It’s the week between Christmas and New Years, so not a whole lot of action around here. Once we get to 2012 I’ll have interviews with Natasha Wimmer, on The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, and Margaret Carson, on My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec.
The Blind Owl might be described as a cross between Kafka and Poe—there’s a definite creepy/Gothicness, but there’s also the sense of the void at the center of the modern world. It’s just a short book, but it has many outstanding features, and author Sadegh Hedayat is excellent at working his various motifs together like a musical composition.
I think out of everything I read in 2011, The Notebooks of Malte Laudris Brigge would have to be my single most favorite thing. I could tell that I was in for an exceptional experience when certain trusted reader friends of mine, seeing that I had picked up the book at San Francisco Public’s annual huge book sale, spoke of the book in the kind of reverential tones that are only elicited by books of the highest quality. The book is composed of what I suppose you would call “entries” in Brigge’s notebooks, but there’s really very little here that would make this book feel like a journal-as-novel. The thing about the book, however, is that despite any sort of organizing conceit, it really does feel very unified around—something . . . divining that center is part of the task. I really don’t know what this book is about, or even how it works; all I feel I can say after a first reading is simply that it radiates meaning as only the best books I read each year do and that there are literally scores of quotes that I underlined on even a first read . . .
“I don’t think there is such a thing as fulfillment, but there are wishes that endure, that last a whole lifetime, so that anyhow one couldn’t wait for their fulfillment.”
“. . . she could read for hours, she seldom turned a page, and I had the impression that the pages kept growing fuller beneath her gaze, as if she looked words onto them . . .”
“I, who even as a child had been distrustful of music (not because it lifted me out of myself more powerfully than anything else, but because I had noticed that it never put me back where it had found me, but lower down, somewhere deep in the uncompleted) . . .”
“. . . she immediately began to die, slowly and hopelessly, over the whole surface of her body.”
“I lay there, overloaded with myself, and waited for the moment when I would be told to pile all this back into myself, neatly and in the right order.”
“As if I hadn’t known that all our insights are added on later, that they are balance-sheets, nothing more. Right afterward a new page begins, with a completely different account, and no total carried forward.”
. . .
Section.80 by Kendrick Lamar — this is Lamar’s first album. Some massive talent here . . .
Greatest Story Never Told by Saigon — this album is incredibly solid and diverse all the way through
Cats and Dogs by Evidence — a solid album. What else can I say? The track below samples Philip Glass.
The Family Sign by Atmosphere — this is hip hop at its most “spoken word”
Undun by The Roots — one of my favorite Roots albums in a while
The Abandoned Lullaby by Icebird (Rjd2 & Aaron Livingston) — solid stuff
Shaolin vs Wu Tang by Raekwon (and Ghostface) — pretty solid album by the only arts of the Wu Tang still making music worth checking for.
The Martyr by Immortal Technique — about as solid a mixtape as you’re going to find. Plus, Immortal Technique’s politics are generally pretty right.
Honkey Kong by Apathy — not the most creative subject-matter in the world, but Apathy is a wordsmith
Melancholia by Lars von Trier — this is the first 8 minutes . . .
Kingdom by Lars von Trier — I think this must be the single funniest thing I watched this year, although the humor (and just about everything else) here is unlike any humor I’ve before seen. In my opinion, it was working on Kingdom that allowed von Trier to become the great director that so many know him as now . . .
The Seventh Continent by Michael Haneke
Certified Copy by Abbas Kiarostami — for fans of postmodernism, Manuel Puig, Don DeLillo, translation, the performativity of character, etc . . .
Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami — another one . . .
Summer/Le rayon vert by Eric Rohmer — Romer’s ability to make films out of the simplest gestures was amazing. Also, the women in Rohmer’s films don’t look like any other women . . .
Made in USA by Jean-Luc Godard — I had to watch this one about three times before I go the gist down . . .
A nice look at the critic and his quarry over at Vertigo.
On July 10, 1997, scarcely a year after the publication of The Emigrants (his first book to appear in English translation), W.G. Sebald sat down with critic James Wood in New York city for an interview, which appeared the next spring in a relatively obscure literary journal out of Toronto called Brick. Wood had already come to realize that The Emigrants was a game-changer. “Walter Benjamin said that all great works found a new genre or dissolve an old one,” Wood wrote in his opening sentence. “The Emigrants is such a book.” Wood continued on to praise the book for its “fastidiousness” and the way “it forces the largest abstract questions on us, while never neglecting our hunger for the ordinary. It is full of this extraordinary, careful detail…”
Wood’s questioning of Sebald dealt with many of the issues that have come to define Sebald . . .
Laszlo Krasznahorkai is one of the few authors I can seriously regard as today carrying on the work of the great modernists. The Melancholy of Resistance is a very hard book to pin down, but if anything it is about the energy, terror, seduction, and appeal of fascism. The book is about a Leviathan-like whale that comes to a town in Hungary, and how the spectacle of it exerts power over the masses and is used by the powers that be. Krasznahorkai’s long sentences are frequently remarked on, and they are great, but this book also includes a number of surprising and impressive point of view shifts (including one stretch from the consciousness of an angry crowd), as well as the book’s precise use of structure to tell a much larger tale than its size should allow.
Roberto Bolaño considered Daniel Sada to be without rival among Mexican writers of their generation. Both were born in 1953. Bolaño spent his adolescence in Mexico, and even though some of his greatest novels and stories have Mexican settings, he never set foot there again after moving to Spain in his early twenties. I imagine that Bolaño must have relied, at least to some extent, on Sada’s novels—Sada’s perfect ear and exuberant re-creation of Mexican voices, the voices of the Mexican desert north especially—while writing his own Mexican masterpieces. Sada’s works were a polyphonic parade of voices, a Mexican cacophony: shouts, laughter, violent, lewd curses, sweet whispers, song.
To introduce Suicide, here’s what I wrote at the top of my interview with the book’s translator:
Without a doubt, one of the best things I’ve read this year is a small book called Suicide. It was written by the contemporary French writer Edouard Levé, who, ten days after delivering the manuscript, in fact did commit suicide, but the book is not so much a suicide note or explanation as it is an exactingly wrought object.
It was only on a second reading that I was able to truly appreciate how precise the prose is, and how enigmatically this small book opens up to envelop you as a reader. If the suicide on the face of this book leads you to assume that only one interpretation of this book is impossible, everything in the book stands to refute it.
And from my review of the book:
Suicide would be an odd and noteworthy work even if Levé had not killed himself. It is constructed almost entirely from short, lithe sentences written in the second person. Ostensibly these sentences are being spoken by an acquaintance looking back after 20 years on a friend who killed himself, and they both describe this suicidal man and narrate small but meaningful anecdotes from his life. On a most basic level it is clear that the narrative voice is attempting to do what any survivor would after a suicide – fill the vacuum of meaning – yet the success of Suicide is that it verges on allegory, allowing much broader interpretations.
Levé uses all the tropes that we have come to associate with suicide, but he animates them in original ways. The suicide’s appearance and personality is detailed with uncommon sensitivity and scrupulousness, as are the feelings left behind in his friends and family. For example, a survivor’s wish to understand why a loved one would take his life – and the impossibility of ever getting that answer – is evoked with characteristic elegance when “you” leaves a comic book open to a certain spread just as he commits the act. This final comment for his survivors is lost when, in the panic of discovering the body, “you’s” wife knocks the comic down before recognising its significance. Later, “you’s” father will pore over the book and construct an elaborate file of theories based on each spread.