Category Archives: Uncategorized

Oulipo Issue of Anomalous Press

The journal Anomalous has published an all-Oulipo issue. While not members of the Oulipo, the contributors have used constraint to shape their contributions to the issue. Here are the rules:

10 cards chosen at random each correspond to a word, use them in the order they were drawn, connect them by whatever means necessary. Our authors unmoored their lonely boats and sailed off into possibility, Sharpie-ing out Wikipedia pages, purchasing desk plants to increase productivity, drinking bottles of water to stay hydrated as they added constraint after constraint to their sweaty barbells. So settle into your nest of scraps and find some additional insulation; your prayers have been answered. The five-alarm fire next door is the most brilliant shade of orange you’ve ever seen.

Time Ages in a Hurry by Antonio Tabucchi

A head’s-up about the forthcoming release of Time Ages in a Hurry by Antonio Tabucchi (currently April 14, 2015). There are reviews at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and an excerpt at Guernica.

I feel like Tabucchi could stand to have more coverage in English. As the Complete Review shows, his books have been translated for some time, and lately there has been new energy around him, as a lot of his titles have been re-issued or re-translated in the past years, and will continue to be appearing down the line. While he has gotten some hits in larger-scale venues, he hasn’t really gotten a lot of love in the prestige periodicals in the U.S. (notably, though, both the LRB and the TLS have covered him recently).

If You Love Something, Write A Good Review About It

Wow, everything about this review of Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces just makes me want to cry. And I do mean everything, from the beyond clichéd title to pretty much everything the critic tries to say about this book.

There are various circles of hell for bad critics. There’s the “criticized this lasagne for not being a chicken sandwich,” when a critic takes a book to task for not doing something it never wanted to do. There’s the “talks about him/herself instead of the book.” And then there’s what I think is the greatest sin of all, which is making a book you loved sound difficult and boring and just plain loathsome.

Critics have a responsibility, which is to be able to communicate what you love about a book, in non-clichéd terms that serve the author and that inspire the reader to connect with a work of art that you love. In everything a critic writes, you should always be striving to do this. And if you can’t—or won’t—get out of the way and let somebody else do that job.

What happens in this review is pretty much the opposite of what should happen. The first three paragraphs are solely about the critic telling you how difficult it is to articulate why he likes Thus Were Their Faces. Okay, I know that some books are easier to discuss than others. And it is true—Silvina Ocampo (like most great writers) frustrates easy summation. But your job as a critic is to find that language—not spend 3 self-obsessed paragraphs explaining why you can’t find the language. Anyone who doesn’t already know who Silvina is has stopped reading by this point.

Things gets worse. The critic brings out just about every possible “difficult literature” trope to make this book sound way over the head of just about everybody. Moreover, a lot of this review sounds like a first draft, like the entire paragraph where he likens reading Silvina to falling in love, or when he explains how her stories “trouble the binary between fantasy and reality.” Couldn’t you say the same for just about everything written by Silvina and her circle in Buenos Aires? Shouldn’t you make the effort to go deeper into this writer’s prose so that you can do justice to this artistry that you profess to love?

The really sad thing about this review is that the critic actually really, really likes this book, and this seems to be his best effort at getting other people to read it. This is sad. It’s moments such as these when you have to ask yourself exactly what you’re doing here and whether or not you’re really fit for the job at hand. Because I honestly can’t imagine anyone who didn’t already like Silvina reading this review and actually wanting to read this book.

In fairness, I will add that this critic has written nicely about other books previously at the same paper. Which is good, but there’s no excuse for phoning in something like this.

Incidentally, I happened to find this review because I’m writing my own piece on Thus Were Their Faces. Keep an eye out for that one down the line. For those of you who do need to be persuaded to experience this remarkable author, I hope to provide you with those reasons.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 39


Reading Prae

Reading Prae

Ever since its first publication in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae has continued to baffle generations of critics and readers alike. Regarded as a seminal work by some, dismissed as a pretentious monstrosity by others, Prae, Szentkuthy’s first work, was published when the Hungarian author was merely twenty-six years old. To date, the book has never been translated in its entirety into any language, though excerpts appeared in French and Serbo-Croatian in the 1970s, and sections had been translated into German in the 1930s but were never published. It is quite an enterprise, then, on the part of Contra Mundum Press, to commit to publishing Prae, following two other works by Szentkuthy―Marginalia on Casanova and Towards the One and Only Metaphor―all three translated by Tim Wilkinson.

39 Africans Walk into a Bar

39 Africans Walk into a Bar

New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, was: why should I read this?

Reviving Antal Szerb

Reviving Antal Szerb

Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Greene’s Dr. Hasselbacher’s at the beginning of Our Man in Havana: “You should dream more, Mr. Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”


The Valerie Miles Interview

The Valerie Miles Interview

The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual? I wanted to open the door to the intimate space that exists between a writer and his work, and allow his or her readers a glimpse into that space, which under normal circumstances we are never privy to; here’s the text in black and white on the page, bearing witness and available to all of us now, but whose ghostly presence is still there? What is rooted in these extraordinary writers’ imaginations? I wanted the names of the ghosts haunting the blueprint spaces, and that’s why I ask the question “who are your departed?


Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry by Paul Celan

Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry by Paul Celan

Throughout his life, Paul Celan was haunted by the experience of the Shoah, and his later works see him undergoing something analogous to the turn in Heidegger’s thinking. Until the publication of Breathturn (which marks the beginning of Breathturn Into Timestead), Celan was heavily influenced by both traditional poetry from a variety of languages and the surrealists with whom he spent much of his youth. Even his darkest poems, such as the famous “Todsfuge,” or “Deathfugue,” contain an element of metaphorical lightness, a pleasure in the play of images, despite the horror of their content.

‘SSES”‘SSES”“SSEY’ by Chaulky White

In 1990, Kevin White composed a piece of writing called ‘SSES”‘SSES” as his thesis for a master’s degree at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. In it he used the structure of Joyce’s Ulysses as a lens to refract and reflect on his own travels through Asia in search of his (and Derek’s) father, who committed suicide in 1982. ‘SSES”‘SSES”, along with Kevin’s journals and notebooks, came into Derek’s possession when Kevin died of a drug overdose in 1997. Derek describes SSS on what might be page one (as we shall see, where the book begins and ends are not clearly delineated), as “a dilated (+belated) expansion of that book, a deconstructed REDUX w/ further recapitulations by me searching recursively in parallel for: my brother searching for: our father.”

On Being Blue by William H. Gass

On Being Blue by William H. Gass

Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea “wine-dark” and the heavens “bronze.” Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Though few would claim that the Ancient Greeks could not see blue, it has been argued that they had no word for it. This would accord with Guy Deutscher, who says in his 2010 book Through the Looking Glass that there is something strange about blue that generally makes it the last primary color a language names. Perhaps this helps explain the fixation that this color has exerted on English-speakers, a thing the novelist and critic William H. Gass makes extraordinarily clear in his beautiful book-length essay On Being Blue.

B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman

B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman

here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, which then of course becomes a very funny explication of and homage to D.H. Lawrence. Now we must add to this trickster pile J.C. Hallman’s B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, which reads like some gene-spliced combination of the two.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann

This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countryside to be raised by farmers, while she desperately sought publication in order to provide for them. Such adversity is clear in this collection, which involves a series of downtrodden characters that suffer the rough of life more frequently than the smooth.

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedford’s father retained close ties to his former in-laws, and Bedford spent much of her early years shuttling between their luxurious household in Berlin and her father’s Black Forest schloss near the French border. Between these two homes—catching snatches of conversation, stray musings, the outlines of private tragedies—Bedford encountered the textures of a doomed era, where a fearful aristocracy and a fomenting nationalism converged.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura

The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura

The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an elitist, and a “hopeless reactionary.” Some attacks on the book seemed to be based solely on its title, and others focused only on the last chapter, which lays out recommendations for change. Even for careful, conscientious readers, there may be much to disagree with, particularly in the later sections of the book. But Mizumura makes a compelling case for paying attention to the current state of Japanese and other languages and for considering their future.

Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski

Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski

Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic competence may in fact constitute an act of linguistic imperialism.


The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series

The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series

Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you’d expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we’re still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press’s Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collaboration with the Literary Translation Institute of Korea, was always going to be a welcome endeavor, though there are also niggling doubts: will the books stand on their own merits, or will they require some pre-existing knowledge of Korea to be properly appreciated? Is there some kind of cultural propaganda going on, a desire for “representativeness” that might have skewed the selection process?

The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya


The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya publishes today.

After a quick browse through this, the latest of Horacio Castellanos Moya novels, I’m thinking this might be the best Moya novel to hit the English language since Senselessness. I’ve been a fan of some of the Moyas to appear in the wake of Senselessness, but none of them has really had quite the power and cohesion of that book. This one might be it.

In addition to being Moya’s latest novel in English, it is his latest novel, period, and (I think) the only one he has ever written entirely while living in the U.S. (Hence, perhaps the title.) The book has gotten good looks in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly,

On the subject of Moya, I was also intrigued to see an excerpt from a (forthcoming?) translation of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador in Harper’s. This is one I read in Spanish a while ago, and while I’m glad to see it may be arriving in English, it’s not one of the Moyas that I’d ever say needed to be translated.

Some Thoughts on Ferrante


I’ve been working my way through Elena Ferrante’s three translated Neapolitan novels for an interview with editor Michael Reynolds and translator Ann Goldstein, and some things are beginning to crystallize in my mind.

I think one of the things that makes these books fascinating is how Ferrante is able to make her narrator, Lenú, into a sort of Levi Strauss-ian anthropologist of her world; namely, Italy’s South during the ’50s and ’60s. No doubt that much of the success of these books also rests in the fact that this world is one that has been the source of much mystery, mystification, and fascination. In other words, it’s a romantic, inherently interesting world that has a very strong capacity to draw people in. It’s no coincidence that it has been the source of much of the Italian New Wave’s greatest cinema.

As a young, intelligent, independent woman born to working class parents, Lenú has a lot of credibility as an observer of this world, and she’s able to make strong insights on the various social strata. Obviously she’s strongest when viewing other working class people such as herself, but Ferrante is able to make her life cross paths with the local power brokers, various outsider families, the upwardly mobile, the middle class, and the dispossessed.

In fact, the more one reads the Neapolitan novels, the more one realizes just how massive a canvass it is that Ferrante paints on, and this may be the books’ best achievement. Here, for instance, are two pages from the sizable dramatis personæ the publisher has (wisely) chosen to place at the front of Book 2.

I think this massiveness plays into Ferrante’s strengths. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I don’t find her overpowering. She doesn’t tend to write aphoristically, and her books are not brimming with insightful observations by the narrator or the people she happens to talk to. The insightful qualities to these books (and they are there) come systemically, rising up from the fabric of the story itself, most palpably in the form of the innumerable interlacing subplots that populate these books. Ferrante’s key strength is taking Lenú on an anthropological tour of her society without making it look anything like that. It’s really anthropology disguised as a massive, entertaining novel.

One of the key aspects of the society that Ferrante is leading us through is the gender dynamics. This is a famously important part of life in Italy’s South. Here’s an example of how this looks on the page, when Lila gets back from her honeymoon, having been savagely beaten on her wedding night.

While this sort of this abounds in the Neapolitan novels, it goes beyond the stereotypical men beating their wives for their own good, and the wives implicitly partnering up to this arrangement. Ferrante touches on something almost tragic about it, something that I would say approaches the qualities of fate and legend. This is embodied in the character Lila, the best friend of the narrator, who is everything she is not: fiery, beautiful, genius, independent. Being from a working class family, Lila marries up (and, incidentally, Ferrante does very interesting things around what the institution of marriage represents for these women), and when she does get married it’s almost like a biblical fall. Fittingly, it is the climactic scene at the end of Book 1, and one of the strangest scenes in the series. Lila marries for dodgy motives that are not really her own; she’s almost badgered into it, variously by her own family and by the young men who are at her like a bunch of sharks. It’s almost as though marriage is a trap that women like Lila and Lenú will inevitably fall into, simply by the time and place in which they are born.

And then, in Book 2, you start to see Lila change completely. One of the fascinating things about Book 2 is wondering if Lila really has changed, or if these changes are just the way that her verve and independence manage to preserve themselves while trapped in a violent and patriarchal institution. Along with Lenú, we, the readers, have to try and figure Lila out. Similarly, Ferrante shows us the challenge Lenú and Lila face in attempting to determine just who is the man Lila has married.

This is another thing you feel very close to in the Neapolitan novels—this constant activity of trying to figure out everybody, to get beyond the impressions that they reveal in conversation and figure out who they really are. This question may come across most powerfully in Lila and her husband, but it’s everywhere in these books. this really drives home the quality of gossip that exists in this society, its function and forms and its power.

What one also begins to appreciate is the immense power of symbols and signs in this society. One of the books’ major subplots deals with a pair of shoes that Lila designs (this is the trade of her family). She wants to bring the shoes to market, and she makes a prototype, but she can’t begin to mass produce them or sell them without help. This is part of her motive for marrying her husband, who has access to money. But his money is inextricably tied to the Solara family, the resident bad seeds, whose young sons relentlessly torment Lila with sexual advances and romantic overtures. So, when on Lila’s wedding we see the eldest Solara son walk into the reception wearing the very shoes the Lila entrusted to her fiancé, it basically ends the marriage right when it starts.

This is an extreme example, but the importance of signals like this go right down to the smallest of facial expressions, glimpsed moments, sidelong glances, incidental remarks. Ferrante’s ability to weave them right into the story, and also into the texture of her people and their society, is really brilliant. It’s no small part of the anthropological power of these books, and also what lets her push these relationships toward tragedy and legend. In his piece on Ferrante, James Wood quotes her as saying that “she likes to write narratives ‘where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts—the facts of ordinary life—are extraordinarily gripping when read,'” and this is exactly what you receive in the Neapolitan novels. She is able to imbue these facts with so much weight and narrative resonance that they do become gripping.

And by the middle of Book 2, so many of these facts have begun to pile up on Lenú that it is overpowering. She’s still a teenager, but the pressures places upon her life are savage—trying to help Lila salvage her marriage, navigating her own romantic entanglements, maintaining her grades in school, staying out of trouble with the Solaras. It goes on and on. And again, I think this points us toward the supreme complexity that many have agreed is Ferrante’s trademark as a writer. It is almost—almost—too much to take as a reader.

Just to say a few words about Ferrante’s presentation of marriage, which I alluded to earlier. It is all-but-assumed that women like Lila and Lenú will become housewives. (Despite her brilliance, Lila drops out of school, and despite Lenú’s similar brilliance, she has to beg and plead with her parents to send her.) Once Lila and Lenú begin to develop breasts, the boys descend upon them with a rabidness. Even they put much pressure on themselves to find a suitable mate before they face the fate of being old maids in their mid-twenties. And yet, it’s also just as clear—to us and to them—how nearly impossible it is to marry correctly, when there are so many mixed motives for marrying a man, and when the men prove so inscrutable. Reading these books, one gets the clear sense that it is inevitable that the first marriage will be a mistake, and that any healthy marriage will have to be at least the second one, if not the third. This is a fact of life simply baked into the world in which these women are born. I think the presentation of this—subtly, sympathetically, and without lodging blame at any one gender or institution—is one of Ferrante’s most interesting statements about gender, and does much of the work of pushing these books toward having a distinct feminist viewpoint. Revealing the immense complexity of what marriage is to these people, yet still managing to make us sympathize with the female viewpoint, feels to me one of the things that is freshest about the gender politics of these books.

Me Elsewhere

A few things of mine that have run lately.

1. An interview with Jeremy Davies, author of the new novel Fancy and editor with Dalkey Archive Press.

2. An audio interview with Karen Emmerich on Greek literature and her experiences translating it.

3. The Greatest Unreliable Narrator Ever?

4. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, translated and with an introduction by Joel Agee

I love the classics, so it’s fantastic to see NYRB releasing a new translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, translated and with an introduction by Joel Agee.

Pretty fantastic stuff:

Prometheus Bound is the starkest and strangest of the classic Greek tragedies, a play in which god and man are presented as radically, irreconcilably at odds. It begins with the shock of hammer blows as the Titan Prometheus is shackled to a rock in the Caucasus. This is his punishment for giving the gift of fire to humankind and for thwarting Zeus’s decision to exterminate the human race. Prometheus’s pain is unceasing, but he refuses to recant his commitment to humanity, to whom he has also brought the knowledge of writing, mathematics, medicine, and architecture. He hints that he knows how Zeus will be brought low in the future, but when Hermes demands that Prometheus divulge his secret, he refuses and is sent spinning into the abyss by a divine thunderbolt.

To whom does humanity look for guidance: to the supreme deity or to the rebel Titan? What law controls the cosmos? Prometheus Bound, one of the great poetic achievements of the ancient world, appears here in a splendid new translation by Joel Agee that does full justice to the harsh and keening music of the original Greek.

And check out this history of the publisher NYRB Classics.

Adventures In Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher

I wanted to throw a little attention toward Adventures In Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher. I haven’t had time to read this book yet, but I’m going to. It has a lot going for it—first of all, Daniel Medin speaks highly of it, which is a high endorsement. Secondly, it is the final book to be translated by the late Michael Henry Heim, which makes it very much of note.

And check out this biography:

Max Blecher’s father was a successful Jewish merchant and the owner of a porcelain shop. Blecher attended primary and secondary school in Roman, Romania.[1] After receiving his baccalaureat, Blecher left for Paris to study medicine. Shortly thereafter, in 1928, he was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis (Pott’s disease) and forced to abandon his studies. He sought treatment at various sanatoriums: Berck-sur-Mer in France, Leysin in Switzerland and Tekirghiol in Romania.[2] For the remaining ten years of his life, he was confined to his bed and practically immobilized by the disease. Despite his illness, he wrote and published his first piece in 1930, a short story called “Herrant” in Tudor Arghezi’s literary magazine Bilete de papagal.[3] He contributed to André Breton’s literary review Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution and carried on an intense correspondence with the foremost writers and philosophers of his day such as André Breton, André Gide, Martin Heidegger, Illarie Voronca, Geo Bogza, Mihail Sebastian, and Sașa Pană.[4] In 1934 he published Corp transparent, a volume of poetry.

In 1935, Blecher’s parents moved him to a house on the outskirts of Roman[5] where he continued to write until his death in 1938 at the age of 28. During his lifetime he published two other major works, Întâmplări în irealitate imediată (Adventures in Immediate Irreality) and Inimi cicatrizate (Scarred Hearts), as well as a number of short prose pieces, articles and translations. Vizuina luminată: Jurnal de sanatoriu (The Lit Up Burrow: Sanatorium Journal) was published posthumously in part in 1947 and in full in 1971.

Herta Müller’s introduction to Adventures In Immediate Irreality is available at The White Review.

Here is the review in Kirkus. And here is the review in The Literary Review.

What Book Would You Read 100 Times?

I’m a little bit intrigued by Stephen Marche’s idea that some books can hold up to being read 100 times or more. This seems like something I’m dangerously close to actually attempting. Although, this could make for a strange project—at 3 reads per year, this would take 34 years. Even at a rather brisk 10 reads per year, that would still be 10 years—not exactly insignificant. What if 5 years in you decided that this book didn’t actually hold up to 100 reads?

I’m curious to know which books you all would actually try this with. Keep in mind practicalities—what I want are books you think this could really work for. After all, we all can probably think up a laundry list of 500-page books wisdom literature that would sustain some pretty heavy intellectualizing, or just plain crazy stuff like Gravity’s Rainbow, but a lot of these just wouldn’t work out on a practical level (if I read GR 10 times per year, I wouldn’t read much else, which would either be really cool or ruin my life).

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