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The Missing Books Version 2

The Missing Books Version 2 has just been released.

The Missing Books is a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.

When you now purchase The Missing Books you will receive: 1) a PDF of The Missing Books Version 2; 2) an ePub of The Missing Books Version 2 3) a PDF changelog highlighting new text to The Missing Books Version 2.

The original The Missing Books was released in October of last year and was featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed.

Featuring missing books from: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé. Nearly 100 titles in all.

You can read more about the project here, or get it below.

Kindle ($4.99)

 

Seven Questions for Lytton Smith on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson

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The remarkable thing about literature in translation is that there can be an entire Ulysses just sitting around for decades, unknown until someone translates it—and boom, suddenly it exists in our world.

Such is the case with the 1966 Icelandic novel Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, which is often compared to Ulysses and which was a complete revelation that forever transformed Icelandic literature. This mammoth, enormously complex and playful novel has been carefully translated by Lytton Smith into English and is now available to readers from Open Letter Books.

In addition to being a translation of such Icelandic authors as Jón Gnarr, Bragi Ólafsson, and Kristin Omarsdottir, Smith is also a poet whose collections include The All-Purpose Magical Tent, which was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize in 2009, and While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It. In addition, his poetry has appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Atlantic, Bateau, Boston Review, and Tin House.


Scott Esposito: If you know one thing about this book, it’s probably that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller has been called the “Icelandic Ulysses.” In the world of literary translation we definitely see our share of such claims, and it is true that many of them are quite legitimate and useful, but they are a thing one tends to take with a grain of salt. So I’m curious to know your own take on this description of the book. Do you see similarities there?

Lytton Smith: The translator Michael Scammell introduced me to the importance of “touchstone” texts in the target language, the language you’re translating into—texts that might be comparable to the experience a reader in the original language would have. In that sense, Ulysses, or perhaps Finnegans Wake, make good comparisons: they’re poetic in that they play with words and the meaning of language even as they have onward momentum and narrative causality. So thinking back to Ulysses as a reader helped: I read it in a group, with a compendious books of notes with us, often out loud, and that’s a different, wonderful, reading experience—I hope some readers of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller do that, too.

But I also want to throw out two other touchstones, perhaps more important to me. The first is Moby-Dick, which I had in mind because it’s a work of self-conscious national construction which is composed and pastiched from myriad places. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is much more ironic, suspicious and critical of the national myth, but the two texts go together well—not for nothing does Bestseller end on the high seas! And then there’s Lawrence Sterne’s 18th century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, largely because of the importance to both books of the unreliable narrator. I love books that explore the unreliable narrator—Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the books I keep re-reading—and thinking of those types of novel helped me think about Bestseller.

What matters most about Bestseller, though, is that it’s a sort of anthology: it contains stories within stories. So I was also thinking about Moby-Dick and other texts that share that approach: you’re reading one story, come across another, and get influenced by that. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad were often in my mind, in quite different ways. Perhaps we’re less looking for the perfect touchstone than some kind of Venn diagram of myriad touchstones!

SE: Hearing you talk about stories within stories, unreliable narrators, and works on the level of Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy, it’s clear that this is a rather sizable, complex book. So this may not be the easiest thing to do, but could you give us a sense of what this book is about in terms of plot, character, theme, etc?

LS: You’re right that the plot is hard to sum up, but I’d say this: Tómas Jónsson, a retired bank-clerk living in a basement apartment in Reykjavík, decides to write a best-selling autobiography, both to lament the diminishing quality of Icelandic people—particularly the increasingly soft men—and to laud its culture, through stories about an opera singer who Hitler chased around Europe and the first black baby born in Iceland, among other things. Along the way, he digresses into meditations on owning property—the book’s plot can be measured by which story a character lives on: the ideal is to progress from basement apartment to first then second or even third floor, and Tómas, despite a life of hard white-collar work, has ended up in the basement, subletting rooms. It’s a novel about disability—he’s blind for at least part of it, and bedridden, and needs carers—and about intimacy—hearing subletters having sex, revealing one’s bodily functions—and within in Tómas tries to make a case for innocence against charges of rape.

SE: As with many of the titles you’ve brought up here, this is a text that is extraordinarily playful and abounds in wordplay. For you as the translator, is rich prose like this more of a pleasure or a pain? What were some of the memorable challenges of this text?

LS: It’s a tremendous pleasure, but also a responsibility: as a poet, I’m trying to make language supple and energetic in the ways I believe poetry, and poetically minded prose, can be, but as a student of Icelandic modern and ancient (I started out learning Icelandic by learning Old Iceland and studying the Icelandic Sagas at University College London) I’m trying to be responsible to the whole sweep of that history. For instance, the character Bósi appears in places, a bit-part. I eventually learned that is the name of the main character in a less celebrated, less ancient saga (from the group known as “fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda,” not part of the classic canon)—and his saga is known for its pornographic nature. So there’s another level of challenge: you can’t teach the often esoteric history of Iceland, but you’re wanting to keep avenues open for readers who might disappear down the rabbit hole and search out all the references. And such is the author’s own compendious, deft mind, that you know you’re going to miss things.

I was stumped by a simple description of Tómas getting up one morning, laboriously doing everything you’d expect him to do (swinging his legs out of bed, stretching) and amid this all there’s a reference to him emptying his socks. Was he turning them inside out? An Icelandic friend and author pointed out the contraction involved: you can use “skin-sock” as a euphemism for penis in Icelandic, so TJ is taking a piss—that’s quite a few steps of association, and it’s one reason I love the writing of Guðbergur Bergsson, but it makes the task difficult. I think I could spend my life translating this book; there will always be more to uncover. Which is another reason to have collaborative rather than isolated, individual reading: we’ll each discover from one another.

SE: I have read that this is a very, very well-known book in Iceland—the sort of thing that everybody owns, or at least everybody knows about. Could you give some since of the impact of this book on Icelandic literature and the Icelandic language?

LS: The impact was huge, and still is. I think it’s hard to contemplate an equivalent in the UK or the US. Bestseller skewered a set of cherished ideas about what a novel was meant to be for, how it was meant to be written, and what the Icelandic nation was. Against a prevailing romanticized idea of rural purity and wisdom, the sort of pastoral celebrated in Hálldor Laxness’s earlier (but not later) novels, Bestseller recognized the corruptions and injustices, the danger of that myth. And the publication hugely divided the reading population—which in Iceland is just about the entire population. Almost every review was scathing. The keepers of prevailing culture indicated he’d destroyed everything, which was about the best compliment he could receive. But what’s crucial, and something I learned from the scholar Daisy Neijman, is that Guðbergur Bergsson’s achievement is stylistic as much as in terms of content: she points out that he’s anti-mimesis, suspicious of the kind of word that claims to replicate experience. Every time you think you’re identifying with a character, the narrative doubles back on itself. (And I should mention that, beyond all this, Guðbergur is a notorious figure who is prone to outlandish and controversial statement about other authors—he can be exacting/dismissive, depending on your perspective – and wider culture. I hesitate to focus on the author rather than the book, especially with a book like this, but his continuing divisive impact on Icelandic life shouldn’t be understated.)

One metaphor that Bergsson himself has used for the role of the author is that an author is involved in creating “groups of islands.” We start off writing in a particular geography—say, Iceland—but, he argues, the author should be less concerned with this originating geography and more with creating some set of places (it’s telling he uses islands as the metaphor, not constellations or cities or something) which creates “another possible world,” even, he argues, a “mother tongue” existing in his works. So there’s a sense in which this most Icelandic of books is also aware of a universe that exceeds Iceland.

It’s telling that I’m writing to you in the wake of Donald Trump Jr.’s e-mails. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, really is about the danger of us trusting the narrative rather than questioning the narrator. I think that’s a lesson many of us—on all sides of the political spectrum—need to learn again. It was an education to be working on this book this past year.

SE: Hearing about the radical impact that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller had in Iceland, I’m curious to know about Bergsson’s work following that book. This was (I believe) his second published novel, in 1966, and there has been quite a steady output since then, going right up into 2014. What is the work since then like, and is there something of a shadow cast over it by the impact of this early, major work?

LS: One of the key incursions made by this book was that it advanced the novel by skewering the fetish for biography, particularly for overly laudatory biographies: Tómas is an anti-hero, fleshly and led by appetite, and as such he’s both true to Icelandic culture and a way to parody it. In one sense, nothing Guðbergur wrote lived up to this—it’s been in three editions in Iceland, over the years—but it’s also true that the effect of it in 1967 exceeded the number of readers: perhaps like D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, far more people had an opinion on than had actually read it. (There’s a bit of a joke today that everyone in Iceland owns a copy but almost no-one has finished it. That’s not quite fair, but it’s like Don Quixote or Infinite Jest: you’d want to be able to say you’ve read it, but perhaps haven’t.)

That’s not to say he hasn’t had great successes and continued cultural importance: there’s a museum devoted to his life and works, he’s been the subject of international symposia, received from the King of Spain the award De la orden de Isabel la Católica, a huge deal for Spain, translated numerous writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Don Quixote (twice!) into Icelandic, and his own books have won acclaim. The other book he’s most known for is probably The Swan, because it won the Iceland Literary Prize in 1991; it explores the sufferings and toils of rural life, in ways that Bestseller touches on, but it’s an inverse of that book in that it’s set in the country whereas Bestseller is really set in the city and aware of the country. Plus the protagonist is a young girl, not a near-senile man. It was translated into English by Bernard Scudder. But there are other gems: he also received the Icelandic Literary Prize in 1997 for a book whose title translates as “Father and Mother and The Mysterious Power of Childhood,” a fictional autobiography. And his novel Sú kvalda ást sem hugarfylgsnin geyma, a title usually translated as “The Mind’s Tormented Love,” also uses diaries and the conceit of a man writing in his basement. I’d see the shadow cast by Bestseller more as a reaching, that it’s exploring themes that other books also turn to. And Guðbergur’s continued success make clear he’s far from a one-hit wonder: Bestseller may be his most important book, but it’s so because of the literary environment of the time, not necessarily because it’s his most accomplished or read.

SE: It’s interesting to hear you bring up Trump in this context—I suppose right now it’s a very unavoidable subject, but it also brings up a question that I’m always interested in when we’re talking about translations. What sorts of things would you say this brings to a U.S. context—words, ideas, plots, characters that you think can add something to our understanding of the world?

LS: Bestseller‘s very taken with the idea of meritocracy: one key subplot concerns Tómas being passed over for promotions he feels are owed him. It’s hard to know whether to side with his view or not: on the one hand, he seems to be a dependable kind of worker with great experience. On the other, he’s clearly old-fashioned and bumbling and the guys that get the management positions are perhaps scoundrels and fraudsters, but they’re also high-flying in ways he isn’t. We’re living at a moment where the first family is the manifestation of that process: they believe they’ve succeeded by merit, and many people want to buy into that because it would mean they, too, could succeed by merit. But merit has very little to do with it: privilege, nepotism, access to cash, and lack of scruples have more to do with it. At the heart of the book is a group called the Board or the Table, who eat together in a restaurant in Reykjavík. They’re the movers and shakers of Iceland, and there are definite hierarchies of who sits where. But the joke is that they’re insular and all they’re doing is eating: they’re less a Board than a table. And I think Bestseller can help us realize the illusion, see that the emperor’s new clothes are actually no clothes at all. The novel begins with the narrator trying to write his autobiography in a way that emphasizes his noble descent, and he has to give up right away: it’s nonsense. And that move seems one we need to make now: so much of what’s being said about transparency and such like is nonsense, literally: it doesn’t not accord with any definition of words in any dictionary or common usage anywhere. In one sense, this isn’t a political point: it should be possible to agree with Trump’s politics and still notice the nonsense. But either we’re so partisan that’s impossible, or so post-political that the politics doesn’t matter at all: the illusion does.

SE: Lastly, to circle back to what you were saying about Bestseller having a sense that there’s a whole world out there that exceeds Iceland, do you feel like this is kind of an Icelandic thing? I mean, there are some countries I could think of (e.g. America) where it seems that most authors don’t tend to be troubled by such thoughts when writing a novel. And as a related question, what was it like walking the line of keeping this book firmly rooted in what must be a very Icelandic sort of prose and culture, while also making it a work of its own in English?

LS: My sense of Icelandic literature, particularly contemporary writing—and much contemporary writing does owe a debt that starts with Bestseller, to the ways it exploded conventions and expectations of literature—is a beautiful paradox in which the world, both spiritually and geographically, is profoundly Icelandic, often including very esoteric meditation on dirt floor homes or sheep herding or the fishing industry, and yet will often draw on many languages (it’s not uncommon to encounter Danish, English, and German in an Icelandic book, alongside poetic coinages) and either allude to or reference directly other places and cultures and literary situations. Guðbergur is heavily associated with the town of Grindavík, but engages with it in ways that cast it as a kind of Florence. Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s beautiful and sad Hér (which I got to translate as Children in Reindeer Woods) exists in this no-place that’s both Iceland and non-Iceland, and it’s informed as much by her experience of Spain as Iceland.

I think many writers reach beyond the place they’re from or writing about, even as they’re writing about it. But that seems to be particularly common within the Icelandic writing I spend time reading—I’m not saying it’s true of all Icelandic writing (I don’t see it as much in the poetry, and not in the thrillers), but I don’t want to be an outsider claiming to know exhaustively all of Icelandic writing: there’s a sense in what I see is often pre-selected by publishers as right for translation. But I would feel comfortable saying that Icelandic insularity means, post-Bestseller, not a navel-gazing focus on one’s own small island, but on the fact that you need to be aware of a world beyond your island to recognize it is an island—and so Icelandic writings often tends to triangulate narrowly Icelandic phenomena via other cultural events. That’s not to say there aren’t blind spots: Icelandic writing can be years behind American when it comes to thinking through race, and one other challenge I had with Bestseller was working out just how much the novel was challenging racist tropes and where it was repeating them; the story-within-a-story about the black baby is going to be something that American readers take issue with, and should. So we have to be careful about being overly full of praise for Icelandic open-mindedness. I know there’s plenty of criticism of that from within Iceland. But I do think, to go back to one of your prior questions, we can learn something from Bestseller and Icelandic literature more widely: that there’s a way to be of one’s nation, aware of and engaged with the place you’re from, without being protectionist and closed-minded: to be nationally international, or something.

On Bolaño, Art, and Fascism

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It’s rather fitting the my column on the cultural roots of fascism in America comes out amid the latest cluster bombing of bombshells from President Trump—the latest being the currently evolving story surrounding his son, Donald, Jr.’s, betrayal of America by colluding with the Russian government to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton during the summer of 2016.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that our government is fascist. No one worth taking seriously is saying anything of the sort, for the simple reason that it’s not true. Our votes still matter, we still hold free and fair elections, we have a division of power in our government.

However, it’s clear to me that our culture is beginning to lean toward one that enables fascist government. That is, powerful politicians and their strategists are exploiting fears and hatreds to manipulate large swaths of the voting public. Anti-intellectualism has reached the point that a majority of Republicans now say that higher education is a bad thing for America. The Republican President regularly spouts enormous, grotesque lies that go far, far beyond the twisting of facts typical of any harmless, garden-variety politician in any reasonable democracy. And the Republican Party is now engaged in massive, racially inflected voter suppression efforts to help game the next election.

I would argue that these things are consistent with a culture of fascism. That is, a dangerous culture that makes fascist government possible, that we could say is a pre-condition of fascist government existing. As I explain in the column, this is where I have found Roberto Bolaño so instructive. As I have reflected on his books in the past year or so, it seems to me that he understood things about how the culture of fascism has infected the Americans and the West, and he put these things into his books. My column is an opening salvo into some of that territory.

Bolaño also opened up the very interesting overlap between fascism and art, a subject that I have not seen discussed very much (other than in Thomas Mann’s masterful novel Doctor Faustus, which is essential reading at any time, and especially these days). I discuss this a little in the column as well, although it is a very big question, and there is still very much to think about here. But it does seem to me that there is something going on, some overlap among art, the performances of the President and other partisan media personalities, and the embryonic Internet-native communications and social performances that we are all feeling our way through these days.

There column is here. I hope you give it a look.

Strong Recommend: Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

I’m hoping to write a little more in-depth about this book down the line, but here’s a strong recommendation for Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things. Basically, this is an extraordinarily thorough, compelling single-volume history of consumerism, starting in roughly 1500 and continuing up through the present day.

As a work of history, Empire of Things is mammoth and revelatory. But it is also a book that comments very much on the present day. Basically, Trentmann puts contemporary debates about materialism and environmental decay into the context of the 200 years or so that have formed the modern consumeristic world as we know it. This adds a very important layer to our understanding of these problems and how we can possibly solve them.

So, for that one reason, this is a really necessary read. In addition to that, this is just a plain fascinating book, with all sorts of facts and statistics from the last 500 years or so. It’s a very eye-opening read, one that puts the lie to a lot of received opinions and makes little-known histories visible.

There is lot of information in this book, and Trentmann knows how to turn this raw information into knowledge and narratives, which makes it very powerful. I strongly recommend this book as a big summer read. It will change how you look at our contemporary society.

Summer Pledge Drive

It’s that time where I ask you to pledge a few dollars if you like what you’re seeing at this site and at The Quarterly Conversation.

To make things a little nicer, I’ll send over The Missing Books to anybody who donates $15 or more. This will include the original edition of TMB, plus all new editions (one is forthcoming very soon!).

Let me (very briefly) talk about online content and subscriptions. This site and The Quarterly Conversation are free. The very idea and purpose of them—which is to create and spread high-value information for the good of the artistic community—defines them as free, open-to-all ventures. They don’t really serve their purpose if they’re paywalled, and they will never be paywalled.

For various reasons, advertising isn’t a sustainable income source on the Web. It doesn’t matter if you’re a huge, New York Times venture or a tiny literary blog, ads alone don’t suffice in the Web economy as we currently know it. (If you’re curious to know more, Josh Marshall does a good job of delving into the logic of this over here and elsewhere.)

It’s increasingly popular to use a hybrid ads/subscription model, where advertising gets some revenue from more incidental users, and where subscriptions are for the core audience who highly values a website, uses it a lot, and is willing to put up a little money to support it.

That’s basically what I’m asking for here with the summer pledge drive.

Let me share a little of what I’ve provided in 2017:

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve done 11 in-depth interviews with publishers, authors, and translators doing worthwhile projects. I’ve maintained my list of Interesting New Titles, one of the most high-traffic pages on this website. I’ve recommended tons and tons of books (both here and on my social media feeds—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). I’ve promoted crowdfunding campaigns for worthy new ventures in our literary world. I’ve edited and brought online two new issues of The Quarterly Conversation.

Based on how much of this content gets shared around the Web and visited here, a lot of people find this to be high-value stuff. If you’re one of those people who finds this useful, important, and beneficial to the community at large, a subscription goes a long ways toward enabling me to do more and more of this sort of thing.

If you’d like to subscribe, you can make a one-time-only donation or a recurring donation with the Paypal buttons below. You can also use the link to my Patreon page (at the bottom) to set up recurring donations.









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Interesting New Books — July 2017

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

Here are some new releases I’ve got my eye on this month.

As always, this list is taken from my Interesting New Books page, where you can find many more of the 2017 releases I’m watching out for. And you can follow me on Twitter for even more book recommendations.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams. July 3.

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. July 4. Paperback release of a book you may have missed and should really give a look to.

Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility by Francesco Berardi. July 4.

The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News by Arkady Ostrovsky. July 4.

Class, Race and Marxism by David Roediger. July 4.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor. July 11. His only novel.

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat. July 11.

Moving Kings: A Novel by Joshua Cohen. Jul 11.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðberger Bergsson. July 11. Reputed to be the “Icelandic Ulysses.”

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. July 11. Available for the first time in paperback.

Like a Fading Shadow: A Novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Jul 18.

History is Our Mother: Three Libretti: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Magic Flute by Alice Goodman. July 18. You don’t need to like opera to love these brilliant libretti.

The Dark Dark: Stories by Samantha Hunt. July 18.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan. July 25.

A Few Thoughts on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set in 1864, three years into the Civil War, as a helpful subtitle instructs us at the beginning of the movie. The entirety of the film takes place at a secluded girls school in the Virginia wilderness, and there is a quality of Southern gothic here. This is one of those movies that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, mostly abstracts away the outside world to focus on the interiority of its small cast and the drama that they confront.

Things get started when the young Jane (played by Angourie Rice), out picking mushrooms in the nearby woods, comes across a wounded Yankee soldier. He has been immobilized by a gunshot to his lower leg, and he will surely die if Jane does not bring him back to the school. She of course does, tipping off a series of events that will comprise the meat of the movie.

Immediately, Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Nicole Kidman), the middle-aged, authoritative doyen of the school, takes charge of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), secluding him in the music room and ministering to his wounds. There are some gory shots here of Farnsworth stitching the Corporal up, and she is immediately established as the powerful, worldly, gritty woman opposite Kirsten Dunst’s much more softer, more naive Edwina, who teaches in the school as Farnsworth’s sort of second-in-command.

Coppola wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter: this is deep in the Confederacy, where a Yankee soldier is certainly not welcome, but it’s been ages since Farnsworth and Edwina have seen a man, particularly a striking, muscular one like the Corporal. After tending to his wounds, Farnsworth declares her intent to wash the Corporal’s body (he is still passed out from his injuries), and predictably her hands continue gravitating toward a certain part of his anatomy.

There is also the young and sexy Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student in the school who is a young woman on the verge of sexual discovery and who is clearly intrigued by the arrival of a man in their midst.

For his own part, the Corporal realizes how precarious his position is, that Farnsworth can hand him over to passing mobs of Confederate soldiers at any time, so he contrives to stimulate the women’s fascination with him. Of course, part of his interest here is in his own sexual desires are clearly coming into play, even as he works to ingratiate himself with the woman as a act of pure survival. Part of the intrigue of these early scenes of the movie is to watch as these characters all strive to define their aims: they are all beguiled to an extent by the ripe sexuality that has suddenly appeared in their lives, but they also have other prominent motives that shape their acts.

It is in the movie’s first half that Coppola’s directing, which netted her the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director award, is at her best. Virtually none of the film’s communication is done out in the open, instead coming across through doubled meanings, facial expressions, gestures, small acts, and the like. Coppola brilliantly teases out these threads, defining the principal characters’ traits and motives, all while giving an evocative sense of Southern manners and the complex situation of the Civil War. The movie is suffused by a profound aura of femininity, and one very much feels that Farrell’s Corporal is injecting alien elements into the school’s female realm.

On the whole the cast counts seven women all at differing ages form pre-teen to Farnsworth (which I would guess at about 50). Coppola puts together a fascinating and satisfying composite picture of girlhood and womanhood, and there are many small touches throughout that work together to construct a complete picture of femininity, particularly the sense of femininity that existed in the middle of the 19th century amid Southern antebellum culture. Clearly there is some revisionist intent to such a project, as one can’t but help compare the lives of these women to the lives of women today (there was much knowing laughter in the screening I saw), but one also gets the sense of constructing its own world, and one that is not typically seen on the silver screen.

In this way the movie proceeds toward its inevitable crisis point (spoiler alert). For motives that are not entirely clear, the Corporal has been leading Edwina on, to the point where he promises to come into her bedroom after a lush dinner that is meant to be the Corporal’s send-off out of the school and back into the world. Yet, it is obviously Alicia that he wants to bed. And this is where Edwina discovers him in one shocking moment of outrage and hurt, even as she has made herself beautiful and prepared herself to be taken by the Corporal. In the ensuring chaos the Corporal is thrown down a flight of stairs, and he freshly healed leg is broken open again. Farnsworth declares that the only way to save him is to amputate the leg, which she does. When the Corporal next awakes, he flies into a rage, taking the amputation as an act of revenge for him not choosing to come to Farnsworth’s bedroom.

It is in the concluding 30 minutes that follow this scene that Coppola’s The Beguiled begins to break down. The characters that have been so lovingly tended by Coppola now revert to types, caught up in the straightjacket of Farrell’s extraordinarily overwrought rage. So too does the plot, which had been ambiguous and alluring, and now becomes something along the lines of a thriller. The movie concludes with a fairly predictable trajectory, and we are left with something that, fortunately, ends before it does mortal damage to that beautiful first hour, but which still leaves us disappointed that a movie with such promise did not find a better end.

More than anything else, this concluding half hour feels too rushed, the mixture of motives and gestures that made the pre-amputation parts so rich are absent here, and the plot seems to move mechanically toward its solution. The great pleasure in watching The Beguiled is in trying to figure out just what everybody wants, what they are admitting to themselves and to each other, what they are hiding, how much of what they want they’re going to manage to get, and how this weird interlude that has taken control of all their lives will be solved. This is the brilliance of the film, and at its best it is truly great filmmaking. But all of that comes to an end once the Corporal turns into a rage-fueled caricature, where the nuance and mystery and balance of competing emotions is turned into a clear and obvious need to get rid of him by any means.

Coppola’s The Beguiled is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Instead of basing the film around the male character, as the Eastwood The Beguiled does, in Coppola’s the women become the stars, and the world evoked is a feminine one, not a macho one. This is a fascinating idea, and one appreciates the many touches that turn this film from a male point of view into a female one, but ultimately the ending of Coppola’s The Beguiled feels too over-determined to leave a viewer with a lasting impression or a final conundrum to take with you out of the theater.

During my viewing of The Beguiled, the film often reminded me of a couple of movies that left this one weak by comparison. The first is Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, about a pre–Civil War band of naive settlers who are somewhat captive to their macho leader, Meek. As with Coppola’s film, this is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of a Western macho narrative—the world of women definitely dominates Reichardt’s film, and there is a strong female character who comes to define its plot. But, notably, Reichardt goes much further, engaging the historical narratives that surround Meek’s Cutoff to a much greater degree, and never letting the film resolve into a clear sense of right and wrong.

The Beguiled also made me think of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, a film very much about feminine identity and solidarity, and one whose three principle female characters are set against a male interloper. As with Coppola, Altman very creatively uses the landscape in 3 Women to open up the characters and their traits, and he is also able to open up the female world to the eyes of the viewer. Where Altman overcomes Coppola is in the ending, which opens up the film’s possibilities instead of concluding them, never reverting to type or convention.

On the whole I would probably recommend The Beguiled. There is very much to like and discuss about it, and the visible texture of the film is magnificent. I only wish that Coppola had let her film find the ending that it wanted, instead of assigning it a conclusion that follows typical Hollywood convention.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 48

Features


The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else. Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.


The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

Initially, the Frankfurt School set out to understand why the communist revolution had failed among the rank-and-file of Germany’s working class. Their project would grow to encompass the root causes of fascism, the authoritarian underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and the cultural machinations of commodity fetishism that would engulf the Western world in the twentieth century and beyond. The task of crafting an engrossing, rigorous historical biography about a group of notoriously difficult Marxist philosophers, social theorists, and cultural critics is no small feat. That is precisely the task Stuart Jeffries set for himself in The Grand Hotel Abyss, which serves as a sort of group biography of a very specific time, place, and elusive cultural moment that many (outside of graduate philosophy programs) are not aware even existed.


(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now, in 2017, is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today. I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.”


The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

“Aphoristic thinking is notebook-thinking,” Susan Sontag observed in her journal in the spring of 1980, “produced by the idea of keeping a notebook.” She had been kicking around the concept of the notebook-as-form for awhile, as well as attempting to locate the defining characteristics of aphoristic literature, while working on an essay about the writer Elias Cannetti, whose aphoristic style she very much admired. That year was punctuated by the death of Roland Barthes, another fiercely epigrammatic writer whom Sontag held in high esteem. In the essay she would eventually publish on Barthes, she wrote: “It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.” The aphorist, for Sontag, is always moving towards the last word, and the aphorism itself an attempt to say all there is on a subject in one fell motion. Aphorisms are effective precisely because they seem to contain the truth in hard, diamond-like kernels; a good aphorism can’t be parsed.


Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

With A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem has written yet another quite ambitious novel that challenges American fiction’s low tolerance for thinking-as-art. This now makes four in a row that have either risked sinking from bravura and scope or have appeared too light and clever on the surface to be matched seriously with earlier feats. For instance, rather than Chronic City being a kitschy map for traversing Web-dominant culture, it tries to salvage what’s left of the literary and humane while honoring skeptical avant-garde traditions that inherently distrust the novel form. Up until The Fortress of Solitude, admirers could content themselves, to a degree, with parodied tributes and deconstructions of old styles without having to imagine the positive role Lethem charted for novels in the future. As described in his essay on White Elephant and Termite postures attempted as a novelist, his books in recent years puzzle through this dialectic of positive and deconstructive values, and A Gambler’s Anatomy continues the course.



Reviews

Compass by Mathias Énard

Compass by Mathias Énard


It’s with no small amount of urgency that Mathias Énard’s Compass, an engrossing meditation on the cultural and historical tension between Europe and the Islamic world, arrives from New Directions in a gorgeous translation by Charlotte Mandell. Winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Compass is a post-Orientalist novel of ideas that locates the Western canon—Flaubert, the sentimental, if reckless, traveler detailed above, but also Borges, Liszt, Heine, Hugo, Goethe, Balzac, and many more—inside an intricate tableau of Eastern cultural influence and exchange. I call it “post-Orientalist” in the sense that Énard’s characters, a group of aging academics, are all working in the shadow of Said’s screed, in search of the theory’s new critical horizon.


Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Despite its fervid storyline, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is the product of clear calculation and restraint. The narrative is tightly packed, the cast of characters narrow, and the logic addictive. From the first lines the reader enters into a murky alternate reality, pursuing that sublime moment of clarity that constantly eludes capture.In fact, the book feels more like a protracted short story than a novel. This is unsurprising, given Schweblin’s immense talent for the short form. Before the 2014 publication of Distancia de rescate—Fever Dream’s original Spanish title—Schweblin published two short story collections, El núcleo del disturbio (2002) and Pájaros en la boca (2009), for which she won the Casas de las Américas Prize. Through short stories, Schweblin established herself as a writer of the strange and eerie.


Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy


With “Losing our Milk Teeth,” the opening poem of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s award-winning collection, Hemming Flames, the author announces from the outset that we’re in for a thrilling ride—thrilling as in thriller as much as the acute pleasure of reading masterful poems. Hemming Flames is by turns terrifying, uncanny, and sometimes lunatic, in the ways lunacy charts (if it does chart anything) the unpredictable and uncanny. There is also a wry and blunt humor here, a consciousness latching onto what will carry it through the traumas of an imploding family.


On Gabo Conquering the World

My latest column is up at Lit Hub this week, “Why is One Hundred Years of Solitude Eternally Beloved?

I found this an interesting question to ponder, as One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50 this year (apparently it happened right on May 30), and it has had astonishing success in terms of translation and sales, success which far outstrips the other Latin American authors García Márquez is typically classified with (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar).

I get things started off with a possibly apocryphal anecdote about García Márquez. The more and more I’ve thought about this bit since I published the article, the stranger and stranger this seems as a thing to do:

There is an oft-told anecdote that cuts to the heart of this writer’s greatness. As he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would regularly meet with his fellow great Colombian author Álvaro Mutis, updating Mutis on his progress by narrating the latest events from his novel. There was just one problem: none of what García Márquez told Mutis actually occurs in the book. He had effectively made up an entire shadow-novel while in the middle of writing one of the most imaginative and jam-packed books in the history of modern literature. This is a measure of how many competing realities existed in García Márquez’s voracious mind.

And, as always, the column ends with some reading recommendations. As much of the column deals with how One Hundred Years is a narrative that could only have come from Lain America, the reading list covers other narratives that I feel are particularly Latin American in nature and that have contributed much to our world’s collection of necessary stories.

Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (tr. Edith Grossman)
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (tr. Idra Novey)
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L. C. Simms)
Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine)
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell)
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (tr. Carolina De Robertis)

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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 . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

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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