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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

“Behind Every Name Is a Story”: Trieste

Behind every name is a story.

In the middle of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s documentary novel Trieste (MacLehose Press, 2012) there is a forty-four page, double-columned list naming the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” starting with Clemente Abeasis and ending with Jerachmil Zynger. This memorial to the murdered is followed by another, much shorter listing—complete with mini-biographies—of the more senior S.S. members of the Aktion T4 group who worked in Trieste at the notorious prison known as San Sabba, which served as a transit center to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and housed its own gas chamber.

In this novel so dedicated to documenting victims and perpetrators alike, Drndić gives us a central character who is neither and both. Haya Tedeschi was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Gorizia, an Italian town near Trieste. Now in her eighties (it’s 2006), Haya spends her day sifting through a basket of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and magazines, the only remaining documents of her life. When the Nazis took over Gorizia in 1943 she was barely twenty and she—like the rest of her family—used her Catholic upbringing and membership in a fascist organization to be shielded from the persecution brought upon many of its Jewish residents. (Drndić’s list of murdered Jews includes more than forty people named Tedeschi, which, ironically, means German in Italian.) Haya even entered into a wartime romance with a German who already happened to have a family back in Germany, S.S. Untersturmführer Kurt Franz. This liaison led to the birth of a baby boy. But when Franz was ordered to a new post the baby boy mysteriously disappeared. Haya has spent the sixty years since then trying to find out what happened to her son. Read more

Chronicle of a Sin

The most authentic thing about you is your sin…

Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House is just such a novel. Originally published in Brazil 1959, it has finally been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and was issued last year by the fabulous Open Letter. It is currently the only novel by Cardoso (1912-1968) in print in English. This year it won the Best Translated Book of the Year Award for fiction.

As a family, the Meneses have seen better days and finer generations than the three brothers who live together at Chacara, the slowly rotting family estate in the rural state of Minas Gerais. Demetrio, the overly proud head of the family, is married to Ana, a drab and desperately unhappy woman. Timotéo is a cross-dressing alcoholic who rarely leaves his room. And the third brother, Valdo, upsets whatever equilibrium might have still existed at Chacara when he imports Nina, “a poisonously malevolent beauty,” from Rio De Janeiro to be his wife. The claustrophobic grounds of Chacara act like a hothouse, heating up and intensifying the emotions of its inhabitants. Read more

Split Screen: Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot”

At such moments invisible and tangible become confused.
Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays.

An open book is naturally a split screen divided by the book’s gutter, although few books actually take full advantage of this. Teju Cole’s new book Blind Spot (Random House, 2017) manages to put each of some 160 or so double-page spreads into truly astonishing dialogues between text and image. Blind Spot balances Cole’s color photographs on the right hand side with texts that are generally very brief on the left. In the texts, which are titled according to the city where the photograph was taken, Cole recounts dreams, constructs compressed essays, and meditates on travel, photography, sight, religion, and art. Occasionally these texts serve as a commentary on the photograph across the page, but for the most part Cole makes the dialogue take place somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, somewhere, shall we say, off camera. Even in texts as brief as these, Cole shows once again his trademark mental restlessness, which matches the globe-hopping list of cities where he has photographed. Read more

Eating Oatmeal Soup with Robert Walser

“only the journey to oneself is important.”

On a mild, early spring Sunday in February 1950, the writer Robert Walser and his friend Carl Seelig were eating in a pastry shop in St. Gallen, Switzerland. “Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette,” Seelig writes. “Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit. 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.” This episode delights me no end, in part because it occurred on the very day on which I was born, in part because it epitomizes the spirit of Robert Walser.

As we learn from Carl Selig’s book Walks with Walser, Walser was a man who was both simple and complex. A writer of tremendous invention and honesty, called by Susan Sontag “a Paul Klee in prose” and “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka,” Walser was content, if not delighted, to spend the final thirty-six or so years of his life in Swiss mental institutions, far from the big cities and the literary and artistic circles he had enjoyed in his youth. Much of what we know about Walser’s life we know because of this slim book written by Seelig and first published in 1957 as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser. Read more

The Compass that Always Points East

Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zones Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which  in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of  violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.

Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856). Read more

Atlantic Hotel

“…retreat seemed only another cowardly act I’d have to shoulder on my journey. So I pressed ahead.”

Two Lines Press describes the books by Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll, who died this March at the age of 70, as “reminiscent of the films of David Lynch,” which seems about as apt a description as I can think of. The two books that have been translated into English so far —Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel — are strange, subversive, and compelling that share a sense of bleakness, violence, and anomie.

In Atlantic Hotel, which comes out this month, Noll’s nameless narrator wanders aimlessly across parts of Brazil. He’s rather like a human pinball, making decisions about his next direction abruptly, without forethought. He often says the first thing that comes to his head, which means he often seems to be lying. He has casual sex within minutes of meeting women. We learn almost nothing about his past or about his motivations. He might or might not have once been an actor on a TV soap opera, but now he gives his occupation as “unoccupied.” He is both running from something and searching for something, but he (and we) never know what. Read more

The “Wandering Souls” of Panorama

A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.

It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a tablet and a smart phone. Šarotar’s Panorama: A Narrative About the Course of Events is written in extended sentences that can meander for pages, weaving around the many black-and-white photographs he embeds in his text. Like Sebald, he has apocalyptic visions in which a powerful and indifferent nature can wipe out mankind in a single stroke. When Šarotar’s narrator finds himself in Brussels Central Station, he even name-drops Sebald’s “superb novel Austerlitz.” But Šarotar is also trying to turn the Sebald ship with all of its baggage in a somewhat different direction. Read more

Hall of Mirrors

“I feel like a character in a novel written by myself who runs into a character in a novel written by himself.”

I’m not sure how a book as finely written and original as Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire stayed under the radar for nearly three decades, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that the author is Australian. How could I resist a novel that opens with the purloined line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” and then invokes the name of Walter Abish, one of my favorite writers?

First published in 1988, then reissued in 2014 by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, Out of the Line of Fire reads like a compelling mystery, except that it is laced with bite-sized doses of philosophy drawn from the likes of Kant, Husserl, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Most of the quotations that Henshaw extracts from their writings deal with the broad question of how language works and how we believe we experience the world, all of which he uses to raise questions about the nature of literature itself (and, by extension, the nature of the book we are reading). Read more

“It is how to live”: Eleni Sikelianos

sikelianos-happy

Make Yourself Happy is the fifth book of poetry by Eleni Sikelianos issued since 2001 by the fine Coffee House Press, just north of me in Minneapolis. I’ve been reading and rereading this compelling book for the past two weeks. Kudos to Coffee House Press for turning out a beautifully designed and produced book that is visually elegant and wonderful to hold.

As a poet, Sikelianos like to think big. Her books deal with topics like science, mythology, history, ecology, extinction, and even, as she writes in one poem sequence in this new book, “the history of man.” Previous books have included a nearly 190-page poem dedicated to California (The California Poem) and a book-length biography in poems (You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)). Sikelianos is also one of a handful of poets who regularly uses photographs in her books, with four of her Coffee House Press books having imagery of one kind or another.

Make Yourself Happy consists of three long poem sequences, followed by two short stand-alone poems. “Make Yourself Happy” is comprised of 39 individual poems.  Superficially, one might say that the sequence explores the many meanings of “happiness,” whether it’s eating croissants in Paris or simply being alive. But Sikelianos is after something far deeper and more complex than that. Slowly but surely, as this nearly 60-page poem sequence evolves, Sikelianos unravels the whole notion of happiness. Yes, there is a true, indomitable form of happiness that “baffles what’s trying to get in” to destroy it, but there are also false states of happiness that are driven by things as simple as the consumption of sugar-filled snacks or the indulgence in drugs like heroin. Heroin, violence, misery, and other decidedly unhappy themes are always lurking in these poems. In one poem, we see happiness used with decidedly Orwellian intent:

In the United Arab Emirates there is now a Ministry of Happiness
“You can be happy as long as you keep your mouth shut.

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“What is literature good for?”: Lynn L. Wolff on Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics

Wolff Hybrid Poetics

The complex constellation of historical event, individual experience, and the poietic presentation of both events and experiences is at the heart of Sebald’s work and reveals why his texts elude established genre traditions.

If I were to pick one book for the passionate Sebald reader who might want to dip a toe into serious Sebald scholarship or for the non-Sebald scholar wishing to get a clear sense of Sebald’s contribution to literature and history, I would direct you to Lynn L. Wolff’s fine book W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography (De Gruyter). First published in 2014 as a hardcover with a price aimed at specialists and libraries, DeGruyter has now reissued the book in paperback at a price aimed for the rest of us – 19.95 (in both euros and dollars). The book is widely available from the publisher, Book Depository, and Amazon.

In her introduction, “Why W.G. Sebald,” Wolff gives a compact biography of his adult life and then discusses the “Sebald phenomenon” – the rise in films, exhibitions, artworks, blogs, and other forms of public and creative response to Sebald’s books. She provides a succinct, but wide-ranging overview of the critical secondary literature that has sprung up around Sebald in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as the seemingly endless academic frameworks through which scholars have tried to view Sebald’s work – postmemory, Freudianism, intertextuality, etc. Yet despite the onslaught of literature about Sebald’s works, Wolff senses that “there are significant gaps” in the way that scholars have examined “the specificity of his poetics” and it is her intention to focus on the mechanics of his writing and their implications. In doing so, she examines all of Sebald’s texts – critical writings, prose fiction, and poetry – with an “open perspective” and in “a methodologically non-dogmatic way.”

Central questions of my investigation are: What is particular about Sebald’s writing? How is he “translating” history into literature? How and where does he emphasize this process? Where are his sources apparent? Where does he cover them up?…These questions prove productive in initiating the reader’s engagement with not only the text but also the broader questions of memory, history, and authenticity.

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