Category Archives: Uncategorized

13 Pounds of Literature

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Bottom’s Dream is coming, September 23 to be exact. Written by the major postwar German author Arno Schmidt, it is 1500 pages long, measures 11 x 14, and weighs 13 pounds. It is almost surely the largest work of literature yet released this millennium, and it is described as an unreadable work of pure genius on par with Finnegans Wake.

Per The New York Times,

That book is in some sense Schmidt’s response to “Finnegans Wake”; it is a sprawling novel about a brief period, from 4 A.M. to early the next morning, outwardly centered on a discussion of that American father of European modernism, Edgar Allan Poe. Written in three columns and published only as a facsimile of an idiosyncratic typography designed by the author, the “Dream” represents the ultimate but untranslatable challenge to any translator.

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It was originally published in 1970, and the title is a reference to the character Bottom from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Per the Complete Review, it contains 2,225,000 words, which, if correct, would make it approximately 4 times the length of War and Peace.

John Woods, one of the great German translators of our time, is the one who has brought it into English. At a pay rate of 10 cents per word, Woods would have earned in excess of $200,000 for this translation.

Kafka’s Fourth Novel and Other Lost Treasures

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There was some major news today when Israel’s high court ruled that a cache of Kafka’s writings was to be made public for the first time in history.

Israel’s supreme court has ruled that Franz Kafka’s manuscripts are the property of the National Library of Israel, ending a lengthy legal battle, judicial sources said in Monday.

The nation’s top court on Sunday rejected an appeal by the heirs of Max Brod, a friend of Kafka and the executor of his estate to whom he had willed his manuscripts after his death in 1924.

This ignited a lot of excitement today on social media over what kinds of Kafkaesque treasures might await us readers, but sadly there will be little of any interest to the common reader interested solely in literary works. For those who are intrigued by Kafka’s life and want to know more about what he thought and how he lived, there will probably be many things of interest.

Sadly, the true literary Kafka treasure horde is likely lost forever. As Reiner Stach details in Kafka: The Years of Insight, it was Dora Diamant, a Pole nearly half Kafka’s age whom he fell in love with and lived with in Berlin in the last months of his life before dying of tuberculosis, who received the precious notebooks Kafka made during his last months on Earth. Sadly, these were seized by the Gestapo and have been lost:

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These writings likely included many literary works that Kafka had attempted while he lived in Berlin with Diamant during the Weimer hyperinflation, of which all we today have are three late works: “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk,” “The Burrow,” and “A Little Woman.”

The lost literary writings destroyed by the Gestapo also include a lengthy work that Kafka was inspired to write by a little girl and that, had it been found, could have plausibly made a fourth and last novel:

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The release of Kafka’s writings by the Israeli court has also led to some outcry that Kafka intended that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn all of his work, so we should not be reading any of these pieces, in addition to virtually everything Kafka published during his lifetime. Here is what Kafka asked of his friend:

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While these statements appear conclusive, Kafka’s own actions provide some doubt. One should remember that Kafka attempted to pursue many courses of action during his life that made no logical sense and that were in fact impossible; some of these he lived long enough to regret and see the error of. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Kakfa would have had a legal right to prevent re-printing of many of the works of his that he published in his lifetime, in accordance with the wishes above. Moreover, Brod made it very clear to his friend that he found his writing of the greatest literary value and that he would under no circumstances burn it or rescind its publication. Despite this, Kafka continued to keep Brod as his executor and made no efforts to destroy his writings himself when it became clear that he was in declining health and would soon die.

Interesting New Books — August 2016

Here are a few new releases for the month of August 2016 that have caught my eye. All of these, and many, many more new releases, can be found on my Interesting New Books — 2016 page.

Peacock & Vine by A. S. Byatt August 2. Sounds like a genre-breaking book from Byatt.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin August 2. Seems like a pretty good cultural moment to reset the Patty Hearst story.

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin August 9. A volume of Döblin’s stories has never appeared in English before.

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane Aug 9. Polygamous fiction from Mozambique. How can you not?

The Frontier Within: Essays by Kobo Abe August 9. If you think Murakami’s the Japanese master of the surreal, read some Kobo Abe.

Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar August 9. Cortázar is always money.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm August 16. Graywolf does some of the best creative nonfiction in the biz.

Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano Aug 23. More Modiano, always good.

Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto Aug 23. If you’ve got a favorite living Latin American author, chances are they’ll tell you to read this book ASAP.

Against Translation: Displacement Is the New Translation by Kenneth Goldsmith Aug 23. I’ve got my doubts about this one, but I want to give it a fair shot. Though, $49 paperback isn’t gonna happen.

Interviews on The Surrender

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Over the past couple weeks, two interviews with me on The Surrender have been published.

The first is with my good friend Emma Ramadan, translator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta, among many other things, and soon-to-be bookstore co-proprietor (in Prividence, RI). Here’s the interview.

I could dress as I wished in private, and I could enjoy the sensations and textures that are not possible with men’s clothing. I derived benefits from this, but so much of one’s personality is only unlocked when you are in public and able to interact with other people. It goes back to what I said before about meaning being social: what does it mean to be a good person or a bad person, or generous, or crafty, or wicked, or kind, if there is no one for you to interact with? Can you be mean if there is no one and nothing to be mean to? These traits only assume their full meaning in the presence of a society. Well, my sense of myself as masculine or feminine is the same. My appearance can only signify to the world what I am if there is someone out there to signify to.

And the wonderful journalist and soon-to-be-author Tobias Carroll interviewed me for Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

The first time I encountered part of The Surrender was when “The Last Redoubt” appeared in The White Review. It’s located in the middle of the book here, and I’m curious – when you wrote it, did you already know that it was part of a larger whole?

No, I had no idea! When I originally wrote “The Last Redoubt,” I thought this would be all that I wanted to say in writing on the matter of my gender, crossdressing, etc. But then, after I finished the essay and published it, I found that it had enabled me to think about new questions that had never been possible before for me. So as I began working through these new questions that “The Last Redoubt” had opened up, I realized that this essay was actually the hinge of a much larger set of questions that I could investigate about myself. Thus, I began writing The Surrender.

And, in fact, now that The Surrender has been published I am finding that the same thing is happening all over again. . . .

We Are Entering a Prolonged Period of Slow Growth

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The 20th-century was a once-in-a-species-lifetime aberration and the 21st century will be one of prolonged slow growth.

That is essentially what gets said in William D. Nordhaus’s NYRB review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon. In this, it echoes many of the things said in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The message of Rise and Fall is this. For most of human history, economic progress moved at a crawl. According to the economic historian Bradford DeLong, from the first rock tools used by humanoids three million years ago, to the earliest cities ten thousand years ago, through the Middle Ages, to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, living standards doubled (with a growth of 0.00002 percent per year). Another doubling took place over the subsequent period to 1870. Then, according to standard calculations, the world economy took off.

From later in the same essay:

The last chapter of the book suggests that the US faces major “headwinds” that will continue to drag down living standards relative to underlying productivity growth. In Gordon’s account, these headwinds are rising inequality, poor-quality education, the aging population, and rising government debt. Gordon forecasts that average growth in real income per person over the next quarter-century will be 0.7 percent per year—even lower than the 1.3 percent per year in the 2000–2015 period. If inequality continues to grow, this might lead to declining incomes of the bottom part of the distribution—and therefore to true Spenglerian decline. I emphasize that these forecasts are highly speculative and contingent on many economic, fiscal, and demographic forces.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

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Lorrie Moore has long been known to me as one of the “name” authors of American fiction, one of a very select group of fiction writers who could probably live off her writing alone, a fixture of major anthologies, the likes of The New Yorker, and major American awards. So, in other words, everything that would scream out to me “mediocrity” or at least “careerist” (it generally amounts to the same thing). In the case of Moore, however, I know that she is very esteemed by some critics whose opinions I take very seriously, so I’ve always meant to read her. And of course, there are authors like Marilynne Robinson or Don DeLillo who have managed to produce extraordinary writing from within the confines of enormous mainstream success.

Lorrie Moore’s first novel, Anagrams, mixes aspects of experimental and realist fiction. It is composed of five self-contained sections of fairly conventional storytelling. The experimental aspect of this book is in the fact that these five sections are “anagrams” of each other. The names of the three main characters are always the same, but their various traits, afflictions, hopes, and failures are shuffled around so that each time we are presented with three distinct, not-previously seen, people.

The five parts of this book are thus related in the sense of words that are anagrams for one another. Already an implicit question is raised: is there any deeper relationship between “refer” and “freer” than between two random words, just because they happen to contain the same letters? Might we imagine reasons why some anagrams have stronger connections than others? Similarly, is there some deeper relevance between the five parts of Anagrams? Are all solitary, lonely, depressed lives connected to some extent? Or is each middling life painful in ways that have nothing to do with the others?

There is another stylistic quirk to this book. It is broken into two sections, the first of which contains four separate pieces that look and feel like short stories. With a little imagination they might even fit together in certain ways to tell a whole story. These 4 comprise about 60 pages of Anagrams. Then, section two (it is separated from section one by its own epigraphs) is made up of one long narrative of approximately 150 pages, and which feels like a novella. No explanation is ever given for the relative lengths of the parts or why they are presented as they are, although the individual pieces are numbered 1 through 5, giving some impression that we are to take the book as a whole.

Anagrams is always narrated from the first-person perspective of Benna, a wry, single, mid-thirties woman beginning to feel adrift in life and starting to worry that she will have to live through her middle age—and probably her whole life—alone. She has friends Gerard and Eleanor who are similarly rudderless in their thirties. They all work the degrading, dead-end jobs of the over-educated, underemployed lower-middle-class, and they generally have artistic inclinations, sometimes nurturing false and fragile beliefs that they will one day graduate into an artistic career.

Benna, Gerald, and Eleanor remind me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night (and which Moore either paraphrases or re-discovers in Anagrams): essentially, Fitzgerald said that his two protagonists, Dick and Nicole Diver, had all the sensitivity of great artists but none of the talent. So they were essentially stuck in a “neither here nor there” of emotion—capable of experiencing profound sentiments, but incapable of ever articulating them in a satisfying way. They even have pretensions to being artists, but of course they fail.

It is this ever-present theme in Benna’s own fresh voice that gives the most continuity and originality to this book. Her narration is cynical and clenched, there are lots of wry observations on the nature of mainstays of bourgeois American life, like yard sales, telemarketers, diners, lounge acts in budget hotels. Benna’s voice seems committed to assaulting a reader with the general tawdriness of people who lead empty lives but try to convince themselves that things are really richer and more exciting than they are. On the other hand, Benna’s voice shows a softer side in its bemusement with bad puns, stale jokes, and the like, plus its occasional sentimental observations on life. Benna has a kind of everywoman wisdom about her—she speaks lofty truths, but they are always couched in the down-to-earth language of the everyday. In the hands of a weaker writer this might easily be condemned as cleverness, but Moore manages to strike the right balance between the high and the low, creating something that feels authentic: “‘It’s not that men fear intimacy,’ I said to Eleanor. ‘It’s that they’re hypochondriacs of intimacy: They always think they have it when they don’t.'”

Each individual Benna—as well as the cumulative Benna across the book’s five sections—is complex and interesting as a narrator. You can never quite trust her. In one story Benna observes that Eleanor “took our mutual mediocrity harder than I did,” although it’s not clear that this is true. Benna seems to take it pretty hard herself, and she seems to disdain Eleanor’s efforts to have some kind of artistic breakthrough in the way that bespeaks self-hatred. Later in that same story Benna tells herself, “It’s not that I wanted to be married. It’s that I wanted a Marriage Equivalent, although I never knew exactly what that was, and often suspected that there was really no such thing.” Much of the tension of this story comes from the fact that Benna may in fact want a marriage (not just a Marriage Equivalent), and is just unable to let herself know that—after all, she lives in an apartment across the hall from a man she seems to be in love with yet whom she never honestly communicates with.

“The Nun of That” is obviously Anagrams’ showpiece. It is the only part of the book where Moore breaks from first-person: Benna is an adjunct professor at a California college, and most of the activity in her classes is told from the third-person, albeit with plenty of free indirect discourse into Benna’s head. This is a satisfying and fairly subtle way to break up Benna’s first-person narration, which might have otherwise gotten a little onerous over 150 pages. Notably, Benna narrates “The Nun of That” in the present tense, which gives her narration a sort of breathless, optimistic quality, whereas the teaching sections are in the past tense, making them read as much darker and more pessimistic.

The most interesting device in “The Nun of That” is that Eleanor is now Benna’s imaginary friend, and Benna also has an imaginary daughter named Georgianne (these aren’t spoilers, as these facts are revealed very early on). However, their imaginary nature is referenced so seldom that a reader is lulled into thinking they are real people, which makes it all the more damning when something happens to remind a reader of the fact that they are figments of Benna’s immense loneliness. Also the fact that Benna may be mentally ill is completely downplayed throughout “The Nun of That,” which seems far more poignant and interesting of a way to do it than to make this aspect of her more clearly defined. The overall effect of “The Nun of That” is tragicomedy on virtually every page: Benna’s voice is irrepressible and often very funny and entertaining, but it’s impossible to get away from the fact of the situation of her life, which is chronically depressing in the extreme. It’s a very schizoid kind of narrative consciousness, one where two powerful and irreconcilable personalities are present sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph.

In the end, I have a hard time saying what exactly Anagrams is about, other than disintegrating relationships and lonely people. I think it’s perhaps a sort of hymn to bourgeois America—its ugly beauty—as well as an examination of why people reach a guarded sort of adulthood from which they are inherently incapable of making the kinds of deep connections that are easier to come by in one’s more naïve 20s. It always seems like the right elements are present for a happy ending in Anagrams, but things never manage to turn out that way—its letters can spell out words, they just always end up combining in ways that refuse one another.

Something Like the Argentine Stoner

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Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, first came to my attention in 2009, when I asked Sergio Chejfec to recommend a title for Translate This Book! Chejfec’s recommendation ended with these unequivocal words:

I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven’t read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification.

For years, it seemed, Esther Allen was working on the English-language translation of Zama. It will at last be released next month.

Ever since I first heard of this book in 2009, it has been in the back of my mind as an important thing to read. I received an advance copy from the publisher last week. I do my best to retain my fidelity and monogamy as a reader, so when I got my copy of Zama, my first instinct was to do what I would do with any promising title: put it in the proper stack and make it wait its turn. But then I tweeted a photo of the book.

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And before I knew it I was besieged with enthusiastic responses by some of the best Latin American writers:

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So, I couldn’t help myself. Fidelity be damned. I just went ahead and read it.

At some point near the end, it seemed to me that Zama might be described as something like an Argentine Stoner. I know, comparisons like this are tough, but stay with me. The book was written in the 1950s by di Benedetto, and it looks back to the late 18th century, when Buenos Aires was a colonial seat of power, and the land that would become Paraguay was a distant province. Zama is a bureaucrat there, always hoping that he will soon be promoted, be given his back pay (he is kept penurious by the distant king that only deigns to pay his bureaucrats infrequently), and be allowed to move back into proximity of his beloved wife and mother. With some comedy and much tragedy, di Benedetto shows how all of Zama’s hopes come to naught. His life is very much like that of a fish that he describes on the book’s second page:

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Along the way, Zama has strange encounters with the powers that be and the women of the colonies. Everything occurs through a screen of 18th-century manners and propriety. At length, he meets his end as tragically and ineffectually as he has lived his wife.

I think the elements, from the tragic life of a bureaucrat hoping to survive to the historical era and the feel of the book, makes Stoner at least a decent point of reference. Of course, this book was written by an Argentine, not an American, and it takes place in colonial Paraguay, not the Midwest, so there are some considerable differences.

And of course, there is the fact that Zama is a powerful novel. It stands entirely on its own. As Chejfec says, it is unique. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything.

Beyond that, what I might also tell you is that the book is quite strange and elusive. It is a “realist” novel that mostly concerns itself with the day-to-day life of its protagonist, but di Benedetto hides profound existential concerns in the texture of his prose, and at times it swings into very bizarre territory. The writing here is amazingly well controlled and measured; so much can turn on a phrase or a sentence of this book. This is writing that is 100% muscle, or, at least, 0% fat, 100% economy and purpose. Much praise is due to Esther Allen for making this book feel so sharp and elusive, for giving di Benedetto’s sentences such a penetrating power, and also for implementing archaic words and terms of the era with consummate skill—it is a translation that feels new and old all at once, and in the appropriate ways. She even manages to make an important pun toward the end accessible to a reader with no Spanish-language knowledge without belaboring the matter.

This is a book that I could see myself reading many times, and always profiting from, seeing it each time as if was reading a whole other book. If my words don’t sway you, look at all the words above of the authors who swayed me. Read it. Zama has been worth waiting 7 years for.

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

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As a friend of mine put it recently, I can’t exactly say I “enjoyed” The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, even though I recognize the genius. Although I would say the following words in conjunction with it: disturbed, fascinated, moved, revolted, admired. I laughed at times. It was never dull.

I hope to write a little more about this strange book and strange author in this space. For the moment, I would say that this is an interesting view of Naples to read in conjunction with Ferrante (and I believe both authors observe, across a gap of 60 years, that Naples is the future of Europe). And just a plain interesting view of Naples, Italy, the Second World War, and America.

The Surrender at Full-Stop

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A very, very on-point review of The Surrender at Full-Stop by John Trefry. So much has Trefry said about this book that accords with my own ideas about it, and that also enlarges upon them in ways that feel new to me, that I don’t quite know how to summarize my response, other than to just encourage you to read it.

In particular, I think the readings via Alta Ifland’s poetry and Marcel Bénabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books are inspired, and I would say that this very well accords with what I have tried to do in the book.

The matter of The Surrender is necessarily biographical, but even inasmuch as this is narrative-based, Esposito does not quite submit to that as a form. The text exists far more in the digressive temporality of Tristram Shandy or Austerlitz than a mainstream biographical memoir. Every book functions as the distillate of nonverbal cognitive fields into text. But the productivity of some books is predicated on that function. A book like The Surrender that is so much about the proper fit of a word scrim over an entire life of cognitive fields cannot avoid being an unrecognizable oversimplification when measured against the digressive and ephemeral intrusion of fleeting thoughts and stimuli that every instant consider who you are, what articulates your identity, what precipitates the thought itself. While such thoughts accrete, they form the identity, and are so voluminous, so recursive, and of such a fine grain as to be undetectable, but always accreting. All the same, if the only possible manifestation is something more like the twilit scrawl of an absent skater on a frozen pond, The Surrender is very effective.

You can get The Surrender from me at this link, or from Small Press Distribution right here.

The Doctrine of Deteriorating Translations

An interesting discovery (among many) in Derrida’s Breakfast by David Brooks.

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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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