On the one hand, it has been somewhat discouraging to see how little notice The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges has received from the anglophone press. A book this inventive, this daring, this original in its conception comes along but rarely, but rarely. I spent many months translating the book, and it was finally published last December, 2016. (The time of year when online outlets are vaunting their impeccable taste by amassing lists of the year’s most brilliant books – no coincidence there!) Being a naïve fool, I had high expectations for the book, the hope of securing a wide readership for it through some positive reviews. Well, in the ten months that have since elapsed, every outlet claiming to have its pulse on the world of translated literature, or of contemporary literature writ large – from World Literature Today to Words Without Borders to Asymptote to Lithub, or what have you – has failed to notice The Major Refutation. (Ditto for another extraordinary work by the same author, Fragments of Lichtenberg, translated by Gregory Flanders and published by Dalkey Archive a month after The Refutation‘s appearance. A conspiracy of silence? What has effectively happened is that a major contemporary author has made his debut in English while escaping the notice of every official outlet. This situation is more of a commonplace than I used to think.)
BUT…. on the other hand, the critical assessments for The Major Refutation have been astute and discerning. I am grateful to the book’s readers and reviewers, a few of whom I solicited. And so to allay my chagrin, and to incite my readers to seek this extraordinary book out, I would compile some of their praise and descriptions here.
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“With a stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world.” – (roughghosts)
“… a glorious book about dupes & dupers.” – (Joseph McElroy, email correspondence)
“… a book of fictional invention masquerading as historical artifact, further masquerading as scholarly treatise. It never flinches, it has not one single tell that it is anything but what it appears to be: a 16th century work…'” – (Ronald Morton)
“… more ingenious and creative than most books being published these days […] It reads like something William H. Gass or Alexander Theroux may have written […] I enjoyed the outlandish erudition on display.” – (Steven Moore, correspondence + etc)
“I assume that everyone wishes literature were just vituperative rants saturated in scholastic detail, but devoid of characters, plot, and description. Voilà: The Major Refutation… The project itself, the skeptical assault on events we know to have been real, is genuinely discomforting. Readers of texts like this tend to pride ourselves on our skepticism and our doubting; here, the skepticism is gloriously productive of insults and scorn, and the insults and scorn are often well-deserved, but ultimately we, the readers, know that the skepticism was misplaced. Is ours, too, misplaced?” – (Justin Evans)
“… brilliant… very learned…” – (The Modern Novel)
“Don’t miss it; it is one of the Major Novels of ’17 […] seriously folks, any list of Novels of ’17 which don’t feature [Fragments of Lichtenberg or The Major Refutation], you can just tell that List to fuck off. Right here, this is what novels look like.” – (Nathan N.R. Gaddis)
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Also, here is the publisher page (Contra Mundum Press), with a link to a substantial chunk of the text, readable now online.
Harry Mathews, Leonard Cohen, Bernard Hoepffner, Nicholas Mosley, all gone in the short space of a year. Today I learned of the death of Réjean Ducharme.
Ducharme’s work never has meant as much to me as that of Mathews, Mosley, or Cohen, and I would not normally be inclined to post upon learning of his recent death, except that this short article on Ducharme — which I wrote as the scantiest kind of introduction for the reader who has never heard of or read him — was never published, despite being *more or less* finished. It was solicited from me by an editor of an online publication and I sent it to him, then: silencio. (At the time, this rankled me but, alas, sundry more indignities have since accrued to cover that old rancor over, virtually burying it.) No, it’s not a tombstone, it’s not a eulogy; it’s just some lonely impertinent debris, for curious passersby here to pore over.
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The work of Québecois playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Réjean Ducharme (b. 1941) will continue to elude anglophone readers, even the more adventurous among them. Ducharme’s influence in his native Québec has been strongest of all, but his work has also found admirers in France and other French-speaking countries. From 1966 onwards, the French publisher Gallimard has made his books widely available in stores: eight of his novels and a play were published by Gallimard, with a handful of other texts picked up by other publishers. To date, his books have been translated and published in Spanish (3), Swedish (1), Danish (1), German (1), and English (6).
Ducharme’s career got off to a strong start when Gallimard accepted the manuscript of L’avalée des avalés in the mid-1960s when Ducharme was only twenty-five. The book’s selection as a finalist for the Goncourt aroused the usual journalistic curiosity. When the book didn’t win, Ducharme reportedly told his sister: “People won’t hear about me anymore, I’m going to be happy… If I had known there would be such a brouhaha about me, I never would have published in the first place.” And accordingly, in the years since, Ducharme has developed a reputation for belonging, like Pynchon and Salinger, to that breed of authors who decline the rituals of fame and publicity and value privacy over candor. (From the start, in the face of such non-cooperation, enterprising journalists have specialized in making the most of Ducharme’s family and collaborators to get them to talk about the author. There exist, in the archives of Radio Canada, handfuls of interviews with singer Robert Charlebois, Claude Gallimard, and Ducharme’s family members giving accounts of their interactions with the man.)
What of Ducharme’s work? In it, the reader finds a sense of vast possibility (often coincident with the sense of childhood), a child-like refusal to engage with the “real world” on its terms, inventing an idiosyncratic language of refusal, a love of irreverent humor and absurdity, and farcical and picaresque plotlines (absurd travels, hilarity ensue). All this sounds like so much light entertainment, but when Ducharme is at his best, underlying it all, there is a palpable, melancholic seriousness beneath the coy verbal play and contradictions of logic, a feeling that the books are being earnestly lived. Lived not as plausible lives, but as anomalous possibilities.
Many who sing Ducharme’s praises will tell you about his word-play. He is notorious for it. Of course, word-play is hard if not impossible to translate between languages. Yet the translators try. Even in the titles of several of his books, Le nez qui voque for instance — literally, The Nose that Vokes — we see it. You won’t find voquer in any French dictionary though its basis is the same the root of evoke and convoke. When spoken, the phrase sounds identical to l’inéquivoque — literally, the unequivocal. The English title, as it appeared in 2011, is Miss Take, which certainly seems impoverished by comparison, but I suspect it corresponds to the early passage where the phrase le nez qui voque is first employed. Or see Les enfantômes: enfantômes being a portmanteau that collapses enfant (child) into fantôme (ghost, phantom, haunting memory). Note also the untranslatable titles L’océantume and Dévadé — these titles have not yet appeared in English, but I suspect Will Browning is already slaving away.
Word-play and puerile machinations, maybe with a touch of sincerity: it doesn’t sound like much. From what I have read of Ducharme — which is in fact, to this moment, very little, not more than sixty pages — what I admire most is his ability to quickly switch registers and convey a sense of relativism and philosophical depth. A review of The Daughter of Christopher Columbus refers to “allusions that can range, in a single sentence, from the poetry of St. John Perse to the names of laundry detergents.” It’s that kind of simultaneity and equivalence that leave me reeling when I read Ducharme.
He still lives in Montreal. The journalists stopped hounding him years ago. On August 12, 2016, he will turn 75 years old.
Happy birthday, Réjean Ducharme.
In print, translated by Will Browning
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (Guernica, 2000)
Go Figure (Talonbooks, 2003; original Va Savoir, 1994)
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; original Le nez qui voque, 1967)
Out of print, hard to find:
Strait Winter (Anansi, 1977); Wild to Mild (Heritage, 1980) — both English editions of a translation of Hiver de force by Robert Guy Scully)
The Swallower Swallowed (trans. Barbara Bray, 1968)
Ha! Ha! (trans. David Homel, Exile Editions, 1986)
Criticism on Réjean Ducharme in English
“Swallowed Whole” (on The Swallower Swallowed) at Tablet Mag, by Benjamin Nugent
Marci Denesiuk on Go Figure at Montreal Review of Books
“Sharing the Genius of Ducharme” (on The Daughter of Christopher Columbus) at The Globe and Mail, by Ray Conlogue
And in French, here’s a good one: “Réjean Ducharme: L’analyse d’un paradoxe,” by Caroline Montpetit
– A Few Synopses –
The Swallower Swallowed (almost impossible to find; translation of L’avalée des avalés, Gallimard, 1966):
Ducharme’s first published novel. Bérénice Einberg, a young girl in a Jewish-Quebécois family, finds her place in the world between overbearing parents and a brother she loves. Disgusted by the logic of the world and the strictures of family, she goes to New York with her brother. Later, her father, alarmed by his inability to control her, sends her off to boarding school in Israel.
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; translation of Gallimard, Le nez qui voque, 1967; ):
Ducharme’s second-published novel. Sixteen-year-old Mille Milles (a name that in French would mean literally “one thousand miles”) has run away from his home, a town on the St. Lawrence River. He has brought with him a young girl, Chateaugué, a native Eskimo. They live in a tiny rented room in Old Montreal. Enthralled by the works of Émile Nelligan, Mille begins a journal, determined to free language from the constraints of convention, but finds he cannot write anything without immediately conjuring up its opposite. He struggles with his sexual desire for Chateaugué.
Go Figure (original, Gallimard, Va Savoir, 1994; Talonbooks, 2003):
A tale of a Montreal couple alienated from each other after suffering the miscarriage of twin girls. Mammy, the wife, has left Rémi Vavasseur. Not because she no longer loves him, but because she no longer loves herself. She is criss-crossing Europe and Africa in the company of Rémi’s former mistress, the dangerous and blonde Raïa. Rémi meanwhile is remodeling a ramshackle house in rural Québec, designed for Mammy if she ever comes back. The novel is the journal that he keeps during their parallel journeys.
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (original, Gallimard, 1969; Will Browning translation, Guernica, 2000)
A novel in verse, told in rhyming quatrains (232 pp. in French, 192 in English). Plot description: A beautiful and naive Columbia Columbus wanders through the world in search of friendship upon the death of her famous father. She makes friends with an ever-growing number of animals. Some of the animals serve as bodyguards during her dramatic return to Montreal, in the year 2492, to celebrate the millennium of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
I do read a little contemporary literature, but for a year-end list the more interesting thing in my opinion is always to focus on what’s obscure, the chance discovery, the forgotten tome. So here goes…
Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594) – Thomas Nashe
You will not find another author so madcap entertaining as Thomas Nashe. No, it’s not easy to read. When I read Nashe it feels I’m looking through a glass darkly to a time when the conventions of written English were in radical flux, coming into formation. I tried to read Pierce Penniless but my attention felt worn out after about 15 pages. It (and The Unfortunate Traveler and Lenten Stuff) await my attention another moon. From Terrors of the Night:
“As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror, so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences; no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us.” (full text)
Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg
Rainer Hanshe recommended Dahlberg to me as being up my alley, and that was after I’d read Paul Metcalf’s high praise of Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh in From Quarry Road. So I knew it was time. Well, an American who lived and breathed in the twentieth-century went and wrote a whole book about himself and his mother in soundly Elizabethan language. Sounds risky, but the mad codger flew high. Some will spurn it for its reconditeness, others will smear it for what they perceive as its misogyny, but I revel in its relentlessly rhetorical turns and its abstruse diction. But a small taste:
“Only a man cankered by his own zeal would crimp Scripture in order to call a lady barber a disorderly Magdala. When the time came she would be a steadfast wife and provide a husband who cherished her with a jolly, bawdy bed and fat gammons. She would look just as legal and righteous as any other female householder. Love restores the blind, the palsied and the virgin, and even if a lady barber smeared her bridal sheet with Heinz ketchup, no bridegroom should be so foolish as to examine it. A man who scrutinizes everything that he does–or someone else does to him–will die swearing or live to run mad in the streets with no cover for his nude soul but a syllogism. Besides, a woman is a marvelous chameleon creature, for she can cheat, lie and copulate, and still be the tenderest pullet.” (p. 25 in the New Directions edition)
Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe
“On Monday, massacre, burning, and pillage
On Tuesday, gifts, and visits among friends”
(from Chanting at the Crystal Sea, strophe 20; link to blog post on Howe)
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Tiny but crucial, Orality and Literacy maps out some of the differences between speech and writing, between what Ong calls “primary oral cultures” and societies governed by writing. This is very stimulating for anyone curious about the history of literature, the cognitive dynamics of language, and much much more. A nice reminder of what we are almost wired to forget:
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (1994) – Roger G. Kennedy
I became interested in the extinct mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States (many mounds of which may still be visited today) this year. I had visited several mounds throughout my adoloscence but what is there really to be seen or to know beneath the imposingness of a monumental heap of dirt? I’m plagued and perplexed by my partial knowledge still, and no matter how much I read about the mounds they remain impenetrable to me. Kudos to the archaeologists and paleontologists whose efforts have increased our understanding of these early inhabitants of North America, and to such historians as Roger Kennedy who in this book aims for a synthetic understanding of what those civilizations must have been like. It might it help to mitigate a little bit of that amnesia from which Americans always seem to be suffering.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) – Stephen Jay Gould
I found this book at the library’s annual used sale quite on a lark; I headed for the science and nature section with a yen to redress my ignorance in matters of geology. Well, I’m still little more than an ignoramus when it comes to the deep time of the earth, but my eyes were opened to the mind-boggling difference of such alien arthropod life forms as Anomalocaris, Marrella and Opabinia. Gould’s book is a tour de force, illuminating not just the radical contingency of history, but the ways institutions and ideologies shape the way scientists look at history. This was the first book I had read of Gould’s, and it is Cambrian natural history written with the clip and ease of an airport thriller, what a rare thing.
Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges
A good swath of this book (about 6,000 words) will be published in my translation next spring in the newish London-based journal Hotel. The book consists of short texts (ranging from half a page to 5 pages or so) composed from Kafka’s unfinished beginnings found in his notebooks. That probably sounds odd and not too inviting, but what makes this book so extraordinary is the humor, the undreamt of flights of fancy which Senges schemes up time and time again. I hope I can find a publisher who wants to publish the full book in English. I will keep trying. For now, there is The Major Refutation.
Rick Whitaker’s An Honest Ghost (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013) is a novel built from sentences culled from other books, taking them out of context, and fitting them together into a new mosaic form. The result is surprisingly successful: as I was reading, the book felt less like a coy conceptualist experiment, carried out for the purposes of achieving something that hadn’t been done before according to the given constraint, and more like an exciting stylistic excursion. If this is so, it’s no doubt because the works which have been sampled from share some common ground. The narrative is told in 46 short chapters, running to 129 pages, and followed by the source key, matching sentences to the books and authors whence they originate. (That list runs to 73 pages.) For an amateur of bibliographies like myself, there’s a most particular pleasure to be had here.
The dominant tonal thread in the narrative seems to be established by culling from works by twentieth-century writers in the ‘camp’ or queer style. Certainly not all, as that generalization won’t hold true for all the writers I’m about to mention. Some — like Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch, Gore Vidal, John Waters, Alfred Chester, Edmund White, Glenway Wescott, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and John Ashbery — were familiar to me, if only their names, a book or two I’ve read of theirs, or some biographical fact or other; while the borrowed sentences of others, a few of whom Whitaker borrows from more than liberally, intrigued me, despite my complete or partial ignorance of their life or work: Lydie Salvayres (Portrait of the Author as a Domesticated Animal); Adam Philips (On Balance); Doug Crase (Both); Jean-Christophe Valtat (03); David McConnell (The Firebrat); Fritz Zorn (Mars); Guy Hocquenghem (Screwball Asses); and André Tellier (Twilight Men).
I have yet to begin googling, but I will, and I’m pretty sure there’s some treasure-hunting to be done here. I might add, before I move on, that lots of other more well-known authors enter into the mix in frequent doses, among them: W.G. Sebald, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Thomas Bernhard, Michael Cunningham, Jean Echenoz.
The composite style is a thing of wonder to behold. I situate it somewhere in the environs of what Susan Sontag endeavored to describe in her essay “Where the Stress Falls”: a style sharing affinities with Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and many of the aforementioned queer and/or campish writers. Extraordinary; exquisite.
Postscript: I notice that Jaded Ibis Press has published the book simultaneously in two different editions — one with full-color illustrations by Debra Di Blasi, the other black-and-white, without. I read the latter.
This post follows the previous day’s post “The Princess Collated (1 of 2).” Now, to compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves in its various translations…
Pictured: My copy of the Mitford translation and The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles, alongside the modern Flammarion edition of La Princesse de Clèves.
La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second.
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. (Buss, 1992)
The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. (Mitford, 1950)
Note how Mitford reverses the sentence structure to improve it, and how she opts for an active verb structure (years | saw | object), whereas Buss uses a weak, passive one (… were displayed). The superlative structure jamais… avec tant d’éclat que becomes through Mitford such as has never been equalled. Compared to the slight awkwardness of Buss’s “At no time in…”, beginning on a negative (which, to my ear, sounds like a trial lawyer pleading a defendant’s innocence), Mitford’s phrase has a pleasant cadence and an appropriate elegance. Instead of magnificence and gallantry, which would be literal translations, from Mitford we get opulence and gallantry — a definite improvement. Buss’s translation has splendour and refinement, losing gallantry altogether.
(Yet anyone who had a historical understanding of French chivalric or even English chevalerie would be better off with gallantry I think — centuries of tradition and connotation reside therein! Knights wooing maidens, fighting Saracens, bearing heraldry, performing feats of valour to no end. Think of Buss’s poor, unsuspecting readers who don’t know what they’re missing !)
Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.
The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. (Buss, 1992)
The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling. (Mitford, 1950)
… This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it. (anonymous)
As with the first sentence, Mitford takes the liberty of freely altering the theme of the phrase, reordering clauses and building a totally new sentence. It’s an astonishing liberty she takes, and astonishingly successful. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux becomes The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. (Did Mitford even working from the same text as Buss?! It seems doubtful for a moment. Perhaps not; there’s no mention of Henri’s dad, François I, in the original. The sentence becomes periodic, with three modifying clauses interceding — almost four — before we learn we are dealing with a great lover of women. Yes!
Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation… (Buss, 1992)
He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them… (Perry, 1891)
He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it… (Mitford, 1950)
Note the lean, functional terseness of the Mitford — no comma even. But also note how Buss’s beginning with the word since (i.e., because? I can’t help but read it any other way) ineptly alters the sense of the phrase. It is absent from the original, but the addition subtly suggests a prince who only partakes of exercise since he’s not good at much else — we go from une de ses plus grandes occupations to the fatal his main occupation, how very boring this sounds in English!; and what an ungallant king who hardly does anything but play sports, because it’s the one thing he’s capable of doing well !; whereas Mitford easily paraphrases, much of his time was given up to it, not sounding dull, but relating information.
Nancy Mitford, ladies and gentleman. An amazing mind and an amazing body of work. Spend some time.
It’s hard to know why Penguin, who once published the Mitford translation in 1963 — and who knows what other years, go figure, at WorldCat — went on to publish what appears, judging from the first one or two paragraphs, to be an inelegant and somewhat sloppy, if not flawed and inferior, translation.
Mitford’s translation is currently published by New Directions, as are four other of her books in the NYRB Classics series.
I was thinking about reading The City of God by St. Augustine, but I got bogged down by the question of what edition to procure: I ended up at Goodreads looking at the various editions and user reviews, and, although I am normally most stringent about attribution and intellectual property matters, I’m going to make an exception and indulge myself in a little game Edwin Turner of Biblioklept likes to call “selections from [ ] reviews of [ ].” (If you’re one of the authors of the selection I’ve quoted from this page & you object to this use of your review without proper attribution, kindly notify me & I’ll act accordingly.)
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Selections from reviews of St. Augustine’s The City of God
4 stars just for style alone.
I stumbled across Augustine when I was teenager and I remember this being much more profound.
He’s too tough on sex. Even marriage sex is shameful?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I began this book. It sometimes felt like it would never end, but it was a great experience.
His arguments are piss-poor and he cherry picks evidence in a manner which comes across as being childish and willful. It definitely gave me a better understanding of why Christianity is such a fragmented belief system. Any religion which claims unfocused crap like this as being “foundational” is going to have huge problems down the road.
I found myself getting annoyed by the superfluous wording and repetition of a thought.
I wanted to read this book for several reasons: obviously it is classic and also I enjoy reading Augustine, but at the same time I am sometimes puzzled why we so earnestly labor to prove that America was the new Israel? I think that this book would be helpful to American christians, as I see parallels in our “expression” of Christianity in America with the decline of morality within our society as well.
The City of God is a work of almost infinite tedium. Augustine indulges every half-baked whim of biblical exegesis, shoddy philosophy, selective reasoning, and fanciful speculation that pops into his head. Many readers have mistaken this random mishmash for depth of thought.
It’s so perfectly organized and clear, despite the convoluted subject matter, and sometimes so charmingly snarky, it just made me want to go back in time and hug him. His theology is a little disappointing, though.
Six is the perfect number?
He thought he found a giant’s tooth. Probably a dinosaur?
He does have some awesome insights though, so it was definitely worth reading. Also, all that Dark Ages pessimism and lack of scientific knowledge–it was expected (obviously), but still really sad. Made me want to go back in time (again), pat him on the back, and explain to him how a magnet works.
Needless to say, my lack of faith remained unshaken in the end.
He assumes a 6000 year old earth
In summary, Augustine gets a hug and a pat on the back, because despite being more than a thousand years old, his work has more personality than most things written today.
Two recent online articles draw attention to the situation of Québecois literature in translation. These two articles have a lot of overlap, and they both share the position that Québecois and/or Francophone Canadian literature are too often ignored, due to either the language/culture barrier, lack of interest from publishers and readers, and/or the resulting paucity of English translations. I’m glad these articles are out there and bringing attention to the issue, but if an outsider reads them, one might, I think, get the wrong impression.
Let’s start with the article which was published first, “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature” by Pasha Malla, in The New Yorker. It is partly a review of Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss for Dalkey Archive Press. This is a book that, when it was published in 2010, earned its author a reputation for being one of the most promising young authors in Quebec literature.
Malla remarks that, “Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America […] is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French.”
I’m not sure what few Canadians is meant to imply here, but the overall numbers are considerable. For example, according to Statistics Canada, in 2011, about 1.1 million people outside Quebec in Canada reported French as their mother tongue in Canada. And nearly 2.6 million people reported being fluent enough to conduct a conversation in French — 11% of Canada’s population outside Quebec (source). Furthermore, 2011 at least 81,085 Albertans speak French as their first language, giving Alberta the fourth largest francophone population in Canada (source). One should also note that the French language appears to be slowly rising in Alberta and British Columbia (source).
If I’m touchy about this, it’s because Malla does a disservice to French-Canadians, and I would even say to francophones in Canada generally — including me, whose first language is not French. He appears to be ignorant of Canada’s formidable Franco-Albertan demographic. (Nor am I Franco-Albertan.)
Let’s move on to “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” by Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet and editor. This is a good article, discussing the state of Quebec poetry in translation in particular; but it seems either to demand that the reader of the article be fluent in French, or to insist on the principle of untranslatability. Why else would you cite French verses without interpreting them for an audience that, by default, one must assume reads only English?
[Pierre Nepveu] is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c’était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.
For an article about French literature in translation, why not at least tell us what’s at stake? Again:
What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. […] His hope was to find “l’équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C’est là sans appui que je me repose.”
I’m certainly glad that attention is being brought to the literature of Québec by these two essayists, but my gripes stand. Who wants to fight? Just kidding.
Now a boar’s pissing in your stream?
What life were you trying to escape?
We’ve almost all heard of Virgil (70BC – 19BC), the Roman poet most famous for having been born in a ditch, written The Aeneid and having shown an Italian poet around Hell and Purgatory (in precisely that order), but I suspect that few of us have a first-hand — or second-hand, admitting the deficiency of our Latin — acquaintance with his work. Nate Klug’s translation of choice excerpts from The Eclogues, also known as The Bucolics, is most welcome then. Available from the Song Cave, it’s titled Rude Woods: Passages from Virgil’s Eclogues.
Far from the city, by the tinkling brook, under the rustling leaves, on the damp, cool earth, in the halcyon sunlight, away from the bustling marketplace, the shouting vendors and streaming crowds, you lie on the hillside, singing tunes, drowsing and chatting with your friends, shepherds you are perhaps, maybe drinking wine. That’s what the phrase pastoral means to me, and probably most of us — although it would be remiss not to mention here William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), where he posits that its constitutive feature is something else altogether.
But what this collection illuminates, and what I did not know before, is the extent to which the pastoral genre is staked less on the unitary, rustic ideal of country life, but rather on a dynamic tension between worldly cares and earthy joy, “a constant dialectic of fear and grief with joy and hope,” to quote W.R. Johnson. As Johnson underlines in the foreword to this volume, these poems were written during the last of Rome’s civil wars. (A link, perhaps to our bellicose, American contemporaneity — perpetual war, the chagrin ever upon our meddling nation like a laurel of leaves.) Accordingly are Virgil’s shepherds “torn between sorrow and hope. Some of them have lost their land and flocks, and those who have not have no reason to feel secure.”
It’s this subdued but dark undercurrent running through Rude Woods that surprised me when I read it, and that I now find most fecund and profound.
This pastoral life can’t cure my madness
or teach the god of Love softer manners.
Another joy is the directness and confidence of Klug’s translation. Shepherds speaking as intimates don’t demur, or hold back; they speak in colorful language, jibing one another. The language sounds natural, and modern.
If you’ve got any valentines for Phyllis,
or praise for Alcon, or shit to say to Codrus,
go right ahead and sing it, Mopsus;
Tityrus can watch your grazing kids.
Only in translations of Catullus’s poems, Virgil’s contemporary, do I remember hearing such a tone. There are other pleasures here, the bliss of grapes and sex and song, but it’s the unexpected ones which I savor the most.
Much thanks is due to the Song Cave for providing me with a copy of this book. And I would be remiss were I not to mention, in closing, that Klug’s own book of poetry, Anyone, was published last month by University of Chicago Press. It looks well worth a read, and perhaps informed by his work on ancient pastoral traditions.
This review first appeared in an issue of Galleon Literary Journal. Galleon is now accepting submissions for its fourth issue.
Reviewed: Radio (a novel), by Tõnu Õnnepalu, 2002. Trans. Adam Cullen. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014. 650 pgs.
There is no literature anymore, there are just single books that arrive in bookstores, just as letters, newspapers, advertising pamphlets arrive in mailboxes. (…) World literature! That sounds just as hollow as ‘peace-keeping force.’ Some kind of world literature may still exist in the brain of some well-intentioned professor in Eastern Europe.
– Tõnu Õnnepalu, Border State, trans. Madli Puhvel, Northwestern UP, 2000, p. 88
Through prose ruminations, a diary of sorts, a middle-aged gay man tries to solve the puzzle of his former wife’s disappearance. The result is an alluring psychological portrait of the narrator, who is, among other things, a documentary film-maker from Estonia. That’s a summary outline of Radio (Raadio, 2002; trans. Adam Cullen, 2014), which follows Õnnepalu’s first novel, Border State (Piiririik, 1993) as the second of Õnnepalu’s books to be translated into English. The two books share a number of characteristics in common, mainly relating to the invention of similar narratorial personae suffering from similar types of emotional pain, romantic and otherwise. Both works were published under the pseudonym Emil Tode, and both are narrated by Estonian expatriates with ties to Paris.
Radio starts, oddly enough, with a discussion of the cost of a bus ticket from Tallinn to Tartu, the city to which the narrator is returning in 2002 after a decade living in Paris. This period roughly coincided, we learn, with his “marriage” to Liz Franz. Of necessity, everything we learn about Franz is colored by the narrator’s conflicted emotional state. Who is Franz really, independent of our only semi-reliable narrator? It’s an issue the text implicitly raises, although we cannot access her, anymore than the narrator can. Objectively, she is an Estonian-Russian singer who had a handful of radio hits in the seventies. To the narrator, she has all the prestige and grand theatricality of Maria Callas; though the peak of her glory has passed, in his eyes she remains a goddess. As a young boy, he fell in love with her voice and image. It’s recognisably a case of gay male diva worship that persists into the present, although it’s become intensely complicated.
Their “marriage,” which is not a legal union, but rather the narrator’s term for their difficult-to-categorize relationship¬, comes about after a series of initial trysts in the 1990s in Paris. The ambiguous romance (they’re both gay) rapidly cools, though with sexual favors exchanged and prolonged cohabitation. But Franz travels often, sometimes living with an international real-estate mogul. Her regular gifts of money to the narrator become a crucial element in the narrator’s psychology; the notion that he is a “housewife,” a kept man or gigolo to Liz Franz, vexes him. He can’t let go of it, it is the very core of his anxiety, and the reason he is so obsessed with Franz, from whom he’s been estranged on and off for years. “I’ve been working on the subject of Liz Franz for eleven years. Am I starting to get the hang of it?” he asks, painfully.
He is starting to get the hang of it, though. Õnnepalu’s uncanny ability to inhabit his first-person narrator is astounding, and the book stands as an excellent fusion of psychological realism and formal artifice. As a fully imagined character, the narrator also has the vague familiarness of a recognizable “type.” More than anything else, perhaps, his namelessness serves to underline this fact (and also to echo the condition of Proust’s narrator). Other traits (political apathy, religious indifference, coldness towards his family) reinforce the sense that the speaker is a representative of the so-called modern condition. The voice is confident, off-the-cuff, unwavering and immediate. But, due to a reluctance to confront the painful central topic outright, the forty-five chapters unfold by and large through a process of avoidance and deferral. From the start, digressions revolving around minor characters and motifs threaten to overwhelm and bury the Liz Franz question; but it inevitably presses into the narrative in a slow and steady time-release. Observations and analogies concerning biology, anthropology, economics, psychoanalysis, immunology and other miscellaneous disciplines forestall development, arising unannounced and passing with an effervescent lightness that makes them very digestible and stimulating, never heavy-handed. For instance, the quest for a sexual and romantic partner is analogized to the logic of economic markets. Or: “In the psychic aspect, the capacity to forget evidently plays the part of the immune system.” There’s also some excellent factual encapsulations of life, land, culture, and history in Estonia which make Radio a great introduction to the north Baltic region—what was once, we learn, Old Livonia, a kingdom partly in Latvia, partly in Estonia.
In fact, these strong historical and geopolitical registers make Radio very contemporary, and also seem to indicate that it was written with an international audience in mind. Like the opening scene that discusses the relative purchasing power of francs, Euros, and kroons, a number of features suggest a desire to go beyond the idea of the nation. A fascination for borders is made explicit in the title of an art film the narrator made about border-crossing points across Europe—it’s called “Les Frontières”—just as Border State also foregrounds political divisions. Given that Border State was widely translated in Europe and elsewhere, Õnnepalu certainly had reason to expect that Radio too would travel abroad to reach non-Estonian readers with the directness of an airborne radio transmission. The narrator’s verbal tic of parenthetically weaving French idioms into his speech similarly calls attention to the in-betweenness of identity and the condition of bilingualism.
The plot development and pacing are slow, but that’s exactly the point; the style and form are capacious, issuing from a monkish patience and discipline. (At the book’s middle chapter, the narrator imagines leading an ideal life as a Cistercian monk in a medieval Estonian monastery, living quietly alongside other reserved gay men.) And by the conclusion, Radio effects a full dramatic reversal and catharsis which validate and redeem the process leading there. If Radio succeeds through its nearly six hundred pages, as I believe it does, it’s in large part due to the delicate balance of self-pity and stoicism, of complaint and resignation, that its singular voice strikes. In its almost architectural organisation of material, Radio is a lucid and beautiful monument to solitude.
For 3AM magazine I reviewed Marie NDiaye’s latest two books to be translated into English, All My Friends (2013, orig. Tous mes amis, 2004) and Self-Portrait in Green (2014, orig. Autoportrait en vert, 2005). It was hard, and the review is lengthy, approaching 4000 words. I kind of wish I had been able to get my hands on some of the original French texts, but alas, it was not easy. It’s very hard to review a translation as a translation if you can’t consult the original text. A learning experience nonetheless.
This is the first in a series of posts where I do a write-up of a French book that is not yet translated into English. – JS
What drew me to read Anne Garréta’s Ciels liquides (Grasset, 1990) was its interesting premise: it is (according to the Oulipo Compendium) “the paradoxical view of a narrator’s loss of language.”
It’s also beautifully unsettling and hallucinatory. The hallucinations start in the barn of the narrator’s ancestral farm.
I was sinking down.
My shadow was still floating up at the surface, breathing, looking around, uttering sounds in reaction to the thousand stimuli around it. Down below, I was slowly sinking, pulled down by the whirlpool, the slow spiral, always lower. The barn had come to rest on the bottom, swallowed up under many miles of intensely churning fluid, the rumor of the word, endlessly stirred. (p. 20, my translation)
After an accident in the barn and a stay in the hospital, the narrator lives for a while in a dark closet, having lost all capability for speech or writing. Later, he takes up residence in a cemetery, living inside a crypt, and goes to work at night in a morgue. In one scene, he dissects a corpse that appears to be his twin or döppelganger. There are countless beautiful descriptions of experiences that are beyond words, dissociative states.
I was without language. There was no language to account for the state I was in. The strangest thing seems now to me not to have been the amnesia that made it impossible for me to recognize and use words, whether spoken or written, but to have lived constantly suspended at the edge of another translation of a meaning which I felt screaming inside me, fugitive, whose force remained incommunicable, beneath the orbit of words. (p. 120, my translation)
It would be great to see this wonderfully weird book translated and published in English. I’m also looking forward to reading Garréta’s Pas Un Jour (2002).
Next spring (2015), Deep Vellum will publish Garréta’s first book, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) in a translation by Emma Ramadan. Over at Deep Vellum’s website, there are some English excerpts of Garréta’s work with some good links.
After Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, I was curious to read him, so I took Peter Englund’s advice and started with Missing Person (La Rue des boutiques obscures, 1978). What a let-down! It’s the story of a guy trying to figure out his past — he suffered some more or less total memory loss in the late ’40s. So he follows a trail of clues, using photographs and going around talking to people. He learns some things, but he never finds out who he was. Nor is his role in the Nazi occupation of France in WW II (apparently one of Modiano’s key motifs) ever made clear. All that’s fine (I love disorienting books), but the texture of the prose is insipid, just relaying the movements of the protagonist and the simplest impressions. I haven’t found a book from which I expected good things so disappointing since — I’m sorry to say — Norman Mailer’s Deer Park.
Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1965) and Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) are fantastic, however, and it seems that hardly anyone is talking about them.
Just goes to show: don’t believe the hype.
Update: I’m not giving up on Modiano yet. I’ve since heard very good things about Du plus loin de l’oubli (Out of the Dark, trans. Jordan Stump) and Voyage des noces (Honeymoon, trans. Barbara Wright), and might pick up either of these in the year to come.
The post-exotic project is, among others, to realize a literary object composed of forty-nine works (forty volumes have already appeared in French) in which the very last sentence is: “I remain silent.” I have heralded this numerous times. I hope to live long enough to lay down that last sentence on the post-exotic edifice, which will then be closed, complete.
– Antoine Volodine, in the “Interview with the Author” which serves as a preface to the advance uncorrected galley of Writers (Dalkey Archive, 2014)
I’m not inclined to believe this is anything but a bluff, but two facts:
* the title of his latest book, just out in France, is Terminus radieux ; Nov. 2014 – it has been awarded the Goncourt Prize, perhaps France’s most prestigious prize) ;
* the number of his published works, if you count the eight translations Volodine has done from the Russian, now totals 49 (or 41 without the translations).
This guy is a master of hype, full of interesting bluffs. That’s why I don’t think Volodine would give it up Philip Roth-style. If your curiosity is piqued read that essay of mine, “An Ism of One’s Own,” or one of the other two recent reviews of Writers (“After Revolution” and this one at FullStop).
Antoine Volodine first came onto my radar in 2008, when several of his books were assigned reading for a graduate course in French literature that I was taking. We read Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) and Le Post-Exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (1998), and I also read a little of Des Anges mineurs. So when I saw that Volodine had another book forthcoming in English translation (Writers, trans. Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014; originally Écrivains, Editions du Seuil, 2010), I jumped at the opportunity to review it for The Quarterly Conversation.
There’s something about the essay I didn’t get quite right, but it’s nevertheless informative and fairly broad about Volodine’s project (although he has written over 40 books in thirty years! who can cope with that!). I discuss paratexts, pseudonyms/heteronyms, and why I think Writers is not Volodine’s best work. As I was finishing the essay, I began to think that the style pioneered by the great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis serves as a rough model for some of what Volodine is trying to do. In particular, Volodine and Kis both seem to approach their protagonists using a tone near to that of the encyclopedist or the biographer in order to describe individuals who struggle against a totalitarian state, often incarcerated, vehemently resisting to the bitter end.
It’s very hard to distinguish though, without doing some heavy comparative readings and research, to what extent Volodine’s style shares in common with Kis’s style a Soviet, totalitarian cultural milieu (you know, the kind of thing you get in Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the Granat Encyclopedia), and to what extent Volodine is really standing on Kis’s shoulders. For my part, I far prefer Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich to Volodine’s Writers. That, at least, is what I struggled to say in the essay.
And do be sure to check out the other articles in issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation.
Regardless of authorial contexts (Murnane & Coetzee), this is a fascinating quote. It’s from the Anthony Uhlmann’s recent review of The Childhood of Jesus, in American Book Review (jan-feb ’14).
In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch (2009) in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a “network of images.” Coetzee concludes:
The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences… In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of… As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist.
And then later on:
In a passage from Inland (1989) that Coetzee cites in his review, Murnane’s narrator reflects on a quote from Paul Eluard, a poet he claims to know nothing about and to have never read: There is another world but it is in this one. He continues:
The other world… is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books.
Uhlmann’s book, Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov (2011), must be tremendous. A giant theme, and giant writers.
I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).
The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.
A high point of my month’s reading was William Golding’s second novel The Inheritors (1955), which followed after his first and of course most successful novel, Lord of the Flies. I somehow have two copies, both Faber & Faber, with some pretty great cover illustrations by Paul Hogarth (L) & Neil Gower (R).
The novel is structured around the idea of a Neanderthal tribe coming into contact with a more advanced tribe, presumably the first humans, or representative of such. It’s not difficult to read; it’s really quite a masterpiece, and it’s about the birth of the human race even. Therefore, I highly recommend it. I’ll leave off with a citation from the penultimate paragraph of John Carey’s introduction to the centenary edition which I think rightly sums up Golding’s achievement.
The greatness of The Inheritors does not depend on Golding imagining what Neanderthals might have been like. It depends on the language he fashions to express it. He accepts the colossal stylistic challenge of seeing everything from a Neanderthal point of view. By feats of language that are at first bewildering he takes us inside a being whose senses, especially smell and hearing, are acute, but who cannot connect sensations into a train of thought. This is a being whose awareness is a stream of metaphors and for whom everything is alive. Intricate verbal manoeuvres force us to share the adventures – and the pathos and the tragedy – of a consciousness that is fearless, harmless, loving, minutely observant and incapable of understanding anything.
The book designers weren’t told to make an object resembling a hearse or coffin, but they did anyways, a beautiful black and gold object. I bought my Knopf “Book Club edition” of this dark classic for seven Canadian bucks at Encore Books in Montreal two years ago.
And it is a hell of a book. Its voice belongs to Bob Slocum, a father-of-three, mid-level executive living in Connecticut. His one son is mentally retarded, a fact he can’t fully countenance. Slocum is terrified of inarticulacy, of speechlessness. He is depressed, but he is not. (Unless depression means something like a permanent negative outlook or worldview, an all-encompassing and unremitting pessimism. Fear of everything, of closed doors, of other people, of mortality, strokes, illness, senility, debility, speechlessness, of accidents.
What a fucking book. Its darkness on a level with William Gass’s The Tunnel, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Or Thomas Bernhard.
I’ll shut up. And let Heller’s Bob Slocum speak for himself.
All our summers have been bad. And most of our Sundays. And still are. How I dread those three- and four-day weekends. I wish my wife and I played tennis or enjoyed going on boats for sailing or fishing. But I don’t; I don’t even enjoy people who do. I don’t even enjoy anything anymore. (323)
I have a bitter urge now to reproach her, to shout at her, to reach out and hit her, to kick her very sharply under the table in the bones of her leg. I have an impulse often to strike back at the members of my family, even the children, when I feel they are insulting me or taking advantage. Sometimes when I see one of them in the process of doing something improper, or making a mistake for which I know I will be justified in blaming them, I do not intercede to help or correct but hold back in joy to watch and wait, as though observing from a distance a wicked scene unfold in some weird dream, actually relishing the opportunity I spy approaching that will enable me to criticize and reprimand them and demand explanations and apologies. It horrifies me; it is something like watching them back fatallay toward an open window or the edge of a cliff and offering no warning to save them from injury or death. It is perverse and I try to overcome it. There is this crawling animal flourishing somewher inside me that I try to keep hidden and that strives to get get out, and I don’t know what it is or whom it wishes to destroy. I know it is covered with warts. It might be me; it might also be me that it wishes to destroy) and, succeeding in stifling my anger beneath a placid smile, say:
“Pass me the break, will you, dear?” (111)
I molested a child. I was molested as a child. Everyone is molested. (337-8)
I know what hostility is. (It gives me headaches and tortured sleep.) My id suppurates into my ego and makes me aggressive and disagreeable. Seepage is destroying my loved ones. If only one could vent one’s hatreds fully, exhaust them, discharge them the way a lobster deposits his sperm with the female and ambles away into opaque darkness alone and unburdened. I’ve tried. They come back. (390)
I do indeed know what morbid compulsion feels like. Fungus, erosion, disease. The taste of flannel in your mouth. The smell of asbestos in your brain. A rock. A sinking heart, silence, taut limbs, a festering invasion from within, seeping subversion, and a dull pressure on the brow, and in the back regions of the skull. It starts like a fleeting whim, an airy frivolous notion, but it doesn’t go; it stays; it sticks; it enlarges in space and force like a somber, inhuman form from whatever lightless pit inside you it abides in; it fills you up, spreading steadily throughout you like lava or a persistent miasmic cloud, an obscure, untouchable, implacable, domineering, vile presence disguising itself treacherously in your own identity, a double agent–it is debilitating and sickening. It foreshadows no joy–and takes charge, and you might just as well hang your head and drop your eyes and give right in. You might just as well surrender at the start and steal that money, strike that match, (masturbate), eat that whole quart of ice cream, grovel, dial that number, or search that forbidden drawer or closet once again to handle the things you’re not supposed to know are there. You might just as well go right off in whatever direction your madness lies and do that unwise, unpleasant, immoral thing you don’t want to that you know beforehand will leave you dejected and demoralized afterward. Go along glumly like an exhausted prisoner of war and get the melancholy deed overy with. I have spells in spare time when it turns physically impossible for me to remain standing erect one second longer or to sit without slumping. They pass. I used to steal coins from my sister and my mother–I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even want the money. I think I just wanted to take something from them. I was mesmerized. I was haunted. I wanted to scream for help. I had only to consider for an instant the possibility of taking a penny or a nickel again from a satin purse in a pocketbook belonging to my mother or sister and it was all over: I would have to do it. I was possessed by the need to do it. I would plod home through snow a mile if necessary in order to get it then. I had to have it then. I took dimes and quarters too. Ididn’t enjoy it, before or afterward. I felt lousy. I didn’t even enjoy the things I bought or did. I gambled much of it away on pinball machines at the corner candy store (and felt a bit easier in my mind after it was lost). I didn’t feel good about a single part of it, except getting it over with–it was an ordeal–and recovering. After a while the seizures ended and I stopped. (The same thing happened with masturbation, and I gave that up also after fifteen or twenty years.) (489-91)
It’s not that easy to review books well, I know. Novelist Joshua Cohen probably does too, as he’s been at it for a while now reviewing for Harper’s and now the New York Times.
In any case, there’s a few things that rankle in his review of W.G. Sebald’s latest posthumous publication, A Place in the Country (2014). I wouldn’t comment on this, except that I’ve read all of Sebald’s novels (and After Nature) twice and wrote a thesis on The Emigrants. Cohen:
W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island.
My lord, “four novels about Jews” just won’t work. Austerlitz and The Emigrants, yes, but the focus in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn is hardly Jewry. My only guess is that he hasn’t read these novels, and so is relaying the commonly touted affiliation of Sebald with Jews and the Holocaust. Then he says
“A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last.
“Sebaldiana”–I cringe, and ask, why? why invent this clumsy-ass word? Don’t other words work? Sebaldian, fine, but… ugh. This, and a few strange stylistic tics/flourishes, make this review rather inelegant. See that weird, smart aside concluding the opening paragraph:
Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.
Anyways, we all err. Anyways.
One of the more remarkable titles I read this month was a novella by English fiction writer Ronald Firbank (1886-1926). The copy I read was a 1962 New Directions paperback which collects two of Firbank’s last completed works, The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923) and Prancing Nigger (1924). The edition includes a Firbank chronology by Miriam K. Benkovitz, from which I glean that Firbank originally intended for the title of the Prancing Nigger to be Sorrow in Sunlight. (Editor Carl Van Vechten, working for Brentano’s in New York, renamed the novella, presumably on the grounds that the shocking title would sell copies.) I was drawn to read the latter of the two pieces that are collected in the volume largely on the basis of its shorter length, which I imagined would be a good short introduction to Firbank’s work, and also by that, indeed, shocking title. I had first come across the author’s name with some puzzlement when I was reading an interview with Harry Mathews, wherein the interviewer praised Tlooth (1966) and pointed out a resemblance between its and Vainglory‘s (a novel by Firbank) beginnings.
While I can see the grounds for a comparison between Mathews’s and Firbank’s work, I found Firbank’s style in Prancing Nigger to be more reminiscent of Djuna Barnes’s work (Nightwood, 1936, being the sole title of hers I know well) and John Hawkes’s work. A touch of Nathanael West’s merciless and cruel humor too. Firbank’s style proudly displays its inheritance from the decadence and sophistication of the French fin-de-siècle style: refined, sophisticated, elegant, effete even.
Set on an unnamed, Cuba-like Caribbean isle, Prancing Nigger records the dissolution of a provincial family as they move to the isle’s small capital city at the relentless prompting of Mrs. Ahmadou Mouth, who is eager to move up in society and to find eligible suitors for her two young daughters, Edna and Miami. Her husband, whom she addresses invariably with the epithet prancing nigger (hence the title Van Vechten chose), is only a minor character ineffectually fending off her wordly ambitions, and the drama unfolds primarily around Edna and Miami. One of these eventually becomes the paramour of a young local aristocrat. Her brother joins a street gang of sorts and drifts away from the family. As far as plot goes, that’s about it. Oh yes — there’s also a going-away party, an earthquake, an opera fundraiser, a parade, and a character eaten by a shark.
But the style! The mix of pidgin English and Creole, with the narrator’s detached, sophisticated commentary is striking. Have a sampling:
“Start de gramophone gwine girls, an’ gib us somet’in’ bright!” Mrs. Mouth exclaimed, depressed by the forlorn note of the Twa–oo-Twa-oo bird, that mingled its lament with a thousand night cries from the grass.
“When de saucy female sing: ‘My Ice Cream Girl,’ fo’ sh’o she scare de elves.”
And as though by force of magic, the nasal soprano of an invisible songstress rattled forth with tinkling gusto a music-hall air with a sparkling refrain.
There’s also a sly self-referential trick whereby Firbank inserts himself into the text, a kind of signature which, in comparison to the meta-fictional tricks of later authors, seems tasteful, quaint, and restrained:
“She seem fond ob flowers,” Mr. Mouth commented, pausing to notice the various plants that lined the way: from the roof swung showery azure flowers that commingled with the theatrically-hued cañas, set out in crude, bold, colour-schemes below, that looked best at night. But in their malignant splendour, the orchids were the thing. Mrs. Abanathy, Ronald Firbank, (a dingy lilac blossom of rarity untold), Prince Palairet, a heavy blue-spotted flower, and rosy Olive Moonlight, were those that claimed the greatest respect from a few discerning conoisseurs.
Flipping through the pages of The Flower under the Foot, I see Firbank couldn’t resist doing the same there too:
Have you Valmouth by Ronald Firbank or Inclinations by the same author?” she asked.
“Neither I’m sorry — both are out!”
I will definitely keep an eye out in used shops for Valmouth and Vainglory, not to mention Inclination and Caprice, Firbank’s other novels. Dalkey Archive Press, if I remember correctly, publishes a collection of his stories. This is an author deserving of a wider readership. (Although I suspect that, among the adventurous, his readership is already wider than anyone can measure or foretell.)
Note 1: As Dan Visel indicates to me on Twitter, Carl Van Vechten was… something else. You can read all about it here in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Vechten (LARB).
I felt I had to read The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), but as a duty, an obligation; — I failed to foresee the abundance of pleasure and delight it would bring me, how fully I would be absorbed by this lovely, capacious, courtly romance that Stendhal (1783-1842) dictated — if you can believe it — in just fifty-two days in the fall of 1838. It is not dense, it is sprawling and magnificent though, an intrepid work with a bit of everything. Love and nobility of the soul are its two great themes, but it is also packed with action, architectural musings, political intrigue, psychological interiority, cruelty, wit and humour, and one fantastic escape. It is Stendhal’s last novel, and it was brought into the world seemingly fully-formed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will enlarge your heart and your soul, to say nothing of your attention. Fabrizio del Dongo is the book’s hero, a noble and naive young man, a prisoner and ecclesiastic, a fugitive lover, of whom his aunt rightly remarks, “If he hadn’t been so lovable, he would be dead”!
Richard Howard’s translation, published by the Modern Library in 1999, reads in a fluidly and flawlessly, and also includes an afterword by Howard; Honoré de Balzac’s 1840 review of the book; Stendhal’s letter to Balzac; and Daniel Mendelsohn’s 1999 review of Howard’s translation, which appeared initially in The New York Times Book Review. From these supporting documents I glean the following: Stendhal wrote to Balzac that, “Whilst writing the Chartreuse, in order to acquire the correct tone I read every morning two or three pages of the Civil Code.” – ! Also: Henri Beyle (Stendhal) used over 200 pseudonyms in his lifetime. (Certainly makes me feel like less of a nut for occasionally assuming an alias…)
Put this one on your reading lists.
Was it even a war, or something else?… I’ve stewed too long in my outrage to be eloquent or tactful. Writings on the history and non-fiction of the bloody war are legion, proliferating as we speak. Too much for me. Here’s a list of resources for the Iraq/Afghan wars in fiction.
I finished Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869) last week, and boy is it good. I found it hard going at the start, mostly because the author seemed to treating his protagonist with such derision, but after a few hours with the book there was no turning back. For the oceans of ink that have already been spilled over this book, I need add nothing but another hearty endorsement. What a wicked wit was Gustave Flaubert… I can’t recall ever having such a shock in reading a novel as the marriage proposal that materializes in part III, and Frédéric Moreau’s hilarious response. Were one to judge from this classic, one might well believe Robert Burton’s claim in The Anatomy of Melancholy that, “in France, upon small acquaintance, it is usual to court other men’s wives, to come to their houses, and accompany them arm in arm in the streets, without imputation.” Pair this one with Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (1888).
There’s a new online magazine of Québec literature in translation out there, in fact there’s only one in the whole world, and it’s called ambos (a Spanish word meaning both), and I’m happy to be a contributor to it. If you’re interested, you can hop on over there to read my review and translation from the French of an excerpt from Patrick Nicol’s 2012 novella Terre des cons. It’s a good one!
From my review:
Whatever the message is, Ancient History and Cy’s manuscript (for they’re one and the same) confront the impossible: Cy seeks in his project to embrace a totality that’s larger and greater than the limits of others’ minds. This high ambition stands parallel to that of Michel Butor’s Degrees (1960; cited by McElroy as a precursor and model for his early work), as well as McElroy’s first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), whose central protagonist, David Brooke, has “perfect recall.” Similarly gifted, Cy has in his brain an unusually developed “Vectoral Muscle” that enables rare feats of attention, perception, and intuition. On the page, this amounts to what Tony Tanner aptly termed a sense of “egalitarian respect for the most apparently modest detail.” A name on an apartment directory-board that’s “mint white grooved in velvety black,” for instance, or, an egg sandwich seen with “the gold-gray damp of the grease coming into the Pepperidge Farm white.” Like these minute touches, McElroy’s prose can, at its best, almost conjure synesthesia.
My review of Mauricio Segura’s novel Eucalyptus is online (and in print!) in the Montreal Review of Books fall 2013 issue. Segura’s short novel is translated by Donald Winkler and available from the excellent Biblioasis.
From the review:
The story’s protagonist, Alberto Ventura, has returned to Temuco in Araucania for the funeral of his father, Roberto. Over several packed days, he tries to understand his father’s life story and mysterious death, gradually piecing together a composite narrative from contradictory accounts offered up by those who knew him. Assembling the pieces isn’t easy, as Alberto’s father’s life is structured around a handful of discontinuities. We see him in elliptical vignettes, alternately as a leftist activist in the early seventies, as a political prisoner under Pinochet, later as a Canadian immigrant and family man, soon as a philandering, abusive husband, and, ultimately, as the owner of a Chilean plantation when he returns to his homeland at the end of the dictatorship in 1990.