Yearly Archives: 2010

Cesar Aira in NYRB


Since 1975, the Argentine writer César Aira has published about seventy novels—it is difficult to arrive at an accurate count, and the number continues to grow at the rate of two per year. They are usually no longer than one hundred pages: dense, unpredictable confections delivered in a plain, stealthily lyrical style capable of accommodating Aira’s fondness for mixing metaphysics, realism, pulp fiction, and Dadaist incongruities. The sheer quantity of books has engendered a mini-industry in Buenos Aires, involving start-up presses as well as more established publishers that share the job of putting Aira’s work between covers. “Publish first, write later” was a dictum of Aira’s literary mentor, the late Argentine poet Osvaldo Lamborghini.1 This is just the sort of joke that Aira has embraced as a kind of aesthetic ethos. It was from Lamborghini that he seems to have developed his idea of an avant-garde literature that could combine the impossible with the real, a literature in which every statement of fact suggests its opposite and even casual observations and plot twists are turned upside down.

Aira’s work first came to North American readers in 2006, with a letter of introduction from his most celebrated contemporary, the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño. In a short preface to An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Bolaño called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” Coming from a writer known for his brutal literary assessments, this amounts to high praise. Bolaño’s importance rests, in part, on the fact that he was able to shift the axis of Latin American literature from the magic realism of the tropics, which had exhausted itself by the 1980s, to the more cerebral, European tradition of the Southern Cone.

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New Boll Books in WSJ

Melville House’s three just-published Heinrich Boll books have been reviewed by Sam Sacks (of Open Letters Monthly) in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a bit on The Clown, which I wrote an afterword to:

Defiance takes the form of willful failure in the tragicomic novel “The Clown” (1963). The titular clown, Hans Schnier, injured in a performance, drags himself back to his apartment, where he spends the afternoon calling his family and acquaintances, alternately hectoring them or pleading for money. “Financially embarrassed,” in his bourgeois father’s words, and broken-hearted at the grizzled age of 26, Hans rails against the hypocrisy of respectable, “realist” society. The woman he loves has left him because he won’t accept Catholicism—he distrusts the promise of absolution. Nor will he let his father put him through school to become a financially viable clown. In the institutions of capitalism and religion he sees only “modern forms of pantomime.”

“The Clown” is a concept book, but in it the abstractions of existentialism are manifested in vivid flesh-and-blood characters—even if Hans is a bit unusual. He has the ability to smell people over the phone, bringing to life the spectrum of the robust middle class, from the cigarette and grease odors of well-fed hausfraus to the beery breath of Hans’s grubbing talent agent.

Zone Review

My review of Zone by Mathais Enard has been published at The National. Here’s a bit:

Although Énard’s petit modernism should not be taken for experimentalism, Zone is nonetheless impressive. Its great success is in the author’s ability to use the novel’s structure to portray Francis’s scattered mind and to map out an extraordinarily broad historical terrain. He has taken Francis’s entire adult life, plus the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean Zone and pulverised it into linguistic smithereens. These have then been painstakingly arranged it into something resembling Francis’s frenetic mind. Shot through with vivid characters, taut stories, bizarre flights of free association, and pages of historical erudition, Francis’s journey becomes a looping, digressive, spasmodic text – one that lashes together geographies and epochs.

This history of the Mediterranean à la Francis assaults contemporary visions of Europe as a community of fixed nation-states, turning the countries of the Mediterranean basin into plots of land that have for centuries been criss-crossed by various ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and political systems. The familiar demarcations of the world as told by western scholars give way to a new entity – the Zone as seen through Francis’s shadow-history. Zone’s lack of periods becomes a true asset. Confronted with a bewildering new geography, the reader is all but forced to crash along with Francis through the boundaries of character, time, geography, logic, and culture, just as Francis’s thoughts crash through syntactical barriers that would typically be forced by hard punctuation. One does not so much read this book as become absorbed in it. The cacophony of images is vast and and chaotic, yet this is a kind of bewilderment that engages, instilling a desire for repeat readings in order to gain a clearer view.

Well-Deserved Praise for Mark Slouka

Nice to see Mark Athitakis putting Mark Slouka’s criminally overlooked essay collection Essays From the Nick of Time in his 10 best of the year list:

9. Essays From the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka

The things Slouka pines for (silence, the humanities) and rails against (increasingly corrupt business and politics) in this essay collection threaten to make him the dean of Get Off My Lawn University. But his patience and intelligence make his arguments feel less like rants and more like reminders of bedrock principles.

I became acquainted with Slouka’s writing in the pages of Harper’s (and several of these essays were first published there). He’s been a consistent writer in a magazine that is very uneven, as it seems that Harper’s for too-often falls for the allures of the stunt-essay that essentially says nothing (and does so in a very self-indulgent way). I see these things so often in Harper’s these days that it’s almost as though the editorial staff longs for the heyday of David Foster Wallace when they’d send him out to an awards banquet and he’d come back with an astounding 800-page document that somehow explained space flight in a hilarious and enormously engaging way that made it applicable to Americn media and society.

But anyway, Mark Slouka doesn’t do that (I mean the stunt essay). In fact, he eschews all the razzle dazzle stunt nonsense and just writes some very thoughtful, very honest and original stuff that has made me think. I’ve really appreciated how in his essays he often approaches the contemporary U.S. by sticking up for the worth of the humanities in a sort of way that makes you feel good for loving great art and literature just because it’s wonderful, instead of feeling dirty and used, as though you’ve just justified the existence to War and Peace to some bean counter who wants to know what it’s good for.

To return to Mark Athitakis’s list, I also liked this sentiment:

That’s not meant to dismiss Lord of Misrule itself, a beautifully written novel that evokes Nelson Algren’s smoky-poker-room prose poems. Indeed, Gordon’s book is a welcome counter to the hefty NBA fiction winners of the past three years: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (overwritten big-city tribute, constantly making symphonic noises about its 9/11-ness while ducking the event itself), Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (a restitching of previous novels, its prizewinning status largely understood to commemorate the author’s career), and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (a Vietnam epic that constantly wobbled between freewheeling and slovenly). The National Book Foundation and many other prize-giving entities have had occasional spasms of disdain for widescreen books, but let’s ratify it in the bylaws: No plots accepted for which the adjective “sweeping” would be appropriate. Maybe it’s time to say the way-we-live-now novel is suspect, given the atomized, decentralized way we live now.

I confess I write this as somebody burned by the era-encompassing books of 2010 . . .

Incidentally, that “burned by” list includes Freedom, by the way, quite certainly this year’s most overrated mediocrity.

More Crazy Ebook Stuff

The entrepreneur in me loves seeing all the business models people are trying out in these Wild West days of the Internet and ebooks. For instance, Steven Hall, author of The Raw Shark Texts, is selling the Kindle version of his book for £1 at in an attempt to boost it into Amazon’s top 100.

I wonder how he sold this idea to the publisher (or vice versa). Obviously at £1 The Raw Shark Texts is being sold at a loss. However, since The Raw Shark Texts was published well before anyone ever bought a Kindle, an economist would look at the costs of writing, editing, and bringing to market the book as already sunk, and therefore irrelevant to the question of profit. Then it simply becomes a matter of the amount of money the publisher is losing by selling this book at £1, instead of what it could be getting by selling it at the normal £7.99 price, and if the benefits of attaining a higher rank in Amazon outweigh that loss.

Which is to say, I don’t have much idea if this is ultimately a profitable idea (and I’m guessing that neither do Hall and his publisher), but its cool to see people trying these things out. If anything, publishing is an industry in need of new models, and it’s good to see people on the business side embracing the potential of the Internet to shake things up.

What Ebooks Can't Do

“Are we writing books or producing content that can be reproduced in any form?” asked Ander Monson, a poet and essayist whose “Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir” (2010) experiments with the interplay between digital and printed books.

A collection of autobiographical essays, “Vanishing Point” has some pieces laid out in columns while others appear without margins, text bleeding off the edges of the page.

Throughout the book, Monson embedded italicized daggers into the writing to indicate the presence of enhanced content (video, audio, text) on the Internet.

“I wanted to use the Web in ways the content suggested,” Monson explained. “I don’t think writers should take print for granted. We need to think about it as a formal question, how best to use the book.”

Monson cites Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, “Tree of Codes,” just released by England’s Visual Editions, in which the author deconstructs Bruno Schulz’s 1934 story collection “The Street of Crocodiles” by literally cutting out texts (with precise rectangular holes where Schulz’s language has been removed) to create a brand-new work.

Such a book can work only in print; as with the titles on the Siglio list and “Vanishing Point,” a reader needs to see it, needs to hold it, in order for it to work.

More from David Ulin at the LA Times.

Sebald's Photos

Interesting stuff here about Sebald the photographer, as well as possible differences in the photos between the German and English editions of his books:

The question of page design arises here. In a rare essay about the visual aspect of Sebald’s books, “Judging a book by its material embodiment,” Robin Kinross criticizes the crudity of design and production in the Harvill editions that introduced Sebald in Britain. Kinross notes that in The Rings of Saturn, some of the images have moved from their positions in the original German edition published by the Andere Bibliothek. What is not clear, however, is the extent to which Sebald was involved in the placement of these images in the original or subsequent editions. He is known to have been highly involved in the revision of his translations into English and French, so it seems unlikely, given the importance of the pictures, that he would have wanted no say in the matter. Like Austerlitz, he was a devoted photographer. “In school I was in the dark room all the time,” he told an interviewer, “and I’ve always collected stray photographs; there’s a great deal of memory in them.” He carried a small camera and was constantly on the lookout for old photos, postcards and newspaper cuttings. An obituary noted that, “He was an exacting customer at the University of East Anglia copy shop, discussing what might be done with his images, adjusting the size and contrast.” In the earlier books, the degraded, photocopied look of some of the pictures seems to have been a deliberate effect.

Interview with Bolano's Widow

Anagrama is about to publish a “new” posthumous Bolano book, Los sinsabores del verdadero policía (roughly, “The Troubles of a Real Cop”), which seems to be about the roots of Amalfitano, from 2666.

El autor comenzó a escribir esta novela en los años ochenta y la continuó redactando hasta su muerte. Sus historias y personajes transitan por Estrella distante, Llamadas telefónicas, Los detectives salvajes y 2666. Amalfitano, exi­liado chileno, profesor universitario, viudo con una hija adolescente, nos descubre a través de la narración el desencanto político, su amor a la poesía, que le obliga a abandonar Barcelona tras un escándalo. Logra acogerse de nuevo a la universidad, pero esta vez en la lejana Santa Teresa, donde habitan oscuras historias de mujeres asesinadas o el mago Arcimboldi, que es asimismo un escritor francés y cuya obra narrativa despliega la complejidad de otra asombrosa literatura. Una novela apasionante y caleidoscópica, lírica e intensa, pero también cómica. Prólogo de J. A. Masoliver Ródenas.

For the occasion, the Argentine cultural magazine, Revista Ñ has interviewed Bolano’s widow, Carolina López.

Here they talk about Bolano’s now well-known instructions to publish 266 in five parts to maximize revenues:

¿Qué instrucciones le dio Roberto Bolaño antes de morir?
Estaba muy preocupado por el futuro de nuestros hijos. Lautaro tenía trece años y Alexandra sólo dos. Me dejó los cinco diskettes que contenían los cinco libros de 2666 y dejó el encargo de publicarlos por separado a razón de uno cada año para capitalizarnos y salir adelante. Pero sabiendo que Roberto la consideraba una única novela y que quería publicarla íntegra en un solo volumen no se planteó otra posibilidad. En los meses de espera del trasplante, para Roberto era importante hablar y darme instrucciones de lo que tenía que hacer si las cosas salían mal: repetía hasta el hartazgo que no olvidara que todo lo suyo era de los niños y mío y que nunca tuviera duda sobre ello, cómo tenía que ser el entierro… Lo planteaba todo con una naturalidad absoluta, con un sentido del humor muy propio en él, pero fuera de lo común, se reía de todo. Lo recuerdo riéndose con Lautaro: “Si me muero, cuando nos volvamos a ver tú serás más viejo que yo”. Para mí eran conversaciones dolorosas. Ahora se las agradezco, me han ayudado mucho y creo que a Lautaro también.

And here about the so-called Bolano myth:

Su silencio ha dado pábulo a muchas leyendas.
Mi silencio responde al respeto hacia Roberto, a mis hijos, y por supuesto hacia mí. Ha sido muy complicado para nosotros situarnos ante Roberto, como un personaje público. Su ausencia lo marca todo, puesto que muchas de las cosas que se dicen, no se atreverían a decirlas si él estuviera. Cualquier persona puede decir y reinterpretar su vida, algunos correos electrónicos se convierten en la base de una gran amistad, una relación profesional en una amistad íntima. Los ejemplos podrían ser muchos, pareciera que quien quiere, puede publicar cualquier teoría sobre su vida privada. Yo siempre he confiado en la inteligencia y el sentido común de las personas y no he perdido esa confianza, creo que la gente sabe discernir entre la verdad y la mentira. Esto no evita que para nosotros pueda resultar doloroso. Mantengo una actitud muy rigurosa para preservar la intimidad de mis hijos y la mía. Está claro que lo público de Roberto es su literatura, y de su vida personal, todo aquello que él quiso compartir; si leemos sus entrevistas, veremos que Roberto habló mucho de su vida privada.

And she isn’t saying anything about why she dropped Bolano’s former agent for Andrew Wylie:

¿Qué le llevó a cambiar de la agencia Balcells a la de Wylie?
Creo que no es el momento de hablar de ello. Sí de manifestar públicamente mi satisfacción por el trabajo de la Agencia Wylie.

Ebooks Do Wacky Things

For instance, all of the currently translated novels by Jose Saramago, plus one novella, (that’s 13 books) for $36.

I think I’d still rather own them as real books, but you have to admit that for people who have never owned Saramago before but have a burning desire to own all of his books, this represents an excellent value. But whatever . . . publishing isn’t about actually getting people to read books. It’s about selling enough good books to permit yourself to continue publishing good books, for those people who do read them.

And in case you missed it, I recently pondered the Saramago yet to come. And The Quarterly Conversation recently reviewed one Saramago book not in this 13-book deal pack.

And Speaking of Bedbugs . . .

. . . here’s Leeches.

Which actually brings me to my second point of praise: I can’t wait to read Leeches by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac. I was at Dalkey hen Random UK brought out his Gotz and Meyer, and tried to make an offer on it. Unfortunately, Harcourt (this was the pre-HMH days) beat us to it with alacrity and cash and has taken over as his U.S. publisher. Which is great (his books are available everywhere) and not-so-great (not to be an asshole, but HMH doesn’t do great publicity work for it’s translations—Piece of Evidence #1, the lack of promotion for the 50th Anniversary retranslation of Grass’s The Tin Drum).

Regardless, this book sounds fantastic (especially if you skip the Foucault’s Pendulum reference):

The place is Serbia, the time is the late 1990s. Our protagonist, a single man, writes a regular op-ed column for a Belgrade newspaper and spends the rest of his time with his best friend, smoking pot and talking about sex, politics, and life in general. One day on the shore of the Danube he spots a man slapping a beautiful woman. Intrigued, he follows the woman into the tangled streets of the city until he loses sight of her. A few days later he receives a mysterious manuscript whose contents seem to mutate each time he opens it. To decipher the manuscript—a collection of fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of the Jews of Zemun and Belgrade—he contacts an old schoolmate, now an eccentric mathematician, and a group of men from the Jewish community.

As the narrator delves deeper into arcane topics, he begins to see signs of anti-Semitism, past and present, throughout the city and he feels impelled to denounce it. But his increasingly passionate columns erupt in a scandal culminating in murder. Following in the footsteps of Foucault’s Pendulum, Leeches is a cerebral adventure into the underground worlds of secret societies and conspiracy theories.

Unless I’m missing something in my skimming, this is a one-paragraph book, which makes me giddy (and scares the crap out of Dan Brownophiles). Here’s the opening:

Now, six years after the fact, I realize things might have gone differently . . .

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