey. If anything, it merges reader and author, and Fresán’s metacommentary keeps everyone moving toward the same goal. Perhaps this is best achieved when The Writer speaks about his definition of “irrealism,” saying, “If magical realism is realism with irreal retails, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details…And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism?” This idea ties into what the protagonist also sees as “the invented part” of life, described as:

…the part that actually makes something that merely happened into something that should have happened. Something (everything to come, the rest of his life, will spring from that there and then, from that exact moment) more authentic and valuable and pure than the simple and banal and often unsubtle and sloppy truth.

The Invented Part thrives on its ability to construct something out of nothing, making a day at the beach a life-changing event, or placing The Writer/Lonely Man in a hospital, waiting to hear lab results, and letting his mind wander to construct a series of story sketches for a new collection. Rodrigo Fresán elegantly balances the strange with the common, the experimental with the traditional, and the result is one of the most satisfying postmodern novels in recent memory.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in HobartNew South, and Cog. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewElectric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Jun 152017
 

A little Ken Kesey, a little Kurt Vonnegut, a little Richard Brautigan, Scott McClanahan would probably scoff at the literary label. His books are mostly easy reads. His clipped sentences breeze right by. The intimacy of his voice is a lullaby. —Jason Lucarelli

The Sarah Book
Scott McClanahan
New York Tyrant, 2017
150 pages; $15.00

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Scott McClanahan’s latest novel The Sarah Book has been forthcoming since as early as 2011. It’s been called “the Chinese Democracy of indie lit,” and the cover is ripped straight from Guns N’ Roses’s Use Your Illusion II, while lyrics from Use Your Illusion I’s “November Rain” appear in the book. The final product is a “continuation of the semi-autobiographical portrait he’s been writing over the years about his life in West Virginia.” This portrait spans McClanahan’s previous books: Stories (2008, Six Gallery Press), Stories II (2009, Six Gallery Press), Stories V! (2011, Holler Presents), The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012, Lazy Fascist Press), Crapalachia (2013, Two Dollar Radio), and Hill William (2013, Tyrant Books). Many of these books were dedicated to his real-life wife Sarah. Now, The Sarah Book explores the breakup of his marriage to Sarah in the fiction-blends-fact format of his previous literary efforts.

A little Ken Kesey, a little Kurt Vonnegut, a little Richard Brautigan, Scott McClanahan would probably scoff at the literary label. His books are mostly easy reads. His clipped sentences breeze right by. The intimacy of his voice is a lullaby. (Listen to him read.) There’s no shaking his charming blend of comedy and tragedy. His simplicity is a spell. “I’m looking for little surprises,” he says in an interview at Oxford American. “I’m much more interested in amateurism than professionalism. Prose needs to get sloppy again and then maybe we can find something useful.”

Oxford American has called Scott McClanahan “one of the most unrestrained writers of our time.” Author Sam Pink says, “He writes in a way that is conscious of both his own absurdity and that of others, without overdoing either.” To corroborate these claims, here’s a passage from The Sarah Book:

The first time I met Sarah Johnson she told me I was going to shrink my penis.

She was wearing a black turtleneck and tights with a black skirt and black boots that came up to her knees. She looked like a cartoon character and she had big-big, big-big, big brown eyes. Her nose was small and her mouth was tiny like a dot. The dot turned down in the corner like a frown, but fuck descriptions.

I drank my Mountain Dew and she said, “You know that has yellow 5 in it? It’s been known to shrink penises.”

I took a chug from a big bottle and said, “That’s why I’m drinking it. Need to take a few inches off.”

She laughed like this: Say, O my god. O my god. Then say it for a million times.

It’s slightly sophomoric, but this seemingly careless flow of comedy is tinged with a poetic sensibility that perfectly captures Scott McClanahan’s prose style.

The Sarah Book is full of passages like this one, and it’s also full of a sense of loss that’s traceable through—what else?—word patterns. The dominant pattern begins in the isolated opening paragraph:

There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.

This passage foretells the entire novel, and repeated references to the pattern reinforce this feeling of losing, having lost, being gone.

The novel opens on narrator Scott grappling with anger, alcoholism, and depression in the manner of narrators from other of McClanahan’s fictions. There’s little indication for why this particular narrator is the way he is, and because the novel is told through the first person perspective, we’re left with the limited awareness of a narrator whose bad behavior precedes his marital woes. He drives drunk with his kids in the car, burns a Bible, energetically calls up 6.66 with Taco Bell orders, and destroys his porn-browsing history by sledge-hammering his computer and destroying his wife’s archive of baby photos in the process. After Sarah demands a divorce, he moves into the Walmart parking lot, tries killing himself with Tylenol and Pepto Bismol, sells his wedding ring for 250 dollars, and visits a strip club where he pays for a lap dance from a former student. The entire novel is a series of missteps that lead only to more missteps.

Inside the story of how Scott lost Sarah is how Scott met Sarah. Between all of the debauchery (narrator Scott even celebrates a “Day of Debauchery”) and self-inflicted wounding are continuations of the “lost” pattern from the novel’s opening:

As I drove through the mountains, I wonder if I knew I would marry Sarah ten years later and we’d raise children together in the house I just left. I wonder if I knew that one day I’d be writing about how we met and how we only love what we lose.

The reminiscent narrator bridges the past and the present through memories at the level of the paragraph and word associations at the level of the sentence. Here’s a variation of the pattern in a scene after Scott and Sarah attend a co-parenting class in preparation of their divorce:

I saw Sarah’s black Honda CRV. I saw Sarah inside. She had her hands to her face. And she was just sitting in her car and she was weeping. She was wiping away the tears from her face with a wadded up handkerchief and she was trying to stop crying, but still she sobbed. I saw that she wasn’t a rock. She was just a person who I had loved and now she was gone. I was gone too.

In another scene, after moving into an apartment with his friend Chris who is also going through a divorce, Scott discovers baby kittens beside the parking lot dumpster. Scott heads to the grocery store for food to feed the hungry baby kittens, but on the way home Scott accidentally runs over one of the kittens. He vows to bury the kitten when he returns home from work, but he returns to find that the garbage truck has run over the kitten again:

I made it a new monument that evening. A true one. When I came home again the next evening I whipped the wheel wide and I ran over the kitten lump. The next morning I backed up and watched the dumpster grow larger. I ran over this death. The morning after that I came back home and ran it over again. Then the next day I ran over it once more and I knew if I ran over it enough then maybe one day it would all be gone.

You could say there’s some symbolism here for the loss of his wife, his marriage, his family, even himself, or you could lay every instance of the pattern out in front of you, follow the connections, and feel that sense of loss for yourself. The pattern balances the tragic and the comedic, and when McClanahan’s writing is at its best, either emotion is never far behind the other.

The novel is mostly a series of memories from before, during, and after Scott’s his divorce to Sarah. At the end of the novel, during a dinner with Sarah, his kids, his new girlfriend Julia, and Sarah’s new boyfriend, the narrator has a sense of looking back, as if he’s beyond this moment in the life of his strange new family, as if all of life’s emotions are only a series of moments. The Sarah Book is the often-told story of a man who lost it all and finally loses himself on his way to becoming someone else.

In the same interview from Oxford American, McClanahan says, “This writing stuff has actually helped me to lose everything I ever cared about. I lost a family over the amount of time I’ve spent on it. It’s some weird graphomania I can’t stop. I wish a doctor could cure me. My books are my demons and I want to be rid of them.” If his books are our demons, in our hands his books are a reflection of how cruel we can be to each other and ourselves. But sometimes it takes a little cruelty to get away.

—Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Jun 132017
 

Keilson the pioneer, surviving through pluck, fortitude, nerve, and extreme good fortune, is also Keilson the orphan, the homeless person, lost and abandoned. His very language in the diary entry confirms that sense of a split self. —Dorian Stuber

1944 Diary
Hans Keilson
Translated by Damion Searls
MacMillian, 2017
256 pages; $25.00

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In 1944, the writer and psychotherapist Hans Keilson was in hiding from the Nazis in Delft, Holland. Unlike many Jews in Holland who had gone to ground—including the teenaged Anne Frank only forty miles away in Amsterdam—Keilson was able to live openly, under the name of Johannes Gerrit van der Linden. He was fortunate to have fallen in with a resistance group that specialized in forging documents. One of its members, Leo Rietsma, agreed to house Keilson, and for almost a year Keilson lived with Rietsma and his wife Suus, ostensibly as tutor to their children.

For most of that time, from March through December 1944 Keilson kept a diary. After the war he forgot all about it. Many years later, towards the end of his long life—Keilson died in 2011 at the age of 101—it resurfaced and appears now in an excellent English translation by Damion Searls under the title 1944 Diary.

Keilson lived an extraordinary life. Born in 1909 in a small town in eastern Germany near the Polish border, Keilson moved to Berlin in the late 1920s to study medicine but was unable to complete his degree once the Nazis came to power. Instead, he trained as a gymnastics and swimming instructor and worked on his first novel, Life Goes On, published in 1933 but banned the following year, like all books by Jewish writers. Most importantly, he met a divorcee named Gertrud Manz, whom he later described as “an adult woman I could talk to as an adult man and who treated me as such.” It was Manz who persuaded Keilson to leave Germany for Holland in 1936.

In some ways, Keilson flourished in Holland, quickly mastering Dutch and gaining a residency card. He continued to write, publishing under various pseudonyms, and worked a series of jobs. But even though more successfully integrated than most émigrés, Keilson did not have it easy. He had to live apart from Manz—the couple had not been allowed to marry in Germany because of laws against intermarriage and they couldn’t in Holland either because they weren’t Dutch—even when their daughter was born in 1941.

From May 1940, when the Nazis conquered Holland, Keilson went into hiding. But his parents—he had managed to get them out of Germany in 1938—felt themselves too old for such subterfuge. They were deported to the transit camp at Westerbork and later murdered at Auschwitz. When he was writing the diary Keilson did not yet know their fate, but he suspected it; he regularly refers to the heartbreak of losing them (”Intense longing… for my parents. I talk to them sometimes. Oh, much too late!”; “If only I knew whether they were still alive”). This intuition of having himself been orphaned, together with his medical training, enabled his resistance work: he counseled children and teenagers in circumstances similar to his own, helping them ”get through the problems that erupted due to their long periods in hiding.”

Hans Keilson c. 1940

He pursued similar therapeutic work after the war, as a psychiatrist in an organization dedicated to helping child survivors of the Holocaust. In 1979, he finally earned the doctorate the Nazis had denied him years earlier with a monograph on traumatized children that remains influential today. Keilson didn’t stop writing altogether—he published two more novels and a memoir—but medicine replaced literature as his life’s work.

In 1944, however, this outcome was far from certain. Over and over again in the diary Keilson wonders what will become of him. Not whether he will survive the war—although that anxiety thrums in the background—but what he will do with himself once it’s over. At one point, he unleashes a flurry of questions: “Which nationality? Be a doctor? Go back to school? Exams? Surely not that. Will they give us citizenship in Palestine? And then what? Plant orange trees? A chicken farm? Not me.” He zigzags between thinking of himself as a writer and as a doctor, worries how he will support his family, and dreams of security, precisely the quality he lacks in his current life, where everything is at once static and transitory.

For these reasons, 1944 Diary is as much an investigation of its author’s psychology as a document of its period. Keilson has surprisingly little to say about his daily activities, and even less about the war as a whole. (Even the most dramatic section—detailing a Nazi razzia or roundup in the streets around his hiding place—while he narrates in real time in interrupted by a bizarre and unsettling dream sequence.) In part, this reticence stems from the need to keep his resistance work secret should the diary ever fall into enemy hands. But mostly it’s a function of his conviction that what matters most in life is the inward struggle to represent experience. In an entry from September 23rd, after referencing the Battle of Arnheim, Keilson comments: “These events, however much they grip me, are no longer my real life.” What matters is “the other, main life—the human being, the poem, people together.”

Above all, Keilson values the idea of humanity, of being able to see another person “in their full humanity” rather than “in terms of a specific function.” But what did that mean for him? From what position should he strive to encounter that humanity? Keilson feels split: he is at once an artist and a family man, a poet and an “upstanding citizen and doctor.” The citizen, he sometimes laments, will be the death of the artist. Then he recalls his father’s last words to him—“Don’t forget: You are a doctor!”—and resolves to keep pursuing medicine. But he fears that won’t fulfill him. For months, he swings between the two positions, “always undecided, now being one and seeking the other, now being the second and seeking the first.”

Compounding this uncertainty is his love life. Shortly before beginning the diary, Keilson met a young woman named Hanna Sanders, who was in hiding at the home of two other members of the resistance cell, a ten-minute walk from his lodgings with the Rietsmas. Keilson and Hanna enter into an intense affair that lasts until Keilson returns to Gertrud and left his hiding place in Delft for one closer to her. Not coincidentally, the diary breaks off with this decision, as if to confirm that its function was to help Keilson work through the affair. In one of the first entries—unusually it is given a title, “No fear”—Keilson writes:

No more whitewashing. I’m saying what I say to myself in secret. The blank sheet of paper’s power to inhibit the writing and thinking process has been overcome. I will write down my thoughts and experiences. My conscience is not turned off, but it is no longer afraid of expressing itself.

Keilson doesn’t offer excuses for the affair (his separation from Gertrud, the uncertainty of life during war); he knows what he is doing is wrong. Yet he is inescapably drawn to Hanna. The relationship is as intense as it is truncated: Hanna’s movements are more restricted than his, the pressures they face are immense, and she knows about Keilson’s family life. In some dim way, Gertrud seems to have known about the affair, too: on one of the few occasions they are able to see each other, Gertrud begs Keilson, “’Please, no problems, not now.’”

But Keilson makes problems, vacillating between Gertrud’s “deep maturity, understanding, empathy” and Hanna’s “loving affection and devotion,” as well as her forcefulness (this is as much physical as emotional: he “can’t stop thinking about the strong, uninterrupted stream I heard when she was sitting on the toilet “). The conflict torments him but it’s also productive. Poems pour out of him. He writes a novella in just a few weeks (it would be published after the war as Comedy in a Minor Key). At his most self-serving, Keilson justifies his infidelity as necessary for his art—suggesting that his productivity “depend[s] on living out a perpetual split”—but in general, as befits a therapist, he is clear-eyed and unsparing in his self-reflection. He never shies from presenting the darker aspects of his personality, noting more than once his “own sadistic tendencies,” which he calls a “deep bitter wound, almost like pleasure, at making another person suffer.”

Because Keilson is so open about his failings, we almost always sympathize with him. Keilson rarely compares Gertrud and Hanna, and never plays them off each other. Our interest in these women is a function of his own rather than something we arrive at by reading against him. Each is smart and talented; we understand why Keilson loves them both. Gertrud was a graphologist—in later years Keilson frequently told the story of the first time she saw Hitler’s handwriting: “’This man is going to engulf the world in flames’”—and Hanna was a translator, bringing Katherine Mansfield, among other writers, into Dutch.

The evenhanded self-scrutiny Keilson brings to his self-portrait is even more fully evident in his interactions with others. He counsels Leo and Suus’s nine-year-old daughter Hannie when she breaks into fits of terror at the idea of God (Keilson finds her response entirely reasonable). He intervenes in a tense situation between Suus and the other Jewish member of the household, a woman named Corrie Groenteman who worked as their maid. Corrie takes to her bed in tears at Suus’s disparagement and class resentment; Keilson reminds Suus that the “woman crying upstairs” had “her children in Poland, her home life torn apart, he family destroyed.” He is calm, judges as little as possible, diffuses hostility as best he can, concluding “My attitude was: They just have to be taught the understanding they lack.”

His work as a therapist surely helped him imagine points of view different from his own. This tendency comes out most strongly in an extraordinary entry describing Keilson’s encounter with J. C. A. Fetter, a pastor and psychoanalyst whose parish helped Jews. Keilson visits Fetter at his church in The Hague to ask him to pass some money on to Gertrud. He catches Fetter at the end of his rope; before long Fetter lashes out at Keilson: “Always these Jews… they rejected Christ, they excommunicated Spinoza—over and over again, they’ve provoked extraordinary responses from other peoples…It’s too much, it’s too much! Jews all the time, we can’t take it any more.”

Fetter’s outburst is classic anti-Semitism. But while we might be horrified, Keilson is not. He doesn’t accept Fetter’s rant, but he doesn’t reflexively reject it, either. Rather than screaming at him or turning away, he reaches out. First, Keilson points out, referring to Fetter’s own psychoanalytic experience, that people don’t ask for help unless they are desperate. He reminds Fetter that he, Fetter, had once supported the Nazis but had broken with them on “their solution to the Jewish question.” Rather than accusing him, he soothes him: “As a result of my open admissions… Fetter slowly came back to his senses.” It’s a remarkable piece of large-spiritedness and humanity in a situation where these responses were in short supply even among those who were mostly doing the right thing

Of course, Keilson isn’t always enlightened. He admits frankly to “deep satisfaction” at the destruction the Allies are meting on German civilians: “I’m filled with overpowering rage a lot of the time: Wipe ‘em out!” He dreams of revenge and even fantasizes about returning to Germany after the war as a kind of psychological spy, a person “to whom [the Germans] were mercilessly, unguardedly revealing their deepest secrets. That would be the greatest pleasure imaginable.”

More complicated still are his ambivalent feelings about his hosts, people he lives in such proximity to and to whom he is indebted—they have risked their lives for him—yet for whom he exists in the role as a subordinate, even underling. When in the midst of the Hongerwinter, the Hunger Winter, the famine of 1944-45, Leo miraculously comes home one day with a goose, the mood in the house improves dramatically, yet Keilson confesses “I felt terrible, violent envy over how it was divided up.” Later, on his 35th birthday, he broods over Leo and Suus’s indifference: “an utter lack of warmth and spontaneous kindness.”

Even though Keilson was free to move around the country—though he always risked having his papers found out as false or, more likely, being press-ganged as an able-bodied young man to serve the German war effort—he was still trapped. One day he runs into the author Marianne Phillips on the street—she too was living under a false identity—and the mutually admiring writers make plans to see each other. But when Phillips suggests visiting him at home, Keilson falls silent:

“I have to ask my people if that’s okay,” I said, a bit sheepishly.

“Me too,” she said,

Something snaps between us. The happy anticipation is gone.

My people. As if Keilson and Phillips are pets. Keilson has already reflected on why he reacts with shame when his poems are praised: “I realized that I have been living like an animal, a dumb beast, for a long time now, for years, almost.”

The diary is filled with similar expressions of anxiety and despair. Hearing a reference to “mass murders in Polish concentration camps” on a radio report from England, Keilson, atypically bitter, imagines a grim future:

We should take Jewish children when they’re still young and build up their immunity with small doses of gas, the Jewish state should, for the next pogrom! But who knows, the goyim will probably just use electricity then.

In what might be the darkest moment in the book, he is suddenly overcome by a vision of “a book full of gas, killing everyone who reads it.”

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Damion Searls has done a great service in bringing this fascinating and gripping book to English-language readers. In addition to his vivid and powerful translation, Searls provides clear and helpful notes, along with a thoughtful introduction and afterword. My only criticism is that Searls misrepresents Keilson by downplaying his anger, fear, and shame. These emotions are almost as prevalent as his broadmindedness and enlightenment, but they don’t fit with Searls’s conclusions. For Searls, Keilson’s diary embodies the triumph of the individual over history, offering “a testament to finding one’s way amid horrors and conflicts of all kinds. Human struggles can outweigh even the Holocaust, world war, the Dutch Hunger Winter.”

But Keilson is anything but triumphant. Indeed, his experience allows us to think about the limits of even relatively lucky individual victims of Nazi persecution. In an entry from March 1944, Keilson remembers reading Kafka’s story “The Great Wall of China” and being moved to tears by the line “We sit dreaming at the window and wait for that message.” Despite his good fortune, despite his active resistance to fascism, Keilson is aware that events have made him an onlooker on his own life, a man who dreams at a window, waiting for a message. And when the message comes it might be too late, might not even be for him.

In the diary’s last entry, Keilson admits that “for six months now I’ve known that the war won’t simply end for us, with me coming back unscathed to an unscathed family in an unscathed home.” Yes, humans must struggle as best they can, as Searls puts it, but that struggle might not outweigh historical trauma. In one of his first entries, Keilson had already offered an extended meditation on what his diary—and by extension, he himself—can and cannot do:

The times when I write in this diary are my true moments of contemplation. It is a wellspring, my only chance to escape the lies. Yet still so far from the truth of my nature. All the unlived possibilities too, which haven’t been able to form my nature. Is longing enough? For me, it’s just a sign that I’m not yet totally a lost cause. I’m often in such uncharted territory, and then feel like a pioneer, far from my homeland. With courage, strength, endurance, venturesomeness, otherwise he wouldn’t be a pioneer. And then at night, by the campfire, a feeling of abandonment, homesickness, alienation steals over him. He gets used to it slowly, or never. Someday his children will be locals. I’ve had more than enough of this feeling already.

I once heard Jeremy Adler, the son of the writer and scholar H. G. Adler, who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, say that unlike most of the writers we associate with the Holocaust, his father was a grown man when he was deported at age thirty-one. (Elie Wiesel, by contrast, was only fourteen, and Primo Levi twenty-four.) He had lived longer, stored up more experience, and been able to complete an education in a way many survivors, mere teenagers or young adults when their lives were uprooted and their worlds destroyed, had not.

Hans Keilson, thirty-four years old when he began his diary, was in a similar position. His life experience led him to see complexity everywhere. Keilson the pioneer, surviving through pluck, fortitude, nerve, and extreme good fortune, is also Keilson the orphan, the homeless person, lost and abandoned. His very language in the diary entry confirms that sense of a split self—as he moves deeper into his metaphor, Keilson’s pronouns shift from first to third person. But Keilson’s “I” was always also a “he”—he was always self-divided, not just from personal predilection or constitutional uncertainty, not just from intellectual commitment to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious, but more powerfully from his historical position as one who seems on the face of it not to have been a victim but was all the more wounded because his fate was so much better than so many others, even the rest of his immediate family.

“To see the other person in their whole humanity”—this ability, amply on display in this remarkable document, was Keilson’s great gift, not least when the other person was himself. Thankfully, 1944 Diary is not a book of gas, killing everyone who reads it. But neither is it a book of life, affirming individual resistance to terror and oppression. The odour of gas always threatens to waft from the page.

—Dorian Stuber

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Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Jun 122017
 

Signs for Lost Children has none of the prolixity, the sentimentality, or the melodrama often associated with “neo-Victorian” novels. — Rohan Maitzen

Sarah Moss
Signs for Lost Children
Europa Editions, 2017
368 pages; $19.00

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It is a commonplace that historical fiction is always about the present as much as the past—that the stories we tell about what once was are prompted and shaped by what is. Historical fiction is not therefore condemned to anachronism: rather, at its best, it disrupts our tendency to take our own world for granted, and to think of history as a stable set of facts instead of a constantly shifting and contested array of stories.

Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, the sequel to her earlier Bodies of Light, is just such an unsettling novel, refracting Victorian life through a distinctly modern lens. Both Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children tell the story of Alethea Moberley, born in the mid 19th-century to Alfred Moberley, an artist, and his austere evangelical wife Elizabeth. Wholly committed to her charitable work on behalf of poor and ruined women, Elizabeth has little time and no love to spare for her own daughters, Alethea, called Ally, and her younger sister May. When Ally is a baby, she seems to Elizabeth little more than a vexing interruption to her work:

The baby is crying, its rage spreading like smoke through the house, curling under the ceiling. She has lost her blotting paper. . . . When she has finished this one and the next one, she will see what there is for her lunch, and feed the baby. It cries. It is taking the baby a long time to learn that screaming for what we want does not bring gratification.

The girls are raised in uneasy vacillation between their mother’s severity and the sensual bohemianism of Alfred and his artist friends. For better and for worse, it is Elizabeth’s influence that is most enduring for Ally. Elizabeth treats every vulnerability as a despicable weakness: in her eyes “a nervous, silly woman is entirely useless.” Ally “must learn self-discipline,” Elizabeth holds, and she considers it her duty to instill it. When Ally suffers from nightmares, her mother wakes her with a slap, then dunks her head in cold water before locking her in the scullery. “You must and will learn not to indulge yourself,” she tells her shivering child.

Ally carries this lesson with her throughout her life: “She doesn’t want to be hysterical.” It is a paradoxical legacy. Elizabeth’s ruthlessness is oppressive, yet combined with her insistence that women are capable of accomplishments well beyond the domestic trivialities to which so many Victorian women were restricted, it also empowers Ally to pursue a radical ambition: to become one of England’s first woman doctors. “There is strong opposition to women’s medical education,” Ally’s teacher Miss Johnson warns her; “You are choosing not only to be a doctor but to be a pioneer, a fighter in the vanguard.” When Ally goes to the University of London on a special scholarship for women medical students, she knows she carries “the hopes of many,” and that her own success or failure will define the possibilities for those who come after. The responsibility is daunting and the training is difficult, but Ally knows her work represents a great step forward. Looking back on her miserable childhood from the perspective of her aunt’s more humane London home, still suffering the after-effects of her mother’s severity, Ally nonetheless cannot wish “Mamma had allowed her to grow up in bovine contentment, without ambition or self-discipline”—without Elizabeth, she would never have come so far or be set to achieve so much more.

By the time she graduates, though, Ally has realized that the weaknesses she was raised to despise might in fact be not just natural to her as a person but valuable to her as a doctor. Her mother’s quest for impervious perfection is mistaken:

If she is to be a doctor—as she is to be a doctor—she will be a broken doctor, her own hurt as much part of her practice as her healing. A doctor who can see her own damage and not run away to hide.

“Nerves and hysteria show a weak and foolish disposition,” Elizabeth had insisted, but maybe, Ally thinks, what gets called madness in women is in fact an understandable, even a reasonable, response to their circumstances. What if outbreaks such as her own should be treated with kindness rather than condemnation—and considered cause, not for confinement, but for reform?

These are the questions that underly both Ally’s personal development and professional work in Signs for Lost Children, which takes up her story where Bodies of Light ends. Though the plots are continuous (in the North American edition, some chapters from Bodies of Light actually recur word for word in Signs for Lost Children), the two novels are differently structured in ways that reflect their different thematic interests. Bodies of Light interleaves its family story with commentaries on paintings by Alfred Moberley or his close associate Aubrey West (whose relationship with Ally’s sister May forms a subplot of the novel). These insertions highlights tensions in the novel between art and life, especially between inhabiting bodies and gazing at them, and between appreciating and subjugating them. The novel’s title comes from Matthew 6:22 (“if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”); one way of understanding Ally’s struggle in this book is that she must learn to see her body as itself a source of light: look with, not through, it, to inhabit it without shame or fear.

The chapters of Signs for Lost Children, in contrast, alternate between Ally’s point of view and that of her husband Tom Cavendish, an engineer whom she meet and marries at the end of Bodies of Light. This formal structure, in its turn, reflects this second novel’s interest in marriage, which purports to combine two people into one common identity. Across the novel, Tom’s and Ally’s experiences diverge significantly: can the result nonetheless be one family? and if so, at what cost? Given the legal, social, and economic realities of marriage for Victorian women, this is a vexing question especially for Ally, who worries about losing both her individual and her professional identity. From the beginning, she and Tom focus on defining “new rituals” to represent the kind of relationship they want their marriage to be:

Ally will not promise to obey; it seems a bad idea, says Tom, to begin a marriage with an undertaking made in bad faith. Not being a parcel, she declines to be given away.

Her married name, Ally resolves, will be “Dr. Moberley Cavendish”—but to some, as she quickly learns, she will always be only “Mrs. Cavendish.”

Tom is a good partner for Ally. He supports and defends the work she undertakes at an asylum near their new home in Cornwall: “the majority of patients are female,” he explains to a dubious neighbour, “and many of their troubles begin in exactly those crises of life where it is most desirable that women should be attended by women.” When he goes on a business expedition to Japan without her, it is a sign of the strength of their relationship, but also of the risk they are taking in trying to build a marriage on such unusual terms. On the eve of his departure, Tom tries to reassure her:

“You know—Ally, I am sure the time will pass quickly once we are accustomed to it. At least we both knew from the beginning that this separation was to come. And you will have your work, itis not as if you will need to seek distraction.”

Their separation is a sign of their mutual trust and dedication to preserving each other’s autonomy, but they are apart a long time, and the divided narrative highlights the distance that grows between them, both literally and figuratively.

For Ally, this period of separation frees her to focus single-mindedly on her work at the asylum. She struggles to accept its coercive environment, which seems to her premised on the impossibility of actually healing the patients:

It is not an original thought that the overall effect of the asylum is maddening, that the insane compound each other’s insanity. And this, after all, is why her new profession beckons: how might one devise a regime to cure the mind? It is not the taxonomy of madness that intrigues her but the possibility of individual salvation. If some situations are maddening, others must be—ought to be—sanitary.

She worries that her sympathy for the patients is a sign of her own instability. “So which are you, Alethea?” she imagines her mother demanding: “A madwoman or a doctor? . . . You chose the asylum, Alethea, because you indulge yourself in feeble-mindedness. Because despite all your training and all your so-called qualifications, you are still crazed.” Finally, however, she is unable to bear the inhumanity and intervenes on a patient’s behalf: “‘No. Nurse, stop this. You are unkind. . . . She is like you, and like me. Like all of us. Only more sad.’”

That troubling assertion of likeness between the mad and the sane is at the heart of the novel as well as of Ally’s experience. “How is sanity defined?” Ally wonders. How far is hysteria, for instance, not an illness or a defect but a reaction to being a woman—or a way of seeing women as intrinsically defective? What if the family, supposedly women’s natural domain, sickens rather than nourishes them? What if “there are sick households,” she wonders, “as well as sick individuals”?

Her own outburst in the patient’s defense is considered—including, at first, by Ally herself—as a breakdown, but it leads to a professional breakthrough that is also a crucial step in her personal healing. After a disastrous visit to her parents, Elizabeth’s continued severity drives Ally to run away, fearful that she will be labelled mad and unable to escape the self-perpetuating cycle she has seen destroying the asylum’s inmates. She takes refuge at her aunt’s home, where she is allowed to rest and be comforted. Her own recovery prompts reflection on how other women might benefit from being helped rather than punished for their emotional suffering:

She wonders if anyone has tried to invent at least a temporary refuge from both the madhouse and the mad home, a compromise between an institution and a family. A place where people chose to be, not a place of confinement. . . . An institution where the damage of homes, of domestic life, can be undone, or at least healed. A place where the shape of sanity might emerge.

From this idea comes Rose Tree Cottage, where, under kindly supervision, at least a few patients can regain their dignity and return, rehabilitated, to their lives.

As Ally finds her way towards a new kind of personal and professional peace, so Tom’s travels in Japan lead him towards new insights about his life. If the asylum is in some ways all too familiar to Ally, literalizing her own more abstract experiences of repression, in Japan Tom experiences for the first time what it means to be immersed in the unfamiliar—to be out of his element and unable to take anything for granted, from food to baths to myths and mores. He is drawn to the order and ritual of Japanese life. “Europeans mistake quantity for quality,” he reflects,

filling great rooms with useless objects as if the accumulation of possessions is an object in itself. He remembers De Rivers’s house [in Cornwall] and shudders; it is not silks and teapots the English should be importing but houses. Architects, if not engineers. Missionaries, perhaps, to teach us what is worthy of veneration.

Yet he checks his own tendency to idealize the differences: it took “a thousand years of violence and oppression, he reminds himself,” to achieve the very features he finds so beautiful.

Though Tom and Ally get equal time in Signs for Lost Children, it still feels primarily like her book, perhaps because she has the weight of Bodies of Light behind her. Tom’s voyage of self-discovery is tied to the urgency of finding a “new man” to go with what writers of the late 19th-century called the “New Woman”—independent, self-directed, not looking to men or marriage to define her life. What kind of husband, if any, can a woman like Ally have, or would a woman like Ally want, once she has discovered, as Ally does, that “it is not in romance, nor even sex, that we find the human purpose, but in good work faithfully done”? The key lies, or so Ally’s friend Annie suggests, in the kind of re-education Tom has undergone. “I imagine,” she writes to him,

that when you were in Japan you were always trying to guess what people wanted and what they meant, trying to guess how you might appear in their eyes? . . . But if it was like that for you, if you were watchful and hesitant from first waking until sleep, then you know how it is to be a woman and especially to be a woman entering a profession. We are always strangers in a strange land. I think Ally is like that all the time, hunted and cunning, because she has had no safe place, no home. . . . Rose Tree House may be the first place where she doesn’t have to guess or see herself through another person’s eyes.

“So many of women’s griefs,” Ally herself thinks, “begin in marriage, in the expectation of a happily ever after set into perpetual motion by romance.” Though she once vehemently denied Annie’s suggestion that “a woman must choose between her work and her family obligations,” by the time Tom returns “she has found a way to live and it does not involve the institution of marriage”: “She can work, she thinks, she can be a doctor, she can write articles and perhaps eventually a monograph, but she cannot be someone’s wife, not anymore.” Yet Signs for Lost Children ends with a new beginning between them, based on the fragile conviction that there is value in “the act of living, of continuing to be with each other in the world.”

Signs for Lost Children takes up many themes and issues central to Victorian novels, including the social consequences of industrialization that contemporary writers called “the condition of England question.” “In the mills,” Ally thinks as she crosses the country by train,

machinery bangs and roars. Children pull carts of babies through the streets, taking them to be fed by mothers who sacrifice their own moment to eat in doing so. The weight of outrage and unmet need presses down on this country like wet cloud. Burn it all down, wash England away into the sea, and start again.

This is the revolutionary energy that made Victorian writers like Elizabeth Gaskell worry about class warfare and use fiction to call for reform and reconciliation. Moss’s exploration of gender and madness is reminiscent of the sensation novels of the 1860s, especially Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, in which—as Ally fears for herself—the heroine is immured in an asylum, unable to prove her own sanity, her distress only confirming what those policing her behaviour already believe about her.

In its style, however, Signs for Lost Children has none of the prolixity, the sentimentality, or the melodrama often associated with “neo-Victorian” novels. In some respects the result is welcome: Moss eschews the mannered prose, the array of gratuitously quirky characters, and the proliferation of subplots often seen in novels aspiring to be “Dickensian.” Unlike her subjects, her prose in both of these paired novels is distinctly of the 21st-century: deliberate, restrained, well-crafted. The attention to detail, particularly of the landscapes, yields passages of memorable understated beauty:

They walk to the sea down a green lane, where the trees meet over their heads to form a tunnel of leaves. Alfred shows her bluebells and wild garlic edging the path, and points out violets under the brambles. The gorse is furred with yellow bloom and dark blades of thorn and gives off an unfamiliar scent. There is birdsong but no visible birds, as if the day signs to itself. In Manchester, there will be brown fog, and heat. . . . They round a curve, and the sea is there. Flat rocks make a continuation of the lane onto the beach, into the water, as if inviting her to keep walking into the sea.

There is a cost to such precision and control, however. Descriptions of scenery are delivered in the same tone as descriptions of cadavers; expressions of love and outbursts of lunacy have the same flat affect. In eschewing overt drama, Moss almost seems to reproduce Elizabeth’s prohibitions against hysteria: the powerful feelings that Ally realizes deserve recognition, that may in fact be destructive if suppressed, remain submerged under the polished language of the novels. There’s something apt about that, of course, but by the end of these two novels, both wholly self-possessed and cerebral, I longed for some of the Victorians’ own urgency and flamboyance to break through Moss’s artfully modern rewriting of their world.

— Rohan Maitzen

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Rohan Maitzen teaches Victorian literature in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.

N5

Jun 112017
 

In The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, Heighton mashes up the best parts of the geo-political thriller, the historical narrative, an in-depth character study, lashing all these elements together with lyric prose and breathtaking design. — Richard Farrell

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep
Steven Heighton
PenguinUSA, 2017
352 pages, $18.00

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We are a species hellbent on escaping circumstance, deterministic nomads, forever obedient to the belief that ‘better’ exists ‘elsewhere.’ Utopian societies hold a special appeal in literature. From Eden to Plato’s Republic to Swift’s Lilliput, the allure of alternate reality has long captured the imagination of writers and readers alike. And while post-modern versions tend toward the dystopian—one thinks of Orwell, Huxley, and later Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood—the temptation to enter other worlds remains just as strong.

Steven Heighton’s latest novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, takes place in the war-ravaged ruins of a Mediterranean ghost town, effectively blending utopian elements into a dystopian village. On the politically divided island of Cyprus, lies Varosha. Once a thriving Riviera resort, this now-shuttered city on the U.N. Green Line was abandoned in the aftermath of the 1974 fighting between Greece and Turkey. Some 20,000 citizens of Varosha fled the bombs, leaving behind parked cars, tables at sidewalk cafés, and shops still filled with clothing.

Block by block Varosha too seems more unreal, if increasingly visible. The moon has risen behind him, over the sea, and though not yet clear of the beachfront towers, it lends an indirect glow. Where vines and creepers have not engulfed the signage he can read the names of businesses, in Greek, English, both—a bakery, a steam laundry, a small nightclub, a café whose heavy tables still line the street although the chairs have vanished—and he can tell the makes of the occasional cars melting into the pavement.

Inside Varosha, however, a hidden community survives. Heighton’s ragtag band of misfits, idealists, exiles, and castoffs have built a secret but sustainable commerce-free zone, where orchards of almond, cherry, and pistachio trees thrive in the Mediterranean sunshine. Snare traps catch rabbits, fig trees drop fruit, and what the village cannot produce, they trade for with the friendly Turkish officer in charge of an adjacent military outpost.

Into this secret world stumbles the battle-weary, Greek-Canadian solider, Elias Trifannis. Dispatched to Cyprus for R&R, Elias is haunted by battlefield nightmares. While drinking in a bar, he meets Eylül Sahin, a beautiful Turkish journalist. The two talk, flirt, and fend off hostile attention from a group of Turkish soldiers. Later, after an amorous coupling on the beach (a sex scene replete with turtle hatchlings scurrying seaward in starlight) those same soldiers reappear, drunker, angrier, and armed. Shots are fired. Eylül falls in the crossfire. Thinking she’s dead, Elias—injured and dazed himself—escapes through a hole in the fence, and slips into the hidden world of Varosha.

Outside the fence, an investigation begins. With a Turkish journalist shot, a Greek-Canadian solider missing, and a tenuous peace between rival nations in the balance, the political ramifications of the incident reverberate far and wide. Before lapsing into a coma, the gravely wounded Eylül overhears her attackers hastily concoct a cover story: “The Greek attacked her, we tried to help, the Greek attacked me, you tried to shoot him, you hit her. Simple enough?”

The next morning, these events are reported to the commanding officer of the adjacent, Turkish military garrison. Colonel Erkan Kaya immediately doubts his soldiers’ tale, but also knows “this was a story that would have to disappear.” Suspecting that Elias may have escaped into Varosha, Kaya wants no part of an on-going investigation that could topple his cushy command. “Things right themselves—they always do,” is more than just Kaya’s motto, it is the man’s pervasive ethos. He declares Elias dead, tosses his phone into the water, and reports that the man’s body washed out to sea.

Kaya is a remarkable construct of Heighton’s imagination. The colonel is so likable, so enigmatically decent, that you root for him despite his bumbling attempts to keep secrets. A military officer cut from the mold of Jeff Lebowski rather than Rambo, Kaya’s idyllic life mirrors that of the Varoshans. He lounges at the officers’ club, beds exotic women, and quaffs on mouthwatering lunches of figs, olives, lamb, and raki. His primary struggle is not war, but a stalwart defense of the status quo.

In a sense, two idealistic worlds exist, one inside Varosha, and one at Kaya’s officers’ club. But reality constantly encroaches, and in Heighton’s world, that reality has a name: Captain Polat.

If good stories work through compelling opposition, then Kaya and Polat are wonderfully paired opponents. From the moment he first appears, in a wonderfully taut, almost comedic tennis match, Polat seems determined to defy his boss. Where Kaya is a gentleman of leisure, Polat exemplifies the ambitious, career-minded soldier. Suspecting Elias has slipped away, the young adjutant wants to enter Varosha and unearth its secrets. “Allow me to lead a—sir, I would be honoured to lead a platoon in there—immediately.”

Meanwhile, inside Varosha, Elias recovers from his wounds and two perilous escape attempts that set back his recovery. Part prisoner, part refugee, Elias struggles with his fate. Should he remain in this village, free from the demands of commerce, war, and corruption? Or should he escape, fulfil his duty, and tell the truth about what happened?

In some ways he will be almost sorry to leave. This pocket in the ruins of a dead city seems more like a singularity outside of time, so that past events out there beyond the mouth of the wormhole are coming to feel, by light of day, like hallucinations. Another few months and they might seem to belong in the bio or obituary of a stranger—though by then he will be back out there and dealing with the fallout of the real events.

Heighton’s spellbinding world is under constant threat. The inhabitants are aging. Even the most recalcitrant villagers recognize the half-life of their exile. And the longer Elias remains, the more entangled he becomes in the lives of these villagers. What happens if the obsessed Polat returns? What happens when Kaya is eventually transferred? Though Varosha has existed for more than 40 years, it is a world on the edge.

Months pass. A love affair develops between Elias and Kaiti, the mother of twins, who is poised to abandon the village. Kaya transfers Polat to combat duty in Syria, where he becomes a combat hero. Elias attempts to escape again, and nearly drowns. Kaya’s children visit Cyprus, and his teenage son develops a fixation on weapons and exploring Varosha. Kaiti gets pregnant. And then Polat returns, even more singularly obsessed with searching the village and unlocking its secrets.

§

War and its horrors tremble at the margins of this story, in Elias’s memories of a grisly raid in Afghanistan, in the escalation of fighting between the Turks and the Syrians, and in the tension of soldiers willing to kill simply because the guy in the bar wears the wrong uniform. Heighton mostly keeps combat off-stage, but it haunts, a constant bell that chimes. Contemporary violence accretes atop ancient scars, the way wars always must.

Again and again, Heighton doubles his themes, uncovers linkages between his imagery, loops back on history and story. War and peace. Love and loss. Home and exile. Freedom and servitude. On both a macro and micro level, parallel patterns abound, creating wonderful paradoxes, rich layers of detail, and story puzzles to delight.

Heighton delivers another stunner in this his 15th book, and fourth novel. Winner of the 2016 Governor-General Prize for Poetry (The Waking Comes Late) Heighton has never shied away from formidable themes or complex plots. In The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, Heighton mashes up the best parts of the geo-political thriller, the historical narrative, an in-depth character study, lashing all these elements together with lyric prose and breathtaking design. I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate, Shirley Hazard’s The Great Fire, and John Fowles’ The Magus.

In fact, Heighton has always reminded me a bit of John Fowles. Both writers are serious craftsmen and rigorous thinkers, with a profound respect for history, nature, and culture. Both populate their stories with strange but fully rendered characters. And both men dazzle their readers with depictions of mesmerizing worlds, elegant storylines, and serious themes. And like Fowles, Heighton is a writer who interrogates notions of reality, examining the borderlands between commerce and community, between mere existence and a deeper, sacred sense of being.

In his compact but brilliant book of writing advice, Work Book: Memos & Dispatches on Writing, Heighton describes the act of reading this way:

Vertical resonance means a downward echoing, the potential for soundings into a textual subconscious, the swimmer’s thrilling sense, when crossing a mountain lake, of unmeasured depths in the dark below the thermocline.

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep is an invigorating swim into such unmeasured depths.

—Richard Farrell

N5

[updated bio requested]

Jun 082017
 

Clearly, Emmons is tired of literary stories that pretend at some kind of conclusive change with respect to character, whether that be in relationships, family, or matters of life and death…Each reading inspires visions and revisions. —Michael Carson

Josh Emmons
A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales
Dzanc Books, 2017
184 pages; $16.95

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Josh Emmons has a peculiar approach to literary sex. His first novel, The Loss of Leon Meed, follows a menagerie of eccentric characters haunted by a banal messianic vision. “Are you saying,” a married elementary school teacher asks her boss in the first pages, “that the only way I can keep my job is if I fuck you?” The principle stutters. “If that’s all it takes,” she says, before pulling down her underwear. His second novel, Prescriptions for a Superior Existence, features forced indoctrination, apocalyptic prophecy, and an anti-sex religious cult. In the opening pages the protagonist is shot for sleeping with the cult’s founder’s daughter.

The twelve short stories in the Iowa graduate and UC Riverside professor’s first short story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, dip even deeper into the delightfully bizarre and drolly promiscuous. They relate orgies, suicide epidemics, medieval warfare, Biblical floods, and Egyptian gods. Protagonists include stuntmen, cultists, nuns, tigers, child prostitutes, and a giant talking egg. Characters attempt to murder spouses and end up falling in love with them. They give up on a sex party and are killed in a car wreck on the way home. They get in arguments with Edenic snakes about tigerness. The sexual ministrations of shape-shifting women give them voice.

Yet for all this titillating fairy-tale whimsy, nearly all the characters seem to be chastely drowning. They come off of failed relationships. They have no direction. They wander in darkness. “The north of France is like the south of France,” says the first line of the collection’s first story. “The tiger stopped at a break in the rain and realized he was no longer on the path he’d been following,” opens a later story. “Nu,” the account of a betrayed wife hiding in a cabin in the woods, begins, “the stream behind Alice’s house fed into a river that led to the ocean.” A sense of similitude and ennui pervades even the most exotic settings. No difference and no point. Definitely no climaxes or climaxing. “There is no north, there is no north, there is no north,” repeats a medieval king at the moment of execution.

Emmons’ jeweled prose exacerbates this disjunction. Here is Bernard, the protagonist of the first story, “A Moral Tale”—the one that begins with “The north of France is like the south of France”—coming off a failed relationship and deteriorating career prospects, living in his cousin’s apartment, judging her for being lazy and drug-addled, and ignoring her insistent requests to set him up with Odette, a friend of hers:

Bernard went to bed and for an hour heard laughter coming from the living room television, then forty minutes of panting, then a long, low-grind blender. He kept on flipping his pillow over to get to the cool side. Eventually it became morning and he took a walk on sidewalks slick with black ice and saw that in this part of the city what broke and was abandoned stayed broke and abandoned. The cold made it all throb in place. He passed empty storefronts and Halal butchers and Gypsy kids selling iguanas and block-long souk with spices like varicolored dunes rippling across linked tables.

Sentences pivot from simple cumulative lists to simple subject-verb-direct object sentences and back to cumulative lists. The effect is that of a slow drip, a terrible occlusion of grays at odds with all those sharp cracks and abrupt shifts that pop around characters like fireworks (whether they be of others masturbating, feudal political-strategizing, or Emmons’ reliable humor). Often the protagonists feel stuck in quicksand, sinking slowly, at a committed puritanical remove from baroque exigencies and St. Teresa ecstasies.

Bernard from “A Moral Tale” moves back into life, into color and noise and warmth, but not in the way the reader might expect. He does not fall for the girl with the mysterious scar across her throat at church. He does not even fall in love with Odette, the girl his cousin wants him to sleep with. Instead, when Odette and Bernard are alone in a room, with him lying on two beanbags and she in bed, Bernard spells out the dramatic incidents and clever dialogue that will not take place; Bernard also baldly states his problems, the story’s ostensible “climax”:

She rubbed her arms and her nightgown didn’t slip down her shoulders. She didn’t sigh or propose that they work on linear equations or say, Bernard, I’m going to tell you something you already know but won’t admit, although if you did then a lot of what’s wrong here, like you lying on those stupid bean bags when I’m cold and alone on a huge mattress, and your having invented that text from your friend, and your unmerciful speech to Veronique about fraud might be fixed: your aunt didn’t ask you to move in with your cousin because she thought you could save her. On the contrary.

Bernard abruptly gets up from the beanbags and goes over to Odette’s bed. As he adjusts to the darkness, “Odette came into view as gradations of black and clothes, he saw, without surprise, with a kind of relief, that what lay beneath the surface was just a darker version of what lay above.”

After the night in bed with Odette, Bernard gets high with his cousin in a park and calls the girl with the scar on her neck to tell her he is watching a mime. The girl asks if this is the kind of mime that pretends to be trapped inside a box. He says that this one doesn’t do that. No one speaks. Wind comes from the west.

Then there are the stories where the characters do not get up and go to bed with Odette, stories where the characters realize too late that they should have. “BANG” is of this variety. It relates a worldwide suicide epidemic from the perspective of a character already given to suicidal thoughts pre-dystopia. Like “A Moral Tale,” the protagonist has the opportunity to go into the bed of someone else. But, unlike “A Moral Tale,” the protagonist backs away in horror from the opportunity. She resists for fear of what her mother might think. She fears the man’s age, his previous marriage, intimacy and the self-redefinition it requires. Now the roommate is dead. The protagonist missed her chance to become someone else. “BANG” concludes on a rooftop. The naked protagonist looks down at rectangular, boxy cars. Its final unpunctuated line—“she aimed a tentative”—returns the reader to the story’s very loud title.

Finally there are those like “Jane Says,” stories somewhere in between, with characters watching on as another rejects sex and with it life. It begins with characteristic drollery: “People say what a tragedy when you are thirteen and selling it on the street.” The thirteen-year-old prostitute-narrator then complains of the janes who pick him up who don’t really want sex—“the sick sad deviants who made you wonder even though you were a prostitute what happened to them.” He doesn’t mind the sex, he says, what freaks him out is pretending to be some jane’s dead son. “It was the pitiable,” the thirteen-year-old prostitute complains, “pitying the pitiful.”

Later in the story, a new jane picks up the narrator. She drives him to the woods and signs her worldly possessions over to him. “People use you and don’t see you for who you really are,” she tells him, “and it’s that way with all of us.” She leaves him in the car, walks into the woods. A sharp crack follows. “Lady!” the boy yells. “You got to take me back to the city.” He flounders about in the darkness. He falls. He asks for her in a whisper, quietly, “as though speaking softly would close the space between us, as though about existence she’d been wrong.”

Emmons writes tightly knit, engaging plots. Each phrase, paragraph, and scene carefully reticulates into the next. His prose is uniformly eloquent, clean and precise. The stories have meticulously considered desire-resistance patterns. But these are not simple, straightforward literary short stories. Neither are they strict moral tales as the title suggests. The often passive, sexually chilly characters do not change or reveal character so much as try to do everything they can to disguise it and forestall revelation. Pair this with fantastic environments and whimsical humor, and many of these stories left me with an odd sensation, as disoriented as the characters themselves.

This is not a criticism. Maybe it’s the point. Clearly, Emmons is tired of literary stories that pretend at some kind of conclusive change with respect to character, whether that be in relationships, family, or matters of life and death. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Emmons said that many of the characters in A Moral Tale are stuck on the idea of themselves they don’t want to give up because the cost would be too high. “We have to keep revising our understanding of ourselves forever,” Emmons said, “and this is okay.”

The same could be said of not just the characters but also the curious stories in this curious collection. They do not lend themselves to easy analysis or classification. Each reading inspires visions and revisions. What they have to say, their “moral,” comes—if it does at all—in whispers, as though speaking softly might close the distance between Emmons and the reader, as though about both moral tales and literature we all have been wrong.

—Michael Carson

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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts

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Jun 042017
 

Huck Out West picks up Huckleberry Finn’s adventures after he has indeed headed out to the territories and taken up a life as an itinerant in the American West. Essentially a drifter, Huck in this way fulfills the destiny inherent to his character as depicted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he is content to float his way down the Great River to no particular destination beyond a loosely defined “freedom.” —Daniel Green

Huck Out West
Robert Coover
W. W. Norton, 2017
320 pages; $26.95

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Robert Coover has been a presence on the American literary scene for over 50 years now. In many ways, the critical response to each new book he publishes continues to register the perception that he remains an adventurous writer who repeatedly offers challenges to convention, a perception in which Coover himself must take considerable satisfaction, as he is indeed one of the most consistently audacious and inventive of the first generation postmodernists his work partly represents. Coover’s novels and stories subvert both the abiding myths and shibboleths—sometimes outright lies—that animate American history, and the formal assumptions of literary storytelling, often by adopting the ostensible conventions of such storytelling but subjecting them to a kind of straight-faced parody. In his new novel, Huck Out West, Coover turns to such a strategy, in this case not simply mimicking the patterns or manner of an inherited narrative form, but creating a new and extended version of a specific, already existing work—a sequel, but one intended to provoke reflection on the earlier work’s cultural implications and its literary authority.

Coover has drawn on the elemental power of stories and storytelling going back to his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, as well as the story collection Pricksongs and Descants, the latter including such stories as “The Door,” “The Gingerbread House,” and “The Magic Poker,” all of which invoke fairy tales and fables as both form and subject. Coover is one of the central figures in the rise of what came to be called “metafiction,” but where, say, John Barth wrote in books like Lost in the Funhouse a blatantly self-reflexive kind of story that proclaims its own fabrication, Coover dramatized the conditions of fiction-making allegorically, making storytelling itself the story. This is perhaps best illustrated in his novel The Universal Baseball Association, still arguably his best book and the most revealing of his fundamental preoccupations as a writer. The novel’s protagonist, J. Henry Waugh (JH Waugh), is the God-like creator of a fictional world that is ostensibly a make-believe baseball league but that de facto represents an alternative reality in which Henry can emotionally and intellectually invest apart from his unsatisfying and humdrum job as an accountant. Indeed, his investment in this reality becomes so all-encompassing that at the novel’s conclusion it would seem he has disappeared into it—albeit as the now withdrawn and omniscient deity who contemplates his creation without intervention.

Although a book like The Public Burning, probably Coover’s best-known and most controversial work, would not at first seem to feature the same sort of concerns informing The Universal Baseball Association—it is, after all, a novel about weighty issues related to politics and history, not about an obscure accountant dreaming his life away—but in fact The Public Burning is not really about politics and history—not directly, at least—but politics as representation, and the distorting effects the sensationalized and distorted forms of representation in America have on American history and culture. In both UBA and The Public Burning, we are shown how easily, even eagerly, human beings shape reality into fictions and subsequently insist on taking those fictions as reality, with predictably disastrous consequences. J. Henry Waugh exemplifies individually what American culture at large evidences more generally: the desire to refashion a recalcitrant reality into a simple, more manageable creation, in which we must force ourselves to believe or that repressed reality will disagreeably return.

A novel like The Public Burning eludes designation as a strictly “political” novel—and thus avoids seeming a dated artifact of a fading Cold War controversy—because it is not finally a representation of the Rosenberg case per se but a representation of the representations to which the Rosenberg case and its legacy have been submitted, an evocation of American depravity through the discursive forms—exemplified by the New York Times and Time magazine—and manufactured imagery—embodied in “Uncle Sam”—that shape and circulate the specific content of that depravity. If J. Henry Waugh retreats into his private invented reality to fill his own inner (and outer) void, in The Public Burning the emptiness is felt as a social loss, an absence of meaning, to be counteracted through the invented reality provided by Media myths and fantasies, myths that at their most destructive must be reinforced through the ritualized spectacle into which the Rosenbergs’ death is organized.

Since The Public Burning, Coover has published numerous, consistently lively works of fiction of various length (8 novels, including the mammoth sequel to The Origin of the Brunists, The Brunist Day of Wrath, 7 novellas, and 3 collections of short fiction). While these books never seem repetitive, they do return to a few obviously fruitful subjects—sports, fairy tales, movies—and can certainly be taken as continued variations on the self-reflexive strategies introduced in Pricksongs and Descants, Universal Baseball Association, and The Public Burning. At times this strategy is more muted, as in Gerald’s Party, which seems more purely an exercise in surrealism, while in other books the artifice is unconcealed, directly integrated into plot and setting, as in The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, one of Coover’s most underrated books that dramatizes the plight of a character caught in an ongoing fiction from which he cannot seem to escape, a fictional character aware of his own fictionality.

Coover has also produced a series of novel and novellas that foreground their own fictionality by presenting themselves as versions of a particular mode or genre of fiction. Dr. Chen’s Amazing Adventure is Coover’s take on science fiction. Ghost Town is a western, while Noir evokes the hard-boiled detective novel (as filtered through film noir). Such works could not exactly be categorized as pastiche, since they are not so much imitations as efforts to distill the genre to its most fundamental assumptions and most revealing practices. Nor could they really be called parodies, since the goal is not so much to spoof or ridicule the genre but to in a sense turn it inside out, make it disclose the specific ways a particular mode of storytelling lends its conventions toward motifs and typologies that in turn have worked to substitute themselves for the actualities those conventions were created to depict, preventing anything resembling a clear perception of historical and cultural actualities apart from these archetypal representations. In novels such as Pinocchio in Venice and now Huck Out West, Coover takes this strategy of metafictional mimicry a step farther by seizing upon a specific iconic text and reworking it, both as a kind of homage to the prior work but also to create a parallel text that echoes the original while it also sounds out the work’s tacit if partly concealed assumptions and elaborates on its latent if unspoken implications.

Huck Out West picks up Huckleberry Finn’s adventures after he has indeed headed out to the territories and taken up a life as an itinerant in the American West. Essentially a drifter, Huck in this way fulfills the destiny inherent to his character as depicted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he is content to float his way down the Great River to no particular destination beyond a loosely defined “freedom.” If the objective in Huckleberry Finn for both Huck and his friend Jim (who seeks literal freedom from bondage) is obstructed through the auspices of Tom Sawyer, likewise in Huck Out West Tom causes his supposed best friend (“pards,” they call each other) mostly trouble for their friendship—in fact, in Huck Out West Tom threatens to hang Huck, an act only the most naïve reader would believe he does not intend to carry out. Tom, who literally rides back into Huck’s life (a little over halfway into the novel) on a white horse, again proves unreliable and self-serving, although in Huck Out West these character traits, which Coover has keenly abstracted from the portrayal of Tom in Twain’s novel, are much more deadly in their potential consequences (not only to Huck) than when expressed by Tom Sawyer the 12-year-old boy.

Before Tom makes his reappearance and ultimately sends Huck off on the same kind of open-ended adventure that concludes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck brings us up to date on his life since his journey down the river, which includes riding along with Tom for the Pony Express. After Tom decides to head back east, nothing really captures Huck’s interest long enough for him stay in any one place, so when the novel’s present action begins he has settled into the life of a wanderer:

When [Tom] left, I carried on like before, hiring myself out to whosoever, because I didn’t know what else to do, but I was dreadful lonely. I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffaloes, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke.

Huck must decide whether to buy Jim’s freedom because shortly after heading west, Tom Sawyer consigned Jim back to slavery by selling him to a band of Cherokee Indians. Huck is regretful about this decision, but does not look for Jim after all. Eventually Huck does serendipitously encounter Jim, who has indeed attained his freedom and is now traveling with a wagon train of settlers that Huck is hired to guide. He has become a devout Christian and forgives Huck for apparently abandoning him, but this is the last we see of Jim in Huck Out West. It is on the one hand disappointing that Coover chooses not to engage with the specific racial issues raised by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (as John Keene does in his updating of the novel in his book Counternarratives), but on the other hand, he does in effect transfer the theme of white American treatment of racial and ethnic minorities to the eliminationist campaign against Native Americans during the post-Civil War migration to the western “territories.” This campaign is represented most directly in the character of Custer (“General Hard Ass,” as Huck refers to him), but the historical forces portrayed in all of the novel’s actions converge around a broad account of a rapacious, mercenary America determined to extend its sovereignty over all the land it can exploit, with little regard for the devastation and suffering this expansion leaves in its wake.

Ultimately Huck Out West does mirror the Huck/Jim relationship of Huckleberry Finn in Huck’s pairing with a Lakota tribesman, Eeteh, who shares with Huck a general disinclination to bear down and work hard, preferring his own kind of independence, but who is nevertheless an adept storyteller in the Lakota tradition and regales Huck with tales about the trickster figure, Coyote. It is Eeteh who directs Huck to the Black Hills in order to elude General Hard Ass, whom Huck fears wants him imprisoned, or worse, for refusing an order, even though Huck was serving only as a civilian scout. Thus Huck finds himself living in a teepee in Deadwood Gulch, a pristine creek valley when Huck arrives but soon transformed into a muddy slough overrun with prospectors, their hangers-on, and all the hastily constructed buildings erected when gold is discovered. It is into this suddenly chaotic place that Tom Sawyer arrives as well, allegedly deputized by the federal government to bring order. What Tom really seeks to do in Deadwood Gulch is seize the main chance, to use it as the opportunity for the same sort of self-aggrandizement that is always Tom Sawyer’s ultimate motivation.

Huck can never quite accept this, even after Tom has threatened to hang him for defying Tom’s wishes. Rescued from Tom’s bluster by Eeteh (who brings along a few Lakota warriors for good measure), Huck replies to Tom’s predictable apology: “You’re my pard, Tom, always was. But it ain’t tolerable here for me no more. If you want to ride together again, come along with us now.” Tom demurs, and Huck rides off with Eeteh, but in this case lighting out for a territory more informed by Eeteh’s spontaneous, generally elastic storytelling than by the “stretchers” told by Tom, lies he tries to believe are true—or tries to convince others they should believe. Huck himself has earlier indicated he already understands the difference between Tom’s stories that hide reality and the kind of story that might be truer to Huck’s sense of reality: “Tom is always living in a story he read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.”

Huck Out West is not as purely a picaresque narrative as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but Coover has certainly captured the nomadic state of Huck Finn’s soul. He has cannily discerned the essential nonconformity manifest in the character created by Mark Twain, and memorably transformed the adolescent’s lack of ambition into a more self-aware skepticism toward social expectations and cultural practices—while still preserving in Huck an ingenuous outlook that acknowledges what the world is like but remains free of malice or resentment. This quality is reflected in the colloquial eloquence of Huck’s narrative voice, which again Coover has adapted from the same quality found in Twain’s novel but has further developed into what may be the most impressive accomplishment in Huck Out West. Huck doesn’t merely sound “authentic”; his idiomatic expressiveness is sustained throughout the novel less to provide “color” than to establish Huck as a character able to render his circumstances persuasively through the integrity of his verbal presence.

If I did develop one reservation about Huck Out West while reading it, it was from the invocation of Custer as Huck’s bete noire and scourge of the West. This move threatens to make the novel too reminiscent of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, whose narrator also relates his peripatetic adventures in the Old West in a vernacular-laden voice. Perhaps this only indicates how much Berger himself may have been influenced by Huckleberry Finn, and the work of Mark Twain in general, but Berger’s Jack Crabb is primarily the means by which the novel effects its darkly comic burlesque of American myth-making. Huck Out West engages in its fair share of this sort of lampoonery as well, but ultimately it goes farther. Robert Coover provides a new version of the twice-told tale offering a radical representational strategy that still allows for dynamic storytelling, even as it interrogates its own process of representation.

—Daniel Green

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Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).

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May 172017
 

When asked if Compass is a political novel, Énard replied affirmatively, but said its politics are unifying, to show our dependence on each other for growth and to emphasize the strength in great diversity. —Frank Richardson

Compass
Mathias Énard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
New Directions, 2017
$27.95, 448 pages

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On a drizzly December night in Vienna, a solitary man stares out his window, his agonized reflection another self with whom he feels interchangeable, as indistinct as the water molecules within a droplet condensing on the glass. The window vibrates with Shahram Nazeri singing a poem by Rumi, and the shadow self becomes interlocutor in an internal monologue that will last through a sleepless night—a night of remembrance, regrets, and desire—a night in which a dying man considers his past and present.

But Compass (Boussole)—Mathias Énard’s ninth published work and third novel to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell; winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt and longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize—is not only a novel of memory and identity, it is a novel that celebrates centuries of cross-cultural exchange between the East and West: a vital novel, arriving when we need desperately to be reminded of the strength in diversity, of the reason in embracing the other.

Born in 1972 in Niort, France, Mathias Énard studied Arabic and Persian languages at INALCO, has traveled widely in the Middle East, and is now a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona. His multi-award-winning 2008 novel Zone (reviewed by Numéro Cinq’s Mary Stein), a stream of consciousness meditation on the cycles of war, finds a perfect companion in Compass, where the interconnected lives of fictional and historical musicians, writers, explorers, and asylum seekers are woven in a great tapestry of thought, a balm for one man’s soul and an appeal for peace to all.

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The Blind Owl

The man at the window, Franz Ritter, a forty-something professor of musicology living alone in Vienna, should be reviewing a student’s dissertation, or better yet, sleeping. But this will not be a night for sleep, even if he didn’t suffer from chronic insomnia, a symptom of his undiagnosed disease. We are plunged directly into the stream of Ritter’s consciousness and his first-person narration in a page-length sentence. The exhausted professor has received a disturbing communique from his friend Sarah, a scholar of oriental literature and a specialist, like him, on Middle Eastern culture.

Sarah, who has a “passion for monstrosities” and a “penchant for the lower depths of the soul,” has sent him an old-fashioned offprint of her most recent academic article, an article whose frightening subject Franz will spend the rest of the night contemplating. For Sarah, writing from the distant jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia, isn’t just another “orientalist” colleague, she is the unrequited love of his life.

Franz gives himself up to thinking about Sarah, whose guiding philosophy is that “there is no such thing as chance, everything is connected.” He struggles to find some significance in the article which arrived without an enclosed letter. The Sarawak article sends him to sifting through every trace of her he owns: books, photographs, academic articles, letters—all become fuel for his fervent reconstruction of his memory of her. Excerpts from this archive, printed in different fonts, are sometimes accompanied by photographs, reminiscent of the novels of W. G. Sebald.

The first excerpt from Franz’s memorabilia comes from Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Visions of the Other Between East and West. Her thesis, significantly, concerns Sadegh Hedayat and his novel The Blind Owl—a novel that inspired Compass and with which it shares many parallels. Apropos his unrequited feelings for Sarah, Franz begins reading her thesis at the opening sentence of The Blind Owl: “There are certain wounds in life that, like leprosy, eat away at the soul in solitude and diminish it.” Like Hedayat’s narrator, Ritter is ill, feverish, obsessed—a man whose only interlocutor is his own shadow. Ritter isn’t writing a story as a conscious attempt to arrive at some general conclusion, but we follow his internal monologue and thus learn his history with Sarah, his desires, his regrets, and, along the way, a vast history chronicling the interconnectedness of Eastern and Western culture.

Franz’s sleepless night takes place on December 1, 2014, in Vienna, the apotheosis of European music cities and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “gateway to the East.” Although the novel’s chronological time follows the course of the night and Franz never leaves his apartment, his a-chronological reconstruction of his past with Sarah ranges from their first meeting seventeen years prior in Hainfeld, Austria, to other locations and time points throughout their shared history. The cities of Paris, Vienna, Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Tehran, Istanbul, and others, serve as nexuses in the web of Ritter’s recollection.

Throughout the 451-page novel, Énard uses paragraphing and chapter breaks to indicate interruptions in Ritter’s thought. Ritter periodically notes the hour, and nine of these times are labeled chapter headings: 11:10 p.m., 12:55 a.m., etc. Furthermore, as Ritter’s meditations weave through his subjects, to entertain himself he composes a whimsical, imaginary book he titles On the Divers forms of Lunacie in the Orient with subdivisions such as “Orientalists in Love” and “Encyclopedia of the Decapitated.” These pseudo-chapters serve as a second set of breaks (including a table of contents listing them); however, these divisions are only part of the stream of his thoughts and always arrive mid-sentence, although they do provide opportunities for Énard to shift the focus of Ritter’s contemplations.

Ritter displays a prodigious erudition as his thoughts glide from one subject to the next. Nevertheless, he is modest to the point of self-deprecation and disparages academics (often hilariously). Whether he’s feeling nostalgic, contemplative, or even despairing, Ritter’s tone is engaging, especially when uses the first-person plural: “let’s try to breathe deeply, let our thoughts slide into an immense white space . . . let’s mimic death before it comes.” We share his space through his thoughts; we turn the pillow with him, listen to his neighbor’s dog, read Sarah’s letters, and look at her photographs.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the seamlessness with which Énard effects shifting between use of the present and past tense: the present tense for when Ritter describes his puttering around the apartment and current thoughts; and the past tense which Ritter uses to narrate his recollections. Adding to the verisimilitude of a man talking to himself, his interior monologue also includes rhetorical questions that range from the mundane (“Where did I put my glasses?”) to the philosophical (“What is universal?”). Naturally, these questions often serve as segues for new associations.

The narrative is necessarily discursive in so far as the story is Ritter’s mind unleashed. But rather than an unhinged, amateur historian like the narrator of Zone, here Énard gives us a scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, literature, and history. In Zone, an endless run-on sentence mimics the protagonist’s disturbed mind, and as such complements his identity, i.e. form follows function. In Compass, the style Énard chose to depict Ritter’s consciousness serves greater goals; he wants to mimic consciousness but also create a platform for illustrating the cross-cultural influences of East and West. The interior monologue of a scholar is as appropriate for the content of Compass as the interior monologue of a war criminal was for Zone.

Strict autonomous monologue—exemplified by the “Penelope” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses—presents thought undisrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. Énard never pushes his style to such an extreme, and Ritter’s internal monologue departs from a high-mimetic mode in several ways, including Énard’s use of (mostly) conventional punctuation, Ritter declaring his perceptions and reporting past events with dialogue, and the inclusion of objective, external documents (e.g. Sarah’s texts).

Despite his insomnia, Ritter does give indications that he falls asleep, or at least enters a semi-sleep borderland where dream mingles with his conscious memory. According to Ritter’s mental state, Énard modulates the narrative distance, using more conventional syntax during Ritter’s lucid moments and fluid, run-on sentences for those times when Ritter is either in a semi-dream state or emotionally disturbed (excited or angry). The shifting between these narrative modes, especially as Ritter’s subjective recollection is shaped by his perception of objective documentation, is a tour-de-force in the representation of consciousness.

Sadegh Hedayat, 1951

Alterity

Throughout the night, Ritter seeks refuge in music[1] and each selection triggers a new set of associations. After all, he is an expert in the history of music, and so it is not surprising that whether he hears Berlioz or Beethoven, he will know their (and everyone else’s) stories. He knows that Mozart used a Turkish march for his Piano Sonata No. 11; he knows that Goethe’s West–östlicher Divan was inspired by the poetry of Hafez; and he knows that Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Strauss (among others) composed music for Goethe’s poems.

Énard favors run-on sentences whenever Ritter becomes indignant, as he does when he thinks of Félicien David, whom he describes as the “foremost Orientalist musician, forgotten like all those who have devoted themselves to body and soul to the ties between East and West” (paralleling how Ritter sees himself):

I’ve shown that the revolution in music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries owed everything to the Orient, that it was not a matter of “exotic procedures,” as was thought before, this exoticism had a meaning, that it made external elements, alterity, enter, it was a large movement, and gathered together among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Bartók, Hindemith, Schönberg, Szymanowski, hundreds of composers throughout all of Europe, over all of Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self . . .

Alterity, otherness, is a concept Énard introduces conceptually on the first page with Franz confronting his reflection in the rain-soaked window, and a few pages later, specifically, in the excerpt from Sarah’s thesis. The relationship between oneself and the other—the central theme of the novel—emerges repeatedly though the patterns of interconnected musicians and writers, through the histories of Franz and Sarah, and through Sarah’s articles and Franz’s preternatural memory. Énard continually circles back to this concept, giving textual realization to Sarah’s philosophy of interconnectedness.

Occasionally there is a storm of references and Ritter will meditate on a dozen or more historical characters in the span of a page. For example, on a single page we learn of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s attending a soiree in Vienna, hosted by Antoine and Thérèse Apponyi—friends of Chopin, Liszt, Sand, Balzac, Hugo, and Lamartine—at which Beethoven plays as Europe celebrates peace after the exile of Napoleon, whose army stormed the Orient beyond the Balkans:

Knowledge rushes behind the soldiers and the merchants, into Egypt, India, China; texts translated from Arabic and Persian begin to invade Europe, Goethe the great oak started the race; long before Hugo’s Les Orientales, at the very time Chateaubriand was inventing travel literature with his Itinerary: From Paris to Jerusalem, as Beethoven is playing that night for the little Italian countess married to a Hungarian surrounded by the finest costumes in Vienna, the immense Goethe is putting the final touches on his West-östlicher Divan, directly inspired by the translation of Hafez that Hammer-Purgstall published . . .

Such barrages of names and works are not the norm, and Ritter’s associations usually move at a less frenzied pace. But it is these associations that make the novel more than just a catalogue of facts. The philosophical and moral foundation of the novel—specifically articulated through Sarah’s guiding mantra—is that everything is connected in a meaningful way; that without the one, you would not have the other. Énard presents Compass as a metaphor itself—the story as a compass with which to get our bearings, and if the needle seems to spin at times, it should only serve as further reminder that regardless of the direction in which we look, everything and everyone is connected.

One the many pleasures in reading the novel is discovering (or rediscovering) new writers and musicians. Ritter’s description of the premiere of Félicien David’s symphony Le Désert, for example, traces its immediate influence:

The desert invades Paris—“by unanimous opinion, it was the most beautiful storm music had ever produced, no maestro had ever gone so far,” Théophile Gautier writes in La Presse, describing the storm assailing the caravan in the desert; it’s also the premiere of the “Danse des almées,” the Dance of the Almahs, an erotic motif whose subsequent fortune we know, and surprise of surprises, the first “Chant du muezzin,” the first Muslim call to prayer that ever sounded in Paris: “It’s at that morning hour we hear the voice of the muezzin,” Berlioz writes in Le Journal des débats on 15 December, “David limited himself here, not to the role of imitator, but to that of simple arranger; he erased himself completely to introduce to us, in its strange nudity and even in the Arabic language, the bizarre chant of the muezzin . . .”

Comparisons of Compass with The Thousand and One Nights and with Proust (and Ritter thinks about both) are not only inevitable, but necessary. And some historical figures you might assume should be present—Khayyam, Rumi, T. E. Lawrence—all have their place. But Énard excels in his revelation of the unexpected: musicians like Félicien David and his student Francisco Salvador-Daniel, the influential diplomat and translator Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, or the journalist and explorer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (one of Sarah’s heroes and whom her character parallels).

Raymond Bonheur, Félicien David, c. 1835

Where East Meets West

When Franz opens Sarah’s thesis at the novel’s beginning, we hear in Sarah’s voice what could serve as a prologue for Compass:

we propose to explore this crevice, to go look inside the cleft, to enter the drunkenness of those men and women who have wavered too much in alterity; we are going to take the little man by the hand to go down and observe the gnawing wounds, the drugs, the elsewheres, and explore this between-space, this bardo, this barzakh, the world between worlds into which artists and travelers fall.

In Zone, Énard used a train trip for his frame story to explore history, much as W. G. Sebald used a walking tour of England or Claudio Magris[2] a boat ride down the Danube. Here, Franz’s delving through his collection of Sarah’s writings is the framework for Énard’s excursions into the links between East and West. These authors all share an exceptional talent for storytelling and revealing, with a poet’s voice, the history of people and place.

While Compass is not plot-driven in a conventional sense, Franz’s retelling of his relationship with Sarah is a compelling narrative, complete with its own mysteries: Why is he so ashamed? Do they have a sexual relationship? What is the nature of Sarah’s enigmatic Sarawak article? Considering Franz’s discursiveness, these questions are like a Javier Marías mystery, namely it’s about the journey, not the destination, although the destination will unify and underscore the novel’s intricate image patterns.

Sarah is Franz’s idée fixe, his emotional compass—she gives him direction. How ironic then, that she gifts him an actual compass, a reproduction of one owned by Beethoven, but with a flaw—it’s designed to point east. Metaphorically, Franz is to Sarah as West is to East. He is marooned in the west, in Vienna, famous as a central hub for the Orient Express, while Sarah recedes ever farther to the east, to India and Malaysia. The name “Ritter” is German for “knight,” and Énard conceived of a medieval romance for the two. Franz’s quest is for Sarah, his unreachable love; hers is for “a long road to the East . . . ever further towards the Orient in search of something indefinable.” When he remembers their time in Aleppo—a painful memory that fuels his feelings of shame—he thinks:

Time has reasserted its power over the Sissi House; the Baron Hotel is still standing, its shutters closed in a deep sleep, waiting for the throat-slitters of the Islamic State to make it their headquarters, transform it into a prison, a fortress, or else blow it up: they’ll blow up my shame and its ever-burning memory, along with the memory of so many travelers, dust will settle again over Annemarie, over T. E. Lawrence, over Agatha Christie, over Sarah’s room, over the wide hallway (geometrically patterned tiles, walls painted in high-gloss cream); the high ceilings will collapse onto the landing where two great cedar chests rested, coffins of nostalgia with their funereal plaques, “London-Baghdad in 8 Days by Simplon Orient Express and Taurus Express,” the debris will swallow up the pompous staircase I climbed on a sudden impulse fifteen minutes after Sarah decided to go to bed around midnight: I can see myself knocking on her door, a double wooden door with yellowing paint, my fingers right next to the three metal numbers, with anxiety, determination, hope, blindness, the tightness in the chest of one who is undertaking a great endeavor, who wants to find the being guessed at under a blanket in Palmyra in an actual bed and pursue, hang on, bury himself in oblivion, in the saturation of the senses, so that tenderness will chase away melancholy and greedy exploration of the other opens the ramparts of the self.

This passage shows how Ritter’s thoughts flow from current events to historical figures to the specific memory of his anxious sexual overture; the refrain of the relationship between the self and the other frames the memory. The Baron Hotel is now a refugee shelter and the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel in Palmyra (another significant location of the novel) and the nearby 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, once viewable from its terrace, have been destroyed.

§

Porochista Khakpour writes in her introduction to The Blind Owl, “we are taught to read a novel all over again—in its pages there exists a collection of codes, variants, repetitions, cycles . . . .” Such is the case with Compass. As dawn approaches, Franz reads an account he wrote of his and Sarah’s time in Tehran and the story of Sarah’s thesis advisor, Morgan. Morgan’s story is also a tale of unrequited love and serves as a mirror for Franz. Franz describes the process of rereading himself as a strange sensation, and he is “attracted and repulsed by this former self as by another.” He concludes that “Being exists always in this distance, somewhere between an unfathomable self and the other in oneself.” As a unifying dual concept for the novel, alterity means not only seeking an understanding of others, but of the other in ourselves.

East and West are words of convention and it seems archaic today to speak of an Orient and an Occident. Besides, every country has its own idea of “east.” Of course, such divisive denominations persist, somewhat out of convenience perhaps, but surely also from our natural tendency to separate ourselves into families, groups, tribes, and nations. When asked if Compass is a political novel, Énard replied affirmatively (WDR), but said its politics are unifying, to show our dependence on each other for growth and to emphasize the strength in great diversity.

At his lowest, Ritter despairs of the human condition: “The human species isn’t doing its best these days,” now when the “stench of stupidity and sadness” are omnipresent. But, when have we ever done our best? During the Renaissance? The Enlightenment? We’ve always burned people alive, beheaded them, gassed them, and Énard doesn’t fail to remind us. Ritter’s despondency notwithstanding, the novel offers the opposite message: that cultural diversity stimulates great art and music and literature; and that, despite our exceptional talent for butchering one another, we also help one another, and we learn from one another.

Compass is dedicated to the people of Syria.

—Frank Richardson

N5

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.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Compass is a music-lover’s delight with over forty references to specific works. Fitzcarraldo Editions assembled a playlist available here: Compass playlist.
  2. ]Franz and Sarah argue about the “Austro-centrism” of Danube.
May 142017
 

Everyone knows the best conversations come on long walks, where speech naturally matches pace, and where silences are almost always comfortable. Walking was thus the ideal way for Seelig to draw out the reticent and mistrustful Walser. —Dorian Stuber

Carl Seelig
Walks with Robert Walser
Translated by Anne Posten
New Directions, 2017
$15.95; 127 pages

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For years readers seemed regularly to be rediscovering the work of the idiosyncratic Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser (1878—1956). To be sure, Walser had always had his partisans—readers who delighted in the syntactical and tonal shifts of his quicksilver and devious prose. Already in 1929, for example, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin made Walser the subject of a perceptive and still influential essay. More recently, W. G. Sebald included a lyrical meditation on Walser in his collection of linked essays, A Place in the Country. Yet Walser remained relatively unknown. Even though the great Austrian writer Robert Musil once described Kafka as “a special writer of the Walser type,” Kafka not Walser became a literary and cultural adjective.

In the last decade, however, Walser has become a fixture, not least in the English-speaking cultural world. (This is a turn Walser himself, who never travelled further than Germany in his whole life, and who wondered, “Why should writers travel, as long as they have imagination?” could surely never have anticipated.) Yet I don’t think it’s right to say Walser is now canonical. Something more interesting has happened to him. He inspires creative homage rather than dutiful respect. His most ardent admirers aren’t academics but rather contemporary filmmakers, visual artists, and of course writers. This resurgence has been made possible by the dedication of translators like Damion Searls, Tom Whalen, and above all, Susan Bernofsky, who have made more of Walser’s work available in English than ever before.

But perhaps nothing demonstrates Walser’s unlikely ascent more than this edition of Carl Seelig’s Walks with Robert Walser, first published in 1957 and now translated into English by Anne Posten. English-speaking audiences are getting not just Walser’s own books but also books about him. And this book is definitely worth it. To use a word much favoured by Walser himself, it’s delightful. In it, Seelig resurrects the nearly forgotten Walser and lovingly shows him in all his contradictory but mostly charming moods.

Born into a wealthy family, Seelig was a writer, editor, publisher, and patron to writers across the German-speaking world. His correspondents included Joseph Roth and Kafka’s close friend Max Brod. In 1949 he helped Albert Einstein compile a best-selling autobiographical volume.

Undoubtedly, however, his greatest legacy is his friendship with Walser. Seelig, who became Walser’s literary executor, orchestrated the first Walser rediscovery: the current revival wouldn’t have been possible without Seelig’s attention to the man and his work.

Seelig first corresponded with Walser in 1922. But they didn’t meet until 1936. In the intervening years, Walser had been admitted to the psychiatric clinic Waldau near Bern and then transferred to a sanatorium in the Appenzell. He had written nothing since entering Waldau. Seelig, who “felt the need to do something for his work and for him personally,” arranged with the head doctor to be able to go for a walk with Walser.

Over the next twenty years, until the writer’s death on Christmas Day in 1956, Seelig and Walser met several times a year to go for extensive day-long rambles across eastern Switzerland. Walks with Robert Walser records their itineraries, their conversations and, indelibly, their meals. Walking in Switzerland, then as now, is a civilized affair: even on the remotest mountaintop a refreshing inn or a café awaits.

Walser had always been a passionate walker, as he described in his brilliant autobiographical novella The Walk (1913). In the 1920s, as his mental health frayed and his writing began to dry up, Walser ever more desperately sought solace in walking. He once made it from Bern to Geneva in a single night without stopping, and, another time, again in the middle of the night, from Bern to the top of a mountain in the Bernese Oberland, where, as he later told Seelig, he “blithely devoured a piece of bread and a can of sardines.”

Walking was thus the ideal way for Seelig to draw out the reticent and mistrustful Walser. Everyone knows the best conversations come on long walks, where speech naturally matches pace, and where silences are almost always comfortable. In his description of their first walk, Seelig called silence “the narrow path on which we approach[ed] each other.”

Seelig seems to have been a true mensch: gentle, kindly, and unassuming. We never see him make demands of Walser or expect anything in return for his interest other than the pleasure of the older man’s company. Seelig’s literary talents seem to have been fairly modest, but in Walks with Robert Walser he wisely sticks to a straightforward style and, as his title suggests, focuses his attention firmly on his companion rather than himself.

For the most part Seelig lets Walser be himself, though he can’t help but occasionally prod the older man to resume writing, suggesting for example that the asylum would surely make great material for a novel. (Walser dryly responds, “I should hardly think so.”) Later he asks again: if it could be arranged for Walser to leave the asylum, would he start writing again? Walser is categorically and characteristically evasive: “There is only one thing to do with this question: not answer it.”

Over and over, Walser declares himself satisfied with his life: “In the asylum I have the quiet I need… It suits me now to disappear, and inconspicuously as possible.” He rejects Seelig’s proposal to arrange for Walser to have a room to himself: “ I wish to live with the people and to disappear with them. That is the proper thing for me.” He takes seriously the work asked of him in the asylum—sorting lentils and gluing together paper bags, among other menial tasks—and becomes grumpy when it is interrupted by anything other than the chance to go walking. He seems reasonable, interested in the world, eminently sane.

Robert Walser, c. 1898

Yet he is also withdrawn, sometimes moody, unresponsive to the news of the deaths of his brother Karl and sister Lisa, the siblings he was closest to. He vividly describes the tribulations that led him to be institutionalized: “During my last years in Bern I was plagued by wild dreams—thunder, shouting, a choking in my throat, hallucinatory voices—so that I often woke screaming.” And when Seelig asserts Walser’s literary importance, the writer becomes so agitated—“Quiet, quiet! How can you say something like that! Do you really think I believe your society lies?”—that Seelig has quite a job of it to soothe him.

Seelig has more success getting Walser to talk about what he has written than anything he might write in the future. Walser proves a shrewd, though sometimes harsh reader of his own work: “That is the error of my novels. They are too whimsical and too reflexive, their composition often sloppy.” He describes his writing process, explaining he couldn’t write to commissions: “Everything must simply grow out of me without being forced.” He speaks admiringly of writers, like Dickens and Gottfried Keller, about whom “one is never quite sure whether to laugh or cry.” When Seelig rightly suggests Walser is such a writer himself, Walser begs him not to make such comparisons: “Don’t even whisper it. It makes me want to crawl into a whole, being named in such company.”

Yet Seelig is right, both about sudden shifts in register that characterize Walser’s prose and its general brilliance. Although he also wrote four novels, Walser is best known for the hundreds of miniatures he wrote for European newspapers in the decade before and after WWI. In these small prose pieces, Walser—who once called himself “a clairvoyant of the small”—considered in sometimes rhapsodic and sometimes arch prose encounters with ordinary things: one of his most beautiful pieces is called “Ash, Needle, Pencil, and Match.” He also drew liberally on his own experiences: working as a bank teller, enjoying a balloon ride with his publisher, studying at a school for would-be servants.

Example of Robert Walser’s Microscript

For this reason, to write about Walser’s writing is invariably to write about his life, even though it was by his own account singularly modest and largely undramatic. His prose, almost always told by a first person narrator who like Walser is bemused and surprised by the world’s richness, is at once autobiographical and not, neither fiction nor non-fiction. He offered a fine description of the strengths of his own work when he told Seelig:

I am immediately wary of writers who excel at plot and claim practically the whole world for their characters. Everyday things are beautiful and rich enough that we can coax poetic sparks from them.

With their vivid first-person narration, wealth of observation and reflection, and total disregard for the trappings of conventional plot or character, Walser’s texts anticipate those of contemporary writers like Lydia Davis, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner.

But in traipsing with Walser through the Swiss landscape, Seelig reminds us that Walser is a small giant of world literature only because he is grounded in such a particular place. For me, Walser exemplifies a particularly Swiss impishness, the kind I encountered regularly in my Swiss relatives, most of whom came from the villages near Biel, the little city where Walser was born and where he spent many of his most productive years. These relatives loved to tease, to take the piss out of everyone and everything, even while they espoused a conventional morality that often descended into sententiousness. Walser’s genius is to ironize these conventional sentiments, so that readers never quite know to take what seem like ingenuous, almost artless exclamations of delight, especially since they reverse so quickly into sharp criticisms of all manner of conventional pieties, from bestsellers to car culture to banking regulations.

Yet although the ideal reader of Walks with Robert Walser will already know and love Walser’s work—anyone who doesn’t will without doubt want immediately to seek it out—and will therefore be intrigued by Walser’s assessment of that work, the real attraction here is Walser himself. By the time Seelig knew him, Walser had largely withdrawn from the world, in his younger days he had cut quite a figure in artistic and even high society. From 1905 Walser joined his brother Karl, an artist who found fame as the set designer for the theater director and impresario Max Reinhardt, in Berlin, where he spent most of the next eight years. The Walser brothers were famous for eating everything at the parties they were invited to or crashed. Their refusal to follow rules of genteel decorum extended to the literary world. Walser impressed the playwright Frank Wedekind with a canary yellow checked suit and mocked Hugo von Hoffmansthal, whom he is said to have asked whether he ever got tired of being famous.

We get glimpses of that impish young man from the provinces in Seelig’s portrayal of the much older mental patient. We watch Walser devour eight tartlets in a single sitting. We observe his horror of overcoats (even with 20 cm of snow on the ground he refuses to wear one) and his love of umbrellas (“under an umbrella one can feel quite at home”). We see him steering clear of barking farmyard dogs, adding “Have you noticed that dogs nowadays are much quieter than they used to be, as if electricity, the telephone, the radio and such robbed them of speech?” And we see him warm up to the patient and kind Seelig, revealing the excitable boy inside. At the end of their outing on April 15, 1938, Walser “shakes my hand several times, runs after my train, and waves until it disappears around the corner.”

Above all he eats. Despite the privations of the war years (on a walk in January 1943 Walser is “amazed” that he and Seelig “need ration cards for a portion of cheese”), food seems plentiful, and he and Seelig eat and drink with gusto. A typical passage reads: “Lunch at Schäfli in Trogen. We both have a huge appetite and clean every plate: the oatmeal soup, the bratwursts, the mashed potatoes, the beans, and the pear compote.” They’ll have a few drinks, smoke a cheroot or a cigar, and then walk ten more miles. None of the food and drink is particularly fancy, but it’s devoured with the gusto and glow of wellbeing of those who have been out in the fresh air no matter the weather.

Earlier I named some of the excellent translators who have tackled Walser’s difficult works in recent years. All of them follow in the footsteps of the great Christopher Middleton, the poet and scholar who was the first to translate Walser into any language. In an entry dated Good Friday, 1955, Seelig tells Walser that Middleton has translated two of his texts “with admirable subtlety,” Walser answers “with a curt ‘Really!’”(In the original, Walser says “So, so!”, a response that acknowledges the interlocutor without committing to agreeing with what he’s said; it’s the very phrase my uncle would use all the time when our conversations reached an impasse and, in its passive aggression, quintessentially Swiss.).

Robert Walser, 1949

Anne Posten—admittedly translating Seelig’s Walser rather than Walser himself—is not quite up to the high standards of English language Walser translations. Her work is more dutiful than excellent. She struggles in particular with Walser’s Swiss idioms. Some of these are impossible to translate (Znüni, literally “a little something at nine o’clock,” is a second breakfast: calling it a “morning snack” is reasonable; I don’t know anything that can capture the full sense of this lip-smacking diminutive except maybe Paddington Bear’s “elevenses,” though that is too twee even for the Swiss). Others are easier to translate, but Posten misses the mark. A Grind is a head, even, depending on context, a mug; Posten’s “noggin” sounds impossibly quaint. And the Postauto is a bus, not a mail van.

Writing this review I came across a reference to a translation of Seelig’s book in progress by a Bob Skinner. I don’t know anything about Skinner or the fate of his translation. Presumably it’s been nipped in the bud by this one. (None of the links I’ve found online to the text of his draft work anymore.) That’s too bad, because the excerpts I’ve seen are terrific, more lively and vivid than Posten’s.

Take this excerpt from the entry for February 5, 1950. Here is Skinner:

In a confectioner’s Robert rolls a shapeless cigarette which starts a little fire when it’s lit. A couple nearby snickers; they think he’s a hick. He says that in the sanitarium he’s now sorting and untying string for the Post Office. This work is all right with him; he’ll take what comes.

And here is Posten:

In a pastry shop Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette. Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit when lit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.

Seelig’s original reads:

In einer Konditorei rollt sich Robert eine unförmige Zigaretten. Da sie nicht gut gestopft ist, gibt as beim Anzünden ein kleines feuer. Ein benachbartes Paar beginnt zu kichern; es halt Robert offenbar für einen weltfremden Bauern. Er erzählt mir, dass er jetzt in der Anstalt Schnüre für die Post sortiere und aufknüpfte. Aber ihm sei diese Arbeit auch recht. Er nehme eben, was komme.

Posten’s version is more faithful to the original than Skinner’s. She keeps the explanation of the poor tamping, which Skinner cuts out, and “an unworldly farmer” translates “einen weltfremden Bauern” literally. But the passage is better with the elision, and “hick” is punchy and effective. When it comes to the string, “untying” is a better translation than the portentous “unraveling.” And saying the work is “all right with him” reads better than “he is content with the work.” Skinner makes Seelig come alive. In fact, he seems to be a better writer than Seelig is himself.

But if Posten’s translation sometimes disappoints, this sensation is quickly overcome by gratitude to her and the publisher for bringing the book into English. We’re lucky to have it.

Walks with Robert Walser is a joyous and affirming book. Readers will be left feeling as Walser does when, at the end of one of their excursions, exclaiming over the beauty of the day, he tells Seelig, “Are we not returning richer than we left?”

—Dorian Stuber

 

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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May 112017
 

 

The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems
Fleda Brown
University of Nebraska Press
275 pages, Paperback $19.95 US
978-0-8032-9494-3

 

Former Poet Laureate and editor Ted Kooser, in his introduction to Fleda Brown’s recently published The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems, says this about the book: “You hold the first of these poems in your left hand and the last in your right, and in between is the carefully and beautifully presented record of the life of a talented and influential American poet. And a person who reaches, in welcome, to you.”

Exactly right. At every turn in this book – made up of poems from six previous books along with fifty new poems – the poet Fleda Brown opens the door to her life and invites you in.

I teach my niece Elizabeth
to let down her oars,
then pull and lift with mine.
Our wake smooths
like a tail. Elizabeth says
we are a dragonfly,
double-oared. I think
we are an old woman,
our low whaler spreading
the reeds with wide hips,
sloshing hollow…..

from “Whaler”

Key to the enjoyment of Brown’s welcoming invitation is a taste for complications – not the complications of language, and not the complications of form or structure, but the complications of life. Brown’s life, filtered through language which avoids sentimentality and obfuscation, is reflected in poems, which examine burdens, confusions, illnesses, losses, reservations and constraints. But it’s also reflected, sometimes as counterpoints within the same poems, in moments of determination, reflection, wonder, hope and heart, as with one of my favorite poems in the book (taken from Reunion, published in 2007) which describes something called “the perfection knot”:

Knot Tying Lessons

The Perfection Knot
—a favorite loop among anglers, it has survived
the advent of slippery nylon monofil, which has
rendered many other knots obsolete.

How do we keep from going mad,
starting over with marriages and children,
making the same mistakes?
Over and over, we leave behind
the buoys that marked the shallows
we should have seen. They bob like zeros
behind us, counting for or against, who
can be sure? Maybe everything was
simpler than we thought from the start,
perfect as the disk of the sun, and the first
loop we took was never supposed to be
tied in some frivolous bow. Maybe
we were to come through the loop bravely,
cross its outer border until we could see
clearly how it was we began all this,
slip under what we used to think
was the route, until we caught
our waywardness in a noose, and nothing
could slip loose. Maybe it’s the kind of thing
you have to teach your hands to do
without puzzling too much about it,
the way you faithfully get up, go to work,
come home. Like the rotation of the planets,
you have to believe than just because
no one says so, doesn’t mean you aren’t
okay, more than okay, really,
in your devotion to what you can’t
exactly explain.

The Woods Are on Fire is a hefty volume – 275 pages – published by the University of Nebraska Press as part of its Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry series. Previous volumes in the series include Darkened Rooms of Summer by Jared Carter (2014), and Rival Gardens by Connie Wanek (2016.) All three books – Brown’s, Carter’s and Wanek’s – offer “new and selected” work; decades of thought-provoking writing are represented, and Kooser has chosen his poets well.

Brown, who taught for many years at the University of Delaware and was Delaware’s Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2007, maintains an interesting blog called “My Wobbly Bicycle.” One of her recent posts includes this poem, another favorite of mine included as an excerpt from the book Reunion:

Mouse

I admire the way mouse dashes across the top bracket
of the blinds while we’re reading in bed. I admire the tiny whip

of its tail at the exact second my husband tries to grab it.
I admire the way it disappears into our house and shreds various

elements. I admire the way it selects the secret corridors
behind cupboards and drawers, the way it remains on the reverse

side of our lives. The mouse is what I think of when I think of
a poem, or of music, going straight for the goods, around

the barrier of our thoughts. It leaves droppings, pretending to be
not entirely substantial, falling apart a little here and there.

Clearly, it has evolved perfect attention to detail. I wish it would
concentrate on the morning news, pass the dreadfulness out

in little pellets. Yesterday I found a nest of toilet paper and
thought I’d like to climb onto that frayed little cloud. I would like

to become the disciple of that mouse and sing “Wooly Bully”
in a tiny little voice in the middle of the night while the dangerous

political machines are all asleep. I would like to have a tail
for an antenna. But, I thought, also, how it must be to live alone

among the canyons of cabinets, to pay that price, to look foolish
and trembling in daylight. Who would willingly choose to be

the small persistent difficulty? So I put out a spoonful of peanut butter
for the mouse, and the morning felt more decent, the government

more fair. I put on my jeans and black shirt, trying not to make
mistakes yet, because it seemed like a miracle that anyone tries at all.

In this poem, Brown moves from admiration to envy to pity and, finally, to empathy. Her reactions to the simplest things – a chicken bone, a small flower, a bus stop, mushrooms – often clearly demonstrate the changing perspectives of a poet trying to figure things out, trying “not to make mistakes” but, in the end,  accepting the fact that much about this world will remain a mystery.

Brown herself, in an interview in which she was asked to describe her poetry, said this: “I am strongly convinced that poetry should be accessible on the rational level as well as pointing our way into the irrational, non-linear place we often call the dream world.” Lines like the following about a woman and her lover from “Love, for Instance”(from Fishing with Blood)  illustrate Brown’s point: “And look at her eyes as she kisses him, / wide open, deliberate as his flowers. She watches him / roll out of her mouth like a ghostly language….”

The Woods Are on Fire contains excerpts from all but one of Brown’s previous books; the exception is titled The Devil’s Child, a long and continuous narrative poem, and Brown states in her acknowledgements that “the tone of the book made it impossible to fit among these other poems.”  Nevertheless, she considers it her best work, one to be looked up and read separately.

One book from which poems are taken is The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives. All the excerpts deal with Elvis in one way or another – memories of what an adolescent’s life was like in the 50’s, and specific events in Elvis’s life: how he shook hands with Nixon, how he went into the army, how he sang gospel songs. What might have turned glib or silly in another poet’s hands remain meditative in Brown’s. As Elvis talks with Nixon, the singer “… tries to get across that he knows the awful changes / the country can make when you’re not looking, / how one moment can desert the other / and leave you standing in the footlights, / trying to remember if you’re supposed to shoot or fly.”  An earlier poem from Fishing with Blood describes the fan-rivalry between singer Ricky Nelson and Elvis this way: “Ricky and Elvis conflicted down our bulletin boards, / a plain philosophical choice: country-club white / or the deep rumble from the edge of black.”

The most heart-wrenching of the poems in the book are about illnesses and disabilities in her family – the condition of her mentally retarded brother, the vulnerabilities of her aging mother and father, the illness of a well-loved sister. The Woods Are on Fire is a collection meant to be read from cover to cover, unlike some books of poetry which feel best if read by dipping in at any page to read a solo poem. Instead, with Brown, we turn the pages and watch her own sensibilities deepening, we note a perspective developing over the years. Once read, this book will be read again, and we’ll pull the book from the shelf often as a poetic reference text, so to speak, for moments in our own lives which correspond. This is the kind of light-filled  book we use to see the world more clearly and make our way forward – and we do it with a poem in each hand, as Kooser recommends.

—Julie Larios

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Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is a poet and lives in Seattle.

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May 102017
 

While Noll incorporates many of the classic elements of the thriller, he consistently refuses to follow the familiar patterns. Every time a mystery is kindled, the typical narrative expectations dissolve. —Joseph Schreiber

Atlantic Hotel
João Gilberto Noll
Translated by Adam Morris
Two Lines Press, May 2017
$9.95, 152 pages

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Just last year, an enthusiastic English language audience was introduced to the work of the eminent and enigmatic Brazilian writer, João Gilberto Noll, through the publication of Adam Morris’ sensitive translation of Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press). On March 29th of this year, less than two months before the scheduled follow up release of Atlantic Hotel, his most highly regarded and controversial novel, Noll died at his home in Porto Alegre. He was seventy years old. While his passing was met with an outpouring of tributes and grief in his home country, to those of us who have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to his sample more of his work, the confluence of these two events is certainly bittersweet.

For all the acclaim he earned in his lifetime—notably Noll was awarded Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti Prize five times—he was an unassuming literary hero. In his obituary for Words Without Borders, translator Adam Morris wrote:

What was so special about João Gilberto Noll was that he wrote for himself. This might seem like a simplistic criterion for heroism. And what I mean by it is simple, something better expressed by his agent, Valéria Martins, who was quoted in the Folha de São Paulo: “Era um cara que vivia para a literatura.” He was a man who lived for literature. Particularly in his later years, Noll lived a solitary lifestyle that allowed him to devote as much of his time as possible to his craft.

Themes of loneliness and alienation run through his writing; his characters routinely face unlikely situations tinged with surreal overtones. These qualities have engendered a raft of comparisons—Camus, Kafka, and Beckett have been mentioned—while closer to home, Clarice Lispector’s influence is evident. But it is perhaps counterproductive to define him solely with respect to others. Noll stands on his own terms, as a writer who draws on his personal sense of self in relation to the uncertain nature of reality. It is a dialogue grounded in the psychological realm. His protagonists appear to be experiencing and reacting, rather than driving the narrative, and their fatalistic passivity can be unsettling for the reader who expects a main character who, rightly or wrongly, is motivated by some apparent objective.

Originally published in 1989, Atlantic Hotel, like Quiet Creature, can be read, in part, as a reflection of the shifting political climate of the times. Brazil was caught in an extended and difficult process of democratization after several decades of military rule. In Quiet Creature (published in 1991, and which I reviewed last year), the young protagonist, despite the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself and his personal lack of concern for the events of the “outside world,” attends a rally for Lula and observes the relocation of settlers. This gives the novel an identifiable temporal context. However, with Atlantic Hotel, there is no direct reference to current political or social conditions. In this earlier title, the isolation and restlessness of the nameless narrator speaks more generally to the broad existential dislocation that is a constant element in Noll’s work. He asks: How well do any of us really know ourselves?

The novel begins, as it ends, with a mysterious death. The narrator-protagonist is an amorphous character. He arrives at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, just as a body is being removed from the premises. He requests a room for the night, but is carrying no luggage. The receptionist seems enamoured with him from the outset and, in the course of his brief stay, they engage in a couple of abrupt and impersonal sexual encounters. He is fitful and unable to relax. An atmosphere of impending doom weighs on him. “I thought about my departure,” he says, “about how long I would last.” But despite his escalating anxiety, he seems reluctant to leave, and returns to his bed:

I kicked off my shoes. I felt I was repressing a sense of hopelessness inside myself, because I had to get going soon—so I pretended to be calm, very calm.

If I feigned madness, or maybe numbed amnesia, the world would rush to commit me.

And isn’t that the same thing as going away? But with the advantage of not having to expend any effort, such as coming and going from dumps like this one. If I went crazy, they’d have me doped all day and night, asleep as soon as my head dropped in a haze.

When he finally checks out of the hotel, he notices that he suddenly feels and looks aged beyond his forty years. He takes a taxi to the bus station and purchases a ticket to Florianópolis, choosing the destination on a whim. On the bus he becomes attracted to Susan, his beautiful American seatmate. But she is escaping her own demons and, before the trip is over, she has taken a fatal overdose of pills. Rather than calling for assistance or reporting her condition, the narrator responds with the paranoid fear that her death will somehow call attention to him. He takes refuge in a washroom and then a bookstore before slipping out of the station and disappearing into the city.

His experience on the bus, his second encounter with a corpse in as many days, has shaken his haphazard sense of direction and he realizes that he needs “new bearings” on his journey. Through a bartender he ends up securing a ride with a couple of questionable-looking men who are said to be heading to Rio Grande do Sul, the southern-most state in Brazil. From this point on, things get stranger. Their first night on the road is spent at a brothel. Before the second day is out, a mysterious stop at an isolated farm has led to an unseen altercation, perhaps a murder, and our protagonist has to make a hasty escape before he himself prematurely becomes the next corpse on his curious odyssey.

From there he catches a ride on a horse-drawn wagon. The young driver takes him to a village where he secures lodging for the night at the local vicarage. The next day, while his sole set of clothing is being laundered, he strolls the village streets dressed in the old frock of a former priest, enjoying the isolation and anonymity the guise affords him. When a distraught woman beseeches him to perform last rites for her dying sister, he complies, taking on the assumed role, and thus meets his third dead body in four days.

Again he is restless and anxious to move on, so as soon as his own clothing is dry he takes to the road once more to continue his journey south. As evening approaches he reaches a small city, and feeling unwell, knocks on a door seeking assistance. The woman who answers starts screaming, identifying him as a kidnapper; the man at the second door he tries greets him with a gun. He collapses and when he comes to he finds himself hospitalized and permanently disabled. Whatever he is seeking or avoiding with his reluctant wandering, he finds this loss of control and freedom difficult to accept. His recovery will be slow and uncertain.

Readers familiar with Quiet Creature will find that Atlantic Hotel is, on the surface, a more straightforward story. The language is precise, the imagery and circumstances less surreal—strange and at times threatening, yes, but potentially explainable. This novel is essentially a piece of noir fiction, with all of the clichés one typically associates with the genre: cadavers, a secretive hero who seduces and sheds women without a care, the requisite danger and suspense. For example, after witnessing a nasty confrontation that leaves him in no doubt that his own life is in immediate danger, our hero plans and executes a daring getaway:

I dragged myself up the riverbank, taking hold of exposed roots to hoist myself up. The ground had the wetness of damp overgrowth that never sees any sunlight, leaves sticking to my clothes as I climbed, everything muddy, moving carefully so I wouldn’t make any noise—when I got to the top of the bank there’d be no cover, I’d have to run for it, make noise, get quickly to the car, which was close to the guard dogs who would bark as though possessed, pulling their chains to the point of breaking.

And when I got to the top of the hill I ran fast to the car, opened the door, and rolled up the windows with the furious dogs just a few yards away. Deafened, I grabbed the key and started the car, and here came the shots from behind.

One can argue that Noll is intentionally playing against the tropes of genre fiction or, in keeping with the cinematic quality of his writing, commercial film. Yet, while he incorporates many of the classic elements of the thriller, he consistently refuses to follow the familiar patterns. Every time a mystery is kindled, the typical narrative expectations dissolve. The protagonist responds with anxiety, paranoia, and an instinct for self-preservation, but resists the temptation to investigate or seek an understanding of the events he encounters. He is increasingly capricious, and there is a growing element of groundlessness to his behaviour. The effect is destabilizing.

If there is a link between the body at the hotel, the suicide on the bus, the devious and deadly pursuits of his travel companions, and the circumstances that lead to his hospitalization and surgery, the narrator reveals no connections and draws no conclusions. Most critically, his own identity is an enigma. We learn nothing of his background or the reason for his exodus. He tells a taxi driver he is on his way to rehab, impersonates a priest, and tells the American woman that he is an unemployed actor. Later, on two separate occasions, others claim to recognize him from movie or television roles. He does not deny this, but holds no nostalgia for a past fame, nor does his persistent anxiety seem to arise from a fear of being directly identified or named.

There is, however, a performative quality to the way he moves through the scenes that unfold. One has a sense that he is improvising and observing himself at the same time, immersed in an ongoing emotional and perceptual interplay with his environment. He is experiencing himself into being, if you like. This ontological process of continual conscious re-engagement with his surroundings—almost every time he awakes he must rediscover where he is—creates a sense of existence that is very much “in the moment.” He seems to require regular physical confirmation to maintain his fragile presence. He is very sensitive to temperature fluctuations, as he travels the weather is either unseasonably cold or hot. His sexual encounters are fleeting, even awkward. And, for a man who owns only one set of clothing, he demonstrates a distinct preoccupation with the condition of his body—he desires regular baths, dreams he is a woman, and is hopelessly devastated when he loses a limb.

As the narrative flirts with the conventions of noir fiction but fails to commit, the narrator seems to be trying to reconcile his physical and psychological realities but keeps unravelling at the edges. Once he finds himself in the hospital under strange and increasingly surreal circumstances, the effort of maintaining the continual re-engagement with his environment quickly wears him down. Unable to leave, he prefers to opt for sedated release, trusting his fate to the black male nurse who attends to his care. In the process of recounting his experiences he has now started to slowly narrate himself out of existence. And, ultimately, Atlantic Hotel becomes an unnerving but starkly beautiful parable of alienation, isolation, and the eternal heartache of the human condition.

—Joseph Schreiber

N5

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

May 062017
 

My Back Pages is the closest Moore will ever come to completing his massive study of the emergence and development of the novel —Jeff Bursey

My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays
Steven Moore
Zerogram Press, 2017
$30.00, 767 pages

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Introduction

In the mid-1980s, while doing research for my thesis on Henry Miller—a person and subject not popular within Memorial University of Newfoundland’s English department, the choice solidifying my dubious reputation among conservative professors from England and Newfoundland—I read Frederick R. Karl’s critical survey, American Fictions: 1940-1980 (1983). Apart from a few generally dismissive remarks on Miller, indicating a lapse of judgment, this work introduced me, in one giant, dual-columned flow of crackling prose and sharp observations, to authors that I never heard about in university classes. One of them was William Gaddis, whose two published novels (at that time) were discussed at great length. What I read intrigued me, but thesis writing and an imminent marriage, as well as a subsequent move, occupied my mind. In 1986, shortly before leaving Canada, I ordered Gaddis’ three works (a new one had come out the year before) and they accompanied me to London, England, where my then-wife’s studies took us. I resisted reading them as the final draft of the thesis required attention. At some point I needed a break, and soon found myself 600 pages into The Recognitions (1955) with 300+ to go, my spirits uplifted by Gaddis’ monumental first book, a reminder of how genius trumps talent, a salutary blast of corrosive satire and humour in a bleak time (little money, grey weather, England under Thatcher), a rebuke to the palsied minimalism of the 1980s that infested magazines and publishing lists—and suddenly Karl’s term for Gaddis, “tribune,” made sense. With the thesis finally sent to MUN, I turned to the remaining pages of The Recognitions, then to J R (1975), whose technical brilliance and humour helped preserve my sanity while I worked in a warehouse, and then the less impressive Carpenter’s Gothic (1985).

Back in St. John’s in September 1989 I came across a segment from another Gaddis novel in a 1987 New Yorker—what would be published in 1994 as A Frolic of His Own—and also, for the first time, read critical books devoted to his work. There weren’t many. At a guess, 1990 marked the year I first encountered Steven Moore (b. 1951) through his invaluable guide to The Recognitions. For 27 years, in one form or another, my Gaddis reading has been deepened and expanded by Moore. A recent example of the continued efforts at explicating Gaddis, who Moore considers “the greatest American novelist of the 20th century,” and how that can lead to a profounder understanding of his literary worth—and the worth of literature itself—can be found here in a joint review of books by Moore, and Joseph Tabbi, another Gaddis scholar who completes, for me, the triumvirate of Gaddis’ best critics.

In the early 1990s, Steven Moore worked for Dalkey Archive Press, home of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (RCF) and one of the most eclectic publishers around. From 1988-1996 he reviewed for RCF and eventually, as an editor, helped bring into print, among others works, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Reader’s Block and several Rikki Ducornet novels. Behind the scenes, and in front of my eyes, Moore shaped some of my reading (and I daresay that of others). There aren’t many critics so tireless in fighting critical indifference, small sales, and much more for high-risk writing.

There are reasons for this autobiographical introduction. While My Back Pages contains much about Gaddis that, as a fan, I appreciate seeing either for the first time or between covers at last, in this immensely readable, encyclopedic, and essential work there are almost 400 pages of concise reviews, published between roughly 1975 and 2016, of short-story collections, novels, and nonfiction, followed by almost 350 pages filled with meditations on key figures in Moore’s life, including his friend David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux, and W.M. Spackman. In these pages—revealed incidentally when its contents were first printed and forming a more than rough sketch when collected—is a partial intellectual autobiography that reveals, now and then, and almost always unexpectedly, his beliefs, his likes and dislikes, his confrontations with ideas and people, and reversals, criticisms, and disappointments in his career and personal life.

Certain figures recur: apart from Gaddis, Markson, Ducornet, and Theroux, there is much on Ronald Firbank, the Beats, Malcolm Lowry, Gilbert Sorrentino, and James Joyce. Certain predilections are as numerous: metafictional and/or experimental works, with occasional excursions into other forms. “It’s the books I write about, many of them forgotten by now, more than the pieces themselves, that deserve to be remembered,” he states outright, though that note of humility goes against the many years in service to literature exemplified by the length and depth of this book (indeed, the length and depth of each Moore book). In individual pieces he is not as shy in taking credit where it’s due.

One of Moore’s best qualities as an explicator is in communicating complex or complicated material in the clearest possible terms, and with humour when possible. Not all is sunshine, though, since every book is written, implicitly and explicitly, against something. There is even the presence of a dark figure that, while not a villain, is an adversary. And there’s sex. How-to guides to crafting correct fiction by James Wood or dreary musings on the uselessness of writing by Tim Parks aren’t going to offer this combination of features.

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I.

My Back Pages is the closest Moore will ever come to completing his massive study of the emergence and development of the novel: The Novel, An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010), and The Novel, An Alternative History: 1600–1800 (2013). (In 2014, the second title won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism.) “Rethinking the History of the Novel,” an essay placed near the end of the new book, supplies several reasons why he didn’t proceed with a third volume. Partway through the second volume his self-appointed task “became more like a chore, which is exactly what I had hoped to avoid when I began… by the time I wrote the last page of the second volume, I had no desire to go on to the third volume that I had been planning on from the very beginning.” Further:

Even though I had planned to narrow my focus at that point and concentrate only on innovative, experimental novels, I realized it would take me another five years at least working full-time and another thousand pages to cover 1800 to the present, and I finally had to admit that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Now I understood why no one had written a comprehensive, universal history of the novel before, and also understood why such things are only attempted in multi-volume university press series overseen by general editors with troops of contributors at their command.

Moore states he had no grand plan in mind when he began his labours, and yet, thanks to perseverance, missionary zeal, and an enthusiasm buoyed, I suspect, by ceaseless reading, this full-time independent scholar completed what only university presses could achieve. Perhaps it’s best that writers unthinkingly create their own follies. He felt provoked by “the conservative Bush [the Younger] administration of evil memory”—how those years must now seem, while in no way golden, less terrible than the present Republican government—that allowed “a corresponding reactionary backlash against the innovative, unconventional novels I love…”

Considering the fatigue factor, then, My Back Pages might be a better work than the never-realized third volume. Its content differs from that of the Novel works, which together are a magisterial, yet colloquially spoken, introduction to hundreds of fictions from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, on to Ireland and Iceland, then Mesoamerica, Japan, China, Europe, and North America. Moore’s new work comprises spirited defenses, campaigns, and hosannas for the lineage of “unconventional” writers he has long admired. The tempo is that found in breaking news, in Ezra Pound’s sense, excited but not sensationalized. (I’m reminded of what Sven Birkerts says in Changing the Subject [2015]: “I recognized at that moment that if art really is an act of concentrated attention, then it is also at the same time a power, not only carrying its messages, the content that is its pretext, but also storing—and making available—an enormous compacted energy. I’m talking about the energy that made the vision and expression possible in the first place.” Substitute criticism for “art” and that suits Moore’s energetic prose.) Instead of plot summaries devoted to the literary output of one country, we are provided with brief summaries of works and essays focused on single topics. After the Introduction and Acknowledgements, the sections are: Reviews; Miscellaneous Nonfiction; and, in three parts, Essays (“William Gaddis and Friends”; “Significant Others”; “Personal Matters”).

Set out alphabetically, the reviews (sometimes single entries, at other times sequences devoted to the same author), to provide a brief list, are of works by Djuna Barnes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Mo Yan, Severo Sarduy, Arno Schmidt, and Marguerite Young. In addition to what Moore has written for Rain Taxi and the Washington Post, among other places, most of the reviews appeared in RCF. He is most often a polite and eager reader, inclined to treat with the greatest respect metafictional works and meganovels that display erudition and contain recondite language used in a playful way, works that emphasize style over plot (or character) and that break the constraints of the novel. The “anemic stories” of minimalists rarely capture his attention, but in considering Stephen Dixon’s Frog (1991) he does concede that this book “represents an interesting new hybrid: a long novel made up of short episodes, a maximalist meganovel written in a minimalist style.” So he can be won over if the writer has done something original. A writer can also be a “vixen,” but only if they write well, like Mary Butts or Karen Elizabeth Gordon. (He doesn’t offer an equivalent term for males.)

Moore’s enthusiasm is contagious, as it’s often combined with casual displays of his wide and deep reading. Plucked almost at random are three samples of his writing style. The first is the opening to a review of Nicola Barker’s Darkmans (2007):

’Tis the season of huge literary novels. Those of us for whom size matters welcome with holiday cheer Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, two new translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor, Alexander Theroux’s Laura Warholic, and the 900-page Adventures of Amir Hamza, an old Urdu novel (by way of Arabia and Persia) newly translated for the Modern Library. Crashing this boys’ club from England comes Nicola Barker’s 838-page Darkmans, her seventh and longest novel, and a finalist for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize (which went to a much much shorter novel).

After reading a 3,300-page work by William T. Vollmann, Moore concludes:

Rising Up and Rising Down is a monumental achievement on several levels: as a hair-rising survey of mankind’s propensity for violence, as a one-man attempt to construct a system of ethics, as a successful exercise in objective analysis (almost nonexistent in today’s partisan, ideological, politicized, spin-doctored, theory-muddled public discourse), and a demonstration of the importance of empathy, whether in writing a book like this or simply dealing with fellow human beings. It can be an exhausting, depressing read, but with the ever-growing role of violence in our lives, it is an essential read. And the amazing fact that during the 20 years he spent writing Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann also published a dozen extraordinary books of fiction—many in the 700-page range and packed with historical research as deep as that on display here—elevates this achievement beyond the realm of mere mortals.

Though Moore generally prefers those whose language sparkles with new thoughts set out in long sentences, he can appreciate other styles, as shown in this review of the first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow:

The amount of detail here is staggering; Leader apparently left no stone unturned, and succinctly summarizes all the cultural upheavals surrounding Bellow in those heady days. (The biography doubles as a primer on the intellectual climate of the times.) But the details never become too dense or overwhelming, thanks largely to Leader’s clear, brisk style.

This compliment applies to Moore. Apart from providing readers with a long list of titles to look for, his reviews are models of how to balance an examination of style, a short summary of salient points, and a decision as to a book’s worth.

The Miscellaneous Nonfiction section contains essays and reviews ranging in subject from critical works on literature and postmodernism to human anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While of varying interest and engagement, this section offers further proof of the diversity of Moore’s taste, which is, incidentally, also shown in the music citations that appear now and then.

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II.

In Essays, Part 1, under the section “William Gaddis and Friends,” Moore brings together previously isolated pieces on Gaddis (and those who knew him), including Pynchon, Markson, and Chandler Brossard. Particularly noteworthy is “Sheri Martinelli: A Modernist Muse.” She was an artist-model in Greenwich Village who Gaddis and Anatole Broyard (author of, among other books, Kafka Was the Rage [1993]) pursued romantically, “a protégé of Anaïs Nin,” friends with H.D., Charles Bukowski, Charlie Parker, and the Beats. She later entered into a hazily defined friendship or relationship with Ezra Pound when he was at St. Elizabeths Federal Hospital. (This is the stuff of a biopic.) The concentration of influences and animosities (Broyard versus Gaddis, Pound versus almost everyone) that congregated in this almost unknown artist is fascinating.

Part 2, “Significant Others,” deals with, among others, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Dahlberg, Brigid Brophy, Leopoldo Marechal, and Wallace again. Barring Wallace and Vonnegut, Moore is paying close attention to the obscure, the out-of-print, and the forgotten, something that other critics could seek to imitate. Firbank, one of “the more recherché modernists” who is invoked often and gets connected to Francesca Lia Block and Alan Hollinghurst, as well as many others, is looked at for his playwriting. While I can agree with Moore on many things, we part ways on Firbank, who he admits is a writer “so idiosyncratic that one instinctively likes or dislikes [him], and no amount of critical persuasion one way or another is going to change anyone’s mind.” This may be a blind spot of mine, just as Moore’s low regard of a fellow Modernist, Henry Miller, is inexplicable considering his influence on and way with language, on issues concerning freedom of expression, and as a figure who supported Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans, about whom Moore has much to say (as he does on other Beat writers like William Burroughs and Alan Ansen).

Theroux is both reviewed and the subject of an in-depth description of his second novel, Darconville’s Cat (1981), “a dazzling 700-page satire… that surely will soon come to be celebrated as the finest example of learned wit ever produced in American literature.” As Moore mentions in the Introduction, he sometimes wrote with an “optimism” that was misplaced. Theroux’s work matches Moore’s taste for length, wit, language, digressions and allusions, and several modes of presenting material (“poems, fables, nightmares, a diary, an abecedarium, a blank-verse playlet…”), and he offers a persuasive set of reasons for the importance of this novel. What also arises is one of those welcome contradictions that spring up in any person’s record of literary commentary if they do it long enough. In expressing fervent enthusiasm for and belief in Darconville’s Cat—“I want to be buried with this novel clasped to my heart”—Moore has to restrain from commenting negatively on Theroux’s Catholicism. Critics of the Novels volumes, such as Steve Donoghue and Roger Boylan, noted the evident anti-religious stance, the latter saying that Moore “seems constitutionally incapable of finding any redeeming value in the 2,000-year history of Christianity that has been so much a part of Western culture.” This sentiment extends back to when Moore reviewed Lawrence Durrell’s Livia: or, Buried Alive in 1979: “Denis de Rougemont, to whom Livia is dedicated, is the author of the classic 1940 literary-theological study Love in the Western World (still in print and still worth reading in spite of its Catholic bias).” If we didn’t muzzle ourselves now and then when faced with a work that leaps over our convictions we’d hardly be human, so I’m not going to fault Moore for his surprising moderation.

The third section of Part 3, “Personal Matters,” contains “Nympholepsy,” “Rethinking the History of the Novel,” and “Publishing Rikki Ducornet.” The second has been referred to already; the third details Ducornet’s history with Dalkey—who published her books The Fountain of Neptune (1992), The Jade Cabinet (1993), The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994), and, both in 1995, Phosphor in Dreamland and The Stain—and her and Moore’s author-editor relationship, of which he is clearly proud. As to “Nympholepsy,” that will be dealt with below.

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III.

As already noted, Moore wrote his two Novel books to stand up for the kind of fiction he saw under assault from 2000-2008, and in his introduction to the first volume he addresses, with withering scorn and an abrasive tone, the narrow-minded criticism that Dale Peck, B.F. Myers, and Jonathan Franzen dealt out to writers of so-called difficult fiction. In My Back Pages there are literary theorists to argue with for their instrumental use of texts “as a springboard to explore socioeconomic/political issues, theories of reading… drifting further and further away from the actual words on the author’s page,” and attempts to redress the “little critical attention” and “critical neglect” experienced by authors like Rudolph Wurlitzer and Richard Brautigan. That’s not to say Moore doesn’t admire this or that critic (full- or part-time); he praises Tom LeClair, Marilyn R. Schuster, and Samuel R. Delaney. Yet the chief foes are those who use this or that text for their own ideological thoughts, and the review outlets that are indifferent to writers, in English or in translation, who present new visions.

One individual does stand out. Those familiar with Dalkey know that John O’Brien is its founder and main force. In the Index there are references under his name, but when the pages are consulted he is identified most often as “boss,” “editor,” and “Dalkey’s publisher.” The Introduction provides context for later remarks:

While at the local warehouse buying stock, I noticed a recently published novel with an irresistible title, An Armful of Warm Girl, read it, and became a devoted Spackman fan thereafter. Shortly after he died in 1990, I began planning an omnibus edition of his complete fiction; it was typeset and ready to go by 1995, but was continually postponed by Dalkey’s boss until a year after I left. (During that time, he moved my introduction to the back and called it an afterword because, as Spackman’s daughter told me, “he felt the length of the introduction might discourage less scholarly readers from starting to read the book.”) The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman (1997) was very well received, and I was especially flattered that John Updike referred to my piece as “excellent” in his New Yorker review (but disappointed when he dropped that adjective in his More Matter collection a few years later)… At that time I also prepared a collection of Spackman’s essays that I wanted to publish as a companion volume, but my exit from Dalkey (and the boss’s indifference to Spackman) made that impossible.

The grinding of the axe is audible. Pitting Updike against the “boss” provides pleasure and vindication. Another note airs a different grievance:

I wanted to publish this book [Five Doubts] when Mary [Caponegro] submitted it to Dalkey Archive in early 1996, but the boss adamantly rejected it: “I will not publish this book,” he declaimed in a memo. Upon publication two years later [by Marsilio Publishers], it was very favorably reviewed by Robert L. McLaughlin in Dalkey’s journal, the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Once again, “the boss” is set up against someone whose opinion dovetailed with Moore’s.

Two final peeks into the workplace demonstrate the toll this took: “Working with Karen [Elizabeth Gordon] was one of the few bright spots during my final dark year at Dalkey Archive.” Lastly: “My years at Dalkey Archive were depressing and frustrating, but Rikki and a few other writers kept me sane and entertained.” The theme here is that Moore felt his editorial instincts were often acute, but that he, apparently, had to wage combat within Dalkey every day. At a future time the full story of the Moore-O’Brien relationship will come out; it won’t be a pretty sight. Without adversaries our lives might be easier, but they do provide fuel for the kind of cold fury that allows a snap to enter one’s sentences.

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IV.

Above I mentioned this book contains sex. While there are reviews that touch on that, to be accurate I should say that frustrated desire is more often present.

In “A New Language for Desire: Carole Maso’s Aureole,” one of the essays in “Significant Others,” Moore appraises the author’s 1996 novel: “rarely in literature has desire been explored with the intensity Maso brings to Aureole: a pyrotechnic display almost reckless in its abandon, daring in its subversion of literary propriety, and voracious in its erotic hunger.” He goes on to say that Maso

exhibits the kind of bravado and self-exposure that I associate more with rock music divas than with her literary sisters. She has something of Courtney Love’s swagger, P J Harvey’s erotomania (both are mentioned on page 81 of her book), Liz Phair’s bluntness, Kate Bush’s bookish romanticism, Siouxsie Sioux’s dramatic flair, Jane Siberry’s wit, Liz Fraser’s mellifluousness, Shirley Manson’s aggressive sexuality, Tori Amos’s introspection, and Lisa Germano’s heartbreaking insecurity.

This eight-page analysis of a Sapphic love story takes us through each chapter of what Moore considers “Maso’s most innovative book to date.” He adds: “Maso goes further than any writer working today to create a style that does justice to the polymorphously perverse energy of eros.” As literary analysis, it is at the usual high standard of Moore’s criticism, showing sensitivity to language use, to how themes reverberate and parallel other content, and exhibiting deftness in locating outside sources (literary, musical) that contribute to an understanding of the text under investigation.

What interests me most is the curious verdict rendered on a psychological condition mentioned in the novel: “Lust here isn’t the devouring hunger of ‘Anju’ or the sexy games of ‘Make Me Dazzle’ but ‘sex addiction’…, that dreary concept from 1980s pop psychology that seems to have some validity here.” Sex addiction is considered a mental condition that, according to some opinions, is a form of compulsive sexual behaviour. It has at times been labelled nymphomania or satyriasis. Moore, who as far as I know is a medical layman, offers begrudging acceptance of the possibility this condition exists. Present as well is an appreciation for the sexual content of Maso’s novel. For me, this 1996 essay ties into the very personal “Nympholepsy” (2001) from “Personal Matters,” which outlines Moore’s self-diagnosis of a condition brought about by his everyday interaction with Morgan, a female fellow employee at a Borders store. Both deal with lust/love, and both reveal an aspect of the critic that heretofore has not been revealed. To say it comes as a surprise is an understatement.

Listing the three “factors… [that] had led to the attack,” Moore gives as the third: “the realization that soon I would turn 50, and that I was still alone—never married, no long-term relationships—and in all likelihood I would die alone without every knowing what it is like to love and to be loved.” He assesses the qualities in Morgan (not her real name) that attract him:

But she was more than just a pretty face (there were other teenage girls working at Borders, as attractive as Morgan): she was quiet, a bit shy, introverted, bookish, artistically inclined—qualities I shared and that led me to regard her as a soul mate, despite our age difference, qualities I had always looked for in a girlfriend but had never found. And of course she possessed numerous lovable qualities I lacked; I could fill the page with them. I had been waiting all my life for someone like this on whom I could lavish all my dammed-up care and affection, and thus Morgan became the unwitting victim of this flood of emotion.

In time he terms his ache nympholepsy, and consults Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for a definition. (In addition to having himself as a client, he is getting a second opinion from a literary work.) Moore being Moore, he can’t resist a joke: “Taking down my hardcover copy of Alfred Appel’s annotated edition, I fumbled beneath Lolita’s tight white jacket for a few minutes until I found what I was looking for.” The rest of this poignant confession involves consulting dictionaries, poetry, music, several bouts of self-criticism and misery, and much else. In the Introduction he says this about the essay: “It’s my favorite largely because its subject inspired me—which was what nympholepsy originally meant—to open up my style, one that I’ve used ever since whenever possible. (You can see that style develop over the course of the essay, which begins in a flat, documentary voice that turns more lyrical, scholarly, and fanciful as it goes along.)”

We can, indeed, look at this admission primarily as a style issue. Yet this is sensitive ground. The essay is surprising and touching in its discussion of desire and loneliness. Consequently, I’ve decided that even though Moore’s life has been filled with words he’s read and words he’s written, a literary review wouldn’t pay proper respect to this piece, and also that every reader will want to arrive at his or her own interpretation.

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Conclusion

People wonder why criticism exists and what its function is. When voiced by writers this can be unsubtle code for these thoughts: “What’s the point of it if not to get the good news out about my work?” and “Why do I care what some critic I dunno thought? And what’s exciting about reading a review for a book I haven’t read?” There is also a disdain for those who judge art. Moore doesn’t hesitate to discriminate the good from the bad—he has choice words on Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son (1997)—based on a simple criterion that he finds also expressed in the works of Spackman: “The content of his novels, and his characterization of women especially, will always create problems for some readers, but not for those who agree that style is what a writer is to be judged by.”[1] For some people, this will come across as elitism that verges on canon making. As well, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out, there is often a “prideful disdain for anyone who attempts to articulate the fascinating void, which actually reinforces respect for this aspect of art it is supposed to be dismissing…” We are fortunate to have a handful of astute critics who bring us reports gathered from the outskirts of the familiar literary world about innovative authors busily deepening our collective literary heritage. Steven Moore has been at the vanguard of criticism and publication of outliers and explorers whose artistic visions reinvigorate the capacious form of the novel and the short story, and we are in his debt.

—Jeff Bursey

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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 newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe 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 Rebecca Swirsky’s review of Danielle McLaughlin’s short-story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, titled “Something else entirely,” the first sentence reads: “Good writers rely on style. Even better writers rely on empathy.” If, as a writer, you prioritize empathy, seek a counsellor; if you prefer writing, look for a stylist who has the ability to show empathy if he or she wishes. Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 2016, Issue No. 5902, p. 22.
May 042017
 

Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. —Linda Chown

Behind the Moon
Madison Smartt Bell
City Lights Press, 2017
$15.95; 280 pages

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.Behind the Moon is through and through a magical encounter and a novel of mystery, but then what should one expect being taken there behind the moon, that emblem in the sky of love, of unknown loneliness, and uneasy inaccessibility? The position of the reader is crucial here. Approach this novel like an academic hunting symbols and what these ostensibly might “mean” squeezes out the juice. For instance, common reader sense should have told me that what comes first has to stand forth first as core axis. What comes first is a page with a circle and then this sentence: “The eye was on her first—the first thing she knew.” This opening says to pay attention to eyes, to seeing, to being seen and to watching, who and what are being seen and how, the width of image and the curve of distance. In the first of three readings, I came upon what I experienced as a holy wildness, what could be at one level a hip narrative of adventure and/or a relative of seductive Eleusinian Mysteries from classical times. The words and images spin about each other like silkworms sticky-hot in a summer sky. Actually, here, the reader is everywhere every time with multiple clues to everything in this scintillating book. But then, of course, time isn’t here. Space is and circles are. Spawned in fever dreams which might or might not be dreams, Behind the Moon is the grandest cosmic adventure on earth and also an account of lost women who learned to go elsewhere through solid surfaces, who came to know complete. Just about everything in this book is seductive and deliciously uncertain, once you let go of the silly matter of interpretation and finalities. A book about losing your way, it is foremost of coming through and twinning, of getting closer. As Julie knows: “she wanted to go deeper into the rolling feeling, warmth and openness, cuddlesome.”

It is also a seamlessly sophisticated book in which words as signs, scene and image weave over centrifugally, inexplicable at first. Writing of Julliet Fleming’s Cultural Geography: Writing after Derrida, Gill Parrington reminds that “words are burrows, tunnels, funnels, passages, expanding territories and folding stars. It’s a wonder that any of us can read.” This wise suggestion helps us to get closer to this book’s circular shapes and physical marks everywhere. In another comment fitting Bell’s at first far-fetched, untethered, yet meticulously composed novel, Jacques Derrida once admonished, “We need to stop thinking in wholes.” Well, Behind the Moon takes us rather astoundingly out of any world of stories and wholes and certainties to become a novel behind, not just the hypothetical moon of the title, but also behind the certainties of story, becoming thus, its own shimmering, transparent narrative aporia. Madison Smartt Bell knew that his book was singular to the point of strangeness, far reaching on the verge of sheer undecidability. In a Granta interview, he deemed it an “indescribable novel.” In 2013, he went a step further: “Behind the Moon is a novel just too weird for New York (even I eventually admitted that).” Remember when reading, that our book, this Behind the Moon is a novel explicitly taking place behind the regularity of what we consider story. We have to read it otherwise. Julie the character who fell, disappearing forever into a cave, grieved about the limitations of the story she felt stuck with:  “There had to be another way to tell herself the story. Jamal should tell it to her another way.” She re-affirms her sense of another way: She was seeing what she saw in some other way.” This is not so much a novel with a story within, as a stage setting through which transfuse many mysteries, sexual, mythical, and conceptual.

Once, years ago, a young girl (mainly me) sat in a plush chair in the silent dark of Hayden’s immaculate Planetarium in New York City. She looked upward, mutely waiting like the rest were in the chilly air for what was going to happen overhead. It was going to happen as a mystery at some distance, she discerned then in all her girlish inexperience. And so also did I (as she) immediately know that in Behind the Moon something important was going to present itself to be seen somehow. With my planetarium memory in mind (in hand?), It was a thrill reading to discover that Julie, the main character, had stars overhead on her ceiling at home like in a planetarium, a seething image which recurs six times: “the phosphorescent plastic stars stuck to the ceiling above her bed at home. . . . On the ceiling above the fluorescent green stars lit up. . .They seemed to have been arranged in constellations.” In another visual conundrum, the issue of looking, being watched or seen, became instinctively, intransigently important, remaining somewhat nebulous. ”She was seeing with the same eye that saw her” and “The yellow eye looked through her as she looked through the eye.” This novel bakes and sizzles these visual moments, keeping them warm, although almost unengendered.

Since this novel grows revolutionarily behind the traditional story, chronological time lines don’t apply. Many readers say that this novel is “about” about the attempt to rescue Julie, with the help of shamans (or whomever) from the cave into which she once fell. No, it’s not about that story. It’s not a story at all. Actually, Julie rather defiantly doesn’t want to come back; if anything she wants to get further in, into the cave, to go through the walls, to get closer to what inside is. My review hopes not to seem to provide answers but rather to furnish openings, to animate living in the cross thatched scenes, to adumbrate the eloquent patterning of the pages, thus to coordinate familiar worlds, the people in the hospital and the city and the others, with the unknowable’s, people/animals in caves full of paw marks and illustrations, so as to open the windows of your first and second readings of this exquisitely mysterious book, whose every word, sound, and pictogram constitutes what it is. I will use three frameworks: what I am calling 1) Setting, 2) Summary, and 3) Infiltration, so that by the end you can re-read this Contemporary Eleusinian Mystery your way.

1) First, what could be called setting of Behind the Moon includes both its physical self as textual artifact, as well as the places which the characters and animals inhabit. This most physical book features multiple hand and paw prints and circles throughout, eye-catching fonts and blank pages which accentuate its inter-continuities. It has 79 chapters, but these as such are not the significant markers. There appear, more compellingly, thirteen irregular sectional pages each with one more “circle” on it than the last such page. Thus, the final circle page has thirteen circles or prints scattered upon it. These circles vary on each page as to size, position and color, from a nearly invisible gray to a stern black. Occasionally, there are textual pages with vitally palimpsestic over-markings of different fonts, shapes and densities, letters and phrases, most of which have appeared in some way previously. These over-markings and prints bring about, albeit mysteriously, a kind of continuity of recognition. Sometimes, there are as many as two adjacent blank pages. Sometimes, rather inexplicably, when a person you think you know very well speaks, their thoughts or words get italicized much like in Modernist fiction. Other times, speech may become bolded once, and then other times, a particular word like “wrong” gets bolded many times such as when Marissa says wrong or will. Six what I call “duet or couple chapters” repeat each other in terms of dialogue or action. Some text is in Latin and others in Wingding font, which appears initially as some ancient unspoken language. The physicality of these markings be they hand or paw prints physically influence the book’s fore edges, which are noticeably and unevenly splayed with the dark of them.

Here I will not pretend to fake objectivity, to furnish a list of the setting there or here behind the moon. The physical “settings” involving people and places remain as fluid and episodic as the hand prints, about where and how people are, where they sleep, dream, wander, wonder, make love, fight, come through and vindicate themselves. Take it from Julie who says “she seemed to know where the walls were, but she couldn’t see them.” Much like in Virginia Woolf’s most open novel, The Waves, everything just is as it is in some cloudy relation to the waves and the sun. Much as in The Waves, too, there is no omniscient narrator or any guiding third person over voice. Setting as we have known is here a collective radiant dissonance with pools of darkness and eruptions of light. It’s that there simply is no one stable fixed physical reality or backdrop. Consistently, then, that repeated pattern of dots is “drawing toward each other but never quite touching,” much like the disparate parts of the setting being such as it is where it is.  However, first of all, and unsurprisingly, the moon is perhaps the one constant that remains and reclaims magic in different ways, almost defiantly and seductively present: “the great moon-shape of time” or “Time is not straight but round like the moon.” The moon is the collective presence of this book. Everyone and thus everything is also somehow ruffled by change here, by a warp in their proprioception, that inchoate understanding of how one’s body fits in space. Hence, Marissa, Julie’s birth mother, “got the legs to start walking toward the house. Something was wrong with her proprioception: she could feel her heart rhythm but not her feet striking the ragged pavement.” For part of the book, “we” are in the desert near St. Mary’s Hospital somewhere near a “coven” of caves which Julie inhabits in some way; the prepositions in the following passage indicate how indeterminate position and place are: “she looked down into it, holding it cupped in the palm of her hand, but in the dark of the cave there seemed to be no gravity, and this cup of light might just as well have been beside her, or above, impossibly distant, like that frayed wafer of daylight moon, faint in the washed colors of the evening sky.”

The book begins in medias res with Julie in the cave with the bear after she fell. Then, on the next page a voice is heard “hauling on her, dragged at her.” These taut, compelling opening pages chart the mysteries we face reading and considering. Then, we flashback seemingly objectively to before Julie’s fall when on her trip with bikers and possibly a dose of molly. At the book’s end, Jamal and Marissa revisit this cave of the beginnings to try to get closer to what happened before. What is setting “slip-shifts” from houses (Julie’s former home with Carrie Westover, her adopted mother), to the hospital where Julie is in a coma and not, because she is quite conscious to herself and sees herself in the cave, to Marissa and Jamal’s mother in The Magic Carpet Restaurant and their intimate moments, to scenes with each one of the men, Jamal, Ultimo, and Marco, to driving on the streets, driving into danger, that meth explosion, on the edge of or inside of caves with hawks, bears, great dark walls, and shamans nearby. Getting through this, Marissa breaks free of herself, her divisions, to feel “no difference between the inside and the outside of her head, Marissa wanted to say.”  Real places dissolve fast so that you the reader have to start splicing on your own or cutting your own cross section to look more carefully at more. Multiple shots of Julie’s star ceilinged bedroom and cameos of her hospital room with her trying to pull off her ventilator, her “muzzle” enhance the mystery of this tenuous place behind the moon. Sometimes great knowledge occurs in the caves: “such a stampede of bison as she had never seen (even if she was really only seeing them projected on the lids of her closed eyes)” Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. Julie: or is she the eye, that sees herself as another Julie or is it her mother Marissa who observes her daughter, or is it Julie in the hospital knowing herself in the cave feeling her fingers softening, merging into the soft clay? The cave scenes are warm, swarming with reverence for another way of getting through, for paintings on the walls and their chance for intimacy. Any tedious verisimilitude is deliberately fractured. The action is elsewhere.

2) What is to summarize in this bold novel of uncompleted or cross-relating actions? Once, affected by the collapse of reigning ideas about action, D. H. Lawrence is said to have responded with his question, “You see, it was really George Eliot who started it all. . . . It was she who started putting all the action inside. Before, you know, with Fielding and the others, it had been outside. Now I wonder which is right?” At the end of the nineteenth century, many felt quite the same about narrative action: Henri Bergson shuns focus on those (to him) anachronistic inner or outer divisions. He postulates that: “All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist” (Creative Evolution, 297). Francis Fergusson, esteemed drama critic, once specified that “. . . by ‘action’ I do not mean the events of the story but the focus or aim of psychic life from which the events, in that situation, result” (The Idea of the Theatre, 36). According to Fergusson, “action (praxis) does not mean deeds, events, or physical activity: it means, rather, the motivation from which deeds spring.” Margaret Butcher puts it this way: “The praxis that art seeks to reproduce is mainly a psychic energy working outwards.” She sees that previously stable notions of action had imploded and perhaps “psychic energy working outwards” has taken its place. In the novel form, in English anyway, the effects of this implosion have still to be assimilated. Behind the Moon responds to it appropriately and fractures the action, dividing and doubling up the characters, rendering the surfaces of life and things penetrable, sometimes nearly invisible. As we read, one of the goals is “to get to wherever there was to here, whatever that is.”

Butcher’s phrase “psychic energy working outwards” perfectly suits the parallel engagements of the two main women characters, Julie and her mother Marissa, two women simultaneously strangers and intimates. Remember this behind the moon novel takes place behind the traditional story with its plot and tangible consequence. It is compelling that the three important male figures, Jamal, Marko, and Ultimo, remain rather autonomous, tinged with strangeness and a turbulent wildness. Readers know more of the women, particularly Marissa and Julie who go beyond the moon to what is called make a commitment without a chance for returning. Julie literally falls into a new life while Marissa acquires one in dramatic, painful stages. She goes all the way to get there, getting raped, crying, growing horns and then moving into a consolidation behind the safety of moon, going over the edge so as “to get where you want to go you have to pass through it and risk that you might not return.” Marissa’s skull cracks open and the antlers’ come out, leaving her body relaxed, “buoyed up in a warm sparkling fluid—an ascending helix whose glittering motes were revealed as eyes of the animal persons, looking at her—thousands of eyes regarding her but benignly as if she was one of her own. Their horns fit comfortably on her brow.” At the end, all come together in a yearning magnetic energy:  “In the third spiral was Julie herself, eyes open and trained on Marissa, reaching out her hand. Marissa responded with the same gesture. She could feel the warmth of Julie’s hand. Julie was ascending as Marisa was sinking. In passing their fingers graced with the faintest feathery tingle of a touch.// Then there was nothing left but the bright wall of light, with the power blue sky at the top of the shaft, and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it?” Of course this is the overwhelming question of this novel which significantly has the women coming together and “getting through.”

3) What follows is Infiltration. not interpretation because as reader I am also getting through, making marks and finding, not passing judgment from outside. The novel is subtitled “fever dream.” Characters are continually seeing behind closed eyes and wondering was this only a dream? At one point Marissa remembers, no, “Not dream. That other reality.” Behind the Moon thins the lines between the two and lives longer in “that other reality.” The phrase behind the moon appears exactly that way five times. First, it comes from Julie about Jamal: “Jamal said one of those weird things that charmed her: I wonder what it’s like behind the moon.” Once Julie ponders how it would be to be with Jamal, behind the moon. The moon is that untrespassable limit beyond which one can’t go apparently. Similarly, language as accessible medium often becomes full of stone limits: “There was something hidden behind the words, inside them.”  Julie perceived this when she was on the edge of the ledge ready to fall off. This sense of limits and edges fuses this daring, elliptical adventure. At book’s end, of course, they have left the behind of the moon behind: “and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it,” Marissa questions somewhat rhetorically?

Characters like setting are different in this book; they no longer have a distinctive inside and outside. Perhaps they become all inside and assess thus according to how completely they can get through it and themselves. On one level, this novel overwhelms, erases and fractures Cartesian divisions between inside and outside, as well as splits between physical and mental, men and women. Earlier, I rather dramatically mentioned the Eleuysian Mysteries. Woman becoming passionately and quietly intimate cracks into these fixed limits and gives way to a particularly soothing unity. On various occasions, with Jamal’s mother and with Carrie and also with Julie, Marissa develops a new knowledge which obviates her battering self-questioning and debilitating sense of guilt and division: that “wordless something between Marissa and Jamal’s mother as if the smooth fluid regard of the other was melting something inside her.” There is a passionate life-lovingness about these many moments which allow for a completeness prefiguring Julie’s fingers melting into the walls and “getting through,” and also her deliberate insensibility to the pressures of nurses and of Marissa, her mother. The novel concludes in a radiant moment which I’ll include for its sheer pleasure: “So the two halves made a whole: a squashed sphere like the gibbous moon. She was back to back with herself and facing both realms at the same time, curving outward into both realms, but falling or floating from one into the other….So she raised her own hands, toward the other two hands that closed around hers. Now she did know these voices calling her name, which belonged to the ones she had loved, or was going to.”

Behind the Moon is an astounding achievement, to be read with an equally astounding freedom. As with any groundbreaking book, which this is, the way into it is altogether new; hopefully you will read with excitement of literary virgins and not dreary meaning makers. I hope this review gives you breadcrumbs to taste, however, in your reading. Would that I could say everything here, not just pieces. Virginia Woolf voices here a writer’s searching and her lingering dubiety about story. I conclude with her thinking about stories since Behind the Moon takes place mysteriously behind the story: “I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found the story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?”

—Linda Chown

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Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.

Apr 092017
 

Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. —Joseph Schreiber

Frontier
Can Xue
Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Open Letter Books, 2017
$16.95, 361 pages

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It can be said that Chinese experimental writer, Can Xue, inhabits a strange and elusive territory in contemporary literature. With an idiosyncratic approach to writing, she has created an impressive body of work that effectively explores a geography of the spirit—mapping, if you like, the space where the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, and the magical and the mundane meet. Her 2008 novel Frontier, newly released from Open Letter Books in a crystal clear translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, has been eagerly anticipated by her admirers. Yet, for intrigued newcomers, it may well offer an excellent introduction the dazzling, and baffling, world of Can Xue.

Born in 1953, in Changsha City, Hunan Province, South China; Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who took her intentionally gender-neutral penname from a Chinese expression that refers to both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the pure snow remaining at the top of a high mountain. This inherent duality is very fitting. In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, both of her parents came under suspicion for their journalistic activities and were sentenced to hard labour. Consequently, their daughter was unable to continue her education beyond elementary school. Despite the brutal hardships her family experienced and her own ill health, Can Xue showed great resilience. With her schooling cut short, she turned to reading. Largely self-taught, she read fiction, poetry, and discovered the joys of classical Western and Russian literature, eventually going on to study and read in English. At the same time, she married, started a family, and worked as a tailor before publishing her first work in the mid-1980s.

She has since published collections of short fiction, novels, essays and literary criticism, including works of commentary on Kafka, Borges, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Italo Calvino, and Bruno Schulz. While echoes of these writers can be heard in the distance, her own writing defies direct comparison to any other, and, as a woman writing avant-garde literature in China, she breaks all conventions. Many male Chinese writers have been especially hostile to her work, and to the irrational style of her self-described “soul literature.”

Can Xue’s fiction is exceptional and notably difficult. Conventional narrative expectations are rarely met. It requires a surrender of the norms expected, even in dream-logic, if there is such a thing. Scenes have a disjointed quality. The most mundane moment can, without notice, take on magical elements. Characters may respond with fear, complacency, curiosity—or some shifting mixture of emotion. Reactions can fluctuate without notice, leaving the reader—and frequently the protagonists—questioning what has happened. The multiple storylines are rarely fully resolved, while some disappear altogether without further comment.

In an essay for Music & Literature, Nell Pach presents a critical key to accessing Can Xue’s literary world:

Like the narrating beastie of the title story in her 2011 collection Vertical Motion, she has found not just a new direction but a new dimension to move in, a realm where conscious beings experience space, time, and each other unbound from the old rules. Can Xue moves through this new world as guide; she offers it to the reader as an aesthetic event. Properly received, she says, her work opens readers up to affect and intuition. With this otherwise dormant aesthetic logic “activate[d],” each reader can “find the structure inside himself and facilitate the structure to be in an agreement with the work—gradually.”

This approach, to look for structure within oneself, rather than expecting to trace it out in the text on the page, is especially critical for the reading of her longer works. When I first attempted to navigate Can Xue’s 2015 BTBA-winning The Last Lover, I filled pages and pages with notes, determined to follow the apparent logic as if losing the scent would leave me hopelessly stranded. Letting go and allowing the scenes to unfold before me was a revelation, leading to an exhilarating experience unlike any other. I fell under Can Xue’s spell. I became a convert.

Can Xue is not interested in ordinary reality, her domain lies in the dream world of the soul. As such, Frontier, is not a novel that lends itself to a concise, or even sensible synopsis. That is not to say that there is not a story of sorts, but it appears with abrupt shifts in perspective, in time and place, in remembering and forgetting. There are over a dozen primary characters, with a handful more who play secondary roles. Identity is sometimes amorphous. Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, least of all the isolated city in which it is set.

Pebble Town, is an enigmatic place, it draws people to it, but even the residents are unable to firmly grasp the town in its entirety. They muse about its nature, marvel at its fresh air, wonder what kind of magical place it is. Situated somewhere in northern China, next to the magnificent Snow Mountain, the location is necessarily ambiguous. The town stands on the frontier—but, the frontier of what? It is described as a border town; venturing beyond its boundaries may lead to farmland, or wasteland, to the foothills of the mountain, or at a greater distance, to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One thing that is clear is that it is a relatively new community, a town that has been conceived and constructed in this once desolate and remote location, a town dreamed into being. And the boundary between reality and the world of illusion is shaky and unstable. Wolves, bears, snow leopards and a wide variety of birds and other creatures appear and disappear, an elusive tropical garden is suspended in the air, rooms expand and contract, objects exhibit changing qualities, and the ground emits sounds and energies.

If Pebble Town and its immediate environs form the connecting tissue of Frontier, coming to an understanding of its essence feels like something akin to piecing together the reports of an elephant offered by the fabled group of blind men. Those who potentially would know the most—the director of the Design Institute, her African assistant Ying, and the ancient mysterious gardener—share little or nothing of their roles or experiences in the creation or maintenance of this place. Even the work of the Institute itself is murky. The town has already been designed and constructed, but people still busy themselves within its bleak confines.

The central character is Liujin. We first meet her as a thirty-five-year-old woman, living alone and working for a textile merchant in the market. She was born on the frontier and, as such, is innately sensitive to the flora and fauna, and to many of the odd sensations and occurrences in her home and garden. But she can be seemingly blind to presences others can sense. Deeply introspective, she frequently focuses on her own confused attractions to those she encounters, especially Sherman, a man who frequents her market stall. (Many of the names have been changed, with the author’s permission, from the Chinese originals—typically to a Western name with similar sound or meaning.)

Liujin’s parents, José and Nancy, were drawn to Pebble Town from distant Smoke City, to work at the Design Institute. Nancy settles in quickly, but José has more difficulty. However, the arrival of their daughter, an intense, bright, colicky baby, drives Nancy to take refuge at the Institute, while childcare responsibilities fall to José and Qiming, the middle-aged janitor at the staff guesthouse who is smitten with the child. Father and daughter share a close bond and a curious sensitivity that continues to mature as Liujin grows older. Late one night, after they have moved into their own home, she calls out to her mother:

“Where’s Dad?”

“In the kitchen. There’s a hole at the base of the wall there. Maybe a fox made it.”

Liujin felt her way to the kitchen. No light was on there, either. Her father was sitting on a small recliner.

“I couldn’t sleep, anyhow, so I’m keeping watch here. I want to see if anything sneaks out through this hole.”

“Dad, you must mean comes in.”

“No, I meant what I said—sneaks out. There are some weird creatures in this house. I’m not sure what they are.”

Liujin sat down on a stool. She and her father were worried. The wind poured in from that hole. They shifted their position in order to shelter from the wind.

“On a windy night like this, they probably won’t go out,” Father said.

José glanced absentmindedly at his daughter, who was sitting beside him. He noticed that his little girl was growing quieter over the years. Too quiet for her age. Sometimes he wondered if her previous impetuosity now had truly disappeared. As he watched, his daughter’s shadow began wobbling and separating into a few parts. When he looked hard, the parts took the form of a person again. Liujin’s body could break up in the dark (perhaps he was only hallucinating). He’d seen this happen several times, and each time it surprised him. Why had she cried all night long when she was a baby? Was she scared? José’s insomnia gradually worsened. Somehow Liujin became aware of her father’s nighttime activity and began keeping him company. José sighed: a daughter was close to one’s heart. A boy could never be the same.

Years later, long after her parents have returned to their hometown, Smoke City, Liujin continues to be haunted by thoughts of her father, though it is now her mother with whom she maintains written correspondence. She often thinks of her parents in the faraway smog bound city she has never seen. There is a searching, a longing for completeness that seems to drive her, but she does not appear to know what she is looking for and it is likely that an answer, if any, will be found by following spiritual intuition rather than reason. One could say that Can Xue’s characters exist in her fiction the way her readers are invited to approach it.

There are many others inhabiting this dreamlike world who cross paths directly or indirectly. They include the ailing Lee and his pessimistic wife, Grace, a couple who arrived at the Institute a year before Luijin’s parents, and Sherman’s daughter, Little Leaf and her Holland-obsessed boyfriend, Marco. Enchanted personalities also appear in Pebble Town, like Roy, the ageless boy few people can see, and the alluring shepherdess, Amy, who comes from a village on the slopes of Snow Mountain. Early in the novel, the third person narrative perspective changes with each chapter, but as time goes on, the focus will shift between two or more characters, per chapter. Occasionally, a fleeting glimpse is offered into the thoughts of those who are otherwise known only through their engagement with others, while some will remain obtuse, mysterious, even mythical in nature.

To consider Liujin as the main character is primarily to say that it is her perspective that dominates, we spend more time with her and know her better—in so far as she knows herself—but it would be misleading to assume that her story is the backbone of a directed narrative path. The real question that surfaces through the actions and interactions that shape this novel is: What is the nature of existence at the frontier? What is distinct and disorienting about the world Can Xue creates is the absence of an overriding philosophical, or literary mandate. Her allegorical, fantastic creation seems to come from another, more intuitive, organic space that invites open meditation and speculation. Thus, reading her becomes a viscous experience that seems to expand as time passes, rather than becoming more focused and conclusive. In the end, one is left with a lingering sense of potentiality, as ideas continue to percolate and stir the imagination.

It is reasonable to suggest that it is Can Xue’s singular temperament that gives her work its necessary cohesion. She sees herself as a performer, an experimenter, a manipulator of creative forces. During the writing process, she holds to a rigid discipline, attending to her physical well-being and sitting down to write for one hour a day. She does not reread or edit her work. She is admittedly improvising rather than writing to a pre-determined end, allowing the “meaning” to reveal itself—typically after the work is complete. Granted this approach permits the occurrence of odd inconsistencies and explains the unresolved storylines, but taken as a whole, the result is a piece of fiction that more naturally and organically captures the strange, shifting, fantastic atmosphere of dreams.

In her enthusiastic and informed introduction, Iranian-American writer, Porochista Khakpour, suggests that her friend and mentor (who often refers to herself in the third person) is:

. . . almost more medium than artist, a vessel rather than a generator, creation being relegated to its perhaps most logical state: the mystical. “In my mind, my ideal readers are these: those who have read some works by the modernist writers, and who love metaphysical thinking and material thinking—both capabilities are needed for the reading of Can Xue.”

She has, then, channeled her self-directed education in the Western canon, through an original physical and mental routine, to produce a literature that is truly her own. As an accomplished and mature work with a truly engaging cast of characters, set in a community perched on the borders of everyday reality and whatever lies beyond, Frontier contains a world well worth exploring. However strangely disconcerting it can feel to surrender to the psychic geography of Can Xue’s fictional landscape, if you remember that your own dream-logic may well your best guide, the journey can be endlessly rewarding and entertaining.

—Joseph Schreiber

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Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts
Apr 082017
 

The book’s purpose is not to suggest that language muddies things up permanently; instead, language in Sikelianos’s hands has a fluid quality to it, it has a round-about-ing quality. There is pleasure—and an increased appreciation of the strangeness of words and the power of words – when a reader goes with both the swirl and the forward movement of the river Sikelianos creates.
—Julie Larios

Make Yourself Happy
Eleni Sikelianos
Coffee House Press, 2017
170 pages, $18

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Reviewers sometimes bite their lips with trepidation when a review copy comes in that has been written by an “experimental” poet. Will the experimental nature of the work in their hands be understandable to someone not fully aware yet of the parameters (the “controlled conditions”) of the experiment? Will the reviewer’s unfamiliarity with the poet’s style, if that style is linguistically challenging, get in the way? Will the knee-jerk desire for a normal narrative line or for easily-absorbed syntactical structures obscure the reviewer’s grasp of meaning? That is, will the reviewer (me, in this case) have the energy and the patience to “get it”?

Eleni Sikelianos is described by critics as an “experimental” poet, but her latest book, Make Yourself Happy, calmed my reviewer-related anxieties quickly. The poems throughout do play around with normal narrative thrust and sequencing, and there are syntactical structures that require a second look, and a slower look. So yes, energy is required. But there is nothing about the poems that provokes impatience, nothing that leaves the reader behind, wondering what just happened. The cumulative effect of reading the poems in sequence, from cover to cover (not something I always do with books of less inter-dependent poems) is inclusive—the poems draw you in one after another, and you travel with them (even the title refers to this second-person “you” engagement with the poet—you are invited to make yourself happy, though you sometimes might mis-define or misunderstand what “happiness” involves.) The book’s purpose is not to suggest that language muddies things up permanently; instead, language in Sikelianos’s hands has a fluid quality to it; it has a round-about-ing quality. There is pleasure—and an increased appreciation of the strangeness of words and the power of words—when a reader goes with both the swirl and the forward movement of the river Sikelianos creates.

Eleni Sikelianos Reading at Naropa, 2013

Make Yourself Happy is divided into five sections, prefaced by a few reconfigured lines from William Carlos Williams in which he chides his readers, “Come on! / Do you want to live / forever?” and ends by calling poetry the art of “listening / to the nightingale / of fools.”  Then Sikelianos begins in earnest with the first—and title—section, thirty-nine individual poems—individual, yes, but interconnected by their juggling with and questioning of the word “happy.” The opening poem (“Through the lower window”) ends with this advice: “Get on a donkey / and learn some grammar Get on a donkey / and ride.” Who can resist that imperative?

On second thought, is that advice imperative? The next poem—the title poem—makes us wonder: “We do confuse what is a command and what / a prayer / statement and threat, question / and answer.” So we’ve been warned to be careful, as we read further, about the assumptions we make in our lives: those assumptions might not make us happy. At least, not happy in the way sunlight or a croissant in Paris or butter standing “in a bright rectangle of light” might make us happy, says the poet, nor in the way that the ear “tends to hear what it needs to make itself happy.”

We make assumptions, we create the idea of happiness, we are taught it, sometimes incorrectly. Sikelianos recognizes that we feel happy when we eat ordinary bread, or when we see the buds on the lemon trees. But “Tomorrow / we’ll learn all things to undo in the Making Ourselves / Happy school.” Further along in the first section, at the end of the poem which begins “I had taken the long way home…” , we hear the speaker say, “I would not wish to live anywhere, ever, where everybody’s always / happy.”

A choice must be made between “the pursuit of property or of happiness,” and a difference must be established between relief and happiness. People get confused, they sometimes mistake their privileged status for happiness. So we need to be careful with definitions, Sikelianos suggests. Maybe by doing “nothing fancy” we can make ourselves happy. Or, in the poem that begins “To make myself happy in the face of error…” she admits that the sounds of words can make us happy. “To make myself happy in the face of error I repeat / bandicoot long-nosed bandicoot. You / try it. And see how happy / is the b, the oo.”

It’s clear that Sikelianos—a poet, translator, memorist and professor of creative writing at the University of Denver—enjoys the sound of words, and enjoys the way words themselves seem physical (embodied, capable of movement.) Early on, we begin to hear chiming and rhyming, with the word “ombre” sitting next to “hombres,” and, later, the word “wrist” morphing into “wreathe…wrest…writhe.” Later in the book we hear blue/hue/shoot/thru; in another poem, spare/air/there, and in a poem only six short lines long, we hear softshell, sinner, saved, saved (again), saint and shrine. In the poem which begins “How Happy Are You” (which includes Likert-test boxes measuring our responses to what is being said, from Less True to More True) Sikelianos states, “O how a word can hover in its surroundings between sense and sorrow / a narrow   sound   shivering / as if the world itself rushed in decay toward that trembling.”

There are many guesses and suggestions in this first section about the how-to of making yourself happy (and about the how-not-to’s.) In the same poem about the sound of the b and the oo, Sikelianos writes, “I look through the pine trees and think / of children who are hungry / somewhere, this poem / can’t feed them. That is not / a right way.” Poetry can’t, of course, become embodied enough to substitute for what materially feeds us. But Sikelianos said this in a recent poem-essay titled “Experimental Life” (American Book Review, July/August 2016):

My concerns now as a so-called experimental poet, are different than they were / …when I wanted to tear everything apart and start anew / …but certainly from when I was dedicated to the poetic performance of language above all else. Now it has come to seem that culture-making and art-making are preservationist acts / For salvaging some thinking and feeling among the tatters.

Poetry can, she suggests, matter. It is a “sensory remnant, as if we could still taste it on our tongues.” Sikelianos recognizes “the tatters” that exist, and she commits herself to examining how to live as a creative person in that kind of world. Further into the ABR essay she says this about life (“animation,” we are told, is the word Aristotle used):

…to consider only material in the abstract (like capital or language) / Is a way of reducing us to bare life / But to consider material’s animation, its movement and interactions / Means to take spiritual, emotional, political, personal and material risks in the poem / And these things (we will call them) together are what make context / (from the Latin: to weave together) / Which is a way to live in the world

For Sikelianos, happiness seems to mean that a way has been found to salvage thinking and feeling and to establish context. As a poet, she must work to “animate” language, to weave what is material with what is abstract, and to take risks with words. She enjoys “… the sound of each word rubbing up against the others / The rhythm of each jostling in its context / Rhythm being one of the things that animates the living.”

As she says in the poem that begins “One Way,”

a fuzz of white pine sapling says yes yes
in the wind then
no, no!             when it says yes
and when it says no make a
go of
it. It
is how to live.

We must do our best to make a go of it, she suggests, just like the pine saplings do. And one of the tools poets use to do their best is language. Of course, language can be a fierce wind, too, blowing on those saplings: “Gustave Flaubert’s father / had a voice like a scalpel, able / to skin the feeling right off / the surface of the body.” We hear another warning: Be careful not only with definitions but with words themselves.

As the first section proceeds, it becomes clear that Sikelianos is interested in dichotomies—life/death, inside/outside, money/honey, green/grief (“coming to be” and decay), the natural world / the constructed world. This interest becomes even clearer in the second section of the book, titled “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” which consists of thirty-one poems divided into seven sub-sections, all relating to extinct species (“lastlings”) on seven continents, all the extinctions due directly or indirectly to human action / inaction. This is the natural world vs. the constructed (man-made, man-destroyed) world.

The poems in this section contain many lines of encyclopedia-like information about the animals. For example, these lines about the Bubal Hartebeest of North Africa: “…when viewed head-on, the horns / formed a U; the last captive female. died November 9, Jardin des Plantes, 1923.” I can find no poetic language, only information, in the poem about the Tasmanian Tiger. But many of the poems in this section also break into lyrical passages, like the poem about the Mauritius Blue Pigeon which ends with a ship’s artist who “up in the river gorges, saw / the plucked earth coming”.

There is a whole song of extinction in this section, as well as several small, haiku-like poems. About the Pied Raven, Sikelianos writes “over hill and dale   the only thing moving / like a riddle a raven/ is as little in its yellow eye / as mine.” A poem titled “Great Auk” uses alliteration with abandon (beautiful / bird / bizaare / burning / burning /body’s / buried / bones / beaks) and tops it off with clever near rhymes: auk—skin / auction / unction. It’s a pleasure to see the poet enjoying the tools in her toolbox.

Two poems (“For You to Write About” and “Lost and Found (Lazurus Species”) do what many great poets love most – they name things. These two lists of extinct animals beg to be read aloud, with names that roll around on the tongue: “Broad-faced Potoroo / Darling Downs Hopping Mouse / Crescent Nail-tail Wallaby / Pig-footed Bandicoot….” In a footnote to the Lost and Found poem, we learn that the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was also known as “the walking sausage or the land lobster.”

The fourth section—a 34-page poem titled “Oracle Or, Utopia”—charts a path through the jungle of man’s abuse of the planet (“…what it means to be live alive, when the world made its first sounds / …what it means / to be gone agone) and the possibility of weaving one world from the previous two (man/nature or past/future.) Of course, nothing about this path is easy; “Utopia” is an imagined place, and an “oracle” is a prophecy with ambiguous meaning. The section focuses on the future, but it sneaks in lines like this: “Then if the past / comes bustling in like a band of cocked revolvers…” Trying to determine how the past and the future can flow together smoothly, with “all the pictures moving forward and back / the old rock dust and the new new planet” involves poetry, which can move between “rupture” and “rapture.”

“Is There a River Here / Epode,” the fifth section, offers up a lovely 2-page poem ending on a welcome note of optimism, as does the sixth and final section, “There Were Ancient Questions Inside My Head (Rider.)” Added after the last poem are fascinating endnotes—often expanding on scientific principles mentioned in the book—and acknowledgements for the many images used throughout.

For readers of Numéro Cinq who shy away from experimental writing, I encourage you to give Make Yourself Happy a try. Consider the words of critic Warren Motte, who said this in his essay titled “Experimental Reading”:

[T]he experimental text involves us, enrolling us willingly or unwillingly in the process of textual production, and enfranchising us in that process as full partners. In the first instance, it may shock and bewilder us insofar as it beggars traditional, normative strategies of reading and interpretation. Yet by the same token, it grabs us and demands a reaction from us; it engages us and insists that we do something with it; it rejects outright a passive reception in favor of an active, articulative one. …Experimental writing obliges us to read experimentally….

We go at the experimental text hammer and tongs, gradually realizing that the text has been conceived with that very process in mind, and that in fact it anticipates our interpretive efforts. In other words, whatever else the experimental text may speak about…it also (and crucially) speaks about us, and about our efforts to come to terms with it. Moreover, it addresses that speech directly to us, in an unmediated manner—just as if it were inviting us to engage in a conversation….

This is the conversation Eleni Sikelianos invites us to in Make Yourself Happy. She starts the conversation by asking us what happiness is, and though she doesn’t feed us answers, she closes the conversation six sections later with these lines:

Of happiness, what have we lost? What wilds it?

My loves

I call all
of you.

Here, I want you entirely happy.

—Julie Larios

Note: The poet – whose poetic voice is generous and inclusive—also generously responded to questions for a Numéro Cinq interview running concurrently with this review. You can link to her responses here. And you can read two of the books poems (“Making the Bird Happy” and “Do Nothing Fancy”) in their entirety here, with thanks to Ms. Sikelianos and Coffee House Press for their permission to reprint these poems from Make Yourself Happy.

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Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Apr 052017
 


Author Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

Levine’s spare language works brilliantly to capture both the vastness of the open water and the claustrophobic chaos of underwater caverns. — Benjamin Woodard

Blue Field
Elise Levine
Biblioasis, 2017
224 pages; $14.95

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Much like her thrill seeking protagonist, author Elise Levine’s isn’t interested in convention, and in her new novel, Blue Field, she cleverly toys with structure and omission to tell the story of Marilyn, a woman who takes up cave diving as an outlet to escape the sadness she feels for her recently deceased parents. Levine’s spare language works brilliantly to capture both the vastness of the open water and the claustrophobic chaos of underwater caverns; it also provides a heightened, stylized canvas for Marilyn’s addictive nature, which encourages her to push her skills to their dangerous limits. The result is a tale of self-destruction and hubris, and it is absolutely gripping.

Written in a close third-person perspective, Blue Field unfolds in six parts that cover brief moments in Marilyn’s life. In the first, she falls for her instructor, Rand, as she learns the basics of diving. Part two centers around a dive two years later. Marilyn and Rand are now married and Marilyn’s friend, Jane, has also taken up cave diving. The dive goes sideways, and the results carry over to part three, which features yet another large time jump.

This bouncing ball pattern continues throughout the remaining sections: Marilyn loses her confidence in diving, is on site to witness a freak tragedy, and then returns to the water with determination. By trusting the reader to fill in the blanks left by time gaps, Levine not only eschews unnecessary narrative beats, but she focuses her text on the agony and ecstasy of diving. This decision reinforces the adrenaline rush that comes with the sport, where water means everything and clouds all other of life’s threads, and it drops the reader into the single-mindedness of Marilyn and her gang.

As these characters dive, Levine’s style transforms the page into a kind of textual illusion, for passages simultaneously present the underwater world as wide open and confined. When Marilyn submerges in part two, for instance, Levine begins by writing:

First one in, Marilyn hung. Alien, aquanaut—trussed and bound, packed tip to toe into a sealed drysuit. Hoses from her tanks tentacle around her and a nylon harness cradled her chest and hips and crotch and cupped her buoyancy device to her back like wings.

In this passage’s first sentence, the word “hung” implies weightlessness in the water, but also restriction. (What does one typically hang from? A noose? A tether?) From here, the next two sentences take this restriction and exploit it with descriptions of the equipment strapped to Marilyn’s body, complete with constricting language like “tentacle” and “bound.” Yet, mere sentences later, Levine segues to ruminate on the limitless feeling of standing at the bottom of a body of water:

But here, twenty feet beneath the surface in a pewter-tinted corona of visibility that extended maybe thirty feet in all directions before blurring like smoke—thirty-foot viz—just water, water everywhere. Freshwater. Middle of the north channel between two great northern lakes.

When read together in a single paragraph, the juxtaposition is effective, as it creates alternating feelings of safety and discomfort, and as Marilyn and Rand move to explore their targeted underwater ruin, the reader is primed for ratcheted tension. Levine maintains this momentum with fragmented sentences (“Here but she wanted out. This instant.”) and repetition (“Think, she thought from some pit deep in her brain. Think hard or die. Had any thought ever been clearer? Think and live.”). Sentences begin to collide, and a textual panic takes over.

In fact, even outside the water, flashes of panic present themselves, and throughout the novel, nearly every aspect of life takes on a yin/yang duality. The relationship between Marilyn and Rand wavers from loving to toxic: Rand screams at Marilyn in frustration; Marilyn accuses him of striking her; they frequently make violent love and threaten to break apart. Likewise, most of the peripheral characters in Blue Field, like Rand’s diving buddy, Bruce Bowman, are portrayed as difficult live wires who will also give you the shirt off their backs, and the extreme diving community itself is painted as one with questionable loyalty. At one point, Marilyn looks at an online diving forum’s fatality list, and is greeted with headlines like “FAREWELL, TRAVELLER, DIVE ON IN THE BEAUTIFUL AFTERWORLD” and “BYE DUMB BITCH, PUTTING YOUR LIFE IN HELL ON PURPOSE EARNED YOU A BODY BAG.” These contrasts add dimension to Marilyn and Rand, and they help the novel achieve an interesting balance, and, perhaps thesis: life is good and bad, freeing and suffocating, loving and perilous.

Fans of James Salter may see Blue Field as a quasi-homage to the late author’s own Solo Faces, for both employ spare language to chronicle extreme adventurers (Salter’s novel tackles mountain climbing), and both include a character named Rand as the seasoned veteran, taking new thrill seekers to nature’s limits. To continue with the idea of balance, one could see Salter’s creations as high above life and Levine’s as deep below. Whether this comparison is Levine’s intent or not doesn’t ultimately matter, however, for Blue Field is a remarkable novel on its own. Its story reflects the modern escapist fantasy so many desire, yet never achieve. As Marilyn becomes obsessed with her passion in an effort to figure out life, we recognize her craving and experience her thrills vicariously.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in HobartNew South, and Cog. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewElectric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Apr 032017
 

Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. —Michael Carson

Spoils
Brian Van Reet
Lee Boudreaux Books, 2017
304 pages, $26.00

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In his 1955 preface to Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories, Lionel Trilling confesses to being disturbed by the “terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities” of Babel’s Red Cavalry. “They were about violence of the most extreme kind,” says Trilling, “yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or unjustified.”

Brian Van Reet’s first novel, Spoils, also disturbs. A veteran of the Iraq War and Michener graduate, Van Reet has published award-winning short stories about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and U.S. soldiers returning home from Iraq. There is a tenacity in his prose unique to soldier writers, a furious exactness, and yet a delicacy also, an earned incandescence. Reading him, one understands that this is not a young man recording his war experiences, a “moral witness”—this is an artist, an artist compelled to write war.

Spoils opens several weeks after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Cassandra Wigheard, a female Military Police specialist, pulls security in a Humvee at a roundabout outside Baghdad. Two males, one crass and bigoted, the other paternal and sentimental, keep her company. It’s unclear why they have to sit there exposed. It’s also unclear why they are in Iraq at all. The Why is muddled. All that matters is the now. The fact of war. “This one is bored tonight,” says the narrator. “She would move closer to the war’s hot center.”

Mortars answer her prayers: “Down below, the driver’s door opens, and Crump stumbles into the street, clutching his face, yelling: black blood falls from his hands, stringy flesh draped on his cheek. The other door opens, and McGinnis looks up at her helplessly before ducking around to the back side, out of her line of fire, going for Crump, who has stumbled farther away and tripped over a roll of concertina, thus entangling himself in razor wire. Everything going to shit too fast to believe.”

Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. The section concludes as another soldier drags Cassandra into a canal “over which streams of glowing red and green tracers hurtle gracefully like a hail of burning arrows launched from the wall of a medieval fortress.” She sinks down “into the dark tangle of fluid reeking of pungent, musty life.” She is no longer bored.

The next narrator, one of those responsible for the mortar attack, also seeks an end to boredom, an escape from the aimless ennui of civilized hypocrisy. Al-Hool abandons an upper-middle-class life in Cairo for that of a mujahedeen in Afghanistan, then Chechnya, and then, eventually, Iraq, because this is what the logic of exit demands, the rotating absolution of movement toward ever-greater violence. Al-Hool has many justifications for his jihad adventurism, none of them especially religious—he, like all the protagonists, have little patience for or with God—the most succinct of which is this: “Exit. War.”

That warm hot center. Later, trapped in an apartment in Fallujah, Al-Hool can’t bear to think he has been repeating the same mistakes over and over again, “that the years have taught me nothing or, worse, that I have learned something vital but am unable to apply it.” His fellow mujahedeen video the beheadings of U.S soldiers. They saw off heads. Their broadcasts send the war spinning out of control (if war is in fact a thing controlled) and give the adventurers the lack of control they thought they craved. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hood prays, remembering his dead son, swallowed by jihad.

The final narrator, a U.S. Army tanker, alone relates events in the past tense. A “watcher” with a fainting problem, Sleed leaves his parents’ basement and pill snorting to find “a higher purpose” in the Army. He talks much about thing getting “real.” His tankmates take pictures of massacred Iraqis. They steal from Saddam’s Palace. They accidently kill civilians. They blow up buildings. Things become “real.” He has found that place where “everything matters so much, it is pointless to worry about anything.” “Believe me,” Sleed says after escaping an IED blast, “I’ve tried them all, and there’s not much that will get you higher.”

His tank crew speeds back and forth across the hot center, touching it and running away, like a child’s game, a dare. Sleed picks up the shattered skulls of Americans who didn’t make it to the other side: “A deep pain beat at the center of me, and I thought I was going to faint again, but all I did was retch up water.” They bumble forward in their ten-million dollar machine blowing up mujahedeen and civilians and everything in between. “The whole world watching,” says Sleed, “and no one but us knew the truth.”

Mistakes are made. A quest plot is twinned with an escape plot (and what is the difference, really?). Later, in another cell, a captured U.S. soldier: “Come and do it!” he shrieked, the kind of unmodulated shrillness that can only from a human being pushed to a place where the lines between fight and flight approach a vanishing point. “Just get it the fuck over with!”

This is not a story about patriots. No one defends home and hearth in this book. Not Al-Hool, not Sleed, not Cassandra. This is not a story about disillusionment. This is a story about people who seek out the lines between fight and flight, those in love with this vanishing point, who perhaps want to vanish into the point. This is a story about people escaping home. This is a story about adventurers—those already disillusioned, and who seek out war to bury what is left of illusion.

How do you write a war story about those who are not patriots in the traditional sense? You triangulate their desires: you make a trinity that sabotages the either/or of war, what Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory called “adversarial proceedings” or “the gross dichotomizing” that “great imaginative habit of modern times.” You create a form to fit the subject, a trinity that does not allow any neat parallels, but a chaotic orbit of clusters, forever trading places around that warm sun of war.

Choric voices converge in Triangle (!) Town, a suburb of Baghdad, a derelict backwater populated by crippled Iraqi children and their destitute elders; it is a new warm space, another of those spots that draw the adventurous like moths—a geography, like Afghanistan, “at the edge of the known world and at the same time, its obscure, violent nexus.” There, freshly trapped in Humvees, tanks, factories, basements, and ditches, our heroes find an escape. They escape into darker cells, new prisons.

One of their number, Cassandra, knows this already. Her story, related entirely in the present tense, risks becoming nothing but the present, becoming nothing at all: “No matter how much she wants to, she can’t close her eyes, and even if she did, no sleep would come. Her heart feels like it’s working too hard, straining itself like a leaky pump with more air than blood rushing through fleshy valves. Time stretches thinner and thinner, shedding its one elemental quality, forward progression, like a strand of gold spun so fine, it loses atomic color and becomes clear.”

This clarity, this moment, this invasion, the videotapes, the American money, spawns “forward progression,” more invasions, more death, more money, a rippling effect not unlike a tide pool with waves going to and away from and parallel to shore. Triangle Town will be destroyed. Iraq too. We (of the future) know the ending. But that doesn’t stop the story does it? No one listens to Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon; Orestes, Clytemnestra. Athena saves no one. Time stretches thinner and thinner. We move ever onward to that warm center. Clarity.

Sleed, the voyeur, the fainter, the trophy-hunter, claims “the whole world watches but no one but us knows the truth.” But the truth deceives, takes away when it gives. “The night before,” says Sleed. “I’d been destroyed by regret, but now it turned inside out, to anger, like when you do something wrong and get called on it.” Regret becomes anger and anger violence and violence regret and regret anger and anger violence. Sleed has his own prayer: “There’s a certain way of doing it where the good guys become bad guys and the bad good, and there’s another way I wish I do where there are no categories.” He still wants an exit. But he is already at war.

Near the novel’s end Al-Hool looks on the Iraqi landscape. The beauty surprises him: “It was the palm groves, I think, the neat rows of them, the way they appeared from the moving car, each tree shifting in parallax with those in front and behind, creating an illusion of infinite depth, as if you could walk forever through the groves.” From the right angle, the prison bars offer hope, from another, a hall of mirrors. The sins of Al-Hool and the Americans—the decapitated heads and destroyed neighborhoods—are resurrected on televisions and computers across the globe. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hool prays.

“This is the end of boredom,” says Baulin, a war-wasted frostbitten twenty-two year old platoon commander, to the feckless narrator of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry—that voyeur, that “milk-drinker.” There is nothing Babel’s narrator covets more. But neither is there anywhere to go from there. That’s the point. The myth of Cassandra is not a happy one; it is, however, an artful one.

In his discussion of Red Cavalry, Trilling describes writers predisposed “to create a form which in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of things and events.” This writer “concerns himself with the given moment, and, seeming almost hostile to the continuity of time, he presents the past only as it can be figured in the present.” Van Reet’s novel does not merely replicate war experience like the ubiquitous recording devices in the novel itself, or as a moral witness might, eager to expose the horror of this or that incident of war for hope of a better, less violent, future; neither does Spoils offer excuses, justifications, that sliver of hope which comes with the past tense, that perspectival arrogance of a known future.

Instead, Spoils offers us shared tragedy—our shared attraction to the vanishing point and perhaps our shared hostility to the continuity of time. The enemy, it turns out, stumbles for an exit too; the enemy, it turns out, recoils in horror at not just the violence at every exit, but the way in which time transforms and redeems this violence. The enemy is us and we are the enemy. Thus are the spoils of war. Van Reet’s prose is supple. There is a kind of “lyric joy” in this brutal record. It never drags. It is we who drag—the way we inch ever closer towards war’s hot center.

—Michael Carson

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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Mar 122017
 

In The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. These passages are moments of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel. –Mark Sampson

The Long Dry
Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press, 2017
136 pages; $15.95

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If there’s one thing novelist Cynan Jones knows very well, it is the menace of ducks. Ducks are a menace. Anyone who grew up on or near farmland knows this. Ducks have a way of wreaking havoc on a farm, especially with their feces. Cynan Jones knows this. In his novella, The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. Behold:

Given the way they have to have sex, it’s remarkable that there are any ducks. More remarkable that they have sex often. The male more or less drowns the female, who has to focus hard on staying afloat, and they both have to deal with wings and beaks and water and feathers, and it looks nasty, and they still have sex. So there were a great many ducks. And they all shat everywhere.

It became a problem for the tourists, and the locals didn’t like it. People talked about the ducks in pubs, and if you stood in lines at the local shops you heard people talk about ducks … If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week …

The reason why they shat so much … was because “the people” fed them chips, whoever “the people” were. A duck should eat things from the water; that’s what they’re designed to do. But they were lazy and so hoovered up whatever people threw them, fighting off the seagulls and the errant starlings and the pigeons and, if they had to, fighting off each other, too. This poor diet is making the poor ducks poo. That was one take. Answer: we should give them proper food. Genius. So they tried. It was not the answer. They ate the food put down and the fish and chips and had sex even more. Ducks’ arses were no tighter than they’d ever been. There were simply too many ducks.

This passage is a moment of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel. The Long Dry is Jones’ debut book, first published in the U.K. in 2006 and made available in North America this year by Coffee House Press. Jones has published several other books in the years since, including The Dig, Bird, Blood, Snow, and Everything I Found on the Beach. His prose has been compared to that of Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway – that is, lines of spare, almost taciturn beauty that belie the tension and fraught emotions that coil below the surface by using short, compact sentences with a deceptively simple syntax that carries a surprising amount of descriptive weight. It is a style that could (and, perhaps, should) be labelled derivative of those two masters, but it is also one that serves the setting and themes of The Long Dry well.

This short novel (my reviewer’s copy is paginated at just 119 pages) is set on a hardscrabble farm in Wales. Jones structures the book using many briefly, almost elliptical chapters that act as a kind of narrative pointillism, slowly painting us a bigger picture. Our protagonist is Gareth, who inherited the farm from his father and lives there with his wife, Kate, and their two children, Dylan and Emmy. A couple of issues become apparent at the beginning of the book: a harsh and unforgiving drought has swept across the countryside, and a pregnant cow on Gareth’s farm has gone missing. These two misfortunes will prove the catalyst for a series of vignettes that will reveal the various physical, financial, sexual and psychological deprivations surrounding this family. As the reader soon learns, Gareth’s is a world plagued with miscarriages, sexual frigidity, infidelity, money woes and a looming family tragedy.

The novel’s central tension exists between Gareth and his wife, Kate. They do love each other but they are, we come to learn, very often on opposite sides when it comes to matters of the farm and their own success on it. Much of what divides them is the hard road they had to travel to give birth to Dylan and Emmy, as the couple suffered multiple miscarriages between their births:

They continued to try, first easily then with more need, to give their son a brother or sister. She miscarried twice. On the third time they told her she couldn’t have children then. She was thirty-four and damp like autumn, not wet in the way young women are, like spring, but damp and rich and earthy, and it didn’t seem right that she could not have a child. She was fertile and hungry, like fallen leaves.

In the midst of all this, Kate allows her herself to engage in a brief and regretful dalliance with a farmhand one day while Gareth is away. The encounter is short and loveless – the farmhand basically fucks her against a filthy tractor tire in the shed – and yet it casts Kate into a deep depression and acts of self-harm. Gareth, as far as we can tell, does not learn the truth: “It was two years before she was well again but she still feels sick now when she thinks of what she did, and the nagging doubt haunts her sometimes. It has never been the same since then. He blamed it on the miscarriages.” Through her depression, we can see how much more the farm means to Gareth than it does to her, and this divide will lead to an explosive exchange between them near the end of the novel.

Gareth’s father purchased the farm in 1951 to quit a job at a bank that he hated. Jones gives us little detail about how the father’s views on farming varied from his son’s, but one is left with the impression that Gareth’s holds an idealized view of what this land meant to his father and he is desperately trying to live up to an unspoken sense of expectation. A key link between the previous generation’s farming and Gareth’s is the story of Bill, who comes from the farm next door. Bill’s father killed himself after the hogs he had invested money in contracted a rare disease and had to be destroyed. Bill himself is described as “simple”, and never fully grasps that his family actually sold the farm prior to his father’s suicide or that the family must move into the village afterward. In an act of charity, Gareth’s father gives a portion of his land to Bill in the wake of his father’s death, a kind of pretend farm that Bill is free to work on, and it’s a kindness that Gareth himself continues to extend:

So Gareth’s father gave some land to Bill. He fenced off a few acres by the road and said to Bill it was his land now, and he could farm it. So he takes the orphaned lambs and grows things there and helps out on the farm when help is needed, like a shearing time, and he cuts grass for old ladies in the village and takes people spuds and cabbage, but underneath, as Gareth knows, he doesn’t understand still.

Perhaps fittingly, Bill’s situation on the farm features prominently in the climatic argument between Gareth and Kate near the novel’s end. Kate, fearful of their future, is pushing her husband to sell some of their land to home developers, but Gareth refuses to pull the carpet out from under Bill’s feet. “My father gave him that land,” he tells his snarling wife, “and I won’t take it from him.”

The biggest, and also darkest, irony in The Long Dry is that neither the lingering season of drought nor Gareth’s lost cow about to calve are the worst tragedies about to befall this farm, this family. We are told, in a kind narrative aside, that nine days from the conclusion of the novel’s main action, a fate will befall daughter Emmy that will lead to her sudden death. Emmy, we learn, will lose her life after eating a poisonous mushroom while out for a walk in the woods. The mushroom she eats is one of the most poisonous found in Europe: the amanita virosa, or “destroying angel.” It is especially lethal due to a delay between initial ingestion and the onset of symptoms.

Indeed, Jones goes into great chemical detail as to what happens to Emmy’s body as the toxins move through her after she eats the fungus; and it is startling how much emotional power he’s able to rend out of such a clinical description. Emmy’s death hits us hard, not because we have gotten to know her particularly well over the preceding 80-odd pages, but because Jones frames her death as just another hardship that comes from farm life, from an existence so very dependent on grappling with the natural world in all its capriciousness. Somehow, this makes Emmy’s fate even more devastating.

Thankfully, there are glimmers of hope that come near the end of The Long Dry – in the somewhat predictable form of the arrival of rain. It is what we, and Gareth’s family, are left with: the sky opening up and giving us a reprieve from all that has taken its toll on us, but also a reprieve from the even darker tragedies that await us in the wings.

—Mark Sampson

N5


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 new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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Mar 112017
 

I’m told if you score a bullet across its tip with a pocketknife, first lengthwise then across, your shot will penetrate its target cleanly, but ravage the organs inside. I thought of this when reading the blunt, clean prose of Melissa Febos in her new memoir, Abandon Me. —Carolyn Ogburn

Abandon Me
Melissa Febos
Bloomsbury, 2017
320 pages; $26.00

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I am told if you score a bullet across its tip with a pocketknife, first lengthwise then across, your shot will penetrate its target cleanly, but ravage the organs inside. I thought of this when reading the blunt, clean prose of Melissa Febos in her new memoir, Abandon Me. Her sentences are short, precise things containing emotional whirlwinds of joy and pain.

Melissa Febos is a writer and teacher who grew up in Massachusetts, earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and currently lives in Brooklyn. She’s on the faculty of Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA); she serves on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and the PEN America Membership Committee. Her debut work, Whip Smart (2010) is a memoir of her work as a dominatrix. It’s also a story of getting sober, getting honest, and learning to live in her own skin. (It’s also funny: When her therapist asks her what a dominatrix is, Febos responds, “It’s really just one of the most well-paid acting gigs in this city.”) Her essays are found in journals, magazines, and online venues from The Rumpus to the Chronicle of Higher Education Review.

It can be hard to write about staggeringly painful personal life stories without sounding superficial, even trite. Students are encouraged to “write from the scars, not the wounds.” With the passing of time, the story may become more focused; resonances, patterns reveal themselves, and hard emotional truths can be drawn slowly to the surface. In other words, to write a simple truth about your own life, as memoir writers do, requires a great deal of craft. For all its risqué subject matter, Whip Smart was a more or less conventional memoir written by a smart, gutsy writer not afraid to explore her own history with honesty and poise. Febos would have been barely thirty when her first book was published. Now, seven years later, she takes more chances. Abandon Me is a deeper, riskier book.

Abandon Me opens with an epitaph from the psychologist D. W. Winnicott, “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” The book’s title, also the title of the novella-length essay found within, is both demand and plea: Abandon me. When written as a sentence—and it does feel like a sentence, both complete thought (the “you” understood, just off-stage) and punishment—the capital-A insists on being heard, a harsh, cruel word; while me is small and subjective.

The word abandon, Febos tells us, comes from the French, abandoner:

to give up, surrender (oneself or something), to give over utterly, to yield utterly.” Derived from a French phrase, Mettre sa forest a bandon, which meant to give up one’s land for a time, hence the latter connotation of giving up one’s rights for a time. Etymologically, the word carries a sense of “put someone under someone else’s control.

While no abandonment is complete in itself—and they’re all, here, ricocheting from the same impulse—the themes of absence, longing, and desire run throughout Febos’ relationships here. One of the abandonments she writes about is the departure of her father, when she wasn’t yet two. It wasn’t a disappearance: he was “a small suitcase that my parents unpacked for me as a child.” His name was Jon; he was “a career drug addict and alcoholic; he was Wampanoag; he played guitar.” She’d grown up knowing another man, here called the Captain, as her father, an Portuguese sailor whom she physically resembled more than she did her mother. The Captain left when she was eight.

In other words, Febos young life was marked by abandonment, the state of being the one left. But she’s also the one who leaves, the abandoner. Switch the words around: I abandon. I leave. “No lover had ever left me,” she writes. “I had spent enough years in therapist to know this was not something to brag about.”

The abandonment of the father mirrors that of the lover (and, in turn, mirrors that of the father), but it’s Febos’ abandonment of herself that is written most deeply throughout these pages. “Fear of abandonment begets abandonment,” Febos writes. “I gave myself away to solve the pain of his leaving and in doing so performed my own abandonment.” But along with biological bloodlines, Febos was parented by books, by story.

If a self can be said to resemble a house, Febos’ home is a library. The memoir begins with the Captain reading Ferdinand the Bull to Febos as a child, dissolving a paragraph later to the adult Febos and her lover reading Hemingway to each other in bed. Febos turns to books, stories, and television throughout the text range from Ferdinand to the Oxford English Dictionary, Salinger to Cervantes, Carl Jung to Scott Peck, William Blake to Salvador Dali, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth to the 1984 fantasy film, The NeverEnding Story. Febos’ story is stitched together with other stories, stories she’s claimed as her own. “To hold the memory of my history was to be searingly awake. I was not awake.” (178) So how much of this is true?

That’s the question everyone wants to ask the memoirist: What really happened? If you’re going to tell the truth, we demand evidence, facts, veracity. But to remember is an performance of the imagination, a deeply creative act.

She’s told us how to read her. In this 2016 essay called “Kettle Holes,” Febos writes:

We are all unreliable narrators of our own motives. And ‘feeling’ something neither proves nor disproves its existence. Conscious feelings are no accurate map to the psychic imprint of our experiences; they are the messy catalog of emotions once and twice and thrice removed, the symptoms of what we won’t let ourselves feel. They are not Jane Eyre’s locked-away Bertha Mason, but her cries that leak through the floorboards, the fire she sets while we sleep and the wet nightgown of its quenching.

We’re all, Febos seems to imply, creating ourselves out of ideas of ourselves, even while we’re living up to our nostrils in emotions that we didn’t choose, feelings (that, she reminds us, aren’t facts) that will not let us go. “Our selves are sometimes the only things over which we wield power,” she writes. “And our means of expressing it are sometimes chosen for us.”

At its most prosaic level, Abandon Me is the story of an affair: Febos fell in love with a married woman; they had a brief, tumultuous relationship, which ended messily. If you want to read the story for the plot points, you’ll find here a familiar story. Between its outlines, Febos weaves the threads of her renewed relationship with her birth father, and the women relatives with whom he lives. She pulls mythology, pop culture, history and philosophy into her narrative, as if surrounding herself with a posse of lively, intellectual friends.

But at its core, Abandon Me is almost wordless. “I had exiled large swaths of my history, and had been denied others. I had spent long stretches of time divorced from my body.” Paragraphs break off mid-thought, conversations are offered in fragments. It’s told in short chapters, often only a few pages long, even these broken into smaller units. Her friends don’t understand what she’s doing, why she doesn’t see them. She can’t explain it any better to her friends than she can to her lover. The best parts of this book make no sense at all.

That’s what I mean by ambitious. A lesser writer would have made her story make sense. She would have filled in conversations with dialogue, remembered what she wore; she would have distracted us from the gut-punch of pain that leaves us reeling with memories of our own. It’s not an easy book to read, not least because it demands that we read it with an honesty of our own.

There are places where Febos’ sentences are tonally repetitive, thudding, insistent. I longed for the distraction of a more lyrical line, and the wry humor that I remembered from Whip Smart. But maybe, more than anything else, I felt uncomfortable with my own memories of my own breathless affairs, the reminder that the most personal experiences are never ours alone, but are, despite all our feelings to the contrary, universal in their particularity. I can’t wait to see what Febos writes next.

—Carolyn Ogburn

N5
Carolyn Ogburn
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

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Mar 062017
 

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is  playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels. —Jason DeYoung

The Schooldays of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee
Viking, 2017
272 pages; $27.00

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“T his is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbor and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins. The clock starts running.” Ironically, this here and now is the afterlife.

Characters eking out lonely lives in an unrecognizable historical situation or in an altogether invented milieu are classic narrative approaches in J. M. Coetzee’s novels. But where The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus differ is that its characters have no past. They have come to this novel “world” washed clean of their former lives, without their memories, and given new names—given new ages! One might arrive a child, another a 41-year old male. They are set on their new paths with their new names to find new work or new caregivers. They are forced to learn to read and speak a new language, and given only the most modest of starts in a place called Novilla—a “no town,” where “things do not have their due weight.”

Perplexing and certainly stranger than Coetzee’s other works, these novels continue the departure from his more well known realistic fiction found in such novels as Disgrace or Age of Iron. Indeed, his new works are less concerned with standard storytelling altogether. As David Attwell describes in his critical biography J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing (2015), after Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, the “simple urge to represent” no longer seem to interest him, instead he is currently engaging in “secondary-order” questions such as, “What am I doing when I represent? What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representations?”

These “secondary-order” questions have appeared as meta-fictional adventures in recent novels, such as Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But for the current set of novels, he has dropped the meta-fictions for something different, something more abstract and foreign. These characters are new: new to these pages, new to the world itself depicted within these pages, coming up against all this new world’s original customs and beliefs. Its literary touchstone is more Don Quixote and less Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John.

For all their newness, however, these novels are as narratively straightforward as they come, broken into regular chapters and standard scenes, written in Coetzee’s economical, direct prose.

II.

In The Childhood of Jesus one of the first things that becomes apparent is that the majority of its characters are without desires or passions—they are on whole contended individuals. Hard manual labor is done without complaint or imagination, food is primarily bread and water, and sex isn’t a notable consideration because, as you see, it doesn’t “advance us,” as one character explains. Of this dry world it is said: “[I]t is so bloodless. Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice.”

This is Simón, the point-of-view character for both The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus. Simón is literally fresh off the boat, arriving on the same ship as Davíd, a young boy whom he takes care of, yet Simón is not his father. While on board the ship, the boy had lost a letter that explained who he was and who his mother is. And one of the main plots of The Childhood of Jesus is a quest to find Davíd’s mother, which turns out to be a woman Simón just “thinks” or “believes” to be said mother. And Simón’s “feeling” feels as random as it sounds. The woman, Inés, eventually accepts that she is indeed the child’s mother despite having no recollection of the child. Remember each person arrives in this world “washed” clean of their previous life, without memories, without connections.

The setting for The Childhood of Jesus is a fictionalized town where everyone is expected to speak Spanish and where housing is provided for. There isn’t much pleasure outside of football, and Simón can’t even find spices at the grocery to make the food better. The novel itself is episodic but can be broken down into three broad movements: arrival, search for Davíd’s mother and her acceptance of that role, and finally setting up Davíd’s education. The Childhood of Jesus ends with the three characters on the run from the law, because Novilla’s officials want Davíd in a special school for children with mental deficits, either mental or emotional. Davíd is without a doubt a special child, yet he doesn’t have deficits. He is playful, willful, and hates authority.

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels.

III.

The Schooldays of Jesus takes on the same episodic structure as its prequel, and can seem scattered and unfocused at its outset. But at its core The Schooldays of Jesus is the examination and dramatization of concepts related to education. Its opening chapters establish that Simón is the primary agent of education for young Davíd. He is the one who explains and defines the child’s understanding of the world, but as the novel progresses, we see both characters attending school, and we hear Simón philosophizing on the educational values of confronting immoral men and, indeed, the final “showdown” is a debate between measurable science and artistic passion.

The novel opens as the three main characters arrive in Estrella (another city “which has no sensation, no feelings”), where they hope to lay low and avoid the Novilla authorities who might or might not be looking for Davíd. The three end up on a farm, where Simón and Inés pick grapes, while Davíd plays with the other children, slowly becoming the leader of the group. The “gypsy” life doesn’t suit Simón or Inés but it certainly suits Davíd, whom they’ve “never seen so active, so full of energy.” The owners of the farm take particular interest in Davíd and suggest to Simón and Inés that this highly intelligent and gifted child be sent to school. As it is explained, there are four choices in Estrella: public education, which Simón and Inés tried in Novilla to disastrous ends, or the Academies—singing, dancing, and Atom. Davíd chooses dance, despite having no interest in dancing whatsoever.

At the Academy of Dance, however, Davíd becomes awestruck by his teacher, Ana Magdalena Arroyo, who is an ethereal beauty, with the kind of splendor that “stands up to closest scrutiny”; Davíd also takes quickly to the school’s cockamamie philosophy of “dancing the numbers.” “Just as there are noble metals and slave metals, there are noble numbers and slave numbers,” Ana Magdalena explains. “You will learn to dance the noble numbers.”

This numerology, this cosmology is explained over and over in the novel without much success—both Simón and the reader are left flummoxed. “The numbers are in the sky. That is where they live, with the stars. You have to call them before they will come down,” we are told. But “you can’t call down One. One has to come by himself.” This mystical rubbish leads Simón to declare Ana Magdalena to be a preacher: “She and her husband have made up a religion and now they are hunting for converts.” To which Inés undercuts Simón’s assertions by saying that is how you “teach small children.” In her previous life in Novilla, Inés says she too taught small children. She gave each letter of the alphabet a personality, “making them come alive.” The novel is unremittingly dialectic.

The relationship between Inés and Simón is fraught, tenuous, and unsatisfying on both accounts. They are indeed on opposite poles. There isn’t a modicum of chemistry between the two. In fact, they seem repulsed the other. In the apartment they share, Simón feels more like a lodger than an equal member of the family. Simón at every turn pushes Davíd to accept Inés, but she is a “hard-hearted” and clumsy mother. When Davíd moves out to become a boarder at the Academy of Dance, Inés is quick to suggest Simón find a place of his own.

After a rather subtle introduction, a character named Dmitri begins to insert himself into the lives of the three characters. Dmitri is an attendant at the museum next door to the Academy of Dance, and he, in is own words, “worships” Ana Magdalena: “I am not ashamed to confess it.” Dmitri is a man of passion. The children love him; he often has a pocketful of sweets for them after school. Simón reflects on Dmitri thusly: “How wholehearted, how grand, how true Dmitri must appear to a boy of Davíd’s age, compared with a dry old stick like himself!” Indeed, Dmitri is set up as a counter beat to Simón’s pragmatism. Lovely Ana Magdalena, however, treats Dmitri coolly. And initially, Dmitri doesn’t seem all that important to the novel, but in a “crime of passion” he kills Ana Magdalena.

After the death of Ana Magdalena, the story turns to an examination of how we are to know someone else, how are we to know someone’s true identity. In regards to Dmitri, Simón repeatedly warns Davíd that he doesn’t know why Dmitri takes him into his “confidence”—a word that reappears frequently—because “you don’t know what is going on in his heart.” After Dmitri’s subsequent trial and conviction, Simón, Inés, and Davíd try to reassess and reassemble their lives. In the messy aftermath, Simón takes a writing class of all things. He reveals (with near-comic results) in business letters and résumé cover letters that he has come to a “crisis” in his life, and that meeting Dmitri (whom he dislikes and, from a moral point of view, despises) “has been an educational experience for me.” He continues, “I would go so far as to list it among my educational qualifications.” To be sure, these are the schooldays of Simón as well!

IV.

Critics haven’t praised these novels quite the way they have Coetzee’s previous work, calling them “dry as sawdust” and an “ascetic allegory.” I personally enjoy the direction these novels are taking: they’re attempting something different in a landscape glutted with novels and stories just trying to exist within an established tradition. They remind me of Coetzee’s early novels—In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life & Times of Michael K.—with their rather alien environment and imaginative leaps.

In something more traditional, Dmitri’s trial and conviction might have make for a proper ending, but here the narrative is pushed forward to complete the novel’s theme, and the ending is more cerebral, a showdown between a man of science and a man of art, vaguely concluded on purpose, perhaps in agreement with Camus, who wrote: “solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.”

Richly enigmatic, The Schooldays of Jesus leaves off precisely where another volume might be necessary to give us our final answers. The two novels are so much about this shaky lad and dad relationship that you want to see how it comes out in the end.

—Jason DeYoung

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

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Mar 052017
 

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Drawn from Life, Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne
Translated by M. A. Screech; Introduced by Tim Parks
Notting Hill Editions, London
185 pp, £14.99

 

One could easily diminish Michel de Montaigne (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne) (1533-1592) as being that inventor of the essay, that plodding form which considers and concludes.  Spanish painter Pablo Picasso once observed, “Yo no busco, yo encuentro” (I don’t seek after, I come upon).  Picasso’s observation could help us focus and situate Montaigne’s insinuatingly sinuous, uncannily accurate prose.  His focus is not result-oriented on content and conclusion but rather is maker-focused on composition and creating. Much of each essay magnifies its composition in a language.  Repeatedly, Montaigne thinks of his efforts as flawed, monstrous or distorted. To become his reader, I have had to become a kind of ventriloquist engaged in an act of translation and projection, of time, genre, gender, language and many translations.  It was only when I found how uncertain, fearful and tentative he was that I could begin to write of him wholeheartedly.  I came to appreciate that Montaigne struggled tremendously with how to think far more than with what to think.  In other words, he was not writing conclusions; he was coming upon what he found as it appeared. In order to be a seamless ventriloquist, in order to read and know Montaigne, I had to get as close to him as I could. In effect, I had to mimic now what he did with what he called his self: “The world looks always opposite; I turn my sight inwards, and there fix and employ it. I have no other business but myself, I am eternally meditating upon myself, considering and tasting myself. Other men’s thoughts are ever wandering abroad, if they will but see it; they are still going forward: for my part, I circulate in myself” (“Of Presumption”).  He chose to establish a singular intimacy with himself which I would I saw have to emulate as his ventriloquist.  At first, I felt overwhelmed and uninitiated when I received the beautiful Drawn from Life. At once, I asked myself how much in all did this great figure write, and when, and which of all his writings are in this volume, how do they change and what is his flag ship hobby horse, his daunting intellectual obsession?

There were three books of 107 essays of different length and tone.  These were essais, meaning attempts which indicate their spirit—not a finality, but a stab into the open.  The first volume “A,” including 57 passages written 1571–1580, was published in 1580 ; the second “B” included 37 passages written 1580–1588, was published in 1588, and the third “C,” often called the Bordeaux copy, with thirteen passages written from 1588–1592, was posthumously published in 1595 with the help of his adoptive daughter Marie De Gournay,  Now, in this Montaigne revival,  there are critical divisions between those liking the 1595 version and the 1588 Bordeaux heavily-edited copy.  Drawn from Life has eight essays from Book One, two from Book Two and three from Book Three.  Two substantial essays are not in Drawn from Life: his “Of Friendship, ”Chapter 27 in Book One, recounting the loss of his closest  friend, Étienne de La Boétie, whom he called his “double,” and ”Of Vanity,” Chapter 9 in Book Three. Their absence actually is important for an incrementally intimate reading of Montaigne, the one who ever incrementally attempts.   Now that I had fashioned this mechanical chessboard of chapters, I had to read and confront the first chapter which had two conspicuously different names in different translations: “We Search the Same End by Discrepant Means, or “That Men by Various Ways Arrive at the Same End”. The first chapter was at first like a hard tire; it retained an opaque, impersonal, even impenetrable feeling. As I kept reading his chiseled words, fruitlessly looking for a summation, I soon felt that the thing repeated, the hobby horse was fear, not of death or pain, but of losing mental control and becoming not oneself. All at once, I remembered Samuel Johnson in his 1751 Rambler, when he proposed his groundbreaking idea of the “invisible riot of the mind”. Throughout his essais, Montaigne considers and engages just such a riotous mind—searches for ways to distract it, ways to bring it under control, ways to exercise its dangerous powers more effectively.  In this of necessity highly condensed review, I hope to illuminate briefly and consequentially that 1) Invisible riot of the mind, 2) an always incomplete self and spirit, and 3) Montaigne’s clamorous awareness of writing.

Early on, Montaigne considers something new: what he calls “the close stitching of mind to body” (25). Indeed, he is introducing both to himself and his readers a vast and fear-inspiring, hitherto unaddressed uncertainty—that is the mind “whirring about, noting ….I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy” (73). He is presenting the temporary mental derangement Johnson had called the “invisible riot of the mind”. In classical philosophy, the paradigm had been far more stable: “wisdom is a controlled handling of our soul, carried out, on our Soul’s responsibility, with measure and proportion” (93). In his plague-scarred, war-conflicted times, Montaigne encounters a new inner fear and, with no hesitation whatsoever, declares “It is fear that I am most afraid of” (9). He shows a terror of decision making taking over soldiers on the battle field, women in the dining room. This general fear is not of battle or physical pain of which he is intimately familiar given his insistent kidney stones. He explicitly refers to this fear as a “leprosy of the mind,” “a terrifying confusion,” “Inconstancy of his mind,” which can “dominate you and tyrannize over you.” in “an internal strife* (74, 139). The title of this review points to his exquisite awareness of mental displacement: “the cries of a mind which is leaping out of its lodgings” (92). Such loss of mental certainty is to him akin to the drunkenness when one “loses all consciousness and control of himself” (80). Montaigne’s second hobby horse is self or soul, or, what we now call consciousness.

Montaigne certainly introduces readers in a new way to self and soul with which he posits one should commence their studies. Interestingly, he feminizes “soul” throughout. He commits himself unequivocally to his life’s task which becomes these essays: “My own mind’s principal and most difficult study is the study of itself”. He virtually flexes with passion about this commitment: “For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously…reflection is a mighty endeavor and a full one: I would rather forge my soul than stock it up” (111).  Virginia Woolf sings his praises: “this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection; this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne”. Ultimately, he confesses rather disappointedly that “I have nothing mine but myself, and yet the possession is, in part, defective and borrowed” (“Of Vanity”). This self-soul is incomplete, unstable, inescapable and imperfect, but it is all he has, all we have, to work with.  He calls this “self” many names (because it is many things): “oddments,” “bits and pieces,” “multiple forms,” but  In spite of these flaws, Montaigne tells his readers that he is and this is a book whose faith can be trusted, that ”it is his own self that I am painting” (xxii). In spite of uncertainties, he commits his life to that soul which “can see and know all things, but she should feed only on herself” (158). He says that he is not trying to study himself to make people think more of him:  I do so ”in order to bring mine lower and lay it down”. Such humility furnishes profound trust in what he says. He wants not a single unified soul or self to own: “What I would praise would be a soul with many storeys, a soul at ease wherever fortune led it” (115-116).  His is a remarkable acknowledgement of a gift–this awareness of himself as something he must forge rather than stock up (111). That is, he must make and create and modify that soul, that self which is his life’s study. In the process, he writes in such a way as to provide alternatives to others who might become inflicted with what he has called the “illness of our soul,” its distractibility, its dependence, its flamboyance and its passions (134). Souls “can be controlled and excited by some racing disembodied fancy based on nothing” (146). Overall, Montaigne’s nobility comes through in his courage in facing all of this: “Life is a rough, irregular progress with a multitude of forms” (110).

Ever a purposeful dreamer, Montaigne says of his prose, “I who am more concerned with the weight and usefulness of my writings than with their order and logical succession must not be afraid to place here a little off the track, an account of great beauty” (105).  His essays are flooded with digressions about his inadequate writing, how poor his memory is, how common the subject, how second-rate his diction. He laments that his “ability does not go far enough for me to dare to undertake a rich, polished picture, formed according to art” (107). They are, however, compellingly elegant, learned, unpredictable, intimate, experimental and morally important.  For one thing, he insists upon the need for writing what can happen rather than pompously showing a bombastic version of what had happened: “I have undertaken to talk about only what I know how to talk about, fitting the subject matter to my capabilities….There are some authors whose aim is to relate what happened: mine (if I could manage it) would be to relate what can happen” (28, 27).  One could undertake an in-depth study of his parenthesis and read forever better Modernist fiction. His interruptions combined with self-conscious links to what he had just been saying with a self-conscious allusion to his ejempla draw the reader trustfully to him. Sometimes, he denigrates his own “scribblings,” or, more graphically, “monstrous bodies of diverse members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or portion other than accidental…excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always undigested” (“Of Vanity”). Montaigne was aware that his writing was changing, perhaps to compensate for what he had perceived as their insufficiency. He would make up for it by his “intricacies,”’ and make chapters longer, “such as require preposition and assigned leisure” (“Of Vanity”).  One of the special beauties of Notting Hill’s edition is that it omits the longer, more reflective, essays from the collection, allowing the reader a free intimacy with his evolving voice over time in a plethora of highly varied topics.  An unexpected example of Montaigne’s modern sense of writing occurs in the history of the translation of the Horace quotation in “Of Friendship”: esinit in piscem mulier formosa superne. This is usually translated:  “a fair woman in her upper form ends in a fish”. The poet in me reading found something discordant, flatfooted and incomplete in that image, and I searched until I found that the point is that the woman was beautiful above and that her beauty became truncated and deformed below, since at the end of her body appeared that unappealing fish tail.  This contradictory image, “A woman, beautiful above, has a fish’s tail” emphasizes Montaigne’s persistent frustration in the artistic process, in the failure of scribbling to render it beautifully. With just this modern sense of fragmentation and incompleteness, Montaigne writing of his dearest friend, catastrophically concludes after his friend’s death, “I was so grown and accustomed to be always his double in all places in all things, that methinks I am no more than half of myself” (“Of Friendship”).

In the course of “scribbling” and revising his three hobby horses, 1) mental imbalance, 2) the challenge of the soul, self, consciousness, and 3) trying to write it all forth, Montaigne had come upon mercury, upon something bouncing, bobbing, rare, and uncontrollable. Recent splendid books, like Philippe Desan, Montaigne: a Life and Sarah Bakewell, Montaigne, How to Live remarkably Illuminate his haunting and significant contemporaneousness. What he found in those years of writing was indeed an independent awareness, or consciousness with which he tenaciously ever struggled, amidst physical pains, the turbulence and warfare of his times as well as his sense of incompleteness. Slowly, it came to me in an Archimedes moment that actually de Montaigne about one hundred years before René Descartes, was recognizing something similar to “Cogito, ergo sum; I think; therefore I am”. Across the centuries, these two men shook hands with what we now consider consciousness. Ever practical and isolated, Montaigne felt it his chore to get to be as ventriloquist close to the consequences of such cognition as he could, without vanity or didacticism.  He simply threw himself in, as a “mind which is leaning out of its lodgings”. That position indirectly led to the banning of his writings, since he came to know that in his new intimacies he wouldn’t hide truths about his sexuality, the inconstancy of the human soul and race, or the gluttonous materialism of his times. Knowing himself, his mind, and his consciousness to be his to control led him to find life far simpler and clearer.  Rather unexpectedly, he recognized quite openly, “my freedom is so very free” (28).  The design of this excellent Notting Hill edition offers us Montaigne pure and free, his language, his zigs and his zags, dubieties and vanities, without trying to give readers any predetermined intellectual conclusion or framework. This edition allows his essays to sing and play on, so that we readers may do what Picasso suggested: discover joyfully and not tediously seek after.

—Linda E. Chown

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Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.

 

 

Feb 142017
 

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Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. —Laura Michele Diener

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The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France
Susan Rubin Suleiman
Yale University Press, 2016
376 pages; $35.00

“It is impossible, as many liberals believe, to belong to two nations, the Jewish and the French,” –Robert Brasilac, 1938, Je suis partout, French newspaper

“What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself”
–Franz Kafka, Diary

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Exquisitely erudite and boundlessly empathetic, Susan Suleiman’s newest book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France, is far more than a literary biography of Irene Némirovsky but rather a study of twentieth-century Jewish identity with one writer’s life as the fulcrum. Irene Némirovsky, now most famous for the miraculous posthumous adventures of her novel Suite Francaise, was during her lifetime, a respected and successful writer on the French literary scene. Born to a wealthy Russian Jewish banking family in 1903, after the Russian Revolution, she moved to France as a teenager where she wholeheartedly embraced the language and culture of her adopted country. Classified as a foreign Jew under the Vichy regime, she was arrested by the French police in July 1942, and subsequently transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later. The unfinished draft of a novel (actually two novels, the first of a proposed five) survived with her two young daughters, Denise, age twelve, and Elisabeth, five, to be published to acclaim in 2004. That year, it won the prestigious literary Renaudot Prize in 2004, the first time the award was bestowed on a deceased author.

First French, and then English speakers have adored Suite Francaise, two beautifully executed studies of French civilians under German occupation, rife with tender relationships and written in real time by a sharply observant narrator. World War II has become part of the collective consciousness of many Americans and Europeans, and with its portrayals of the quiet upheavals and wartime romances of an occupied village, Suite Francaise fulfills many twenty-first century fantasies of vintage wartime. Publishers seized the opportunity to reissue her older books and translate them into English, but their portrayals of prewar immigrant Jewish characters—particularly the 2007 translation of David Golder—struck some readers as more archaic and even disturbing. Its original publication in 1929 was Némirovsky’s first big break in the literary world, but she also received criticisms from Jewish readers who questioned the value of a story about an unscrupulous banker.

In the article, “Scandale Francaise,” that appeared in the January 30, 2008, issue of the New Republic, critic Ruth Franklin boldly and uncompromisingly states that “Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew” who “made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.” Although she admits that Suite Francaise “is a fine novel,” she questions the absence of Jewish characters, suggesting that “perhaps Némirovsky was incapable of creating sympathetic Jewish characters. Franklin’s article followed other condemnations, including a review of The Dogs and the Wolves in the Times Literary Supplement by Naomi Price, and an article Jewish Ideas Daily, by Dan Kagan-Kans, titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Hating Jew.” In the end, the crux of these arguments rests on two points, the visibility of Jews and the invisibility of Jews in her fiction, neither of which critics find acceptable. Some of the reviews, like Kagan-Kans’, display an almost astounding blindness towards historical context (he writes scathingly of the absence of Jewish characters in All Our Worldly Goods, a novel Némirovsky published in 1941, when she was already wearing a yellow star and writing under a pseudonym, because Jewish authors were banned), and Susan Suleiman treats them with more politeness than they deserve. On the other hand, Ruth Franklin, herself the author of the recent well-received biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Haunted Life, Liveright, 2016) as well as a A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011) presents a conundrum. She has done her homework, and Suleiman’s book is partially a continuation of an in-person conversation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, on December 12, 2008, which Suleiman describes as heated. Both women, like Némirovsky, are Jewish women writers deeply concerned about Jewish women as writers as well as women writing about Jewishness. The debate centers around Némirovsky’s views on Jewish assimilation into French society. As Franklin interprets them, assimilation in Némirovsky’s novels is doomed to fail because their inherently negative Jewish characteristics will inevitably surface. “Though the Golders [characters from the 1929 David Golder] have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.”

Suleiman carefully outlines the debate and rightly asks, “why reasonable readers can argue with such passion about the alleged self-hatred (or not) of a Jewish writer who has been dead for almost three-quarters of a century?” and why these reasonable readers have always been exclusively Jewish. Non-Jewish critics display little desire or interest to enter that inflammatory conversation. Much of Sulieman’s book examines Némirovsky’s writing as an exploration of deeply divisive questions about Jewish identities, a group as divided today by language, ritual, class, and politics in the 1930’s as they are today.

To do so, she delves into the thorny question of Jewish self-hatred, a concept dating back to the nineteenth century, when the political climate allowed a number of German, Austrian, and French Jews to escape the ghettos and enter mainstream society. The resulting identity crises among assimilated Jews contributed to the outpourings of Jewish artists and intellectuals. In every conceivable medium, Jews questioned who and what they were, and how they fit into the growing nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe. Can a Jew be a good German? Or a good Frenchman? Or even entirely French?—the latter an incendiary question that burst into full-scale flame in 1894, with the Dreyfus Affair. In addition to questions of patriotism, for assimilated Jews, the even larger question loomed—What is a Jew? If a person distances themselves from language, ritual, and belief, what inalienable element continues to define them as Jewish, and somehow of a piece with other Jews? Suleiman explains:

It is this estrangement experienced by Jews themselves from other Jews that some people call self-hatred or Jewish anti-Semitism. But the fact is that it existed and continues to exist, not only among Jews but also among other devalued minorities, and not only in Europe.

Accusations of self-hatred have been leveled at a fairly respectable group of intellectuals and artists including Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel—proving at least that Irene Némirovsky is in good company and perhaps that the definition of Jewish self-hatred, if such a thing exists, is so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. After all, anyone who explores their genetic and cultural inheritance with anything but the most unflagging enthusiasm could effectively be considered self-hating. Suleiman views the question of Némirovsky’s or anyone else’s Jewish self-hatred as insolvable, and certainly ahistorical, and argues that “rather than speak of Jewish self-hatred, it makes historical as well as philosophical sense to speak of the ambiguities and ambivalences regarding Jewish identity and self-definition during this period.”

The title of her book, The Némirovsky Question, plays on another nineteenth century concept, die Judenfrage, one that Suleiman proffers as “a useful alternative to Jewish self-hatred if one wants to think about dilemmas of Jewish identity in modern times.” Today, the Jewish Question possesses ominous connotations of cattle cars and concentration camps, but before the Nazis repackaged it as “how to get rid of the Jews,” Jewish intellectuals themselves, including Theodore Herzl, Oskar Jaszi, and Anna Lesznai interpreted the question as a series of inquiries into the place of Jews in mainstream society, Jewish group identity, and most acutely, how people characterized more by division than similarities related to each other.

As Suleiman argues, the Jewish question haunted Némirovsky, who lived out the complexities of interwar Jewish identity. Many of her Jewish characters were reflective of her own family members, eastern immigrants to France, wealthy, on the path to assimilation, but at most a generation away from the ghetto. Her father, Leon Némirovsky was from a poor Yiddish-speaking family near Odessa while her mother came from a wealthy Jewish family more assimilated. As in her family, so in her books, the choice of French, Russian, or Yiddish language declares affiliation. The family lived the elegant and fashionable life of the French upper class, and Némirovsky received her education first through a French governess and then the Sorbonne. She enjoyed close friendships with French Catholics, notably the siblings Rene and Madeleine Avot, who would care for her children after the war. But the husband she married at the age of twenty-three, Michael Epstein, was another Russian Jew from a banking family, and one more religious than her own. The couple converted in 1939 to Catholicism, sent their children to Catholic schools, and in their own words, considered themselves entirely French-Catholic. But waves of refugees from Nazi Germany as well as a growing antipathy to foreigners challenged their self-identification with their adopted country. Between 1920-1939, the number of Jews in France tripled, with many of the newcomers Yiddish speaking, religiously observant, and poor. In her novels David Golder (1929), The Dogs and the Wolves (1940), and The Wine of Solitude (1935), she considers the tensions between these groups ostensibly sharing an identity. In her short story, Fraternité, published in February 1937, these uneasy cousins literally confront each other in the encounter between a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, brilliantly named Christian Rabinovitch, and a Jewish immigrant from Russia, also named Rabinovitch.

No character in Némirovsky is so successfully assimilated that they aren’t haunted by the specter of their poor religious antiquated Jewish selves. These internal tensions among French Jews play out against a context of French anti-Semitism, which in the end, renders issues of Jewish identity null. Ruth Franklin’s accusation becomes Suleiman’s explanation: “Though the Golder’s have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.” Sadly, her stories were prophetic, as she lived to experience. She moved through her life from exile to beloved and feted community member and, finally, to exile again, dying far from the home she had claimed. In 1942, she wrote chillingly, “I have written a lot lately. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but at least they make the time pass.”

The scope of Suleiman’s book extends beyond Némirovsky’s life and even her posthumous fame. She devotes the last third of the book to the story of Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, and along with them the collective stories of child survivors of the Holocaust. After the arrest of their parents, the girls spent the last two years in Occupied France living under false identities, constantly on the move, mainly under the care of their nurse Julie Dumot. They joined the more than ten thousand Jewish children who had lost one or both parents during the war, and Suleiman considers them as such, employing trauma theory and the literature on children with hidden identities to discuss their experiences. Through their own writing, particularly Elisabeth’s 1992 memoir, Le Mirador, and editing of their mother’s papers, Denise and Elisabeth, both raised and educated as Catholics, sort out their complicated legacies and memories. Suleiman’s own relationships with the family, especially Denise whom she interviewed extensively before her death in April 2013, form the heart of this section, which is entirely unique in terms of Némirovsky scholarship.

The Némirovsky Question represents the culmination (at least so far) of Suleiman’s prestigious academic career. A professor of comparative literature at Harvard, she has written seven books and edited three others on avant garde French literature, women writers, collective and individual memories of the Holocaust, and artistic expressions of trauma and exile. Suleiman portrays Némirovsky as a woman always writing from the middle, a place defined by difference, occasionally by unease, and like Némirovsky, although a generation younger, Sulieman shifted between the fluid identities in post-war Europe. As she reveals in her memoir, The Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook, she was born into a Hungarian Jewish family a few weeks into World War II, and spent her earliest years living under a variety of false identities before immigrating to America after the war. Her parents, with their varying degrees of faith, reflect the extremes of Jewish identities. Only as an adult with two children did she revisit the country of her birth and connect her fragmented memories of a disrupted past. Her familiarity with intercultural identities obviously predisposes her to empathize with Némirovsky’s Russian-Jewish-French-Catholics selves, and the book reads as a labor of love from writer on behalf of another.

Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. As Suleiman writes about Christian Rabinovitch, which could well apply to Némirovsky’s other Jewish characters, as well as the author herself: “[He] may not be to everyone’s liking. But the questions his story raises continue to resonate.” Issues of identity predominate in the twenty-first century among Jews, for whom politics, particularly American-Israeli relations, even more so than faith, frequently become the dividing line. European Jews also grapple with renewed waves of anti-Semitism, particularly in France, where ultra-nationalists and terrorists make strange bedfellows. But Suleiman’s book reminds us that the Jewish question can become anyone’s question, whenever people struggle to define themselves against a majority society. In a 1934 radio interview, Némirovsky explained her choice of Jewish characters. “I contrive to depict the society I know best, which is made up of dislocated people who have left behind the milieu where they would normally have lived and whose adaptation to a new life is not without shocks and suffering.” Dislocated people, from a myriad of ethnic backgrounds, find themselves just as vulnerable in 2017. The surge of revolutions, occupations, genocides, and dictatorships doesn’t appear to be slowing down, and readers may find Némirovsky’s books increasingly relevant in a world that continues to yield refugees and exiles. One can only hope that they find a more welcoming society than she did.

—Laura Michele Diener

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Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout he is a combatant, if an unwilling one. —Jeff Bursey

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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism
Daniel Green
Cow Eye Press, 2017
$14.95; 150 pages

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Introduction


Many readers of critical writing and attendees of literary conferences will have been either treated or subjected to this or that paper where the literary tail of theory wags the dog of an abject author. The image is more apt when it’s changed to theory having between its slavering jaws the corpse of a work of art, or the corpus of an artist, that will be softened by Gallic or Slavic salivary glands, masticated by deconstruction, postcolonial or queer theory until it becomes digestible matter, followed by its voiding. It’s uncommon in books of criticism nowadays to not encounter references to some or all of the following: Adorno, Althusser, Bakhtin, Barthes, Benjamin, Blanchot, Cixous, Deleuze and/or Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, le Man, Shklovsky, and Wittgenstein. What these figures focus on, as do those who cite them, dispute with them, rely on them, and build upon their foundations, is theory, not literature, which has become a resource to provide examples that upholds the Weltanschauung of the theorist. “To the extent that the kind of focus on the ‘literary’ qualities of poetry and fiction, that is, on those qualities that make them first of all works of art,” says Daniel Green in Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, “for which I advocate has been dismissed as old-fashioned or superficial, new books are in danger of receiving only the most cursory notice, the most uncritical celebration or ‘takedown,’ otherwise left to fade into future obscurity.” Without dwelling on the experience of my own reviewing, I’ll simply say that I recognize his spirit as the mark of someone conscious he is writing outside the mainstream as embodied, for Green, in such venues as New York Times Book Review, The National Review, and New York Review of Books (regardless of their political leanings), but not in The Quarterly Conversation (or, I would add, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Rain Taxi, each offering alternative points of view of little-discussed books or fields of study).

At times that first group of journals—one could include the TLS and the London Review of Books—“regard contemporary literature simply as material, sometimes ammunition, sometimes a target, to be employed in the ongoing culture war.” (66) A pirate navigating waterways ruled by this or that thalassocracy, Green nails his colours to the mast:

Readers and critics are perfectly entitled to regard literary works in any way they want, of course, but to deliberately avoid initially engaging with them for their artistic value—the value with which their creators presumably most resolutely attempted to invest them—seems hardly in keeping with the animating purpose of literature as a form of expression. Perhaps readers need not seek out what Nabokov insisted on calling “aesthetic bliss” (although why not?), but that a work of literature might in fact produce such bliss would seem to be a fact about it that a literary critic, at any rate, should need to account for.

The method Green has found that best brings out the literary aspect of a work, and what, in part, makes him think he may be “old-fashioned,” is New Criticism. Not a blind adherence to it, however, for he has the flexibility to modify it and allow other approaches, but as he says, “…I am inclined first of all to read fiction the way the New Critics read poetry, for the integrated effects of language, for the way the parts of the text make a whole and how the parts interrelate. Ultimately, of course, you can’t avoid discussing such things as characters and point of view, but those are themselves the textual artifacts of language.” That will appear untoward or restrictive, refreshing or niche, depending on how well Green defends and advocates for his position.

Beyond the Blurb is set out as follows: Introduction; Part 1: Critical Issues; Part 2: Critical Failures; Part 3: Critical Successes; Bibliography. (There isn’t an index). The Introduction is a concise explanation as to why Green has assembled this book, where the pieces have appeared, what its purpose is, and the rationale behind his thought. He offers six “core tenets” that emphasize that reading a book is the way to get to its meaning: “The experience of reading is the experience of language,” goes one tenet. Part 1 has essays on such topics as close reading, the authority of criticism and critics, and blogs. (Green has his own well-written blog.) Part 2 addresses those critics found wanting, such as James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, and academic criticism. Part 3 focuses on Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, and William Gass, among others. Each section is packed with argument, generous quotations, and fair-mindedness.

As usual in books of this type that offer up criticism that has appeared on blogs or in the Los Angeles Review of Books there is a certain strain of modesty: “While I do not argue explicitly in these essays that reflection on such issues might be especially important in the critical discussion of current/contemporary literature, nevertheless this is a necessary and underlying assumption.” Sometimes the implicit is much stronger than it appears. When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout, he is a combatant, if an unwilling one.

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I.

The essays comprising Critical Issues (as with the other parts) generally use one person to centre the argument. Daniel Mendelsohn, in “Close Reading,” comes under the gaze of Green for leaving out one vital feature of a critic: “the ability to pay attention.” This allows for an explanation as to how opinions are only that unless they are backed up by evidence taken from the text, not from such a thing as “taste,” which is a code word used by “guardians of literary culture.” Disliking or liking Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith is insufficient. Critics need to argue from the evidence of the work, not from a theory that embraces (or smothers) the work while speaking about anything but its language. This is a mild essay to lead off the book, to my mind, but things pick up with “The Authority of Criticism,” wherein Ron Silliman, whose views are rooted in Marxism, is praised for his “pragmatic perspective” on criticism, and for fitting himself along the Pound-Olson-Creeley axis, one that viewed New Criticism with caution. We are given a thumbnail sketch in literary history (which, like military history, has its own share of pointless wars), a grounding in the work of someone Green respects who challenges New Criticism from a learned perspective, and a rebuttal that takes on board Silliman’s negative comments on New Criticism with poise.

Johanna Drucker is the lightning rod in “Aesthetic Autonomy.” By quoting her right off Green gives readers a taste of her work: “Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture,” Drucker says in Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. Green responds: “I am ultimately fine with this argument, although it’s unfortunate that a defense of aesthetic value in art has to in effect make common cause with mass culture in order to ensure that ‘art’ survives as a viable endeavor to begin with.” Here we have the commodity argument: a painter has truck with commerce (in the purchase or rent of supplies, studio space, models, and then on to labour and selling the finished product). Green’s well-reasoned objection is that this is not a new idea or particularly revelatory, for it is the interpretative framework that supplies the commodity argument, not the art work itself. Through Drucker, Green is able to address the notion of art in service to ideologies as weapons, when, for him, “their refusal to submit to the expectations of ordinary discourse” signifies the autonomy many would deny them.

“The Authority of Critics” is a title that should make us pause. We rarely think of our critical writing as authoritative, especially when it’s spread over a variety of journals that have specialized and small audiences. Yet we maintain the belief that opinions, interpretations, and eisegesis sway the hearts and minds of an unseen multitude. John Carey is the subject of this essay, and Green shows how confused his thinking is in What Good Are the Arts?, classifying it as “absurd in the extreme, essentially inane” after demolishing its principal ideas: that art doesn’t exist, but that it does and that it “does some people quite a lot of good.” It would, perhaps, have made the book stronger to leave Carey out and to focus instead on someone dismissed in the Introduction, Jonathan Franzen, due to his malign and lingering impact on how the literary world divided itself according to his Status and Contract notions. While no more valid than Carey’s, they were more pernicious and, since they drew in various figures, such as Ben Marcus, this could have widened Green’s consideration of classes of fiction.

“Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” sets out some arguments for and against this venue of art commentary. It begins with Richard Kostelanetz’s view, from The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974), of the “‘New York Intellectuals’” of the 1960s and 1970s as “agenda-setters [who] influenced critical discourse to the extent that challenges to their critical principles (and to their liberal anti-communism) were summarily dismissed when not simply ignored.” From the journals discussed—Partisan and Commentary—it is a short step to academic criticism, which Green once thought would be a suitable place for him. “Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers… and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews.” Times changed, however, and soon academic criticism cared more for “context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former.” The result is we must find less theory in the hodgepodge of book reviews found in a handful of newspapers that are all too eager to waste column space to the same top 10 titles per season.

Green misses those earlier days, and is dismayed, too, about the online contemporary scene. Once, literary weblogs offered the possibility of “a plausible alternative to print book reviewing,” but this promise never became widespread. It should be said that his blog is substantial and varied, with much long-form writing. But The Reading Experience, as well as Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space and Litlove’s Tales From the Reading Room, to name two others, are numerically swamped by other blogs that present “…book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective.” As with print journals, weblogs are haphazardly interested in books, but rarely those that are older than ten months to a year unless it’s an undisputed classic. There’s no hope on the Internet, then, for a renaissance of critical thought.

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II.

It is beneficial to Green to write against something or someone that irritates him. In Part 2 he targets James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, Morris Dickstein, Hershel Parker, and Joseph Conte for particular failings. Two essays stand out above the others.

I agree with Green, in “James Wood,” that the subject of this essay is “a particularly pernicious influence on contemporary criticism” whose “obvious biases” towards his favoured mode, realism, exclude most fiction that does something else, especially if such works “challenge orthodoxy…” Like Green, when reading Wood I’m conscious that he is reducing the world of literature down to one preferred method of approach, that this is ungenerous to those who think in alternate ways, and that the aim of making anything different conform to a critical perspective rather than choosing to learn something new is to limit oneself needlessly. Quoting Wood on how readers analyze characters, Green states the obvious: “Why would we want to regard characters in a novel as if they were actual people, people with minds and motives and a ‘consciousness’?” This is a common thought, not a special insight Wood has; many publishers still insist they want manuscripts with characters their readers can warm to. But the common reader invoked by Wood might find it unhelpful to use their interpretation of the characters in Bleak House or The Ambassadors to negotiate with colleagues at their workplace. Figures we encounter in books are solely marks on a page, not living beings. (How a champion of realism can’t distinguish between a book, just another object in the world, and the rest of the world is not a subject that troubles Wood much.) In Green’s judgment:

Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents in his book [How Fiction Works] is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

Essentially, Wood regards books primarily as instruments to understand the so-called real world and that therefore impact moral decisions.

In conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard in The Paris Review, Wood attempts to classify the Norwegian author’s six-volume My Struggle, a tremendous and deliberately unwieldy amalgam of confession, dialogue allegedly recalled from years and years ago, metaphysical conceits, realism, contradictions, airy pontifications, miserable muttering, self-lampoons, artistic manifestoes, wretchedness and hilarity, as realism of a newer kind:

I think it is a general problem. One of the interesting things that’s been happening—in Norwegian literature certainly, but also in British and American fiction—has been an insistence on breaking the forms, not because there’s a postmodern rule that one has to break the forms, but for almost the opposite reason, out of a desire to achieve greater verisimilitude, and a belief that the only way to get there is to break the grammar of realism precisely as you’re describing. In Book Two you say that you’re sick of fiction, you’re sick of the mass production of fictions that all look like the same. You write that the problem was “verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant.” I think this is well put, because it doesn’t rule out fiction-making. It just makes fiction-making harder.

You can sense the strain as Wood tries to squeeze Knausgaard’s epic into a box labeled Realism by appealing to some mythical “greater verisimilitude,” as if there are levels of reality. If there are, then there’s no need for the words greater and, by implication, lesser, but if reality isn’t the same all the way through, then Wood is in serious epistemological trouble. One could also make much of how he feels supremely at ease reading the minds of writers in three countries. That’s just breathtaking.

Green has much more to say about Wood in an essay that he worries might go on for too long, but such is the general obeisance to him and the value of his imprimatur that a considered, and well-mannered, close reading of his words is welcome.

For some reason, Christopher Hitchens was considered to be a worthwhile literary critic and commentator, a low-grade Orwell. In his examination of Hitchens, whose criticism is rarely “non-political,” Green summarizes his contribution to literary criticism this way:

The poets and novelists Hitchens writes about are important to him for what they represent, for the way in which they illustrate historical movements and political ideas, for their beliefs and their habits of mind. Presumably, from Hitchens’s perspective about the most praiseworthy thing that might be said about an author is that he “conducted himself ” as a writer particularly well, not that he (or she—although Hitchens considers very few if any women writers in any of his reviews and essays) actually wrote something especially admirable.

The remainder of this cast of failures, out of one motivation or another, obscure literary works with other matter, although Green finds things to appreciate and regret in the work of the academic Joseph Conte:

If Conte’s discussions of Barth and Sorrentino illuminate qualities of their work that have not previously been as clearly identified, his chapters on White Noise, The Universal Baseball Association and Gravity’s Rainbow to some extent retrod old ground in the critical consideration of these novels. Conte uses information theory, systems theory, complexity theory, and the ideas of the mathematician Benoir Mandelbrot to map the design and debris strategy at work in these iconic postmodern texts, and while the readings that result seem perfectly cogent in elucidating that strategy, nothing very fresh is really added to the commentary on the novels themselves beyond what has already been offered in the voluminous existing criticism of them.

Conte’s final remarks on a move from print to digital reading are briefly mentioned. Green believes in the possibility that “…academic criticism will turn to electronic forms as the subject of ‘advanced’ analysis,” and it’s odd he doesn’t mention that this kind of study is going on at Electronic Book Review.

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III.

Part 3: Critical Successes presents the literary aesthetics of Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, William Gass, Michael Gorra, David Winters, and S.D. Chrostowska. (It’s a Parallel Lives of the Ignoble and Noble Critics, you could say). Green repeats the well-known encapsulation that Bloom’s thoughts on Shakespeare, the canon, and much else emphasizes “the evidence of influence” over the “formal or stylistic features” of a work and downplays the use of language. “There is still much to be learned from Bloom’s provocations, but probably his kind of reading can’t really be done by anyone else,” Green concludes, and this remark applies equally to Gass, whose idiosyncratic essays will find appeal for anyone who is already a proponent of this very different writer. As for Poirier, an academic critic, Green praises him for his work on Emerson and on style: “…unfortunately there are now few critics like Richard Poirier around to return us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirrors the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.”

Susan Sontag occupies the polar opposite position in this section from James Wood. Her words are quoted at length, especially from the essay “On Style” that appeared in Against Interpretation. Daniel Mendelsohn’s criticism of Sontag clashes with Green’s own views on her work in a fruitful way as Green examines her theory of writing as erotic and containing a “‘sensuous surface.’” From the following Sontag quotation, it’s easy to see why a current proponent of New Criticism would find her ideas compelling:

To treat works of art [as statements] is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use—for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world…

In keeping with his independent streak, Green is not wholly satisfied with Sontag either, for she “can’t finally unburden her argument of the criticisms of aestheticism made by the moralists she otherwise castigates.” By speaking of moral aspects to art she diminishes her own response. “‘Art is connected with morality,’” she says, and this is a needless connection in Green’s eyes. She also doesn’t spend enough time on style—linking her to Hitchens and others—which is another fault. As with Wood, he spends a great deal of time teasing out her thought, and these twin pieces are, to my mind, the best in the book when read in tandem.

Gorra and Winters come in for different types of praise, for their positions on the role criticism can play—paying attention to the art, as Winters does, through “meticulous description and analysis,” and less to the person behind it—while refraining (especially in Gorra’s case) from indulging in the personal:

Of course, very little that is actually offered to general readers in book reviews, magazines, or trade publishing could be called academic criticism. Via the latter, the only attention given to literature is through biographies of writers, which in turn become the prompt for what passes as literary criticism in periodicals such as the New York Review of Books, noodling essays in which the reviewer makes sweeping statements about a writer’s work, often simply repeating the conventional wisdom, while otherwise mostly recapitulating whatever biography is under review.

Both writers earn Green’s respect for devising refreshed approaches to literary works.

Concluding Beyond the Blurb with a sustained and enthusiastic review of S.D. Chrostowska’s Matches: A Light Book, Green takes comfort in how this collection of sharply worded and compact aphorisms is “less a specific model of what criticism might become in the digital age than simply a challenge to seriously reflect on what Matthew Arnold called ‘the function of criticism at the present time.’” It is certainly a way to bring attention to stale methods, yet to some extent I have to disagree. In the same review Green writes:

[C]ertainly readers expecting conventionally realized critical essays, close readings, or historical analyses, the kind of book Chrostowska describes in her introductory “Proem,” in which “the words, erect, line up in columns and salute from every page,” will have to adjust their assumptions about what “criticism” properly entails.

The language in “Proem,” and throughout Matches, comes from a poetic sensibility aligned with a finely tuned critical mind. Most works of literature that we consider personally important—our own canons, not a list of books we’re told we should read—contain revelations and social criticism. They can affirm what we believe in better language than we possess or upend our complacency, even if only temporarily. They undercut long-held beliefs in what can be talked about and what kind of language can be used to get across ideas. Matches is the agonized, at times wry, lament of a liberal mind watching as a general deterioration of the world is leading to a final darkness, and the liberal narrator’s mind becomes inflexible and grim. Without distortion, Green’s “conventionally realized critical essays” can be seen as a set of assays in story-telling forms: the dialogue, the homily, the lecture, the fantastic tale, the pensive meditation on the mundane, the humourous quip, and so on. While not wholly new, the form of Matches confidently includes academic criticism and novelization. “Indeed, it would not be wholly implausible to regard Matches as itself a novel of sorts,” Green admits. What is dispensed with is scenery, character (except for the persona), plot, and so on, and what is most prominent is the attention to form and language; these are hallmarks of much postmodern fiction. Matches is a Janus-faced work.

With this review we come to the abrupt end of Beyond the Blurb.

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Conclusion

There are some questions raised by the contents of Green’s book. I wonder why Steve Moore, a critic who has redefined what the novel is, and written on many current books, is not the subject of an essay instead of (or in addition to) Michael Gorra. The same goes for Stephen Mitchelmore, whose own excellent collection of essays, This Space of Writing, came out in late 2015. Green does review that book on his site, along with others, and in that review Green describes Mitchelmore’s book as follows:

After reading the entirety of This Space of Writing readers will likely have an adequately clear understanding of what Mitchelmore means by “silence” (and why it’s missing from most conventional literary fiction) and why its lack of “horizon” makes literature uniquely rewarding, but I confess to finding his critical language at times somewhat impalpable or cryptic, at least according to my own admittedly more buttoned-down approach to criticism.

There is a definitely a restraint in Green’s language—though certainly no hesitation to point fingers when required—and it’s only a minor quibble, a matter of taste (a word I use hesitantly here), that some might prefer a more free-wheeling style. The omission of essays on Moore and Mitchelmore strike me as a missed opportunity.

If it appears that I’ve gone on rather long about a book of criticism, it’s partly because in Beyond the Blurb Daniel Green has written an accessible and contrary-minded work that is at war or in agreement (mild or strong) with prevailing trends of critical writing, and the incorporation of so many strands of thought warrants due space. As he writes about a subject that some writers would be thought to have a vested interest in—how their works are received and, potentially of less significance, used—this book can be recommended to them, as well as to the general reader who may be less and less inclined, and with good reason, to rely on the book pages in their local papers (if such a section even exists) for guidance.

—Jeff Bursey

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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 newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe 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.

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Feb 042017
 

Nancy, Jean-Luc

In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure?     —Melissa Considine Beck

coming cover2

Coming
Jean-Luc Nancy with Adele Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Fordham University Press, 2016
168 pages, $22.00

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In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few.

Nancy made the suggestion of using the infinitive, “To Come” for the English title of this book but Charlotte Mandell thought that the gerund “Coming” would be a better choice to capture the continual nature of movement associated with jouissance. Included in the edition published by Fordham University Press is a beginning note that Nancy writes himself in which he explains the problem with rendering jouissance into an appropriate English title:

In English, sexual orgasm is expressed by the verb “to come.” This has no corresponding noun. What is shared by both lexical registers is an idea of accomplishment. In French, we say venir (to come) for “reaching jouissance,” but the word is mostly used between sexual partners (“viens!” for example.) In choosing the gerund “coming,” Charlotte Mandell aptly brings out action or movement, something that is in the process of occurring, which, in fact, is attached to jouissance and to jouir; that is, precisely, what remains irreducible either to a state or to an acquisition, to an accomplishment or to an appropriation.

It is interesting to note that throughout the text of Coming, jouissance is simply translated in brackets as “pleasure” or is not translated at all, a constant reminder of the elusive nature of this word that has no equivalent translation in English.

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Defining Jouissance: What the fuck does this French word mean?

Nancy is a master at speaking about the nuances of language and uncovers, unpacks and explains specific French words, with their etymological roots in Latin, that are closely related to jouissance. He begins the discussion with an examination of the French verb Jouir, which means “to enjoy” and “to have an orgasm,” and is derived from the Latin verb gaudere, “to rejoice,” and therefore has no etymological relationship to sex or sexuality. At some point there is a shift in meaning of jouissance from property to sexual pleasure and orgasm. Nancy speculates that this shift begins with the middle French use of joie (joy) which denotes the sensual or sexual feelings of the troubadour poets; these poets have a joy of love that is sensual but jouissance, in the sense of reaching orgasm, is avoided. Nancy exclaims, “One of the ordeals of courtly love even consisted of the knight sleeping with his lady without making love!”

He further explores this shift in meaning by comparing the French words jouissance [pleasure] and joy [joie] and how they are different. Nancy argues that jouisssance corresponds to what Kant called pleasant—when something is pleasant it is something that is felt inside of me because something suits me. Joy, however, is outside of me and carries me towards something else. Nancy goes one step further in the etymological connections of various words to jouissance and explains réjouissance (rejoicing), whose root and meaning are very close to jouissance. Nancy points out that réjouissance is not used very often today and when it is used it describes something that is public such as popular festivities. Nancy concludes about the etymological connection between réjouissance and jouissance:

The idea of festivities, réjouissances, refers to festive excess, to a certain suspension of everyday activities, but also to obligation and finality. That is where we find jouissance, in the sense of joyful acclamations greeting the arrival of an important person, like the jouissance of the people at the arrival of the king.

We can say, then, that joy and réjouissance are like jouissance in that they all denote an excess. The idea of excess and its association with jouissance will be a topic brought repeated throughout Coming. Jouissance is an experience of excessive sexual pleasure in the form of orgasm which experience we seek over and over again.

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Jouissance as a shared experience: Is it possible to fuck alone?

The style of interview works exceptionally well for Coming because not only does Van Reeth adeptly sum up Nancy’s complicated thoughts, but she also asks him precise questions which elicit more of his ideas; Van Reeth is able to challenge Nancy to expound on his positions and she keeps the dialogue moving forward rather fluidly. In this part of the interview that deals with the subject and the object in the context of jouissance, Van Reeth begins:

Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the question of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?

Nancy insists that jouissance has no specific subject because I am not the owner of my jouissance. How can it be possible for a person to own an orgasm if his or her sexual climax involves another person, another body. What I take pleasure from is just as much my pleasure as it is the pleasure of the other with whom I am engaging in a sexual relationship. Nancy brilliantly anticipates his critics who would argue that masturbation disproves the nonexistence of subject and takes his argument a step further by stating that when pleasuring oneself the other is still present in the form of a fantasy. So when we fuck, we are never fucking alone even if there isn’t another physical body in the room.

It during this part of the discussion that Nancy brings up Lacan and his exploration of jouissance in relation to the pleasure principal. Lacan believes that a subject attempts to go beyond, to transgress the pleasure principal and this brings about pain. It is with this excess, with this reaching of pleasure beyond a limit that Lacan defines jouissance. Although Nancy has been critical of modern psychology throughout his career, he credits Lacan with his effort “to try to find the meaning of jouissance, beyond the fulfillment of satisfaction, into a sortie, outside oneself, into exuberance, ecstasy….”

Van Reeth’s importance in this philosophical exchange is underscored in this section as she further presses Nancy on Lacan’s examination of jouissance:

How do you understand Lacan’s phrase asserting there is no sexual relationship? If there is no sexual relationship, there is no sexual jouissance. But wouldn’t it be truer to understand not that jouissance is impossible, but that it is inconceivable? Just as the fact that there is no sexual relationship would signify that there is no thinkable relationship. It would be a way to preserve the space unique to jouissance as experience.

Nancy’s insight into Lacan is a starting point for his thoughts on jouissance as a shared experience and it will also serve as a prompt from which to discuss the links between aesthetic and sexual jouissance in the next section of the interview:

That is probably what Lacan means. ‘There is no sexual relationship’ can be understood in several ways: There is no proportion, no commensurability, no conclusion either. The sexual relationship cannot be written down. The implication is: there is no account of it, no ‘report’ [rapport, which also means ‘relationship]’ But it is precisely to that extent that there is a real rapport, which demands incommensurability and a form of non-conclusion. A relationship is maintained [s’entretient]. It is not completed. A completed, accomplishment is either a breakup, or a fusion. And in fusion there is no longer any relationship. It would be truer to say, then, that jouissance is inconceivable, not impossible.

In sum, pleasure comes down to a matter of shared meaning whether there is a sexual partner or not. At the end of this section dealing with subject and shared pleasure, Nancy makes one of the simplest, yet thought-provoking statements in this entire volume: Where does sexuality begin and where does it stop? He concludes, “Perhaps it begins very, very far from the sexual act itself.”

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Aesthetic and Sexual Jouissance: Fucking in motion

Even though Nancy argues that jouissance is never a solitary experience, he also explains that pleasure is unshareable, much in the same way that aesthetic pleasure is a singular experience, unique to each individual.  As he opens thoughts on the link between sexual jouissance and aesthetic jouissance, Nancy points out that it is Freud who first establishes the transfer of aesthetic jouissance to sexual jouissance. Nancy’s criticism of psychology becomes apparent as he disagrees with Freud on his speculation that there is a specific order in which seduction happens—gazing, hearing, touching, must happen first, Freud argues, and only at the end of this progression does Freud finally come to the genitalia through which the tension in the form of orgasm is released.

This part of the discussion in which Nancy brings his reader to understand the connection between sexual and aesthetic jouissance is typical of his very dense, erudite, and multifaceted writing. He references various texts of Freud, he dissects more Latin words via Spinoza, he mentions the young Chilean philosopher Juan Manuel Garrido, he quotes David Hume, and he reaches all the way back to the ancient texts of Plato to make a point about pleasure. As I carefully read his text which is thick with history, philosophy and literature, I take notes, I read or reread authors whose books are sitting on my shelf to whom Nancy has referenced, I search the Internet for authors unknown to me, which laborious activities sometimes feel like a feeble attempt to absorb the full scope of his genius. But all of a sudden, at the end of a complicated series of thoughts, Nancy composes a short, simple, beautiful, concise paragraph that grabs me so forcefully that I pause my frenzy of research:

What we enjoy in an aesthetic form is the movement of this form, even though it ends up being completed. What’s more, an aesthetic form is probably never exhausted and, on the contrary, does not stop enjoying itself (jouir d’elle-meme).

And a bit further on in the same discussion:

In jouissance, they [bodies] become almost formless. Which is radically opposed to that call to eroticism, in advertising or movies, always summoning beautiful, perfected forms. Whereas in eroticism, in eros, these forms become undone.

Nancy reveals in these two simple yet erudite statements that in art there is no formula for what is considered beautiful. Furthermore, we can carry this over to jouissance in which there is no formula to be followed; each person experiences beauty, art and sexual jouissance in his or her own unique way this experience is impossible to share. In a relationship there are no accepted forms or defined forms of beauty, these forms are uniquely decided by the persons within a relationship.

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The Creative Power of Jouissance: Is There an Art to Fucking?

Nancy’s discussion of the link between sexual and aesthetic jouissance, with a particular emphasis on the art of writing, is the most accessible and interesting piece of this interview. Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again. “The artist,” he argues, “is in action in his work, and he also takes pleasure [jouit] from being in the process of working. He suffers too, it’s always laborious.”

Nancy is a prominent and well-known contributor to the studies of art and his cultural writings have covered the topics of literature, poetry, theater, music and film. Nancy has written books on the subject of art and has also written pieces for international art journals and art catalogs. He has a text from a lecture given 1992 at the Louvre displayed with the painting ‘The death of the virgin’ by the Italian painter Caravaggio. It is fitting that Fordham University Press has used a Caravaggio painting for this edition of Coming thereby reminding us of Nancy’s interest in the Italian painter.

In order to lead Nancy into elaborating on the similarities between the pleasure of art, specifically the art of writing, and sex, Van Reeth reads a passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in which the author asserts that writing and sexuality bring about the same pleasure. In a letter dated April 13, 1903 from Viarregio, near Pisa, Rilke writes:

And in fact artistic experiences lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.

Nancy picks up on the idea that Rilke is speaking of writing as working toward the unknown, without a goal, which is also true for artists who work with music or paint. The art passes through the artist to the spectator who experiences the work of art through a plethora of senses. In the end the artist has no real understanding of how his or her work is received, of the various ways in which someone experiences pleasure through his or her art. The pleasure that is experienced by the spectator as a result of interacting with his work is unshareable just as the experience of sexual jouissance. When we speak about sexual pleasure and orgasm, is there really a word or phrase that captures a good fuck? How can we truly and accurately describe the best fuck we’ve ever had? The experience is unshareable when we make any attempt to put it in words.

The true brilliance of Nancy’s dissection of language comes with his elaboration on the verbal similarities of art and sex. Artistic media such as color and rhythm are used to describe both art and sex. Rhythm, for instance, is present in an art’s use of color and can also be applied to the lover’s caress of the body. The best sex is enjoyed when lovers find a rhythm and Rhythm is a coming-and-going, a constant movement a repetition. Nancy concludes about rhythm:

Rhythm in general is born from what is never definitively there, from what does not stay in place and causes us to return, what leads to jouissance. Rhythm is fundamental for humans, bur for nature as well; think of the rhythm of the stars.

Art and sex cannot exist without movement. It is the seduction, the process, the rhythm that leads to artistic and sexual jouissance

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Suffering and Fucking—Christianity’s Influence on jouissance

The fourth part of the book, dealing with Christianity and its influence on jouissance is the shortest and the least stimulating part of the dialogue. Nancy has been interested in and critical of Christianity throughout his career and we get a cursory survey of his thoughts in this section. Throughout their dialogue on pleasure, Nancy and Van Reeth both tangentially bring up the close relationship between pleasure and suffering. Nancy sites the works of de Sade as an example of jouisssance being the result of pain inflicted on another or on oneself. Pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful. Van Reeth uses the example of Proust’s narrator who, in the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe, describes the very noisy sexual encounter between Baron de Charlus and Julien as akin to the sound of a man having his throat split. The narrator concludes, “if there is one thing as loud as suffering, it’s pleasure.”

Nancy begins the section by arguing that Christianity was the calming solution to the disintegration of the theocratic regimes, the loss of which political system caused great anxiety and unrest. Christianity brings to mankind the idea that life is simply a passage to another spiritual side, a passage that is marked by suffering. It is the Passion of Christ that provides us with a redemptive kind of suffering and suffering is specifically attached to life on earth. One must pass through suffering in this life in order to attain salvation. As a result there is a definitive break and distinction between heavenly joy and human joy. Because of Christianity’s condemnation of the flesh, earthly pleasures such as human joy and jouissance become evil and separate from heavenly joy and jubilation. It is fitting that their discussion on Christianity and suffering, even in relation to jouissance, is the most somber part of Van Reeth and Nancy’s dialogue.

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From Consummation to Consumption: Do we give a fuck about anything anymore?

Nancy explains that Christianity was an attempt to organize people into one community, but the appearance of a modern state served to divide individuals until the invention of capitalism. “which would insert the individual subject into the circuit of a new jouissance: no longer the jouissance of excess, but that of accumulation and investment. It’s a jouissance that can no longer bear that name.” Van Reeth asks Nancy what, exactly, has changed to cause the meaning of jouissance to shift once again.

It was Communism, Nancy argues, that provided the connection between jouissance and profit, which political theory believed that everyone’s hard work will produce profits that can be equally shared by all –this sharing of profits would be a source of jouissance. But nowadays, people are working harder than ever and the profits are accumulated by a very small percentage of the upper classes. Nancy argues that jouissance has now come full circle to be associated with its legal meaning which is that of possession and acquisition.

Today, jouissance has become confused with and associated with profit as well as property.   Excess has now taken on a quantitative definition in that we must possess the greatest possible number of things that we can. Nancy concludes: “It has left heaven, joy, to land again on earth.” With the ubiquity of things that we consume that push us to the brink of addition—little blue pills, a plethora of opiates, internet pornography—jouissance today has evolved into a kind of greedy consumption in which excess has become the norm. With the disappearance of excess what is left that gives us pleasure? Have we landed in an epoch of post-pleasure?

In this final part of the dialogue when Nancy brings up modern ideas of consumption and their relation to jouissance he shows that he has continued to think about philosophical topics and how they can be applied to current social and political situations. Orgasm, masturbation, sexual pleasure, addiction, and jouissance itself are topics that seem more fitting for the field of psychology and have not been explored by philosophers. Despite his years of suffering through grave illnesses and his advanced age, Nancy proves in the publication of Coming that he is as relevant and progressive as ever in his field.

Although Coming is a short book, some might be intimidated by the breadth and depth of Nancy’s thought. It is, however, an excellent and thorough introduction to the wide range of ideas on which Nancy has expertly written and a scintillating discussion of pleasure, sex, orgasm, fucking, desire, pain, and how we experience these things with our bodies. The interview style of the text in which Van Reeth summarizes Nancy’s main points and propels the conversation forward with her questions makes Coming one of his most accessible and fucking enjoyable books.

—Melissa Considine Beck

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Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy..

Jan 142017
 

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We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? —Frank Richardson

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Thus Bad Begins
Javier Marías
Knopf, 2016
$27.95; 448 pages

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We all have secrets. We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? We live in a time when the Oxford Dictionaries awarded “post-truth” word of year. Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, tells the perfect story for an age of relativism, for it is filled with characters who deny their pasts, who conspire to create glowing public images despite their crimes, who distort the truth for their own agendas, and who flatly reject known facts to preserve their peace of mind and their illusion of a stable, happy present.

Born in Madrid in 1951, twelve years after the Spanish Civil War, Javier Marías grew up in a society of secrecy, a country where secrets meant life or death. Javier Marías published his first novel in 1971, at the precocious age of nineteen. Since then he has published thirteen novels, two short story collections, a book of literary biographies, and writes a regular column for the Madrid newspaper El País. His books, with sales in the millions, have been translated into over forty languages and have won numerous prizes. Quickly following the commercial and critical success of his 2013 novel The Infatuations (reviewed by Numéro Cinq’s Laura K. Warrell), in a brilliant translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Thus Bad Begins examines our relationships with those closest to us—our spouses, our lovers, our friends—and asks how much we can know about them and, more disturbingly, how much we want to know.

The Voyeur

Set in Madrid in 1980, Thus Bad Begins is the first-person recollection of Juan de Vere, now ostensibly a writer living in contemporary times. Covering about a year of his young life, when he was 23, Juan de Vere—a quintessential Marías narrator given to meditative digression—reflects on the time he spent working for the almost famous film director Eduardo Muriel, his intimacy with his employer’s family, and his mission to investigate the lecherous and enigmatic Dr. Jorge Van Vechten.

The 448-page novel is divided into eleven numbered chapters, each with between four and eight subchapters of approximately equal length. The first subchapter of chapter one begins like many others, with Juan’s contemplations, which serve as thematic passages. Juan’s style is discursive, speculative, analytical. He explores his past through his prose and often loses himself in extended, lyrical observations. Here especially Marías employs his signature complex sentences, some stretching to a page in length. For readers familiar with Marías’s fiction, this will come as little surprise, and in this novel he once again creates a dense psychological representation of the narrator through the intricate syntax of his long sentences.

“Young de Vere,” as his employer calls him, is hired as a personal assistant whose duties range from translation to taking dictation to organizing Muriel’s library. Juan has an almost eidetic memory and quotes people verbatim. An effective conceit, Juan’s quotes serve two purposes: first, they move conversations forward in unexpected ways, and second, the repetition helps link the chapters and serves as a thematic refrain.

Marías’s first-person narrators often sound like third-person objective observers, and Juan’s chronicle subtly switches point of view and tense as he segues between his thoughts in the present, what he imagines he thought in the past, and what he suspects were the thoughts and feelings of others. Juan’s tone, while earnest and sincere, tends to be conspiratorial and occasionally evasive. A self-effacing Marías protagonist, Juan claims “there is nothing original about me” on the first page and near the end he states “there is nothing original about my character,” by which he means, in a suspiciously metafictional sentence, his character in the novel. As much an epistemological mystery as a plotted mystery, the problem of truth is a major theme of the novel, and Marías’s blending of fact with fiction finds in Young de Vere a perfect narrator.

When Juan’s duties become so time consuming that he spends nights in the Muriels’ guest room, he soon gains his first insight into the couple’s marriage—one of the principal mysteries of the novel. Juan, a sensitive, compassionate young man who admires his employer, is unnerved by the jarring contrast between Muriel’s normally charming and ingenuous behavior and his inexplicably cruel verbal abuse of his wife, Beatriz, abuse which she appears to absorb with a calm, long-suffering resignation.

Muriel and Beatriz sleep in separate bedrooms and one night she comes to her husband’s bedroom door. In classic Marías fashion, the narrator becomes voyeur and Juan watches while Beatriz pleads with Muriel, declaring he is the only one she loves and reiterating what she must have said many times, that she can’t believe he has broken off their relationship “over some stupid thing that happened ages ago.” But what she calls a “stupid thing” Eduardo finds unforgivable, and he brutally rebukes her. After witnessing the exchange, Juan concludes:

There are some things about which it’s best just to have your suspicions, as long as these are not pressing or unbearable, rather than pursue some disappointing or painful certainty that, as Muriel had more or less said, would oblige you to go on living, meanwhile having to tell yourself a different story from the one you had lived with up until then, always supposing it was possible to cancel out or replace what you had already lived. Or even cancel out or replace what you had believed, if you had believed it for a long time.

And so Juan begins to explore the idea of denying the truth, of avoiding reality and hiding in the comfort of ignorance.

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The Directive

Paralleling the mystery of the Muriel’s relationship, a second mystery grounds the primary plot: Juan’s investigation of his boss’s good friend, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Soon after he hires Juan, Muriel informs him that he has been told a disquieting story about his friend, a story that, if true, would mean the doctor had “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” Deeply troubled by the hearsay, at first Muriel denies the possibility of it being true, but eventually his curiosity wins out and he charges his young assistant with an unusual directive. He asks Juan to invite Van Vechten when he and his friends go nightclubbing. Muriel wants Juan to gain Van Vechten’s confidence, to “draw him out” by boasting of his sexual exploits, and if Juan doesn’t have any, no problem, he should invent some. Muriel knows his friend well enough that such company and conversation might, coupled with a generous amount of alcohol, loosen his tongue enough for him to divulge his secrets.

Although Juan’s morals are at odds with his assignment—he finds it odious to pretend to be someone he’s not with the deliberate aim of betrayal—he doesn’t want to disappoint Muriel, and in an ironic twist, a voyeur becomes a reluctant hired spy. As Muriel predicted, it doesn’t take long for Juan to confirm his suspicions about Van Vechten’s true nature.

Juan’s description of the doctor, however, is not confined to reporting his words and actions. Marías exquisite portraits are a distinguishing quality of all his novels. Muriel, Beatriz, and Van Vechten are all drawn in the finest, most purposeful detail. Marías’s portraits begin with physical features (coupled with commentary) and then broaden to include the character’s character:

Van Vechten did indeed have very blue eyes and the kind of blond hair which is still memorable in a country where such hair color is much more common than people think and admit . . . . [his] features suggested a triumphant, expansive nature, as did the way he behaved in public: with enormous confidence, perennial good humor, too perennial not to seem somewhat false . . . . Alongside that good humor, one sensed something voracious and troubling, as if nothing ever entirely pleased him, as if he were one of those people for whom nothing is ever enough, who always want more . . .

The portrait moves from the concrete to the abstract to the general. Once he has shifted to describing “one of those people,” Marías’s narrator now tangentially reflects on who “those people” are, generalizing the particular and extending the theme beyond the story and the specific details of character and plot.

Fact and Fiction

From the first page, Marías blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, and one device he uses is having his narrator address the reader. Juan isn’t a passive observer, a disinterested narrator; his fate becomes entwined with those he observes. Midway through the novel, Juan confesses he has his own secret, one he promises to reveal later: “And when I tell that secret here (except that here is not reality), you will all have to keep my secret . . .” Such coy pronouncements about the reality of his text are not uncommon for Juan, and his reticence evokes the impression of a man riddled with guilt who, although he wants to confess, cannot bring himself to accept the truth.

Like Shakespeare’s use of a play within a play in Hamlet (from which the title Thus Bad Begins is derived) Marías employs the literary device of a story within a story as another means to blend fiction and reality, and he does so using real people. During the scene where Juan delivers his first Van Vechten report to Muriel, the actor Herbert Lom is present. Lom is perhaps best remembered for playing the insane Dreyfus opposite Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films. Inspired by Juan’s report, Lom tells the true story of producer Harry Alan Towers (with whom Muriel is also working), principal culprit in a sex-scandal in the 1960s involving Mariella Novotny and John F. Kennedy (before he was elected President). And Lom and Towers aren’t the only real people in the novel: Marías’s own uncle, the B-movie director Jesús (Jess) Franco is important to the plot and actor Jack Palance is featured in a scene. While Lom’s story may appear extravagantly digressive, the details cleverly parallel plot elements and expand image patterns; furthermore, the use of real people and historical details adds verisimilitude and is another way Marías generalizes the particular. Marías weaves fact with fiction so seamlessly it is impossible to tell them apart; indeed, this is thematically important since the narrator is often reflecting on the nature of reality verses fiction; thus, this intersection of the real with fiction becomes a thematic mimesis.

The story Lom tells is reminiscent of the anecdotes that W. G. Sebald used in his narratives. Marías admires Sebald’s writing and corresponded with the late author. Another thing they have in common is their use of photos. Thus Bad Begins contains two photos, one of Mariella Novotny and one of a painting by Francesco Casanova (brother of the infamous Giacomo). The latter is significant for the dominant image pattern of observation, particularly with a single eye. The painting features a mounted cavalryman looking over his right shoulder; you can only see one of his eyes. Muriel, blinded in one eye, wears an eyepatch. Being a film director, he is always looking through a camera, a single lens. And Juan, as if calling upon a muse, makes numerous references to the “sentinel moon” observing “with just one eye open.”

cavalryman-2Francesco Casanova, Cavalryman, n.d

Making Time

Laurence Sterne, one of Marías’s influences, wrote in Tristram Shandy “Now there is nothing in this world I abominate worse, than to be interrupted in a story.” How ironic, considering Marías has been criticized for his discursive style. His famous tangents might indeed appear, upon cursory reading, to interrupt the momentum and create suspense artificially through simple postponement. However, Marías continues in a long tradition—including Sterne and Proust—in his use of such digressions; he said in an interview “I’m going to make time that doesn’t have the time to exist, exist” (The White Review). Marías endeavors to create time as we experience it in memory, slowed to the speed of dwelling on signature moments, the ones we return to obsessively—as Juan does. Marías does use scene and summary in a conventional sense—scene for a slower pace with critical detail and summary for skipping quickly over moments of less importance—but he creates the Proustian time he spoke about through Juan’s meditations.

Part of Marías’s secret to creating time is his exceptional use of thematic passages. Ranging from a paragraph to several pages, the thematic passages are Juan’s attempts to understand his past; through his reflections he explores his thoughts and actions and seeks to make sense of the world. For example, when remembering an afternoon he spied on Beatriz, Juan muses:

“Hers is such a woeful bed,” I thought, “that she has to visit other beds . . . she looks for substitutes, as almost everyone does, very few of us ever find what we yearn for, or if we do, we don’t hang on to it for very long, and who knows how long she managed to hang on to her happiness.” We strive to conquer things, never thinking, in our eagerness, that they will never definitely be ours, that they rarely last and are always susceptible to loss, nothing is ever for ever [sic] . . .

Marías often uses such shifts from direct internal monologue of Juan’s thoughts of the moment to a timeless present rich in aphorism when Juan’s voice is subsumed by a broader, universal voice. The shift in voice is often paired with shifts in point of view, as here where he shifts from first-person singular to first-person plural. Adding depth of these thematic passages, Juan asks many rhetorical questions, as in this example where he ponders about love:

Why should we be loved by the person we have chosen with our tremulous finger? Why that one person, as if he were obliged to obey us? Why should the person who troubles or arouses us and for whose flesh and bones we yearn, why should he desire us? Why should we believe in such coincidences? And when they do happen, why should they last?

Juan’s rhetorical questions not only generalize the themes, but they link scenes in image patterns and serve as prompts that propel the narrative forward.

Another dimension of the thematic passages is that they often contain long, lyrical sentences, another Marías hallmark. He strives to create a musicality with his sentences, to carry readers as if they were “on the top of a wave” (Literary Hub). In his excellent introduction to A Heart So White, Jonathan Coe notes Marías’s spare use of punctuation, often relying solely on commas to separate independent clauses. However, unlike that novel from 1992, in Thus Bad Begins Marías uses a variety of punctuation to create the musical cadence he desires. For example, here Juan’s speculations about himself segue into second-person aphoristic generalization and then third person supposition in a stream of consciousness:

Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older; it’s impossible to recover the inexperience of your inexperienced youth once you’ve moved on considerably; once you’ve understood something, it’s impossible to not understand what you once didn’t understand, ignorance doesn’t return, not even when you want to describe a time during which you either basked in or were the victim of ignorance, and never trust anyone who tells you something with a falsely innocent look on his face, feigning the lost innocence of childhood or adolescence or youth, or who adopts the gaze—the icy, frozen gaze—of the child he no longer is, and the same is true of the old man who speaks out of the years of his maturity rather than out of the old age that now dominates his entire vision of the world . . .

Although he does use semicolons, without the full stop of a period this sentence mimics thought in so far as our thoughts are also an uninterrupted stream.

Thus Bad Begins offers a new perspective on the expanding universe of Javier Marías’s Madrid, his own Yoknapatawpha County, where familiar but always fresh characters struggle with the vagaries of life.

Marías describes his writing process as working without a map, but with a compass, a talisman Muriel carries and rubs between his fingers whenever he is “filled by doubts.” In the last major scene, Muriel worries the compass as he explains to Juan his behavior toward Beatriz in exchange for Juan keeping silent about Van Vechten. Muriel tells Juan:

We lose far too many people in a lifetime, they either drift away or die, and it doesn’t make sense to get rid of those who are left. So what if he committed some vile deed in the past or took advantage of someone or other? Here, during a very long dictatorship, almost everyone did at some point. So what?

We all have secrets, but Muriel’s denial raises difficult questions. Which secrets can be kept and which must be told? Should we always admit the truth, or only when it is convenient, when it won’t be painful? Juan, replete with his own secrets, learns caution, for his experience shows him the price of denial and the price of honesty. Marías’s novel doesn’t offer easy solutions but reminds us that one of the most perilous decisions we can make is to practice deceit, for thus bad begins.

—Frank Richardson

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Frank

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.

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Jan 122017
 

Seiji Ozawa, left, and Haruki Murakami. Credit Nobuyoshi Araki (NY Times)

Absolutely on Music is the kind of book that makes you want to go find the music for yourself… These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening. —Carolyn Ogburn

Absolute Music
Haruki Murakami & Seigi Ozawa
Knopf, 2016
352 pages; $27.95

“…all I want to say is that Mahler’s music looks hard at first sight, and it really is hard, but if you read it closely and deeply with feeling, it’s not such confusing and inscrutable music after all. It’s got all these layers piled one on top of another, and lots of different elements emerging at the same time, so in effect it sounds complicated.” —Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music

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Absolutely on Music, by novelist and music aficionado Haruki Murakami and legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa (translated by Jay Rubin) is the best kind of eavesdropping. Although the book is (not inaccurately) described as series of “conversations,” the topic throughout is music, and the conversations appropriately become Murakami’s interviews of Ozawa regarding his long and storied career in the aftermath of diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Ozawa explains that “until my surgery, I was too busy making music every day to think about the past, but once I started remembering, I couldn’t stop, and the memories came back to me with a nostalgic urge. This was a new experience for me. Not all things connected with major surgery are bad. Thanks to Haruki, I was able to recall Maestro Karajan, Lenny, Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Center, one after another…”

Murakami (b. 1949) is best known as a novelist, including Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1994) and 1Q84 (2009-2010). He has received many awards for his work, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. He has published several collections of short stories and many works of nonfiction, including Underground, about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Music often plays a strong role in Murakami’s writing. Scholars have long been drawn to exploring the musical worlds evoked in Murakami’s novels; they’ve created playlists  and written dissertations (and created more playlists. There is even a special resource on Murakami’s website that provides references to the musicians, songs, and albums mentioned in his writing. The biography of Murakami written by his long-time translator, Jay Rubin, is titled Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.

“How did I learn to write?” Murakami asks. “By listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Murakami’s and Ozawa’s daughters were friends, but the two artists only knew one another casually. They never spoke of their work to one another until Ozawa became ill with esophageal cancer in December, 2009. Because Ozawa had to limit his work, Murakami noted a new eagerness when they met to turn conversations to the topic of music, noting that it might have been the fact that he was not talking to a fellow musician that “set him at ease.” The task of publishing these conversations came from a story Ozawa told Murakami about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Murakami writes, “’What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate,’ I thought. ‘Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘somebody’ that happened to cross my mind at the moment was me.”

Seiki Ozawa (b. 1935) began conducting as a boy in Japan when a rugby injury sprained his hand too badly for him to continue his piano studies. His skill soon brought him to the United States, where in 1960 he won first prize for student conducting at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood festival. The young Ozawa studied conducting under legendary conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, who both figure prominently in these conversations. He went on to serve as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and as the principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera. He has received many honors and awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor and two Grammy Awards.

It’s interesting to note that the collection opens with a discussion of who is really in control during a performance of a concerto: the soloist or the orchestra’s conductor? Murakami initiates these interviews not with Ozawa’s own recordings, but with a discussion of Bernstein’s well-known disavowal of the interpretation of the Brahms First Piano Concerto as performed by Glenn Gould and the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Bernstein spoke to the audience prior to the performance, saying:

I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question: “What am I doing conducting it?” [Audience murmurs, tittering.] I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.

Gould often performed with tempi so eccentric that it was difficult to regulate his interpretation together with that of the orchestra. It was this that prompted a discussion between Murakami and Ozawa as to which artist, conductor or soloist, was really in charge of a performance. But in this dialogue of two renowned artists, Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami, who is in charge?

Though it is Ozawa’s history, the book ultimately belongs to Murakami. The comparison to Glenn Gould is an apt one, I feel, for Murakami’s prosody is, like Gould’s musical syntax, both engaging and strongly idiosyncratic. The language is unmistakably Murakami’s throughout. The syntax and rhythm of the words (at least as translated by long-time Murakami translator Jay Rubin) could be lifted straight from the page of any Murakami novel. I kept feeling as if a cat were gazing silently from the other room. If you are a fan of Murakami’s prose, then you will enjoy this book as well.

The conversational settings (the book consists of six conversations, separated by shorter “interludes”) are described only in the loosest terms. The first conversation, for example, takes place in Murakami’s home “in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo.” Albums and CDs are pulled off the shelf to play as they talk, but the shelves themselves are never described; it’s as if they are being pulled from thin air. There’s something of the animated drawing about these conversations, the way that the suggestion of a particular recording prompts an immediate search for music. In the example here, the search is immediate. Though we haven’t any idea where the two are seated (or if they are seated), no sense of the room, or the light, the time of day or night, the mention of Lalo’s piece for orchestra and solo violin initiates a small flurry of activity:

Ozawa: “We [the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ozawa] Lalo’s Spanish something-or-another. She was barely twenty years old at the time.

Murakami: Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espanole. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of that somewhere.

Rustling sounds as I hunt for the record, which finally turns up.

Ozawa: This is it! This is it! Wow, I haven’t seen this thing for years.

Here, too, you get a sense of the way in which Murakami, the first-person author, enters the page as himself rather than via the transcriptionist of his own words. He’s “Murakami” except when making “rustling sounds” as he searches for the record he has in mind, which “finally turns up.” Those details—unexplained rustling, the “finally turns up,” which insists on being read with a kind of drama whose merit is uncertain—is classic Murakami.

There’s no doubt, however, that Murakami knows his stuff. As Ozawa himself puts it in the book’s afterward, “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of this dialogue comes through the two very different ways in which they’ve each come to know the music that they love. For Murakami, his knowledge of music comes through avid and detailed listening to recorded music, supplemented by live performances when possible. As he admits, “a piece of music and the material thing on which it was recorded often comprised an indivisible unit.”

Ozawa, on the other hand, is far less familiar with recorded works, even his own. His knowledge of music comes from his study of it. His first encounter with Mahler was through reading a score: “I had never heard them on records. I didn’t have the money to buy records then, and I didn’t even have a machine to play them on.” The music itself was revelatory, “a huge shock for me—until then I never even knew that music like that existed…I could feel the blood draining from my face. I had to order my own copies right then and there. After that, I started reading Mahler like crazy—the First, the Second, the Fifth.” The first time he ever heard Mahler performed was as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. Because of the way in which he learned the repertoire, Ozawa, unlike Murakami, was less familiar with the range of recorded performances of any given piece. Murakami is struck by what he calls “the fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music.” He finds that difference between a music-maker and a music lover to be an almost-literal wall, “especially high and thick when that music maker is a world class professional. But still, that doesn’t have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least, that’s how I feel about it, because music is a thing of such breadth and generosity.”

The first conversation revolves around a variety of recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. A 1957 performance with Glenn Gould and the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan is compared with Gould’s recording with Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (composed of members of the NY Philharmonic) in 1959. The two then listen to Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the same concerto with Bernstein in 1964, which is taken at such a rapid tempo that Ozawa exclaims in astonishment, “It’s kind of an inconceivable performance.” They listen to another recording on period instruments, or the actual instruments for which Beethoven would have been writing: Jos van Immerseel performing on the fortepiano, rather than the modern-day piano, for instance. (Oddly, neither the orchestra nor the conductor is named.) This performance provokes the kind of observation that will delight the serious student of music, or anyone who enjoys thinking about sound: Ozawa says, almost as an aside, that in this period-instrument recording that “you can’t hear the consonants.”

Ozawa: The leading edge of each sound.

Murakami: I still don’t get it.

Ozawa: Hmm, how can I put it? If you sing a-a-a, it’s all vowel. But if you add consonants to each of the a’s, you get something like ta-ka-ka, or ha-sa-sa. It’s a question of which consonants you add. It’s easy enough to make the first ta or ha, but the hard part is what follows. If it’s all consonant—ta-t-t—the melody falls apart. But the expression of the notes changes depending on whether you go ta-raa-raa or ta-waa-waa. To have a good musical ear means having control over the consonants and the vowels. When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out.

Murakami next brings out the 1982 recording of the piece with Rudolph Serkin again at the piano, and Ozawa himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here, we’re privy to Ozawa’s self-critique—“Now, this is ‘direction.’ Hear those four notes? Tahn-tahn-tahn-tahn….I should have done more of that.”—and his suggestion that Serkin, who was now late in life, realized that it was probably “his last performance of this piece, that he won’t have another chance to record it while he’s alive, and so he’s going to play it the way he wants to. Period.”

Finally, they listen to Mitsuko Uchida’s 1994 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Kurt Sanderling. Earlier, the two have discussed the use of silence (the Japanese use the word ma to describe this quality) and the way in which Gould uses ma so naturally in his interpretation. Now they find a similar quality in Uchida’s playing, the silent intervals, her “free spacing of the notes.”

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 / Mitsuko Uchida, Seiji Ozawa. Saito Kinen Orchestra

This concept of ma comes back as Ozawa describes to Murakami the conductor’s role in bringing the orchestra in following a break in the sound:

Murakami: When you’ve got an empty moment and you have to glide into it, the musicians all watch the conductor, I suppose?

Ozawa: That’s right. I’m the one responsible for putting it all together in the end, so they’re all looking at me. In that passage we just heard, the piano goes tee…and then there’s an empty space [ma] and the orchestra glides in, right? It makes a huge difference whether you play tee-yataa or tee…yataa. Or there are some people who add expression by coming in without a break: teeyantee. So if you do it by kind of “sneaking in” as they say in English, the way we heard, it can go wrong. It’s tremendously difficult to make the orchestra all breathe together at exactly the same point. You have all these different instruments in different positions on the stage, so each of them hears the piano differently, and that tends to throw off the breath of each player by a little. So to avoid that kind of slip-up, the conductor should come in with a big expression on his face like this—teeyantee.

Murakami: So you indicate the empty interval [ma] with your face and body language.

Ozawa: Right, right. You show with your face and the movement of your hands whether they should take a long breath or a short breath. That little bit makes a big difference….it’s not so much a matter of calculation as it is the conductor’s coming to understand, through experience, how to breathe.

Each conversation focuses very loosely on a topic, but the strength of this book is found in its soaring, tangential details. The second conversation revolves around Ozawa’s performances of the Four Brahms Symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the manner of organization within orchestral groups today, particulars of instrumentation in the horn section of Brahms’ First Symphony; Brahms evokes Ozawa’s mentor, Hideo Saito. Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Orchestra was formed to mark the 10th anniversary of the great conductor’s death. The third conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences during the 1960s as he moves from New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant to Leonard Bernstein, to working with the Chicago Symphony, to three recordings Ozawa made with the Toronto Symphony of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.

Seiji Ozawa conducts Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Toronto Symphony Orchestra 1967. 1st Movement: Rêveries – Passions.

In the fourth conversation, the two discuss the works of Gustav Mahler, a composer who’s work wasn’t widely performed until Leonard Bernstein championed his works in the 1960s. Of course, Murakami explains, one of the reasons Mahler wasn’t performed was that his work, like the works of all Jews, was “quite literally wiped out over the twelve long years following 1933, when the Nazis took power, to the end of the war in 1945.”

This is a fascinating dissection of both the composition and orchestration of Mahler’s nine symphonies and a history of the performance styles that were used over the decades that Ozawa has been conducting them. The emerging prevalence of recordings actually changed the performance styles; as recording moved away from recording the overall sound, focusing instead on individual instruments, so too did the tendency of orchestras to aim for a more transparent, detailed performance. The whole chapter on Mahler is one of the richest in the book. Yet, here’s Murakami, breaking in again to note Ozawa “eats a piece of fruit.”

Ozawa: Mmm, this is good. Mango?

Murakami: No, it’s a papaya.

Other times, Murakami’s interruptions are to provide poetic interpretation that comes in surprising passages, however lovely his descriptions may be. For example, while listening to the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, Murakami notes that “the clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest.” The line here, not unlike the mysterious touch of the clarinet, is surprising only because it is so rare; it’s a language from another time. In this book, the magic comes from two skilled craftsmen talking about their work with curiosity and affection.

The fifth conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences conducting opera, both staged and in concert performances. He recalls being “booed in Milan” at La Scala. Murakami presses him, asking twice, “Do you think there was some resistance to the idea of an Asian conducting Italian opera at La Scala?”

Osawa replies, “The sound I gave Tosca was not the Tosca they were used to.”

“Back then, weren’t you the only Asian conducting at a first-class European opera house?”

“Yes,” says Ozawa. “I suppose I was.”

That the two men are both Japanese, conversing in Japanese, is an issue that glides just below the surface of the conversation. Many times, Ozawa credits his lack of English fluency to explain why he simply didn’t notice the political waters in which he swam as a young conductor in New York and Europe. When he recalls the days in which Ravinia, the prestigious music festival outside of Chicago, was an all-white establishment (in the context of bringing Louis Armstrong to the festival), neither acknowledge that his very presence contradicts the memory of “all white”.

The final conversation centers on the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. It’s a summer chamber music program that works with promising young musicians in small ensembles and extraordinary master instructors such as violinist Pamela Frank, cellist Sadao Harada, violist Nobuku Imai, and violinist Robert Mann. It’s a program designed around the very principles Ozawa learned from his first teacher, Hideo Saito.

Reading Conversations on the subway, or a cafeteria, or a picnic table in the late autumn sun, I could usually call to mind some of the music under discussion from memory, down to the scratchy sound of cracks in the vinyl, the thick humidity of the needle tracing silence between movements, as if it were playing just a the limit of earshot. But when I sat down to write about the book, I felt compelled to search out the actual recordings. I found many of them on Murakami’s website, which (as I mentioned earlier) contains playlists of works referenced in his other books. Other pieces, though not all, can be found online. These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening.

—Carolyn Ogburn

 Carollyn Ogburn

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Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Jan 092017
 

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So, summarize Lutz? Put forth tweet-worthy versions of the four stories in Assisted Living? Nope, no such luck. Experience on your own the sentential event for which Lutz has become known. —Jason Lucarelli

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Assisted Living
Gary Lutz
Future Tense Books, 2017
32 pages, $5.00

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People really make a fuss over Gary Lutz. Google his name. Read through the results. Read Justin Taylor’s interview at Bookslut, Derek White’s interview at BOMB, Kevin Sampsell’s mini interview at The Rumpus. Read one or two positive and critical Amazon reviews (do the same at Goodreads too). Maybe appreciate a more astute, more literary review (here’s one, two). In reading you might find, panned or loved, Lutz produces no subtle response in anyone. But Lutz is anything but subtle. His every story seems like a dare.

Sample the stuff: “She was the glummer of the two of us, more out of sorts with herself and the harangue of our heartbeats. She bulled into her sleep and came out of it with unperfected follies of feeling.”

These sentences from Vasovagal would wind up piecemeal in the stories inside Assisted Living, Lutz’s chapbook of new fiction out now from Future Tense Press. It’s his fifth collection of stories and his second for Future Tense editor and publisher Kevin Sampsell, who also published Partial List of People to Bleach as a chapbook at 56 pages. Assisted Living amounts to a mere 36 pages, yet the four stories inside are as fractured and syntactically textured as anything in previous collections (Stories in the Worst Way (1996), I Looked Alive (2003), Partial List of People to Bleach (2007), and divorcer (2011). These stories are less stories and more “concentrations of verbal matter.” Each highly wrought instance of inked language showcase a sick obsession with the sentence. His commitment to the form has been admired by authors from Amy Hempel to George Saunders. Ben Marcus has called Lutz “a sentence writer from another planet, deploying language with unmatched invention,” and Diane Williams has said, “His authentic language conquers any habit of speech.” In his own words, Lutz says readers encounter in his stories “instigated language, language dishabituated from its ordinary doings, language startled by itself.” He says, “To me, language is matter—it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed… I like to see what happens.”

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and currently residing in Pittsburgh, Gary Lutz is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He was the visiting writer at Syracuse University in the spring of 2003 and at the University of Kansas in the spring of 2007. In 2008, he delivered a pivotal lecture to Columbia University students titled “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place,” which was published by The Believer in 2009. In this instructive essay on the act of sentence-making, Lutz describes the kind sentences he wants to write: “the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” Such sentences have “the force and feel of a climax,” and the “acoustical elegance of the aphorism,” where each word bears “physical and sonic resemblance to each other.” The essay introduces specimen sentences through the context of a set of poetics Lutz learned from his teacher Gordon Lish. These poetics involve a handful of maneuvers, one of which is called “consecution…a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows.” In a sequel of sorts, “The Poetry of the Paragraph: Some Notes,” appearing in 3:AM Magazine, Lutz discusses the “acoustical symmetry” and “verbal pressure” achievable by certain successions of sentences inside paragraphs. The essay looked at how paragraphs emerge from sentences by means of another maneuver Lutz learned from Lish called “the swerve.” The process of moving from sentence to sentence is “not one of addition or accretion but instead a revisionary process” so that each “new sentence breaks away from, or reconstitutes, its predecessor.” Such a paragraph resembles a “sequence of declarations, each of which is crying out for eternal visibility and audibility, and seeking preeminence.” Instead of “building to a climax,” this kind of paragraph “delivers a series of climaxes.”

While these essays reveal a few of Lish’s important workshop teachings, they also help to make sense of Lutz’s unique method of composition. Because the truest satisfaction from reading Lutz comes from considering how the text was made, these essays—like essays by Stein, Sarraute, or Robbe-Grillet—may be used by readers to read the work against and examine the merits of of the text. His sentences, their “forms and contours,” their “organizations of sound,” are so strange they should be studied for their selection.

So, summarize Lutz? Put forth tweet-worthy versions of the four stories in Assisted Living? Nope, no such luck. Experience on your own the sentential event for which Lutz has become known. Here is the title story’s opening paragraph:

Whether she came on to me or just came at me testily, without much sleep to her name, should make no bit of difference to anybody now. I tried to be a father to her, and she wanted to try being a daughter—that was to be the understanding, effective whenever.

The first sentence is held together by an “intra-sentence intimacy,” the “physical and sonic resemblance” of its words: the assonantal relations between “came” (2x), “name,” and “make”; and “me” (2x), “testily,” and “sleep.” (Note the musical flourish of “testily” before the prepositional phrase.) As for the content of the sentence, conflict is created between the story’s supposed characters of “she” and “me” in the first fifteen beats. Readers wonder what the nature of the relationship is between these characters. The verbal pressure of consonants in “no bit of difference to anybody now” emphasizes this conflict. The second sentence attempts to add context to the relationship (“I tried to be a father to her, and she wanted to try being a daughter”), but the infinitive of “to be” reaches meaningfully, distancing the “I” of the sentence from “father,” while “wanted to try” similarly implies a failure to subscribe to these rules of engagement: a kind of paternal relationship. The phrase post em dash (“that was to be the understanding, effective whenever”) reinforces halfhearted resolve. (Note the verbal symmetry of syllables and shared e’s in “effective whenever.”) In each sentence, the drama of content, the “subject matter” of these sentences—the relationship between the narrator and the girl—“is supplemented or deepened by the drama of the letters within the words.” These sentences contain what Stanley Fish calls “an angle of lean” and create motion by promising “content in prospect.” Lutz reveals content on one hand while concealing it with the other.

Instead of examining the relationship, in a kind of swerve, the next few sentences hover over the girl herself (“she was already sinking in a life of mild peril, of shortages sought out”). Sentences and paragraphs bat back and forth the content of their lives and the content of their relationship, the context of which is indeterminable. The narrator riffs about the girl’s siblings, her mother, the shape of the girl’s hair (“sketched onto the skull, then scumbled”), and her two jobs. Sentences centering on the narrator and the girl tend to point both backward and forward in the story: “She wanted to report to me. That was my importance to her,” or “There wasn’t enough testing of affections on each other.” These kinds of sentences may be deciphered over and over without getting any closer to conclusive certainty. In a Gary Lutz story, acoustics and ambiguity are dramatized at every turn.

At one point Lutz launches a “scene” from a turn of phrase: “Everything, I repeat, was on the level. It was so level we could set things out on it, the whole of whatever it was, with its jumpiness and discomposures, without anything of hers ever having to touch anything of mine.” The stickiness of their relationship, their situation, is simply implied. Yet the story seems to reach a climax when the narrator bumps into the girl after not seeing her for some time:

Nine, ten months later, I bumped into her at a bus terminal. Or maybe it was at a car service. She was wearing old-looking clothes that were new to me. She had a handbag—a first. She was applying to veterinary schools, she said. (We shook hands over it.) I said that at my age, you start to realize you might have loved only once, if that. This came out sounding newsy and impatient.

She said, “It’s been years.”

The semantic character of earlier sentences is evident, but here the narrator actually reveals himself through actions and language. The handshake resembles a fatherly gesture. The sentence right after undermines the handshake by putting forth thoughts on love. The narrator’s implied speech seems to rush forth (a humdrum phrase might be built with “blurt,” but here Lutz chooses “newsy and impatient”). Heartbreaking is the girl’s response, if you fuss with it, and you must because meaning-making is up to you. Has it been years since she loved only once? This is as funny as it is sad. Her phrase widens the gap that has been there from the beginning. She shows her age, her lack of experience. The narrator’s hurts turn out to be worse than hers.

While sometimes the lengths Lutz goes to when manipulating and arranging language in such cryptic chronicles are comical, it pays to seriously wonder where his language comes from. When all else fails, it’s this wonder that keeps you pinned to the page.

Each subsequent story in Assisted Living conveys a similarly disjointed “motion of moments” within collapsing marriages and fragmenting relationships. These are stories of lonely, sexually ambivalent characters never “lacking for a loss” interacting depressedly in the “physical hooey” that goes with being human. In “You Are Logged In As Marie,” the narrator describes his marriage to an ex-wife, “an ex if ex, just this once, is allowably abbreviative of expeller, or excluder, or exiler—take your pick,” and dolls out a line through which the entire collection might be viewed: “To wit: Wherever there are two people, people even anything like us, one is forever the casualty of the other.” In “This Is Not A Bill,” the narrator confronts the truth of “I was either a bad reflection on my parents or their one true likeness” by looking at his own children. But, by the end of the narrative, he doesn’t seem to get anywhere, and the final sentence responds to the very first: “I go into a day saying, “I won’t let myself know.”’ In “Nothing Clarion Came Of Her, Either,” a woman comes between two married women in an account of “an open marriage, leaking from both ends.” The narrative concludes with an epiphany (“when it finally just comes to you”) about the wife and their relationship, though this epiphany occurs, in effect, off the page.

Once, in an interview with David Winters, when asked where his writing fits into his life, Lutz replied, “My writing isn’t a career or a craft or a hobby or anything like that. It is more like a tiny annex to my life, a little crawl space in which I occasionally end up by accident in the dark.” That statement makes Assisted Living seem like a surprise, even mirage-like. Yet these stories are strikingly real, demand devotional attention, and make reading anything in their aftermath seem a little light, a little less the show.

—Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Jan 042017
 

ligon-photo

Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. — Dawn Raffel

amongthedeadcbsd

Among the Dead and Dreaming
Samuel Ligon
Leapfrog Press, 2016
233 pages; $16.95

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Samuel Ligon’s exquisitely risky new novel begins with a collision. A woman named Cynthia narrates the first page, recalling her ride through a treacherous mist on the back of a motorcycle. The driver is Kyle, her lifelong friend and covert lover. Complicating matters, Cynthia is secretly pregnant—just barely—with a child whose father is her on-and-off boyfriend, Mark. The moment of impact sparks a kind of omniscient ecstasy: “I was weightless, flying, the anticipation of landing lifting me into this bright, raw awareness,” Cynthia says. In that moment she flashes on the name of her unborn child: “the beautiful baby I wrapped myself around as we flew.”

On the second page, Kyle recalls those same few instants:

“One minute we’re grounded in this gauzy white mist, the next minute we’re weightless, up, coming down…I became aware of my heartbeat in my ears, muddy and monotonous, and then I was outside of myself and frantic, listening as hard as I could—to paramedics shouting, to tires hissing and the sound of the ocean over the berm, to a train’s whistle across South Oyster Bay. But I couldn’t hear Cynthia anymore, anywhere.”

Cynthia and Kyle (along with the unborn baby, Isabelle) are dead. Turns out that what we’ve been reading are crystalline memories of the deceased. As an opening, it’s a high-wire act without a net, fraught with emotional, philosophical, and artistic jeopardy. One false move could plunge the narrative into mawkish pop sentimentality (characters looking down from heaven, anyone?) while playing it affectlessly safe would be fatally arid. Ligon maintains superb control, a feat that begs a second million-dollar question: Where does one go from here? How to evade the graveyard of novels that open astonishingly and then, the author having exhausted himself, descend into amateur psychology and other hallmarks of predictable lit (you know, that moment when everything could’ve gone right….).

Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. The first-person narrative races between a dozen or so characters, living and dead, each speaking for only a page or two, as we start to understand not only what led up to the motorcycle accident but also how it reverberates into the future. In an extraordinary act of creative empathy, Ligon breathes life into Cynthia (privileged and lost), Mark (idealistic and emotionally bruised), Kyle (an artist with a generous, conflicted heart) and his cheated-on girlfriend Nikki (a beautiful young woman with a teenage daughter and a violent past). But oh, how the reviewer’s parentheticals reduce these label-resistant characters. Parents and exes have their say—even poor, doomed Isabelle has a word—creating a verbal kaleidoscope, a jagged and fluid illumination of death and misconnection.

The yearnings and compulsions leading to Cynthia, Kyle, and Isabelle’s deaths could, of their own, sustain a novel. Ligon renders the betrayed survivors’ rage and confusion with eerie intimacy. When Mark goes back to Cynthia’s apartment, he can’t bear to listen to the messages blinking on her answering machine “because checking them would mean she was never coming back.” Later, he forces himself to hear Kyle’s recorded voice (“Hey, baby….”), then continues to listen to the tape after slamming a potted plant to the floor:

“Another message came on the machine and for a minute I couldn’t tell if it was me or the caller breathing so hard, and then I knew it was him again—his ragged, raspy breathing—maybe dead now, somehow calling from deathland,” Mark says. “But as I made my way to the kitchen, I heard myself saying her name on the machine, my electronic voice so muted and small, as if a pallet of bricks was sitting on my chest.” This was the call he had made right after her death, longing to hear her voice on tape, leaving a message consisting only of her name. “Or maybe,” Mark says, “it was me from the future, somehow calling from deathland.”

The nervy juxtaposition of the living, the dead, and the living past, accrues to the sense that everything happens—at least on some level—simultaneously, and part of what’s here is a deep meditation on ever-present loss. After Mark understands that Cynthia was pregnant, he says, “I sat in traffic surrounded by people going to work, imagining Cynthia and Kyle and the baby ghost floating through space, weightless, holding hands, never growing older, and I wondered what age would be ideal for death if that’s how you’d spend eternity—floating through space like an amoeba on the ocean.” But Ligon’s genius is to rip us away from moody brooding by layering in a page-turning plot, giving the trio who died an endangered counterpoint in Mark and Nikki, and Nikki’s daughter, Alina.

Unlike the manicured company in which she finds herself, Nikki has a bloody past. As a pregnant teenage runaway, she accidentally killed Alina’s rapacious, drug-fueled father, Cash, in drunken self-defense. Nikki fled Texas, and no one suspected her. More than a dozen years later, Kyle had become a father-figure to her daughter. But just before the crash that killed Kyle, Nikki began receiving harrowing phone calls from someone who sounded alarmingly like dead lover #1.

Burke is Cash’s brother. We learn, through his fevered narration, that he’d taken the fall for his sibling in a drug bust and was stewing in prison for the entire duration of Cash and Nikki’s relationship. Upon his release, having sacrificed fifteen years of his life for his little brother, only to have that brother snuffed out, he fixated on long-ago photos of Nikki. She had to be dead, he reckoned, killed by whoever murdered Cash (bumbling drug thugs, likely). When he discovers that she is still alive, with a home on Long Island, New York, his thoughts turn poisonous.

Burke is crazy and canny, with nothing to lose, which makes him a perfect, malevolent storm. From his first phone call to a startled Nikki, he knows she is lying about a few things—for instance, her improvised statement that she had already moved and was living in Oak Bluff, Illinois, the night Cash died. “I didn’t want to believe she done it and didn’t believe it,” Burke says, “but the suspicion would creep up on me, the guiding hand turning my head to something I didn’t want to look at, things she said or how she said them, like the fact that there wasn’t no Oak Bluff, Illinois, at least not according to Rand McNally, though maybe I heard it wrong, because I knew she loved him and would love me too, especially with him gone and me the person most like him in the world. But then it seemed like she just wanted to push me away—maybe because she was still so hurt, I couldn’t tell. And I didn’t know how to test it without pushing her further, which I didn’t want to do. She was all I had and wanted in the world.”

In subsequent phone calls, a panicked Nikki offers $10,000, then $20,000 she doesn’t have in order to get Burke to leave her alone; he ups the ante to $50,000. Convinced by now of her guilt, he schemes to retrieve the payout and then exact fantastic revenge. Soon Nikki has grief-addled Mark enmeshed in her desperate quest for the blackmail money. Most urgently, she wants to protect Alina, who knows nothing about her father or her mother’s past.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say the story turns brutal, as Burke, Mark, and Nikki converge at the edge of madness, and Alina becomes a target. But Ligon keeps twisting events in unexpected ways. It’s rare to find a hair-trigger plot in a novel this elegant; you could call it a literary thriller, if that term hadn’t lost credibility by being slapped all over books that are neither literary nor thrilling.

Ligon, it’s worth noting, is equally gifted as a short story writer, with a formally inventive collection, Wonderland, also out this year. He is also the author of a well-received previous novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, and first collection, Drift and Swerve. A writer’s obsessions are portable—beyond that, inescapable—and his are desire and peril, tinted noir. Ligon teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University, edits the journal Willow Springs and is the creative director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference—a literary hyphenate whose bio lists him as “writer, editor, talk show host, teacher, goat and donkey enthusiast.” He just can’t help but flip you a trippy wildcard, as if to say, whatever you were thinking, think again.

Among the Dead and Dreaming is a book to read and re-read—once because you need to know what happens, a second time because you want to linger over particular passages, and then perhaps a third time, to try to figure out how he pulled the whole thing off. As with any book worth studying, you’ll never fully know.

In Ligon’s world, every emotion and impulse shimmers with its opposite, every moment is saturated with the consciousness of others, and every boundary is subject to erasure—as when Mark says of Cynthia, “Her presence was everywhere and then her absence, and then her presence again, so that her presence and absence felt like the same thing.”

Perhaps it’s nascent Isabelle, never to be born, who says it best in the one word ever allotted to her: Oh.

—Dawn Raffel

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Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.

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Dec 132016
 

ilhan-berk

The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. —D. M. Spitzer

book-of-things

The Book of Things[1]
Ilhan Berk
Translated by Georg Messo
Shearsman Books, 2016
310 pages, $23.00

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Where ends, where begins The Book of Things? The straw and russet ground of its cover, the obverse where dark lines like shadows render in positive the title, in contour a tilted figure—recumbent, off-center, nude? The reverse, where dark lines form letters, sentences, text about—here, with emphatic prepositionality—the text? If the latter, the action works centrifugally: which text? The publisher’s statements at the top address Ilhan Berk’s work as “Unparalleled in the English language.” In the third paragraph, the endorsement by Talat S. Halman, the poet is identified as Turkish; Halman declares that those who delight in Turkish poetry—already as slick a category as the the mud and slug mentioned in the publisher’s description (poetry written by people identifying as Turks? Written in Turkey? In Turkish? In Roman or Arabic script, or both? With pre- or post- Atatürkic reform conventions?)—are thankful to George Messo for “faithful and artful renditions.” The reverse seems to indicate a text by Ilhan Berk that defies parallel with English language poetry, establishing an agonistic context for the work, but also a notion of the involvement of Ilhan Berk’s text within that context. However, the book does not present a text by Ilhan Berk. It presents a translation by George Messo; the obverse so testifies in a font absorbed by the palette of the ground—a painting by Ilhan Berk, as the reverse establishes—and by the much larger font for the “author’s” name, uppermost and greatest on the author’s poluchrysaic field. The centrifugal action of the reverse hurls attention from the translation presented in the book and towards another book, one written by Ilhan Berk. The Book of Things is not that book.

The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. The agonistics occur reflexively, upon the book itself, its outwardness, where translator and author, English and Turkish collide and grapple for identity. The only identity available to them, however, is that of non-identity. The play of resistance strives upon the face of the book, where the production, the book design, occludes this non-identity of the translation and a text by Ilhan Berk, a shadow text, a spectral text, elsewhere, immaterial, nevertheless haunting this text: the first leaf bears the lasting haunt of the spectral text in the title beneath—as if grounding—The Book of Things, Şeyler kitabi. Testimony of the inseparability of the two texts that constitute translation. Testimony to the separateness of those two texts: “While 1 pioneers its darkness / 2, as if slashing with a knife, divides 1 in half”; “2’s hardheartedness comes, for sure, from 1 wanting to bind everything / to itself” (Messo 168). The Book of Things comes forward as a thing, reified by its design and attempting to assert its unified identity, yet the fact of its having-been-translated resists, recoils. On the edges the identity frays: where the uppermost entry on the contents page is “Interview with the Author” (Messo 8-11), the final entry is “A Guide to Turkish Pronunciation” (Messo 309), all in English, all in translation.

Rather than project Messo’s text, as if it were a mere simulacrum of, or even further, identical to Berk’s text, into relationships with poetries of the historical moment in which Berk activated and released a Turkish language into poems—with modernist poetries, late 19th century French poetries, for example, as Peter Riley has done in his review of The Book of Things in The Fortnightly Review[2]—Messo’s translation might converse better with of those figures and their poetries seen to be of importance in a reading of Berk’s work. The work under review is, after all, not Şeyler kitabi by Ilhan Berk, but rather, Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, by George Messo. How, then, does Messo’s text comport itself with recent English translations of these poetries? To advance such a project would make use of a stereoscopics that suspends in view each author’s (Messo and Berk) context and the language matrices where their voices develop, cycle, and gestate. This question will not be pursued here, but it may provide an illuminating way to position a review or critical reading of Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things that would bring into focus the translation, its context(s) and significances.

Within and between the paratextual material, the text’s three-part architecture moves from “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” through “LONG LIVE NUMBERS” to “HOUSE.” Of these, the first spreads out over one hundred thirty-five pages, nearly half the pages of the book; the second, over ninety-two pages; the third, fifty-three pages. Each previous section exceeds its sequel by approximately forty pages; the sections diminish in a regular fashion through the book’s unfoldings. The poetry takes place as and within this architecture, in the same sense that the house is (or can be) a home, though the two are not identical. In Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, multiple ways of articulating the book’s architecture come into play, pulling at the non-identity of the house|home relation. Here are two ways of reckoning the inner-architecture:

1)    within part one, “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T,” are nine sections, most or all of which could be considered poetic sequences

2)    part two, “LONG LIVE NUMBERS,” has four sections that are not sequences

3)    part three, “HOUSE,”

1.    a.  is composed of twenty-four sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences
2.    b. is composed of five sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences.

Just as with the poems whose “meaning is seldom grasped” (Messo 22), the very organization waivers in its function as organon. Several meanings might become available, and this diversification at every level of the book may be one way of the overcoming of meaning, raised in the poem “Lyre,” which forms a condition for poetry or, at least, for talking about poetry (Messo 21); another possibility is that no meanings become available, only the bruta facta of the book. If option “a” is followed for describing the organization of “HOUSE,” the overall organization disrupts a consistency or self-similarity between parts and sections: against the reduction of parts’ lengths works the dual motion of a reduction in the number of sections from part one to part two, ending with a vast dispersal of particulars in “HOUSE.” Developing option “b,” on the other hand, would let the book engage in some of the arithmetics found throughout, but particularly in its final moment “WINDOW,” where subtraction of leaf from house gives window (Messo 282). Subtraction: take part one (9 sections), subtract the sections of part two (4 sections), and the five sections of part three remain: 9-4=5. The book both authorizes this type of scrutiny and derides it as the work of the eye:

Partitioning, encoding, freezing still.
An image predator.
Where in the house, it says, is better to see outside?
(Window believes the view is there for itself.)
Its presence too is indebted to absence.
It has grabbed the world before it.
(The window faces forward.)

Is it a child passing by?

‘A child’s passing!’ it will say. (Messo 282)

Predatory, an optics that brings things to a standstill, is the eye; the poem levels charges against the eye immediately following the subtraction of leaf from house, the book’s final arithmetic statement. Messo’s text will summon and resist this kind of operation by which the book’s organization moves along and out of the numbers. And note that the child’s passing (‘A child’s passing!’) both figures the disfiguration of the book-as-house by the overdetermining subject and prefigures the book’s own end—“Balcony, / the house’s alcoholic child” (Messo 306; underlining added), sounding “child” into the demise of paratext, the chaos of a pronunciation guide to a Turkish that isn’t there, the absence constituting, giving rise to, behind and motivating (presumably), the whole book.

The book’s organization itself animates an interrogation of its title and its section titles. An ambiguity sways across the grammatical regions of a genitive construction not fiercely determined by a context: the things’s book, a book belonging to things; the book pertaining to things, where things are the objects towards which the book is related. An undecideability hovers in the title even as the terms of a relationship stand firm: things and book, primarily; then also, a dynamics between plurality (things) and singularity (book); of generality (things) and specificity (book); lastly (but likely not finally), in an even more rarefied sense, concept (things) and object (book). In its non-linguistic moments, The Book of Things offers a figuration of this dynamics from a Christian illustration showing the modes of relation among the persons of the holy trinity (Messo 219). The possibility of the triune deity depends on both the non-identity of its elements as they relate to one another and the identity of its elements with the central term, deus. So the image composes the nexus of relations in circles for each member of the trinity (pater, filius, spiritus sanctus) triangulated around a smaller, central circle in which deus is inscribed. Each circle is an angle of the triangle, with channels connecting them with the words non est, while the channels linking each circle to the inner circle say est. The book, itself triune, finds itself reflected in and reflecting, in its own organization, the imago dei and its entanglements of being and non-being.

Within each of the three sections circulates a variety of poems and things, images of things. Early in the volume appear re-imaged objects—images of images of things such as a paint roller, a pin, jewelry, garden shears (Messo 16-17). The representations defy a single scale of reference apart from the reader|viewer’s experience of them and the near-legislated mapping of that experience onto the images as given, such that, although the reproduced image of a hairpin exceeds in size that of the paint-roller, a scale drawn from experience of those items operates against what is given and produces a dissonance. Each page contains what appears to be a collection of four separate images of things placed upon a single ground then re-imaged—photocopied, scanned, photographed—as a composition. The volume thus opens the ancient three-part distancing of mimetic art from reality.[3]

How does a viewer|reader engage such pages? Are they read? Does their arrangement address something, mean something? Turning on itself as reflexion, the following page inquires “—If objects had language, what would you want them to say for you? / —I would want every object to say, all together, ‘He’s one of us’. / I have abided by the untouchability of things” (Messo 18). And again, poem turns on itself, thing reflecting thing: “The poem is where the word disappears, the place where it is /  almost impossible to fix meaning” (Messo 24). In the book’s opening through images the word disappears and meaning is, from the outset, suspended, entered into the chaos “where reality reaches its / furthest limits in language, where that relationship between language / and reality’s other side comes to a halt, and how it comes to a halt”(Messo 21).

The more attention falls on these pages of images near the book’s opening the more evident become the different tonalities of the dissonance: the jarring and hectic strain energized by this collision of given and thought, to borrow from Immanuel Kant modes of subjective encounters with objects.[4] The collages stage an insurrection against “the subject’s sovereignty” by, in concert with the objects of language, becoming somehow object-centered and thoroughly resistant to the rulership of the “I”: the work seeks “To draw near to the subject from all / sides; but never fully grasp it; only to circle it; to start going round again / just when you draw near…” (p. 21). This dizzying cycle rattles the presumptive subject-oriented relation to things, where the subject subjects objects to the grasp and threat of its conceptual epistemics.

This relation the book seeks to undo, problematize, or at times invert. In a dialectical reversal spoken in the alternation of the title of part one from all capitals to all miniscules, the reader|viewer takes a position early in the book as a thing among and opposed to other things: “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” becomes “things that count things that don’t” (Messo 13, 15). Undoing the line-break shifts the whole phrase. Count moves from intransitive in the all-capitals instantiation to transitive in the miniscule, implicating human beings as those who count things that do not count other things, i.e. that are do not perform the cognitive operation of enumerating. But it does not seem to be an indictment. The book asks to be counted even as it cancels parts of itself, as in pages of text overlaid with “X” as if destined to be excised (Messo 221-223). So Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things reaches through and beyond itself: “Anyway, to reach out and grab the outer edges of things is to be in / the world” (Messo 255). Here—at this very moment in the book’s work, in the alphabetized three-columned (triune!) list that opens the sequence “house I” (255), the translation ruptures the spell of identity.

—D. M. Spitzer

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d-m-spitzer

D. M. Spitzer is currently a doctoral student at Binghamton University in the Philosophy, Literature, and Theory of Criticism Program within the Department of Comparative Literature. He  works primarily on early Greek thinking and its modern and contemporary reception and on translation theory. In August, 2016, Etruscan Press published his book of poems, A Heaven Wrought of Iron: Poems from the Odyssey. Recent work has taken the form of collaborations with his wife, Sara Shiva Spitzer, a visual artist. He live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his family: Sara and three children Maya, Ani, and Luna.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Special thanks to Sevinç Türkkan for bringing this book to my attention & for motivating me to write this review.
  2. Riley, Peter. “Poetry Notes.” The Fortnightly Review. http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/06/ilhan-berk/, 28 June, 2016. Accessed 29 October, 2016.
  3. Plato. Res Publica. Platonis Opera, Vol. 4, edited by John Burnet, Clarendon, 1902.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Könemann, 1995.
Dec 122016
 

john_kaag

To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine. —Melissa Considine Beck

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

American Philosophy: A Love Story
John Kaag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
272 pages; $26.00

 

O Wild West Wood, thou breath of Autumn’s being.
Thou, from those unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed.

—“Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Shelley

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Holden Chapel, at first glance, is a small, unassuming, forty-foot, Georgian style, brick building on the campus of Harvard University. But it has a rich and interesting history as the third oldest building at Harvard and as one of the oldest college buildings in America. In December of 1741, Harvard accepted a generous donation of 400 pounds sterling from Mrs. Holden, widow of Samuel Holden, and her daughters to build a chapel on campus. The building was erected in 1744 and from that year until 1772 morning and even prayers were held for students in the quaint building and it also served as a place for intimate and engaging lectures. On April 15th, 1895 the American Philosopher William James delivered his famous “Is Life Worth Living?” essay to a group of young men from the Harvard YMCA.

William James, known as the Father of American Psychology, was the son of Henry James, Sr., the Swedenborgian theologian, and the brother of the famous American novelist Henry James. William James contemplated becoming an artist, but in 1861 he enrolled in medical school at Harvard where he eventually graduated with an MD. But James never practiced medicine and was instead drawn to psychology and philosophy and became a pioneer in both of these fields. During his young adulthood James suffered from long bouts of depression which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia. His depression and anxiety, which he calls his “soul-sickness” led him to contemplate suicide and he even overdosed on chloral hydrate in the 1870’s just to see how close he could come to death without actually crossing that threshold. It was the exploration of philosophy and his attempt to answer the question “Is Life Worth Living” that brings him out of his malaise and inspires him to compose some of the most important philosophical pieces that make up the American school of pragmatic philosophy.

John Kaag’s philosophical and literary memoir American Philosophy: A Love Story, begins with the young philosopher’s own “soul-sickness” and his frequent visits to the site of James’s famous lecture, Holden Chapel, in the Spring of 2008. Kaag is on a postdoc at The American Academy of Arts and Sciences when his crumbling marriage, the death of his alcoholic father and the stagnation of his research push him to contemplate what he believes to be William James’s most important philosophical question: “Is Life Worth Living?”

I was supposed to be writing on the confluence of eighteen century German idealism and American Pragmatism. Things were progressing, albeit very slowly.

But then, on an evening in the Spring of 2008 I gave up. Abandoning the research had nothing to do with the work itself and everything to do with the sense that it, along with everything else in my life, couldn’t possibly matter. For the rest of my year at Harvard I assiduously avoided its libraries. I avoided my wife, my family, my friends. When I came to the university at all I went only to Holden Chapel. I walked past it, sat next to it, read against it, lunched near it, sneaked into it when I could—became obsessed with it. James had, as far as I was concerned, asked the only question that really mattered. Is life worth living? I couldn’t shake it and I couldn’t answer it.

Kaag’s clipped and pithy sentences which employ asyndeton for maximum dramatic effect make this book about so much more than philosophy and literature. He is not afraid to reveal his darkest thoughts or lowest moments and he is also not above using profanity or embarrassing stories about himself to get his point across.   The style of deep, private reflection mixed with philosophical dialogue is reminiscent of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But, unlike Pirsig, who wrote computer manuals for a living, Kaag’s book is a great personal and professional risk for a philosopher whose two previous books are for a very specific, academic, Ivory Tower audience: Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition and Idealism, Pragmatism, and Feminism: The Philosophy of Ella Lyman Cabot.

holden_chapel_harvard_universityHolden Chapel, Harvard University

American Philosophy is aptly and cleverly divided into three main parts which recall the journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Redemption. Kaag’s journey starts in Part I, in “Hell,” on his way to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for a philosophy conference on William James at the Chocorua Public Library, but he gets sidetracked for the first of many times throughout the book. There is a sense of wandering and loneliness that punctuates American Philosophy and in this instance, the first real instance of meandering, Kaag can’t even bring himself to his end point which is a professional conference. Instead of going to meet his colleagues at the Chocorua Library, he stops at a German bakery where he meets Bunn Nickerson.   This kind, ninety-three-year old, local gentleman tells Kaag that William Ernest Hocking, the prominent 20th century American philosophy professor from Harvard, has an estate which is nearby and contains a unique library. Bunn offers to take Kaag there to have a look around.

The family still used the Hocking estate, which was named West Wood, in the summer, but in the fall of 2008 all of the buildings were empty of any human inhabitants and the library appeared to be utterly neglected and abandoned. A copy of The Century Dictionary from 1889, a first edition encyclopedic dictionary with more than seven thousand pages and ten-thousand wood engraved illustrations, catches his eye through the window and his decision to enter this library, even though it was trespassing, completely alters the course of Kaag’s life for the better.

Kaag stumbles upon an opportunity to heal his soul in the form of West Wood’s stone library which, upon entering, he discovers is home to more than 10,000 books. The books that Kaag finds inside this unlocked and unheated building, especially the number of first editions, are the stuff of dreams for any bibliophile. Among the rodent droppings, porcupines, termites, various other bugs and dust Kaag finds Descartes’ Discourse on Method–first edition from 1649, Thomas Hobbes’s Levithan-first edition from 1651, the complete, leather-bound volumes of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government from 1690, Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft from 1781, Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims–first edition, 1875 and on and on. To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine.

William Ernest Hocking, the owner of this vast personal library was, like his teacher William James, also a pragmatist who believed that philosophy could have an effect on real life. His personal library was a collection of not only European thinkers and philosophers, but he also amassed books that contained the thoughts of Eastern philosophy. Hocking studied with James at Harvard as well as other American thinkers such as Royce, Palmer and Santayana. In 1908, Hocking moved from his home on the West Coast to accept a teaching position at Yale and in 1916 when his mentor, Josiah Royce died, Hocking took over his chair in philosophy at Harvard. Hocking would go on to spend the next forty years at Harvard making a name for himself as one of the prominent scholars of American pragmatism. Kaag discovers that many of the books in Hocking’s library were once owned by Hocking’s famous teachers and colleagues at Harvard and some of their signatures, notations and inscriptions inside the books were just as valuable as the leather bound books themselves.

hockingWilliam Ernest Hocking

Throughout the course of Part I, Kaag’s “Hell,” he comes to the painful decision that his marriage is a mess and not capable of being saved. He leaves his wife in Boston and spends more and more time at West Wind where he becomes acquainted with Hocking’s granddaughters, Jennifer, Jill and Penny. The sisters are “surprised and releived” that someone is interested in the books and Kaag begins to catalog the massive collection and attempts to save the oldest, most vulnerable books by moving them to dry storage. As he works his way through the books he continues on his deeply personal and lonely struggle with his own purpose and existence. He writes:

In the following months I started cheating on my wife with a room full of books. I made the trip to New Hampshire repeatedly. My wife and mother—in a unison that always infuriated me—demanded to know where I was going. I could have told the truth but instead I chose to lie, making up conferences that needed to be attended and friends I wanted to visit. Up until that point my life had been so routine, so scripted, so normal, so good—but my brief encounter with my dead father the previous year had brought that life to an unceremonious end. Nothing about life is normal. And nothing about life has to be good. It’s completely up to the liver. The question—Is life worth living?—doesn’t have a scripted, public answer. Each answer is excruciatingly personal, and therefore, I thought, private.

One of the greatest strengths of Kaag’s narrative is that he is not afraid to show that his attempt to escape his wretched existence by means of the library at West Wind was not always noble or dignified or pretty. He skips meals, he neglects his hygiene, he drinks excessively, he begins to prematurely age and he sleeps out in the woods behind West Wind where he catches a nasty case of Lyme Disease. Who among us hasn’t hit a low point in our lives to which we can look back and trace our gradual ascent out of the abyss? The stark honesty of Kaag’s narrative is brave, especially for someone who is an academic philosopher, because he includes all of the ugliness of his journey from Hell to Redemption which details he could have just as easily skimmed over or avoided altogether.

The ideas and themes of American philosophy and literature which are unfolded within the pages of Kaag’s book mimic the philosophers own process of discovery as he unpacks and unfolds the wonders of Hocking’s library. One encounters James, Emerson, Thoreau, Coleridge, Camus, Royce, Whitman, Peirce, Frost and Dante just to name a few. Many readers never give much thought to American philosophers, or as Kaag notes, American philosophy is regarded as “provincial” and “narrow in its focus.” Kaag, however, delves into the pages of American philosophical writings with unbridled enthusiasm that is enhanced by his literary ability to tell interesting and engaging stories about the real lives of these great American thinkers. As one example of this, Kaag summarizes the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s struggle with the idea of freedom and the impact chance has on our choices. Peirce took issue with the emphasis of orderly design over chance and freedom that Darwin and the evolutionists promoted. The philosophical theories of Peirce’s Design and Chance are discussed by Kaag in the context of Peirce’s struggle in his personal life with romantic love. The anecdotes and stories about Peirce’s real life struggles makes what could be a dry recounting of Peirce’s philosophical pragmatism into a gripping story about a great thinker who is attempting to make sense out of his confusing and chaotic world.

Kaag spends the next year in the woods at West Wood with Hocking’s books and continues to contemplate James’s important question. As he works his way through the library he reads countless volumes of American philosophy and literature, with a few Europeans mixed in, that help him through the different stages of his emotional and spiritual journey. The most significant turning point in Kaag’s Hell is when he begins reading Thoreau and reflecting on that writer’s own retreat to the woods. Kaag becomes frustrated with Emerson’s idea of self-reliance which he feels is unattainable and unrealistic. Instead he embraces Thoreau’s example of simplicity, cultivating the earth, and turning off and tuning out all of the modern amenities that distract us from searching for real meaning in our lives.

At one point Kaag takes a break from sifting through books in the library asks Hocking’s granddaughter, Jennifer, the least “intellectual” of the sisters, if he can help her clear a field by scything. As he takes in the simplicity of the landscape at West Wood and tries to deal with this very physical task, Kaag comes to realize through this experience of scything that the process of self-discovery needs to happen for him outside of the walls of the stone library and that this process would be slow and couldn’t be forced; he learns to stop and look around him and be mindful of his surroundings and this becomes his first, significant step from Hell to Purgatory.

william-jamesWilliam James

In Kaag’s Purgatory, the subtitle of “A Love Story” is further explained through the first glimpses and descriptions of Carol whom the author confesses he should, by all accounts, have hated. By this point in the book he is divorced and his ex-wife is remarried and moving out west, but Kaag’s loneliness and isolation linger. He continues to spend hours and days and weeks at West Wind and to catalogue Hocking’s library and to save the most precious volumes from the elements. One weekend he invites Carol, a colleague of his from UMass Lowell, a Kantian feminist, who is also his rival for a tenure track academic job, to join him in sifting through the library at West Wood. Carol is married, but her husband lives in Canada so their long distance relationship gives her plenty of freedom and independence to travel with Kaag to New Hampshire on this as well as many occasions.

While sifting through the pages of Hocking’s library and taking hikes through the White Mountains together, it is evident that Kaag’s feelings for Carol become more than friendly. There is a hint in the text that Kaag, in the tradition of Dante, wants to find his inspiration, his Beatrice and he has found just such a companion in Carol. But her marriage and his general uncertainty about the direction of his life makes for an unexpected element of suspense in the midst of the book as he debates how or when he should reveal his true affections for her. Thoughts of American philosophy and James run through his mind as he is mulling over his decisions:

Shall I profess my love? Shall I be moral? Shall I live? These are the most important questions of modern life, but are also questions that do not have factually verifiable answers. For James such answers will be, at best, provisional. There are no physical signs that one is emotionally ready to become a lover or husband, auguries that suggest one will be any good at any of it. In fact, there is often a disturbing amount of countervailing evidence. But human beings still have to choose, to make significant decisions in the face of uncertainty. Love is what James would have called a “forced option”—you either choose to love or you don’t. There is no middle ground.

Kaag deliberately chooses to exclude the details of his development of an intimate relationship with Carol. The decision to keep this part of his personal life between himself and Carol is worthy of great admiration and respect—he knows that an author can cross the threshold into the type of salacious writing that is meant to sell books and Kaag stops just shy of veering into the realm of romance. Kaag simply remarks about their decision to choose love and to choose one another: “Some things are better left unsaid, and others can’t be said at all.”

But we do get a glimpse of their life together in the final part of American Philosophy which has the hopeful title of “Redemption.” Kaag finds happiness, true love and companionship and Hocking’s books find a safe haven in the library at UMass Lowell. But despite the happy ending for all persons and things involved in his journey, Kaag is still all too aware of the ephemeral nature of our existence and he acknowledges that we are responsible for making our own meaning in life with what we are given.

Kaag concludes with a reflection of his time at West Wood and how far he has come from those lonely days in 2008 when he was obsessed with Holden Chapel. In 1780 religious services ceased to be held in Holden Chapel and in 1800 it was converted into a chemistry and dissection lab for the students of Harvard medical school. Bones that were the remains of medical dissections were discovered in the walls of the chapel when it was renovated in 1990. Nowadays Holden Chapel reverberates with the sweets sounds of music as it is used by the Harvard Glee Club for practice. Kaag notes that in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings for apotropaic purposes but also because they were good for the acoustics. This strange mix of the sounds of the living occupying the same space as the bones of the dead in this small, historical chapel is reminiscent of the opening lines of Yves Bonnefoy’s Ursa Major:

What’s that noise?

     I didn’t hear anything….

     You must have! That rumbling. As if a train had roared
through the cellar.

     We don’t have a cellar.

     Or the walls.

     But they’re so thick! And packed so hard by so many

centuries…

—Melissa Considine Beck

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m-beck-bio-pic

Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy.

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