“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.
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
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…
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
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