I know it’s been pretty lonely up here the past couple of weeks. This is due to travel and some projects that are involving a lot of my energy at the moment. But this site has been on my mind, and there will be some more bloggy goodness before long.
For now, some links to a couple of recent pieces:
First, up at Fanzine, an essay I wrote around Lars von Trier’s body of work, particularly his film The Five Obstructions. Like many, I view von Trier as a mixed bag, but he’s got a definite point of view, and this is one of his best movies. And also, I really, really enjoyed how this piece came out.
Secondly, at Music & Literature I have a review essay on NYRB Classics’s edition of Silvina Ocampo’s stories, Thus Were Their Faces. These are stories that get more and more impressive with each run back through them, and it’s great to see Ocampo finally finding a real audience in English.
I really dug Enrique Vila-Matas’s latest, The Illogic of Kassel. Not going to say a whole lot at the moment since I’m trying to run down a review somewhere, but I will discuss it eventually, somewhere. This, his latest novel in Spanish, is being released in conjunction with A Brief History of Portable Literature, a delightful 1985 novel by Vila-Matas, on June 9 of this year.
In the meantime, my essay on Vila-Matas, review of Never Any End to Paris, Dublinesque, and interview with Vila-Matas at The Paris Review.
At The New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla’s piece on Michel Houlellebecq’s new novel, Soumission, offers a tutorial in the right way to build a book review around plot summary.
In general, I’m of the opinion that plot summary should never be attempted in a book review. It’s not necessary, and it’s not interesting. If need be, you can dispatch the premise of a book during a review’s lede, but then you should move on to your dissection of the book, not a summary description of what you will find out if you choose to read the book.
Plot summary tends to be dull because, well, plots are very hard to tell in an interesting way. That’s why . . . it takes a seasoned author hundreds of pages to tell one in the right way. Trying to condense that down, you usually leave out all of the things that makes a plot gripping—characterization, suspense, pacing, etc. That’s not a slight to critics, as the book review is a completely different form, and it’s the rare book that lends itself to having its plot mutated into this new form.
In the case of Soumission, it appears to be a happy mixture of a book that actually does lend itself to pot summary and a critic who has the skill to pull this off. Soumission is an “alternate history” tale (it’s about a Muslim president coming to power in France), which gives it some points right off the bat, as alternate history titles usually involve fascinating premises that can hook a reader with a simple phrase or two. (And, true to form, many of you are probably now curious to know more about Houellebecq’s Muslim president). Many plot-summaries fail because we just don’t care. Most of the time, authors take dozens of pages to carefully make us care about a plot—it’s not easy, and you usually can’t do it in one or two sentences. The exception is a book such as Soumission, where the premise is so weird and compelling that just saying it can create a substantial amount of interest.
In addition to this, Lilla does an excellent job of integrating Soumission into the broader French context, making sure to fit it in to recent dramatic events (e.g., the Charlie Hebdo murders, the frightening political life of Marine Le Pen, etc). This gives us some concrete context to grab on to making the summary to come feel a whole lot less abstract. Again, this goes a long way toward making us care and wanting to read on.
From there, Lilla dives into a sketch of the book’s main character. This is where a lot of critics would have failed, delivering all of the information, but doing it in an inelegant manner that doesn’t inflame any pathos.
François is shipwrecked in the present. He doesn’t understand why his students are so eager to get rich, or why journalists and politicians are so hollow, or why everyone, like him, is so alone. He believes that “only literature can give you that sensation of contact with another human spirit,” but no one else cares about it. His sometime girlfriend Myriam genuinely loves him but he can’t respond, and when she leaves to join her parents, who have emigrated to Israel because they feel unsafe in France, all he can think to say is: “There is no Israel for me.” Prostitutes, even when the sex is great, only deepen the hole he is in.
From here, it’s a brilliant juggling act—Lilla circuits among developing François’s character, discussing the broader mechanics as the Muslim president attains power, and relating all of this to present-day France and Europe. By slowly adding tic by tic to each of these pieces—and by offering some smart insight throughout—Lilla is able to tell the plot of the book without making it deadly boring or failing to say anything of interest about the book from a critical standpoint.
As able of a job as Lilla does, I’m not sure that he would be able to pull this off for just any book. Soumission offers just the right mix of elements to service a plot-summary review. Which is to say, by all means bask in the glory of the successful plot-summary review, but don’t necessarily try this at home.
The journal Anomalous has published an all-Oulipo issue. While not members of the Oulipo, the contributors have used constraint to shape their contributions to the issue. Here are the rules:
10 cards chosen at random each correspond to a word, use them in the order they were drawn, connect them by whatever means necessary. Our authors unmoored their lonely boats and sailed off into possibility, Sharpie-ing out Wikipedia pages, purchasing desk plants to increase productivity, drinking bottles of water to stay hydrated as they added constraint after constraint to their sweaty barbells. So settle into your nest . . . continue reading, and add your comments
A head’s-up about the forthcoming release of Time Ages in a Hurry by Antonio Tabucchi (currently April 14, 2015). There are reviews at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and an excerpt at Guernica.
I feel like Tabucchi could stand to have more coverage in English. As the Complete Review shows, his books have been translated for some time, and lately there has been new energy around him, as a lot of his titles have been re-issued or re-translated in the past years, and will continue to be appearing down the line. While he . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Wow, everything about this review of Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces just makes me want to cry. And I do mean everything, from the beyond clichéd title to pretty much everything the critic tries to say about this book.
There are various circles of hell for bad critics. There’s the “criticized this lasagne for not being a chicken sandwich,” when a critic takes a book to task for not doing something it never wanted to do. There’s the “talks about him/herself instead of the book.” And then there’s what I think is the greatest sin . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Ever since its first publication in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae has continued to baffle generations of critics and readers alike. Regarded as a seminal work by some, dismissed as a pretentious monstrosity by others, Prae, Szentkuthy’s first work, was published when the Hungarian author was merely twenty-six years old. To date, the book has never been translated in its entirety into any language, though excerpts appeared in French and Serbo-Croatian in the 1970s, and sections had been . . . continue reading, and add your comments
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya publishes today.
After a quick browse through this, the latest of Horacio Castellanos Moya novels, I’m thinking this might be the best Moya novel to hit the English language since Senselessness. I’ve been a fan of some of the Moyas to appear in the wake of Senselessness, but none of them has really had quite the power and cohesion of that book. This one might be it.
In addition to being Moya’s latest novel in English, it is his latest novel, period, and . . . continue reading, and add your comments
I’ve been working my way through Elena Ferrante’s three translated Neapolitan novels for an interview with editor Michael Reynolds and translator Ann Goldstein, and some things are beginning to crystallize in my mind.
I think one of the things that makes these books fascinating is how Ferrante is able to make her narrator, Lenú, into a sort of Levi Strauss-ian anthropologist of her world; namely, Italy’s South during the ’50s and ’60s. No doubt that much of the success of these books also rests in the fact that this world is one that has been the source . . . continue reading, and add your comments
A few things of mine that have run lately.
1. An interview with Jeremy Davies, author of the new novel Fancy and editor with Dalkey Archive Press.
2. An audio interview with Karen Emmerich on Greek literature and her experiences translating it.
3. The Greatest Unreliable Narrator Ever?
4. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology