Here it is, your fall 2015 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
“An influence on Finnegans Wake!” was one commonly heard refrain concerning this as-yet obscure object of desire, never mind that the two novels’ respective dates of publication make this a strained point at best. “In a league with Flann O’Brien!” was another, more reasonable, certainly more accurate line. To complete the trifecta, I even heard a few variations on “Beckett loved it!”—presumably unsubstantiated, but nonetheless tantalizing. Whether or not Ó Cadhain’s prose could really match or anyway trot sans embarrassment alongside the mighty strides of this Holy Trinity, the book’s premise was enough to lend credence to the rumors. Cré na Cille comes with an unbeatable “elevator pitch” that rhymes most deliciously with the work of its author’s best beloved countrymen: it’s none of your garden-variety narratives, following a protagonist or protagonists through which- and whatever conflicts and experiences, no. It’s 100% dialogue, and not just any dialogue, but a chorale of dead souls, every character already having snuffed it and been stuffed into their graves. À la an Our Town or Spoon River cross-pollinated with No Exit, however, these corpses are perpetually, rather hellishly awake, aware, and gabbing in Ó Cadhain’s wonderfully unsplendid hereafter.
For more than a decade, Houellebecq has enjoyed unusual notoriety: his dismissal from the board of the review Perpendiculaire for the retrograde views allegedly expressed in The Elementary Particles made the front page of Le Monde; his portrayal of Islam in Platform, as well as his subsequent description of it in an interview as “the most moronic religion,” landed him in court on charges of inciting racial hatred; in 2011, he went missing, stoking fears he’d been snatched up for ransom. He would dramatize his disappearance in the faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Yet nothing was comparable to the commotion that would arise when Submission, Houellebecq’s most recent novel, hit the shelves on January 7 of this year, a few hours before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi would burst into the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and murder members of its staff.
Pitol writes early in the first volume of his “Trilogy of Memory” that “Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past. Not only because I have reached an age when the greater part of the journey has been traveled, but also because I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me.” What results from this declaration is a very unusual book that diverges from the standard tropes of memoir. Rather than attempt to divulge personal details or set the record straight, Pitol seeks to do something more personal and internalized: to fill in the gaps and holes of his memory before they grow bigger and deeper. The end result may have been aestheticized after the fact, but we are ultimately reading something that was written for the author alone. We are invited to forget ourselves, to put on the persona of Pitol himself and close up the wounds of time and memory by reading these words of his various travelings, readings, and meetings across the Western world.
In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.
His relatively uneventful personal life and sizable artistic and intellectual cosmos have, in the century since his death, largely kept him out of biographies (which are then turned into Hollywood films) and on the tongues of poets and intellectual historians. But then, without the flashy headlines and under the burden of agonizing translation, Mallarmé is frequently cited but seldom read. Whether this new edition of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), his final and, until now, incompletely translated textual experiment, marks the beginning of a Mallarmé renaissance is unclear.
It looks impossible to get out,” he says. And also: “But we’ll get out.”
To the north, the forest borders a mountain range and is surrounded by lakes so big they look like oceans. In the centre of the forest is a well. The well is roughly seven metres deep and its uneven walls are a bank of damp earth and roots, which tapers at the mouth and widens at the base, like an empty pyramid with no tip. The basin gurgles dark water, which filters along faraway veins and even more distant galleries that flow towards the river. It leaves a permanent muddy peat and sludge specked with bubbles that pop, spraying bursts of eucalyptus back into the air. Whether due to pressure from the continental plates or the constant eddying breeze, the little roots move and turn and steer in a slow, sad dance, which evokes the nature of all the forests slowly absorbing the earth.
At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.
With black and brown bodies being murdered daily from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Baltimore to Oakland—the riotous specter of Ferguson looming always—by an assortment of systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. This is, of course, nothing new to 2015, no matter the number and volume of white people (like myself) now paying attention. History is nothing if not resourceful. This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference.
By the standard of an author’s handling of complex thematic ideas, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, beautifully translated by Angela Rodel,is an excellent book. Gospodinov takes the conceptual framework within his novel as the ability of literature to overcome the restrictions of memory. Taking major cues about this subject from both Borges and Sebald (see Gospodinov’s extensive use of diagrams and photographs throughout the text), the author explores memory through a tightly woven set of fantastic experiences among the ever-changing society of Bulgaria in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and does so profoundly.
This strong psychological relationship between teeth and our sense of self contributes to the expressive clout of Valeria Luiselli’s “dental autobiography” The Story of My Teeth. Here, the motif of teeth best aligns with Jung’s description of them as the “gripping organ,” providing not only our ability to properly eat and speak but also the figurative representation of personal agency, and even a marker of success. However, Luiselli’s charming, funny, and moving novel transcends this dental narrative, and is, at its heart, a profound commentary on the power of storytelling, both as a creative force and a way to instil value.
For a country as vast as it is, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not produced much literature. (Ruthless oppression and exploitation will have that effect.) Tram 83 may not be a novel in the usual sense—it is more of a francophone triumph of style over substance—but it is a welcome voice from that quarter, and a promise of lively works to come.
Although Naja Marie Aidt made her English-language debut just last year with a short story collection entitled Baboon (Two Lines Press), in Denmark she has been required reading in most middle school and high school classes since the 1990s. A poet and author with nearly 20 works in various genres, Aidt has received numerous honors, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for Baboon in 2008. Aidt debuted in Denmark in 1991 with the poetry collection Så længe jeg er ung, and since then she has mainly been known for her poems and short stories. Her first novel, Sten, saks, papir, came out in Denmark in 2012, some 21 years after her first poetry collection. Now that novel has been published by Open Letter Books as Rock, Paper, Scissors, in K.E. Semmel’s translation.
It has been a good year and some months for César Aira readers, as New Directions has released translations of a collection of short stories, The Musical Brain and Other Stories (spring 2015), and two of his novels: Conversations (summer 2014), and, this fall, Dinner. Some of Aira’s novels start out with a wild premise, while others lull readers for a while before changing into something unexpected. We are a fair number of pages into his newest work before the unnamed male narrator, an almost sixty-year-old bachelor, tells us what he witnesses on a live television news program in his hometown of Pringles, Argentina (Aira’s birthplace), as a small news crew investigates a rumor: “They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord.