Edward Parnell’s Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country is a highly personal exploration of the idea of “haunted” in literature and film. It’s also a bit of travel guide, a dash of history, and a family memoir. But as in so many things, it’s the blending that counts and Parnell is an expert bartender. I don’t think he ever uses the word but I felt as if he were trying to demonstrate how various terroirs affect the ghost stories and the strange folk lore that then show up in the fiction and cinema that he has loved since childhood. To do this, he guides us through large swaths of Great Britain in search of the sites depicted in these books and films. As we ride next to and walk alongside the thirty-something Parnell, making pilgrimages to locations where, for example, The Wicker Man was filmed or where some of the tales of Algernon Blackwood were set, we also learn bits and pieces of Parnell’s own life, how he came to love these kinds of books and films, of the difficult deaths of his parents, and the shock when he learns his own brother has a lymphoma that will eventually kill him, too. Read more
It’s the most innocent of beginnings: “Now I am going to tell the story of something that happened one night, years ago, and the events of the morning and afternoon that followed.” The nameless narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s The Incompletes (Open Letter, 2019) begins to tell us what happened on a pier in Buenos Aires when he saw his friend Felix off on a voyage decades earlier. But scarcely three pages elapse before the narrator digresses and begins to relate the strange tales contained in the postcards and letters that Felix has written him during the many years of his restless travels.
The Incompletes is Chejfec’s fifth novel to be translated into English and its my favorite so far. His narrator spends most of the book telling us about Felix’s strange experiences in Moscow and his interactions with a woman named Masha. But on nearly every page the reader is confronted with the fact that the narrator knows far too much. Like a magician who produces a live elephant from his top hat, Chejfec’s narrator not only recounts the details of Felix’s daily life and exposes us to his Felix’s innermost thoughts, he can also somehow account for the independent meanderings and thoughts of Masha. She manages the Hotel Salgado, where Felix stays in Moscow, a hotel which “innocently offered the traveler protection and shelter, though with the implicit warning that under certain conditions their haven might become a living hell.” Read more
I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness.
Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Females (Two Lines Press) is an angry explosion of a novel. The target of Hilbig’s haunting wrath in this brief book is the nation of his birth, the German Democratic Republic. Hilbig (1941-2007) lived in East Germany until he was finally allowed to emigrate in 1985 to West Germany.
Whenever I’d felt within me the unforeseen power to examine myself, even to know myself, and consequently, perhaps, expunge the germs of my sickness, I found that the state snatched every tool from my hands . . . For me, reality had been stolen and annihilated, so by necessity I had to exist as a form of annihilated reality, as a mere delusion of reality, and by that same token had to annihilate the reality of the people around me.
This book is that annihilation. Read more
You see? his wife—his second wife—would say when he came to this point in the story. At heart he is a romantic.
Perhaps I am, he would say.
Perhaps, she would mock him. Perhaps. It is his favorite word.
What would we do without it?
We would live our lives more happily, she would respond.
More happily perhaps, he would come back at her, but more humanly? More richly?
Gabriel Josipovici. The Cemetery in Barnes. Carcanet Press, 2018. Fair warning! This post contains plot spoilers, although I doubt that knowing what happens will lessen anyone’s appreciation for this elegantly written novel.
By the time you reach the fourth page of Gabriel Josipovici’s newest novel, The Cemetery in Barnes, you might begin to think there has been an editing problem. On one page the main character lives in London, then in an apartment in Paris, while on the next page he lives in an old farmhouse in the Black Mountains in Wales. Throughout the novel time and place and wives seem to change between one paragraph and the next. Some sentences are repeated, then full paragraphs are repeated, sometimes with minor variations. Read more
“Artists naturally gravitate toward indeterminacy.”
Baroni: A Journey (Almost Island Books, 2017) is the fourth of Sergio Chejfec’s novels to be translated into English since 2011. In 2014, I wrote about the first three: “Cumulatively, they delve into weighty issues like existence, loss, time, geography, memory, and identity. There are no plots, simply a series of males narrating their thoughts, observations, recollections, and theories.” With Baroni, Chejfec continues in this tradition, meditating on themes that include art, chance, landscape, and the puzzling sense that he is suffering from a prolonged despondency, “sunk in the most complete indifference.”
The Baroni of the title is Rafaela Baroni (born 1935), a popular (and very real) Venezuelan self-taught sculptress. She is also a seer who has experienced miracles and had several remarkable episodes of catalepsy. Key portions of Chejfec’s book deal with two wooden sculptures that he has acquired from Baroni: El Santo Médico and Mujer Crucificada. Read more
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560
Summer means beaches, beer, flirtations, rowdiness. For people in northern climates, the brevity of summer puts people who are in a rush to celebrate on a collision course with nature—with sand, water, heat, bugs, snakes, sudden storms. Written five years earlier than River (which I wrote about in two recent posts), Esther Kinsky’s novel Summer Resort is a condensed story of one very hot summer at an üdülő, or a resort, on an unnamed river in Hungary. The book, which has no real main character, is reminiscent of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, providing a macro view of the village, as if seen from a drone drifting overhead, replete with brief stories that convey the joys and irritations that comprise daily life.
Late in the evening two vehicles crashed at the corner of Main Road and Garageland Lane, a bright blue car and an egg-yolk yellow one, both made of soft pliant metal, the moon was high above the river and was orange, almost golden indeed and shone on the crushed and shifted metal, on the shards and splinters, on the now ruined lustre of journeys begun, on the pale faces of the injured, on whose temples the smile of departure still crouched in shock, it shone on the curiosity-crooked faces of the onlookers, on the last pale pink blooming hollyhock bell on a brown dried-up stand beside the Hotel Oasis where no one looked. So the day came to an end once and for all, and Katica stood on the cracked cement at the edge of the filling station, exactly at the point where the petrol station light and flashing blue light met, one shoulder raised, the other dragged down by her window cleaner’s bag, there she stood, profoundly exhausted by bearing witness to the evening.