Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

The Trouble with Secrets

Thus-Bad-Begins

That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.

In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low.  At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past. It’s Madrid, 1980, five years after the death of Franco. Spaniards are tasting new freedoms, illicit drugs flow freely, the discos are packed until dawn, and unhappy couples await the legalization of divorce. “Is it something to do with the Civil War,” De Vere breathlessly asks? “Did he participate in a massacre? Did he carry out summary executions?” No, Muriel answers. His friend is believed to have “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” And with that bizarrely unexciting revelation, Marías sets in motion this fascinating, but overlong novel of lies and secrets. Read more

The Heart, Drawn & Quartered

Wikswo Curving Scar

Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which it is—you might get the wrong impression. For this is a book full of passion and compassion, with tender, beautiful, sensuous writing that urges the reader to pause, re-read, and admire (or puzzle out) the lush sentences and the risks that Wikswo takes—risks that pay off most of the time. Her writing is a confident blend of fable, Gospel, and imagination that links to the gritty, fabulous tradition of Southern Gothic. Read more

Han Kang’s The White Book

Kang WHite Book

Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.

Every piece of writing is a performance of some sort, the execution of a task intended for public consumption. But Han Kang’s The White Book feels performative in a way that few books do. The book begins with a list of things that are white. “With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative.” Over the course of the book, numerous small, modest performances—breathing, observing, walking, touching—lead Han Kang to powerful memories, flights of imagination, and life-changing realizations. Read more

Unmapped Country

Quin unmapped

Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.

“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity that I can’t help but pay homage to the drive that kept Quin pushing further and further into an “unmapped country” of writing.

Written over a brief period of something like seven years, these fourteen pieces could probably pass as an anthology by several different writers. While some writers seek to find their voice, Quin seemed to have a need to explore voices. Her narrators and main characters are female, male, children, passive, angry, feminist, conservative, well off, working class. In “A Double Room,” a woman, traveling on a train with her married lover, says to herself “Already, I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” The male narrator of “Tripticks” tells us that his “special interests” are “living out other peoples’ fantasies,” which might be another way of saying—at least in part—what a writer does.

Quin was also a great mimic of the abbreviated and sometimes contorted fragments that pass for full sentences in our conversations. Here’s the speaker in the wonderfully titled “Motherlogue,” which gives us only one side of a telephone call between a mother and daughter:

you know Peggy who was found dead after a whole week the landlady discovered her only because of the smell coming out of the landing there she was a whole week rotting away well apparently she’s earth bound they’ve had several new lodgers in and each one hasn’t stayed long terrible things happening in the night bedclothes taken off furniture thrown about and one girl even had her nightie torn off…

Read more

Go, Went, Gone

Go-Went-Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions, 2017. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Writers of fiction (however you define it) have no obligation to make their writing relevant to the present moment; one of the great freedoms of fiction is its ability to be irrelevant, even frivolous. Still, there is a certain frisson that strikes me when a writer brilliantly encapsulates the specific now that we live in. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone does just that. It’s a book that deals with the range of conflicting emotional, political, and legal responses to the current refugee crisis. Among the many things that Erpenbeck deftly accomplishes in Go, Went, Gone is to personalize the human consequences of government policies.

“So here in room 2017, we are, so to speak, in Nigeria.” Richard has just retired from his position as a distinguished professor of classics and, out of a curiosity he can’t yet explain, he has decided to visit a former nursing home that now temporarily houses some of the refugees that have flooded into Berlin. He is being led into a roomful of Nigerians  (“There’s also a Ghana room, a Niger room, and so on.”), with whom he will sit and talk, all the while taking notes. He’s still programmed to act like a professor on a research project; he’s prepared a long list of questions to ask: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation?” But his initial conversations with some of the refugees seem inadequate, and he wishes “he knew what questions would lead to the land of beautiful answers.” Read more

Greb v. Berg

Quin Berg

In Ann Quin’s first novel, the black comedy Berg, “Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveler, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoid paramour” has set out to murder his father, a semi-itinerant womanizer living in a flop house with his current girlfriend Judith. Alistair’s father abandoned him at such a young age that he does not know that the young man who has moved into the adjacent room is his own son, bent on parricide. Alistair befriends the couple, then proceeds to spy on them, listening to them making love and fighting through the thin partition that separates their rooms. He slowly insinuates himself into their lives, but, when presented with several opportunities to murder Berg, Alistair falters, and in a role reversal, he suddenly becomes his father’s rescuer, more than once steering his hopelessly drunken father safely home. By the end of the novel, the hapless Alistair has displaced his father and is living with Judith. Beyond that brief plot summary, don’t ask. It’s complicated. Read more

“Disrupt the certainties”: Ann Quin’s Three

61gm7V2oxUL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_

One of the extraordinary gifts the British writer Ann Quin had was to see the real discourse going on beneath the surface of ordinary conversation, the prejudices, messages, and class distinctions encapsulated in tiny, seemingly innocuous phrases, the roiling power struggles in the daily chatter of couples. In Three, her second novel, published in 1966, a good portion of the text is devoted to the conversations that take place between Leonard and Ruth, a married couple, who are puzzling over the disappearance of a young woman—known only as S.— who rented a room from them and had become part of their family, so to speak. They suspect she has drowned by swimming too far out to sea, either recklessly or on purpose. Quin often gives us their conversations as if they were a verbatim transcript, interspersed only with brief indications of what the two are doing as they speak. These sections are written without any quotation marks or line breaks or indication of who is speaking. At first, this is likely to make the reader a little seasick until, slowly, the text begins to level out as the mind learns to sort out the dialogue.

Do you think she was in love with you I mean. . . .Good heavens what makes you say that Ruth? Well it’s conceivable after all you’re attractive lots of young girls look at you I’ve noticed and don’t pretend you hadn’t realised that. I wasn’t denying it. How long did you in fact know her Leon before—well before I met her? Can’t remember exactly came to work for me let’s see must be a year or so. Did you know she had an abort—abortion? When? Before she came here in fact that’s what she said and not the illness we were led to believe. Oh. Is that all you can say Leon? What is there to say I know you don’t agree with that sort of thing but she was a practical girl in many ways. He continued reading, turning the pages carefully over. She fell back against the pillows, stared at the folds in the curtains. More tea love?

Read more

A Doll for Throwing

Bang Doll

“I learned to use a camera to see what I could be.”

Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing is, among other things, a book about photography, but it is also about photographs stolen and appropriated through, shall we say, the arrogance of gender and fame. But first, about the title. It comes from a soft type of doll designed in the 1920s by the Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. (Examples of the doll can be seen at the Bauhaus website.) The doll (or wurfpuppe in German) has a fiber body and wooden head and was meant to be safely tossed between children, but in Bang’s book it takes on an entirely different meaning.

The poems in A Doll for Throwing adopt the voice of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), the Austrian photographer who met the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin in 1920, during the fraught early years of the Weimar Republic. They married and two years later he became one of the legendary professors at the Bauhaus. To an extent that is not fully known, she taught him about photography and collaborated with him on works for which credit is often given only to him (including the four images reproduced on the book’s cover). They divorced in 1929 and in 1933 Lucia had to hastily flee Germany when her new lover, a prominent Communist, was arrested in their apartment. She did, however, manage to leave her negatives in the care of Moholy-Nagy. When he himself became an emigre, he turned the negatives over for safekeeping to the famous German architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, who proceeded to use some of Lucia’s photographs for decades without crediting her. Once she was established in England, Lucia began a long correspondence to try to regain her negatives from Gropius. In the 1960s, she finally managed to get a limited number of them back, but by then her work had become submerged beneath the reputations of two famous men and she was nearly forgotten to history. Read more

Infinite Gradations of Mystery

Anne Michaels Gradation-001

Halfway through Anne Michael’s short, beautiful book, Infinite Gradation, we finally come across the two words that form the book’s title.

You said you wanted to keep your eyes open at the end; to miss nothing.

Four months before you died, during your last summer, you looked at the sea. For weeks, the most conscious act of looking. If you could take in that unending movement, that light, the moment water is displaced by water. You knew there was an answer there. In that infinite gradation.

Michael’s book about writing, art, memory, love, and loss is infused with death and grief on nearly every page. And yet, Infinite Gradation is a surprisingly celebratory and compassionate book. Death motivates Michaels to try to spin a fragile web of words that might help her (and us) understand the relationship between art and death. And the answer lies – as always – hidden, unspeakable, unseeable, but somehow known or felt in that “infinite gradation.” The art that Michaels writes about is not so much a product but a state of being, a way of “belonging,” an ability to participate in life using  “the most conscious act of looking.” Read more

“Unlanguagable reality”: Wolfgang Hilbig’s “Old Rendering Plant”

Hilbig Old Rendering Plant

It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.

Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”

But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.

The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.

Read more