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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

History as Amnesia: Adam Scovell’s “How Pale the Winter Has Made Us”

How_Pale_sales_cover

‘… I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don’t know where it will lead me.’
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

How often is the main character of a novel a city and not a person? In Adam Scovell’s new novel How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, the first thing we see (after the epigraph from Goethe quoted above) is a reproduction of a 19th century photographic postcard of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France towering over the roofs and chimneys of the city. Isabelle, our narrator, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.”

And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented. Read more

The House That Jack Built: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Hawkes Cannibal

When I was young and the traveling fair came around every spring, they sometimes brought with them a funhouse called The House That Jack Built, meant to suggest a structure built by a crazed architect. Inside was a mildly scary maze that consisted of floors that were uneven or that would suddenly go soft on you, mirrors and optical illusions, horrible noises, paths with misdirections and dead ends, and other tactics meant to make the space the size of a mobile home feel as spacious as a mansion.

I was reminded of that as I read John Hawkes’s first novel The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949). The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. We are in a bombed-out town called Spitzen-on-the Dein, a landscape of buildings that are tilting or half falling down, the streets littered with abandoned carts and bomb craters. The opening scene is the empty insane asylum, which sits on a hill surrounded by charred earth, fields with dead cows, and stunted trees. The omniscient narrator, Herr Zizendorf, is the Editor of the wonderfully named local paper, the Crooked Zeitung. Zizendorf is a reluctant narrator who doesn’t bother to announce his presence or use the pronoun “I” until page 32. He prefers to stay in the background most of the time, until the end of the book when he reveals that he is the ringleader of the final event.

We are slowly introduced to an odd cast of characters: Madame Stella Snow, Jutta, the Census-Taker, The Duke (a tank commander in the previous World War), Herr Stintz, a tuba-playing school teacher, and a handful of others. Relationships and chronology are often ambiguous. But the writing is lush, thrilling.

The Mayor, with his faded red sash, was too blind to tend to the chronicles of history, and went hungry like the rest with memory obliterated from his doorstep. Their powerful horses of boney Belgian stock, dull-eyed monsters of old force, had been commandeered from the acre farms for ammunition trucks, and all were gone but one grey beast who cropped up and down the stone streets, unowned, nuzzling the gutters. He frightened the Mayor on black nights and trampled, unshod, in the bar garden, growing thinner each day. Children took rides on the horse’s tail and roamed in small bands, wearing pasteboard Teutonic helmets, over the small confines of the town. The undertaker had no more fluid for his corpses; the town nurse grew old and fat on no food at all. By mistake, some drank from poisoned wells.

This is writing I would follow anywhere. Read more

The “Impersonal Autobiography” of Annie Ernaux

ernaux years

 

Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, translated by Alison L. Strayer), which launched the concept of “collective autobiography,” vacillates between two very distinct forms of narrative. First published in France as Les Annees in 2008, the premise is that an unlikely pair of narratives can work together dialectically to construct a more complex self-portrait of the author. In one strand, Ernaux provides a history of post-war France as seen through her own subjective experiences and her very personal lens. These portions are written in first person plural, in ‘we.’ The second, alternating narrative is that of her own story as she grows up, except that Ernaux turns the ‘I’ of autobiography into the ‘she’ of biography. Ernaux treats the memories she has of herself as if they were the observations of another. Needless to say, the reader has to do a bit of recalibrating to bring the “we” and the “she” narratives into a singular story, but trust me, it works. Read more

Ghostland

Ghostland Parnell

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

Homesick

Croft Homesick

“This book is a work of creative nonfiction. Names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” So reads part of the copyright page of Homesick: A Memoir, the recent book by Jennifer Croft, the widely known translator of 2019 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights and numerous other books from Polish, Ukrainian, and Spanish. Homesick tells of the lives of Amy and Zoe, sisters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the span of about two decades.

In addition to the fact that the main character is not named Jennifer Croft, her “memoir” lets you know right away it is going to be an unusual work of “creative nonfiction.” The book begins with a pair of epilogues on photography by well-known photographers that are immediately followed by a color photograph of a bridge upon which parts of a phrase or sentence have been written in bright red marker, then four more color photographs, each of which are accompanied by a single sentence that forms a prologue in which the narrator recalls teaching her younger sibling to speak. This book—or so that scribbled-on photo seems to suggest—wants to be the bridge across which the two languages of words and images will cross as equals.

Croft Pont des Arts

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Sergio Chejfec’s The Incompletes

Incompletes

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

A Stranger’s Pose

Iduma Stranger

Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose is a discontinuous journey that zigzags across parts of north Africa. As a traveler who often lacks the local language, Iduma and the people he meets are constantly forced to assess each other with little or no language. The camera that he carries can be perceived as a threat or an invitation. Finding a common language—even if it is simply gestural— is the first priority.

The book consists of seventy-seven short pieces that include brief stories, conversations, dreams, reflections, poems, and photographs that are credited to Iduma and a dozen or so others. The book covers a swath of the continent that spans from Casablanca and Rabat in the North to Dakar in the West and Addis Ababa in the east. The seeming lack of structure, be it geographic or temporal, struck me as one of the book’s strengths, because it instantly converts the reader into a traveler, waking up in a new place daily, coming across strangers in a strange land every few pages. As Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost constantly reminds us, travel is a kind of dream state in which we are unmoored from almost everything familiar. Read more

Last Exit

Craig Panthers

I’m not sure why authors sometimes want to signal to us in advance what the experience of reading their book is going to be like. Maybe it’s a momentary crisis of self-doubt or an honest attempt to assist the reader. On pages 5 and 6, Jen Craig tells us what we should expect as we read her book Panthers & the Museum of Fire. “You have to imagine a book,” the narrator (also named Jen Craig) tells us, before clarifying that the book she is referring to is really a manuscript.

As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start. You kept flicking pages and reading and flicking—not skipping any pages, but flicking them all the same—and the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story in the manuscript to start for real. This feeling, you have to realise, kept up the whole time. There was never a moment when you thought you had started on the section of the manuscript where the real part began. At first you would have been flicking the pages and thinking, well she could have cut these paragraphs and all of these pages here, cut all of it so far, and yet this feel of needing to cut most of what you were reading persisted until the end. In fact the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part—when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there never was a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another.

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“The sickness of my language”: Hilbig’s “The Females”

Hilbig Females

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

Littoral/Literal

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I been moving back and forth between three books by Forrest Gander recently, looking mostly at the various ways in which he has worked with photographs in his poetry. In Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 2011) there are four poem sequences in which photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia are situated. The photographs are each given their own page, so they aren’t really embedded within the text of the poem. Instead, Gander seems to propose that the reader take in the photographs as a visual parallel to his words. Separate but equal. An earlier book, Eye Against Eye (New Directions, 2005), includes a poem sequence entitled “Late Summer Entry: the  Landscapes of Sally Mann,” in which Gander’s poems directly address their visual counterparts on facing pages.

Gander’s newest book, Be With (New Directions, 2018), is riddled with the “searing exquisite singularity” of death. In 2016, his wife, the poet C.D. Wright, died suddenly, and a number of the book’s poems deal with the “grief-sounds” and the “tetric silence” that he experienced after this loss. There is also a long, moving, deeply personal poem titled “Ruth,” about Gander’s aging, failing mother, who struggles physically and has memory issues. His response to familial grief is to write poems that are fractured and disjointed, that abruptly change direction, and have what he calls a “rhythm of farewell.”

For me, the most fascinating work in Be With is the closing poem sequence titled “Littoral Zone” in which Gander presents a combination of words and photographs in a new and more complex relationship than he has previously attempted. “Littoral Zone” has six parts, each consisting of a photograph by Michael Flomen on the left hand page and one section of Gander’s poem on the opposing page. The six sections have subtitles that alternate between “Entrance” and “Exit,” suggesting that the poem as a whole represents the influx and the ebb of the tide that is hinted at by the title word littoral, which, Merriam-Webster.com tells me, is “the shore zone between the high tide and low tide points.” Each of the six written sections of the poem is subdivided into three verse paragraphs, with the center one printed in italics.

Gander Be With

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