Category Archives: Uncategorized

To the Stars


Over at Enclave, I have a little post about how I see the amazingly exciting things happening in space exploration right now impacting art and literature in the decades to come.

This is a theme that I’ve been exploring more and more in my writing lately, and one that will be prominent in my next book, which is being written at the moment. I do think that the discoveries being made about the cosmos and our own tiny part of it are one of the major stories of human civilization right now, and this is something writers and artists should take note of. And if you look at the broader currents of postwar literature in the 20th century, I think you can see that many of the major authors have already been taking this subject up.

That’s all I have to say about that at the moment. There will be more down the line to be sure, but for now I just wanted to put that out there.

22 Classic and Contemporary Female Latin American Authors to Read


Owing to the male-centric nature of most lists of Latin American writers, I thought I’d make one of just women. All of the authors here either have books available in English or soon-to-be available. Enjoy!

ps. I understand this list doesn’t include authors from a lot of Latin American countries. It’s challenging! Not that many are translated, and some of the ones that are aren’t authors I would necessarily recommend. If you think there’s someone I should look into, please let us all know in the comments.

Gabriela Mistral [1889]

Chilean poet widely known for being the first female Latin American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945).

Dulce María Loynaz [1902]

Major Cuban lyric poet who was largely forgotten after the rise of Castro. Rediscovered with the awarding of the Cervantes Prize in 1992. Archipelago will soon release a selected, Absolute Solitude.

Silvina Ocampo [1903]

Argentine poet, short story writer, and novelist, known for being a part of Borges’s inner circle. NYRB Classics released a sizable volume of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and a volume of her poetry, Silvina Ocampo. There is much left to translate.

Clarice Lispector [1920]

Central figure of Brazilian literature in the 20th century, and an author who has finally emerged as a major writer in English translation. Many find Hour of the Star her best.

Rosario Castellanos [1925]

Major Mexican poet and novelist of the 20th century. The Book of Lamentations is considered a central work.

Hilda Hilst [1930]

Major Brazilian novelist known for her fragmentary books dealing with insanity and the surreal. Start with Letters from a Seducer.

Elena Poniatowska [1932]

Major Mexican author in multiple genres spanning novels, journalism, and creative nonfiction. I like Massacre in Mexico, among others.

Alejandra Pizarnik [1936]

Quite possibly Argentina’s greatest poet. An intimate of Silvina Ocampo, as well as a friend of Cortázar and Octavio Paz in Paris. Several volumes of her poetry have been recently released, with The Stone of Madness the largest.

Luisa Valenzuela [1938]

Major Argentine novelist and short story writer of the “post-Boom” generation. Dark, often transgressive and fragmentary fictions, particularly in response to the dictatorship of 1976-82. I liked He Who Searches.

Gioconda Belli [1948]

Major Nicaraguan poet and novelist, highly active in the Sandinista struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. Her novel The Inhabited Woman is considered a groundbreaking work for the gender issues it raises.

Daisy Zamora [1950]

Major Nicaraguan poet. Riverbed of Memory was published in English translation in 1992.

Giannina Braschi [1953]

Puerto Rican author widely credited as authoring the first Spanglish novel, Yo-Yo Boing!, in 1998. Her United States of Banana is a look at the United States post-9/11.

Carmen Boullosa [1954]

Major postwar Mexican author with over 40 books in various genres. A handful of novels have been translated, as well as Narco History: How Mexico and the United States Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War, co-authored with her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband Mike Wallace.

Cristina Rivera Garza [1964]

Prolific Mexican writer in multiple genres whose strange, hyrbid texts create a sense of their own reality. The only author to ever win the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize twice. No One Will See Me Cry was published in 2003.

Lina Meruane [1970]

Established Chilean novelist with a dozen works in various genres, just beginning to emerge in English translation. Seeing Red is the first and has garnered strong praise.

Adriana Lisboa [1970]

Mid-career Brazilian novelist whose Symphony in White received the 2003 Jose Saramago Prize.

Guadalupe Nettel [1973]

Established Mexican novelist, short story writer, and essayist. The Body Where I was Born was the first novel of hers to be translated.

Angélica Freitas [1973]

Major Brazilian poet whose Rilke Shake was published last year, marking her first collection translated into English.

Mariana Enriquez [1973]

Emerging Argentine writer whole collection of gothic short stories, The Things We Lost in the Fire, was acquired by Portobello Books last year.

Pola Oloixarac [1977]

Emerging Argentine novelist whose Las teorías salvajes is currently being translated into English.

Samanta Schweblin [1978]

Contemporary Argentine author attracting a lot of attention for her first two works, Párajos in la boca and Distancía de rescate. Some stories are translated but no full book is yet available, although that situation will soon change.

Valeria Luiselli [1983]

Emerging Mexican novelist with two novels and a volume of essays, all available in English translation. Start with Faces in the Crowd.


‏@StephenHenighan: I’d add Teresa de la Parra (Venezuela), just for *Ifigenia*. And Cristina Peri Rossi (Uruguay) & Liliana Heker (Argentina).

Jeremy Davies: Josefina Vicens! A thousand times Josefina Vicens.

Will Vanderhyden: I’d offer two personal favorites whose books are not yet available in English, but it’s only a matter of time: Mónica Ríos and Fernanda García Lao.
Also: Carolina Sanín.
Also: Claudia Salazar Jiménez.
Diamela Eltit is also excellent and has several books available in English translation.

Chris Clarke: One more that I’ve always had a soft spot for: Maria Luisa Bombal, from Chile. A few translated back in the 80s or so.

Emi Del Marx: I would like to add three major poets. From New Spain: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). From Uruguay: Juana de Ibarbourou (1892-1979). And from Mexico: Coral Bracho (1951).

@bythefirelight: I think Elena Garro. The story La culpa es de los tlaxcaltecas is a classic

Edmundo Paz Soldán: Emma Reyes

Excerpt from The Surrender


I wanted to post one last excerpt from The Surrender, since the official release is coming up on Thursday at the 2016 AWP Conference.

If you’re at AWP, you can find it at the Anomalous Press booth. Someone there will be happy to sell it to you.

Thereafter, order it from Small Press Distribution.

The excerpt below is from the third of the book’s three essays. If you’d like to read an excerpt from the first essay, go here. And, of course, the entirety of the second essay (which is how this whole thing began) is at The White Review.

In 2012 utterance became possible, and the next year was to unknot its form.

My hands removed a bottle from a cluttered bathroom drawer. It had been forgotten there for years, but now I had reclaimed it. On a fall evening I took it in hand and applied its contents to my toenails. I cannot say this was an act of my will. What I know of that moment is that my body produced this bottle, the process commenced upon my bared feet, an object carried my body forward. My role, if it can be called a role, was to cease blocking its desire. I relinquished my will and refused to contemplate the consequences. The miniature brush dripped with paint, and soon my toenails were held by clotted pearl coats. I could not help but smile at my poor work. Soon my fingernails too had their own clumsy strokes. I knew that in just hours I would be among friends, and there was no question of exiting the house with my nails in this state. It was simply not a prospect that could be entertained, under any circumstances imaginable. I removed the polish and left the house, and for the entire night I envied the paint my nails lacked. Past midnight I arrived back at home, and instead of falling asleep I began to repaint my nails. Prior to this day I had never in all my life aspired to polished nails. In all my time of wishing to be like a woman I had never imagined this prospect, and now I found it impossible that I should not paint them.

The next morning this polish was still on my fingers when I walked down the street to purchase coffee beans. I did not want this polish on my fingers. I did not want it there at all. With every step I trembled in dread that someone should see this, and I felt my hands swollen up to draw the gaze of all humanity. My spurious fingers pushed open the café door. I was in a minor panic. At any moment anyone in this small room might realize what I had done. Soon I would have to pay, and it was only with my hands that I could produce my card and pass it beyond the counter. My hands were transformed into emblems of humiliation.

I retained the polish throughout the whole of Sunday, and I likewise had it on me when I arrived at my office the following morning. For several hours I had the pleasure of staring down at the pearl

varnish as I typed. There was a new manner of femininity about me and I cherished it. By day’s end I was affirmed in the belief that I had accomplished a lofty goal, a matter of some stress undoubtedly, but now I had lived two entire days with these beautiful pearl nails. My satisfaction was so all-encompassing that on the following afternoon I acquired a bottle of blue paint, which I applied to myself that evening.

Never before had I seen a part of my body like these blue nails. They looked as though they were made of plastic, as though they were candy. I could smell their faint chemical aroma. I liked to feel their cool, slick surface upon my lips. It was difficult to believe they were of me. I gazed into my mirror reflection, and I knew right then that these blue-tinted tips did not belong at all. They were the only errors upon uniformly masculine flesh. Everything in my reflection pointed in one direction, and these tips pointed in the opposite. This incongruity made me freakish.

The next morning was my day off, and I shopped with my blue nails at the grocery. When I approached the counter where I would pay for my items, the cashier wasted no time in noticing my nails. She expressed admiration for the color I had chosen. That compliment, the first I had ever received from an unknown person, undid me because it made unambiguously clear that my nails were perceived. I was outside the boundaries of my home, and people in the world knew there was something afoot. People everywhere were seeing them. This had occurred for well over three days. These perceptions could only have been giving rise to thoughts inside of skulls. It was by no means clear what these thoughts were, what inferences they produced, what people then chose to believe about me. It was undeniable that these blue fingertips uttered things I would not say, things that I did not yet wish to believe and might well never wish to.

That evening I lay reading, and I fell asleep for perhaps half an hour. When I awoke my ankles and shins were inflamed. It was not so unlike the sensation of stretching one’s calves to the breaking point, except it was a deeper, encompassing pain of two hands twisting. I perceived it lengthening toward my stomach, and I could also feel it in my chest. My very heart beat with a syncopated cadence because my courage had smacked upon its limits. I knew precisely how this anxiety would be cured. I removed the paint and my body was freed from its strife. There could be no question that

this backward swerve was contrary to all I esteemed and expected in myself. It was false. It made me false and drove me toward an incorrect state of being. But not with all my might could I have forestalled this failure. I could only admit that my body was unable to sustain the truth I wished to force upon it. But this truth would not be so easily forsaken. No sooner had I removed the paint from my body than the bottle began again to exert its desire upon me. It exerted a most powerful force. Merely a glance at the blue polish from across the room fixed my gaze, and I would find myself picking this bottle up and twisting off its cap, only to thrust it back down in fear of what had almost transpired. I felt entirely that I wanted to give way to it, but always in the last moment I did not know how it could be done.

That following morning it was four days since I had first appeared with my tinted nails. As I prepared for the office, the bottle and its contents scarcely left my mind. It could not be done but I must do it. But I could not do it. I must. I stared and agitated, and in the end it was not done. I agitated for three more days before I again managed to give way to that bottle of blue polish. Three days of turmoil until I at last confronted the question. Why deny your self what your body clearly wants? Why should this need go unfulfilled? I did not know what the consequences of this submission would be, I did not at all feel capable of admitting what I knew to be my truth. It might again crush me. But that force exerted by the bottle of blue nail polish was itself a truth. And too, the satisfaction I felt when I looked down upon my smooth, blue fingertips. I could not tell myself why these truths were mine, these truths that were not a priori truths, and nor were susceptible to empirical justification. They were truths that rested wholly on feelings that I knew could only be given way to. This was a crucial thing. If I did not give way to them they would never leave. Never. In all of 30 years they had never left my side. They had only proliferated, and they were among the most durable facts about myself imaginable. They had been with me longer than almost any other component of what I took to be my identity, and they were purely undeniable. I had often been instructed that undeniable desires are not approved foundations for truths. They are whimsies, weaknesses that prey upon the hysterics. The true man learns to subjugate them. I had judged such teachings to be false, repressive doctrines, and I had demonstrated to myself that an unflagging desire is not whimsy, surrendering to it is not weakness. I knew this. I had warred against myself in order to believe this. I was convinced that this was absolutely true, and so I did not know why I could not stop acting as though my convictions were absurd, as though I were wearing absurdity upon my fingers. The conventions that had been beaten into me were powerful. These conventions had forced me to take my own body and with great effort and perseverance fit it squarely into its place in the world. It had taken me years to do as these conventions required, and now I was in the process of taking it all back, of making my body absurd. I was not at all prepared to withstand this displacement.

In that season I felt my inner self a young woman who fights for the self-possession to cast off falsehoods.

During those fall months there were a few calm moments when I felt powerful in the knowledge that my acts were a defiance, and this misbegotten courage helped me to exist despite my irrepressible sense of absurdity. It was of some good, but I did not want to exist as a defiance. I did not paint my nails out of a desire to defy convention, and I had no interest in impressing others with my transgression. To the contrary, I did it for the most natural reason I could imagine, to submit to truths that I knew should not be denied.

As I cast about for my balance, I would at times be thrown small lifelines. I believe that my discomfort was quite plain for those who would see it, and I do not hesitate to profess that what compliments I received were offered from a sense of complicity. It is clear enough to me that people everywhere feel at odds with what they are forced to reveal to the world. Perhaps those who offered me these few words will never know the essential role they played in allowing me to believe I was not, in fact, absurd. That, simply, I had a right to exist.

What most instilled in me the capacity to seize this truth was a thing I read by a musician I had listened to since college. This man, whom I had always imagined to be an epitome of success and desirability, and whom I had never imagined could feel unable to walk into any room to which he felt entitled, had been made to feel an outcast in his very home. In his own luxurious apartment tower, to which he had won admittance by his unquestionable hard work and brilliance, this man had felt an intruder. He could do nothing to change this. He understood that no action he might ever commit would prevent such a situation arising again. He was helpless. He wrote with a mature outrage about realizing the fact of his helplessness, and he wanted others to know what it was to feel this peculiar species of exposure. When I read his words I understood that I was a coward. It had always been my option to hide my difference, and for many years I had chosen deception over truth. There were people in this world who could not hide. In fact, nothing they ever did would let them. There was simply no possible way for these people to experience the option granted to me by birth. This bitter fact was a truth they could only confront for themselves. I was not like these people. It was my choice to hide, and I did. I had purposely educated myself in the methods of this deception. I had done my very best to forget that there was ever a truth I fought to hide from the world.

The discomfort I found so intolerable that I would rather hide myself away than live in truth was a thing that many people simply had to accept.

But now I had reached a juncture where I had the possibility of ceasing to hide. By some turn of events it was now my choice to pursue truth. In merely contemplating whether I might pursue truth over falseness I was experiencing a great privilege that I had not even recognized as such. I had no right to such a privilege. I had no right even to my cowardice. I must force myself to pursue truth. I must cease deceiving the world as to what I was. I would experience life on those terms, no matter what they might bring. This meant eradicating what prevented me from revealing myself to the world. It meant admitting this intolerable discomfort. It meant being willing to experience forms of emotion that I had purposely avoided with all my might. These false and petty limits I would surpass, in order to see what my true limits were and to know why they existed.

Don DeLillo: The Good, The Bad, The Meh


I’m in the middle of writing a review of Don DeLillo’s 17th novel, Zero K, so I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about him lately. I’ve also been doing some light DeLillo corresponding with friends (and have done this activity on and off for the past several years), and it seems that intelligent people can disagree about what’s the best and the worst of the DeLillo novels.

So, for a little fun on a Friday, I thought I’d thrown down some rough rankings and see where you all come down on this question. Instead of actually ranking all the books 1 – 17, I’m just going to break them into thirds, and I’m going to do this for a couple of reasons. First, I haven’t read all 17, so I can’t really be that authoritative (I’m just going to have to reckon based on received wisdom in some cases). And second, for a lot of the books that I have read, it’s pretty damn hard to decide, so these rankings would only ever be subjective and somewhat transient, even if I had read everything.

My thoughts on DeLillo is that there are a few books we can all generally agree on (although certain people will have strong disagreements on a few of those titles), and then a lot of books that are fairly difficult to sort through.

So I must stress that this is a loose list put together with a lot of dead reckoning, but also one that I think is more or less on target. A good starting point for discussion.

(And note: I’m not going to include Zero K here, since I’m still figuring out my thoughts on it.)

So here we are:

The Good

Underworld (1997) — I’m seen partisans and detractors of this particular book. Regardless of where you stand, it seems pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a major book for DeLillo, and possibly a great American book of the past 50 years.

The Names (1982) — Ditto as Underworld. Some smart people I know actually don’t like this book. I, however, don’t see how that is.

White Noise (1985) — This is generally known as DeLillo’s “accessible” title, which might indicate a lack of respect in some circles, but I really don’t see it that way. This is just a great book, one which has grown only more so with age.

Great Jones Street (1973) — Not terribly widely read these days, but I consider this early novel a short classic.

Libra (1988) — A major statement from DeLillo, although one that is perhaps overshadowed by the books that came before and after it.

Americana (1971) — an auspicious debut, and still a good book.

Point Omega (2010) — generally seen as a solid late work.

The Meh

Mao II (1991) — Despite some memorable images and some prophetic words about terrorism, generally thought to be an uneven title.

Falling Man (2007) — Seems to be generally considered a solid—but not great—book from the author who was born to write about 9/11.

Players (1977) — Seems like a warm-up for some of the great books he would write in the ’80s and ’90s.

End Zone (1972) — this novel-length metaphor on how nuclear war is like college football has a lot to recommend it, but may not reach the levels of DeLillo’s best work.

The Bad

The Body Artist (2001) — the follow-up to Underworld, perhaps DeLillo showing that he was tired out at that point.

Cosmopolis (2003) — It seems that neither DeLillo nor David Cronenberg could do much with this premise.

Running Dog (1978) — a weird book, even for DeLillo (“At its center is a rumored pornographic film of Adolf Hitler, purportedly filmed in his bunker in the climactic days of Berlin’s fall.”) Not widely read these days.

Ratner’s Star (1976) — DeLillo’s “sci fi” novel. Seems like a working out of material that he’d begin to do better with in later books.

Amazons (1980) (under pseudonym “Cleo Birdwell,” with Sue Buck) — hard to find today, and perhaps with good reason.

Daniel Sada Tribute


Last fall I had the great pleausre of participating in a tribute to the Mexican writer Daniel Sada alongside his English translator, Katie Silver, and her editor, Ethan Nosowsky. The audio of that event is now online.

Some fascinating things were said by the both of them about the publishing and translation of Sada’s works, as well as about his status in Mexico and some of hs untranslated books. During the event we discussed Almost Never, translated by Katie and published by Ethan a few years ago with Graywolf, and One Out of Two, published by both of them late last year.

Looking Back at Enrigue


In light of a lot of the reviews we’ve seen of Álvaro Enrigue’s recent novel Sudden Death, I thought it would be interesting to look back at what I had to say about Enrigue the first time I read him, in 2009, in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction. It was his magnificent story “On the Death of the Author” (from his novel/story collection Hypothermia.)

A lot of the reviews have focused on how the book fails to “come together,” and, interestingly, this was something I said about “On the Death of the Author.” However, two caveats: I added that the story still feels unified despite that, and rather than a criticism, this was a selling point for me:

There is, however, one story in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction that does bear favorable comparison to Borges, or perhaps the more accurate reference is to the Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas. There are elements of both to be found in the playful, portentously named “On the Death of the Author” by Alvaro Enrigue. Enrigue is such a talented writer that he manages to describe, from within his own story, exactly what makes his story superlative, and he pulls this off without making the inclusion seem the least bit strained:

There is a story, and a very good one at that, told by Bernardo Atxaga. He says that one day, as he walked through a town in his native Basque country, all of a sudden he came upon a man by a door with a hole in it. He chatted with the old man for a spell and then the man asked, Did he know why there was a hole in the door? Atxaga answered, It would be for the cat. No, said the man. They made it years ago, in order to feed a boy who, having been bitten by a dog, had turned into a dog.

The stories I like, the ones that make me wildly jealous and yearn to be able to write that well, have the bedazzling logic of that old Basque: they lack a piece, and this lack transforms them into a myth, appealing to the lowest common denominator that makes us all more or less equal.

“On the Death of the Author” lacks a piece; in fact, it lacks about four or five pieces, as there are four or five “mythical” sub-stories found within this work. Impressively, Enrigue manages to join these sub-stories together with thematic and particular links that make the entire piece come together as a deeply mysterious yet quite comprehensible whole.

Sudden Death does similar things: it works with mythic stories of the modern era, and it tries to join them together in innovative ways. It also gives a reader a lot to work with but resolutely refuses to tell the reader what to think about them. Very much like that story Enrigue got from Atxaga, it gives you moments of wonder, and then it makes you wonder.

It’s been interesting to see the Anglo reaction, which has focused a lot on historical accuracy and authenticity of character, two things that I don’t think Enrigue cares very much about insofar as his literature goes. Some critics have also been uncomfortable about how quickly the book moves I think Jeremy Davies put it well when he says that Sudden Death has lightness in the sense of Calvino.

Indeed, lightness, in Calvino’s sense, is paramount to Enrigue’s approach. The short chapters and breezy tone give the reader the impression that she isn’t engaged in piecing together the tortuous narrative of a world-destroying conflagration—in which, as the narrator himself has cause to remark, the bad guys have already won many times over—but instead popping bonbons into her mouth, enjoying little after-dinner divertissements, only gradually getting queasy, coming down with a bad case of history. History, that is, with its capital aitch, that unending nightmare of murder after murder, war after war, innovation after innovation, erasure after erasure; history the god who goes quite mad quite regularly, swallowing whole worlds in its “pool of blood and shit,” leading to the deletion of cultures willy-nilly, and, in this case, the squelching of all the pluralistic, pagan possibilities that were once open—we can pretend!—to Western civilization. Enrigue’s little flechettes, harmless in themselves, come to describe a cunning and solemn design.

Again, to go back to that Atxaga parable, Enrigue’s books work best then they’re frustrating your expectations and movie too quickly to be caught. This seems to be something that Anglo critics are missing when they try to read this book as a historical novel in the sense of Anglo historical novels. This book is ridiculous: it has Caravaggio and Quevedo playing tennis with Anne Boylen’s hair. Caravaggio and Galileo are having sex in Roman flophouses (or whatever the Counter-Reformation equivalent was). There are absurd dialogues between Cortes and Native Americans. It seems to me you have to work pretty hard to ding this book for lacking historical heft or depth of character.

Insofar as I’ve read Enrigue, I would say one of his major strengths is his lightness, the way he can give you just enough rope to hang yourself. He constructs his stories in hugely original, fascinating ways. And this is good, because bringing his books into the American market is one of the ways that translated literature can rejuvenate abother culture and language.

Likewise, the great thing about having an author like Enrigue get picked up by a press with significant publicity muscle like Riverhead is that it can make critics at rather conservative venues open their eyes as to what literature (especially translated literature) can do. It does seem like they’re at least giving this book a chance (more than a chance than most translated (or just plain innovative) literature tends to get). So that’s good. But I’m not so sure the messages are getting through.

“The sky is then filled with a million flying things . . .”


From Zone: Selected Poems, by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Ron Padgett. Published November 2015 by NYRB Poets.

What Is a Symbol?


Epigraph to the dazzling Poetics of Cinema by Raul Ruiz. A fascinating book of theory, film, and aesthetics . . . you don’t have to love film to love this book.

Interview with Álvaro Enrigue


BOMB has posted my interview with Álvaro Enrigue from its current print issue onto its website. We talk a great deal about his new novel, Sudden Death, as well as his prior book, Hypothermia (very much worth your time if you liked Sudden Death), as well as influences (DeLillo plays a big role here) and Álvaro’s penchant for awfully morbid humor.

And as a bonus, here’s a link to a review I wrote of Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, which was where I first read Enrigue (his fantastic “On the Death of the Author,” extracted from Hypothermia).

And here’s some of Enrigue from the interview:

It comes down to where you want to draw the line of modernity: the debate is so wide and has existed for so long that it is almost a personal decision. I have a preference for a term used by academics to define those seventeenth-century braves who threw themselves onto the train of obsessive innovation: “early moderns.” It’s lovely, as the idea of modernity involves the faint smell of decadence; the notion of something newly born yet already rotting is elegant—and maybe it’s precise in political terms, since it is in this period that things went wrong forever. But I tend to prefer definitions that are a bit more extreme: Lyotard says that modernity began the moment that Saint Paul projected history as a line and not a circle, as something with a beginning and an end.

There is something “Pauline” and apocalyptic in the way Caravaggio kept moving forward, destroying the tradition of Catholic art and himself in the process. His was a desperate effort to give testimony of a world that, according to the creed of Counter-Reformation, had been misrepresented. My novel, then, begins closed up in the pallacorda match. Quevedo is nineteen years old—or something like that—and he is there, in the service area of the tennis court at the Piazza Navona, trying to understand this creature on the other side of the net, at the same time unbelievably sophisticated and unacceptably vulgar—as are we, keeping our records of Miles Davis and The Clash in the same box. I don’t have to say that Quevedo’s fascination with the monster is mine. The game is told not from his point of view but perhaps from the perspective of someone who is just behind his shoulders, someone who has accepted his poems’ poisonous advice. Then the picture opens, first to Rome, and then to Europe. When the players change courts, the point of view changes. Now the reader looks at Quevedo and his friends, and imperial Spain and the Americas behind them.

During the hour and a half in which they are playing, the court is the center of the world. A world that had become so big and confusing that it began to demand bigger tools to be understood—Galileo’s theories renewing the way in which reality was organized, and Baroque art too, as a desperate way of representing a universe in perpetual change, or sonnets as the ultimate tools to understand the human soul’s contradictory nature. The modern novel was about to be invented by Cervantes, as a machine to think about what is and what is not moral in a universe that didn’t fit in the Bible anymore. Sudden Death is a novel—we are still there. We are the children of that generation, chasing again and again the volleys of religious fanatics and the abusive politicians who prosper thanks to them, the bankers and capitalists cashing in on the misery they produce in the rest of the world. Sudden Death is not about Caravaggio, Quevedo, and their world, but ours.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 43

Here’s your Spring 2016 issue. Or just go here.


The Hostile Situation of Hope

The Hostile Situation of Hope

Some of the greatest innovations in modern literature have arisen in the aftermath of tumultuous occasions, awakening in us spiritual dilemmas that stir striking questions concerning our position within the world. Feeling abandoned, and unable to comprehend ourselves within traditional philosophical and historical frameworks, we reach instead toward more inward aspects—the irrational and incomprehensible. Emil Cioran’s “organic man” is raised on these ruins. Faced with failing structures of knowledge and a human consciousness that has long been corrupted by order, ambition, and abstract constructs, Cioran returns us to a more primitive, fundamental mode of being; it stems from a “vital imbalance” rather than intelligence or reason.

War Music by Christopher Logue

War Music by Christopher Logue

There is probably no work more influential in Western literature than The Iliad, and Logue came to the poem late in the history of its influence. As he put it in an interview, Logue aimed to “write an English poem that is dependent on the Iliad.” He placed it in a tradition with writing by Chaucer, Tyndale, Jonson, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Edward Fitzgerald, and Pound, all of whom, he noted, wrote original works in English that depended on poems in other languages. We might add to this list other late Modernist examples of such “dependent” projects, like Nicholas Moore’s thirty-one versions of Baudelaire’s “Spleen (III)” in the different voices of 1960s England, or the free variations of Robert Lowell’s Imitations. But Logue’s poem is perhaps better read as a forerunner of a tendency that in the last fifty years or so has produced some of our most visionary poetry: a tendency to compose spare, tensely-focused new works of literature out of longer canonical works.


An Interview with Mariusz Szczygieł

An Interview with Mariusz Szczygieł

From Ryszard Kapuściński I learned that everything has to be seen in its wider context—that we’re not alone, meaning that what happens to us has already happened to other people, somewhere else in the world. He taught me to see that we are only a very small part of the world. From Hanna Krall I learned to write less rather than more. She taught me that all the words have already been used, everything has already been said, which means I must always remember to stop and wonder whether the world actually needs my words. From Małgorzata Szejnert I learned that reportage should be about whatever it’s about, plus something else as well. She taught me that the story is not everything. There has to be an idea behind it.

A Conversation with Angela Woodward

A Conversation with Angela Woodward

This book started out so complicated. I didn’t know what it was, or why it couldn’t be everything. It had a set of chapters interspersed throughout that told about a traveler going to the ceremony of some indigenous people in Siberia, and a terrible accident. Then it had another story about a disastrous archaeological dig. The relationship between Jonathan and Jenny was really fleshed out. And then it had bits and pieces of the chapters you see today, that have whatever flavor they have, a more folkloric feel, whereas the rest of it was sort of novelistic. It was a huge mess. It, and I, reached a point of collapse and implosion, and I started over completely.

In Translation

The Fashion by Germán Sierra

The Fashion by Germán Sierra

Germán Sierra’s work is a rare exception. A respected neuroscientist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he is one of a small group of writers to have considered in earnest the challenges contemporary science presents to the narrative model that has come down to us from the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the sovereign role of individual psychology as an engine of plot. He brings to mind Philip K. Dick, but less speculative, more uncanny, and tinged with a hard-edged griminess reminiscent of Darby Crash–era Los Angeles.

From Bad Light by Carlos Castán

From Bad Light by Carlos Castán

That was around the time of the spectacular accident in the Chilean mine. Thirty-three workers trapped almost half a mile beneath the earth. In real time, heart in mouth, the world followed the tragic events that, for seventy days, TV news bulletins the length and breadth of the planet led with. As did the press, and the radio. It was practically the only talking point. First, a tunnel was opened up through which the rescue teams could introduce the medicines and provisions from the outside world that were deemed most urgent. Direct, fluid communication was then established with those trapped below, their fear probed, their hopes of making it out alive broadcast, their attempts to say farewell in the darkest hours, their messages of love, their ham-handed poetry, filled with a candor that was chilling in its simplicity—pure naïf horror. People wondered what it might feel like to be trapped beneath a hillside, with tons of earth above and all that uncertainty as to whether one might ever again see the sunlight and all that it normally bathes.


Captivity by György Spiró

Captivity by György Spiró

György Spiró’s novel Captivity, beautifully rendered into English by Tim Wilkinson, is a work of ambition—almost literally, not only metaphorically, titanic. Undeniably, it is titanic in the sense of the evocation of gargantuan sweep and breadth; and it is no less titanic in its hopes to re-awaken a Latin-Hellenic-Hebraic world at the base of what we now consider the “Global West.”

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [1]

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [1]

Named for the tie-breaking round of pallacorda, the Renaissance game that prefigured tennis, Sudden Death is not a farce, and nor is it simply a speculative work that asks “what if?” of great historical figures and moments. Indeed, Enrigue deliberately works against the speculative mode by weaving exegetical historiography and laconic fourth-wall-breaking reflections throughout the relatively “straight” narrative lines of the apocryphal tennis match, the Mexican conquest, and the ideological formation of the Counter-Reformation.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [2]

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [2]

“YOU’VE NEVER READ A NOVEL LIKE THIS BEFORE” proclaims the back cover of the bound galley of Death, likening the effect of the book to a “gut punch.” Like much ad copy (for which the author should not be held responsible), I take issue with these statements, not least because I have indeed read a novel like this before. Many, in fact. On those occasions, however, I would have been reading books by, say, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino, so it’s in a rather august company that Enrigue has earned himself a place setting.

The Birth-mark and The Quarry by Susan Howe

The Birth-mark and The Quarry by Susan Howe

Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.

Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach

Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach

Underlying all of this biographical work is a desire to complicate received ideas about the author. In his introduction, Stach describes the enduring image of Kafka in characteristically clear-eyed terms: even though “decades of international, interdisciplinary research” have given scholars a more nuanced picture of Kafka and his times, he has persisted in the popular imagination as ” “the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things.” Stach’s aim is to “destabilize” these images by introducing “counter-images” in which he emphasizes the unexpected and the overlooked to help “quietly divorce us from clichés.” Implied here is the conviction that clichés about an author’s life obstruct appreciation of their work. Why else bother to challenge them?

Montauk by Max Frisch

Montauk by Max Frisch

There’s nothing terribly new about the confessional as a literary form. It can just as easily appear as swagger as it can an act of contrition, and this book has the flavor of both. And as a form, often in the guise of a personal essay, the confessional is having quite a moment. In the wake of the successful autoerotic exposures of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume Struggles and the critically gorgeous self-scrutiny of Maggie Nelson’s more slender Argonauts, there’s a contemporary appetite for the personal essay that has hardly been sated. And in the act of confession, there’s as much to be proud of in a debauched or dissolute life as there is to regret or repent. Lest the reader of this review fall into the trap most common for first-time encounterers of Frisch, this isn’t some kind of Swiss-intellectual misogynist rant, an I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for the pretentious. It is very honestly self-interested and self-critical. It’s messy in the way that psychotherapy is messy, or that our unvarnished motives would be if the world could see them. It’s loving, in its way, and sadly aware of how much time has passed and how badly.

Drowned and The Other Woman by Therese Bohman

Drowned and The Other Woman by Therese Bohman

The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women. The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and translator Marlaine Delargy’s prose styles remain the same from book to book. What differences there are prove to be relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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