Category Archives: Uncategorized

That Karl Ove, Don’t Count Him Out Quite Yet


It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for me and Karl Ove. After Books 1 and 2 I was prepared to read virtually anything he had ever committed to paper. This guy was hitting all of my thematic sweet spots, he could tell stories like a bad ass, and there were plenty of beautiful sentences to linger over.

And then came Books 3 and 4—yes, they’re entertaining and have got their strong points, but I couldn’t help but begin to doubt if the whole idea of My Struggle was misconceived, some kind of ultimate dare/”seemed like a good idea at the time” that just wasn’t going to work as literature. The middle books just seemed to lack a lot of the internal cohesion and depth that made 1 and 2 so satisfying, and there was a clear drop off in the quality of the prose. I honestly had to wonder if I shouldn’t just stop right here and preserve the good memories between my and My Struggle before things started to get really ugly.

And now here we are with Book 5, which is frankly one of the better novels of a writer’s/young man’s struggles for maturity that I can remember reading in quite a while. There is some real darkness here, but it feels very authentic and honestly won. Karl Ove gains a lot of complexity as a character in this book, and one has to give Knausgaard a lot of credit for the things about himself that he’s willing to put onto the page here. In his honesty and courage as an older man writing about himself, it presents an implicit rebuke to a lot of the childish imbecility he exhibited during his twenties.

It’s not just that: in this volume you can really begin to see how the project as a whole syncs up. Books 3 and 4 begin to make a lot more sense; their place and what Knausgaard does in them start to seem a lot more necessary than would have been the case without the benefit of Book 5. You start to see how Knausgaard’s major themes have been circulating through the entire project, and how this saga is about certain evils that have been with him his entire life, things that are being projected onto the page in multiple registers and engaging with a lot of different emotions. And I believe that Book 5 is the first instance of Knausgaard re-telling an already-narrated scene from the book (no spoilers yet!), and doing it in a way that communicates a lot for how differently it looks on the page in Book 5 and its function in this narrative, versus where we have already seen it.

I’ve spent most of the past six months engaged in writing a book, and so I’ve been necessarily keeping most major essayistic work at arm’s length. But Book 5 is beginning to lure me toward something. I think there’s a lot to say here, and I’m going to try to find the time to say it.

The Surrender


Erica Mena, who is the publisher of Anomalous Press, has just finished pressing the cover of The Surrender (which you can see above). This edition is going to be limited to 100 copies, so if you’d like to own it, you should pre-order through their Kickstarter.

I should also mention that Anomalous is a really interesting, really important new press, and without it this book wouldn’t exist. I really do owe a lot to Erica encouraging me to write this book, and to her for giving it a good home. I imagine the other authors on Erica’s list would say similar things, so I think it would be great to support their work.

I’m hoping to have some more blog posting about recent books I’ve read up soon. It’s been a busy week.

Eight Questions for Adrian Nathan West on Fortuny by Pere Gimferrer


A rather strange book by a rather strange Catalan writer has just been published in English by Godine in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. The book is Fortuny, and it is the closest thing to a novel Pere Gimferrer has written, despite publishing some 50 books.

I emailed Nate eight questions on this strange book and its strange writer, who, according to one of his friends “writes like Proust.” We talked about just who Fortuny was, why (and how) to write a book novel him, and what this book contributes to American letters at the moment.

Nate previously wrote about Michel Houellebecq in The Quarterly Conversation, and we’ll be publishing a translation of his from a novel by the experimental Spanish author Germán Sierra in the next issue.

Scott Esposito: Pere Gimferrer is the author of some 50 titles. So why did you want to translate this one?

Adrian Nathan West: Years ago, my college French professor, who is still a good friend, said, “There’s a Catalan who writes like Proust.” I didn’t catch Gimferrer’s name at the time, because this person is constantly making recommendations and foisting books off on me, but what he said stuck in my head, and a few years later, I asked him about it again. At the time, I knew nothing of Gimferrer’s work, and I think the Catalan original was out of print, because I had to order a used copy that was old and fairly expensive. I thought the book was marvelous: it’s very challenging, because his Catalan is almost its own language, full of archaisms, unusual variants, and words that are just shy of inexistent, but I enjoy that sort of thing (I only hope others do too, since I’ve tried to mirror that in the translation). This book is special among Gimferrer’s work in that it’s the closest thing to a novel proper, and there is little like it in English: maybe Ruskin, maybe Virginia Woolf in The Waves, but Ruskin is bombastic and Woolf’s sensuality has a warmth and psychological depth that are intentionally absent in Fortuny. I translated the first chapter in early 2013 and was fortunate enough that an editor I showed it to ended up at Godine and wanted to do the book. In the meantime, I did publish a book of his poetry, Alma Venus, with Antilever, but Fortuny was my introduction to his work.

SE: Looking around, the names I see in conjunction with Gimferrer are names like Proust, Claude Simon, Luis de Góngora. Could you give some sense of this author’s context?

ANW: There’s an essay by Bolaño where he talks about winning the Rómulo Gallegos Prize and he calls Gimferrer to ask him where the Venezuelan author had lived in Barcelona, because Gimferrer “knows everything and has read everything.” Having just met him the other day, I can confirm that he gives such an impression, though I did manage to find two writers he didn’t know—Cristina Campo and Harold Nicolson, two favorites of mine. He reads in seven or eight languages and has written in four, and could talk for hours about Ariosto, Dickinson, or Bolaño. If you are looking for direct influences, the writer whose impress I see most clearly in his work is Góngora, particularly in regards to this trick of delayed signification, where discreet and at times seemingly contradictory sensory details accumulate vertiginously and the reader struggles to reconcile them into a concrete image. He’s also written abundantly on film, and his narrative work is deeply cinematic, with episodes framed in the manner of shots married by match cuts and so on. He himself has said that the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship perverted the course of Spanish literature, particularly with regards to the innovations of modernism, and that he has tried, in a sense, to overcome that breach and to write, not as though the war hadn’t occurred, but as though Spain had been able to follow the kind of formal evolution undergone by poetry in, say, England or France. Of course, he’s Catalan as well, and most of his poetry is in Catalan, so there you are dealing with a separate culture and a separate set of influences: the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch, which is one of the great masterpieces of Western literature, and the Valencian poet Ausiàs March, and many other writers who haven’t made it into English.

SE: So the title character of this book, Fortuny, was a real person, quite a cultural force all throughout Europe up until the Second World War. He built stages for Wagner, designed gowns for Condé Nast, was admired by Proust. As you were poring over this text as its translator, what sorts of insights did you get into the question of why write a book based on this individual, and to do it in the way Gimferrer has chosen to?

ANW: To start with, we have to distinguish between the two Fortunys, father and son. Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874) was a painter born in Reus, in Catalonia. Several of the book’s chapters, most notably the first, are in essence prose poems devoted to his paintings, and his grandfather, who sculpted figures in wax, makes a cameo as well. Certainly, there is a desire to bring attention to this key figure of Catalan culture, whom Gimferrer has described in a lecture as one of the first European modernists, despite certain fusty aspects of his style. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo is a different case: here you have a bridge from Wagner to Proust to Orson Welles, a person who excelled in numerous arts and exemplified a special kind of creative dynamism. Gimferrer has said he’d ruminated on the idea of doing a novel for some time, that he had a store of images and threads of plot, and that on a visit to Venice in the early 1980s, he suddenly saw how the dynasty formed by the Fortuny and Madrazo families was the keystone for a story he wished to tell about the artistic spirit from the Belle Époque to the Second World War.

SE This book is composed of many, many little chunks of a page or two, each centering around a different individual or scenario, and many of them deal with great European artists that will be familiar to readers. It’s a little like a pointillist novel, a little of the French New Novel. How radical was it to write a book like this in 1983, when Gimferrer first published it, and what do you think it contributes to Anglo letters now in translation?

ANW: Well, it is very different from anything that was being done in Spanish or Catalan at the time. Of what you might call “experimental” fiction, you had the Latin American writers of the first and second boom, and then in Spain there were figures like Ferlosio, and in Catalan, Pere Calders, Terenci Moix, or Quim Monzó. These are all important writers, but contemporary and a bit edgy, of an extremely different tenor from Pere Gimferrer. On the one hand, Fortuny is formally unusual, but thematically, it is in a kind of time capsule. Whereas something like The Death of Virgil takes a theme from antiquity and imbues it with great vitality, Gimferrer intentionally shows the figures of Fortuny as though dead and covered in dust. This is in part serious and elegiac, and in part an homage to the style of Fortuny y Marsal, whose vivacious brushwork is not devoid of a measure of kitsch. The book had a deep impact at the time of its publication, and was widely hailed as a masterpiece. For an English-speaking reader now, it is, I believe, the best introduction to the themes and style of someone who occupies a position of unquestioned authority in Spanish and Catalan letters; it is an impressionistic history of one of the richest periods of Western arts and letters; and it vindicates a kind of sober, erudite elegance that is in danger of getting lost in English letters amid the fervor for authenticity, in the sense that Lionel Trilling employs the term.

SE: Could you expand on what you mean, about vindicating a kind of elegance that is being lost amid a fervor for authenticity?

ANW: Lionel Trilling makes a distinction between sincerity, which implies a consonance between inner and outer and is inseparable from the moral relation of its possessor to the broader world, and authenticity, which he calls “the unmediated exhibition of the self.” For me, this is important to understanding a great deal about modern art and literature as well as the way various ethical and political discourses are or are not accorded legitimacy. At their best, artists concerned with authenticity rend the fabric of hypocrisy, stress the claims to dignity of people excluded from dominant discourses, and reveal things that cry out to be seen, but are more comfortably ignored. But anything that someone does well, someone else will do badly, and there will always be readers who can’t tell the one from the other. To pick an example of something that arcs more toward authenticity, Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life was timely and heartbreaking and a very laudable book; but alt-lit at its worst betrays a sense that as long as there’s enough violence, drugs, weird sex, and feelings of exclusion, then there’s no need for deliberation, good sentences, or literary culture. Particularly in America, where the stress on authenticity dovetails at times with a widely credited notion that craft means breaking down complicated clauses and cutting adjectives and adverbs, you end up with a huge number of books so uniform as to lead one to despair. There is room for exuberance and risk, for effort and for artifice, and particularly now, when looking things up is easier than ever, there’s no crime in an author’s asking a bit of legwork of the reader.

SE: And to bring it back to Gimferrer, what would you say is Fortuny’s contribution to this authenticity/sincerity (and maybe also craft) issue that you see in American lit?

ANW: It’s an unusual book in that there is an utter absence of psychology, whether with regard to the author himself, who has no voice, or to the characters, whom we see but never hear. From Henry James hitting on the theme of the Aspern papers to D’Annunzio, who sees Eleonora Duse on stage and composes a sonnet in her honor, they are receptacles of very dense impressions and recollections, but their feelings are hidden from us. In this way, the moral as such, and along with it the moral dilemmas that define this sincerity/authenticity dichotomy, are expelled in favor of a vision that may be pre- or post-moral but is in any case thoroughly impressionistic. As regards craft, the prose is immensely polished and lush, but not at all laborious, and is filled with poetic effects which I have tried to reproduce in my version.

SE: Of the many fragments in Fortuny, which are your favorites?

ANW: At the level of diction, I think the first chapter, “The Man in the Turban,” is just short of miraculous. It’s so bewitching, even if you have no idea what’s going on (which was my case when I first read it). It’s a description of several paintings by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: of an odalisque, of a pair of Arabs shoeing a mule, of a battle in Tétouan, and two self-portraits, and of the interior of the Fortuny palace. Gimferrer has stressed many times that there is no need for the reader to chase down every reference, that the important thing is a kind of poetic vigor, but for those so inclined, the book is a treasure chest: every detail in it is based on some kind of real event or drawn from a film, painting, photograph, or play; my editor at Godine and I discussed illustrating the book with some of them, but for various reasons, that fell through. “Visions” is a lovely re-imagining of Proust’s conception of the character Albertine while staring at a Fortuny gown. I also love the moment in “Table Talk” when Fortuny sees himself portrayed in a painting by his father and utters the words, “It’s me,” which I think is the only instance of direct speech in the book.

SE: Other than the anarchisms, etc, that you mentioned at the top of this interview, were there any particular translation challenges to this book?

ANW: It was very difficult and very slow-going, much more so than anything I’ve worked on thus far. The cast of characters is huge, and for my own understanding of the book, I needed to have a sense of who everyone was. The same is true of the artworks, hidden citations, and so on in the text. When Henry James has a vision of a man in an asylum with “greenish skin,” in a sheet of “coarse” linen, this is a quote from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and the translation needed to reflect that; this is one of numerous similar instances. There are myriad poetic effects that needed to be imitated: thus “la nit californiana és àvida, gruixuda, obsedida i eixuta” became “the California night is restive, firm, obsessive, and burned.” And in the Valentino chapter, which is full of alliterated letter Vs, I read almost the whole V section of the OED before settling on the word “vauntmure,” which, believe it or not, doesn’t form part of my everyday vocabulary.

Pre-Order The Surrender

Anomalous Press has issued a Kickstarter to fund its 2016 titles, of which The Surrender is one. You can pre-order the book by funding the Kickstarter—there are lots of various contribution levels to choose from.

If you choose to pre-order, you’ll get the limited letterpress edition (there will be a regular, non-letterpress edition that will be available once these sell out). Anomalous Press books are quite beautiful, so if you do want to read The Surrender I’d recommend trying to get the letterpress.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano


Having just finished Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth, I feel reaffirmed in my earlier judgment of him as a writer: very much what it would be like if an Éric Rohmer film was transformed into literature, a novel that’s made out of bits and pieces that aren’t really novelistic, a book that seems bound together by a desire to talk about something that isn’t very easy to talk about. And also, a book full of moments, phrases, sentiments that are very easily legible as “literary,” that all but cry out for you to underline them and reflect on them.

He is a writer that I never know exactly what to think about. One of the “good” writers who seems most immediately unimpressive, and yet one who rewards—almost requires—re-reading and pondering more than most I can think of. A writer who is clearly doing his own thing, and who makes you fight to say exactly that that thing is.

Modiano published this book in 2007, but it has a very timeless feel to it. The incidents here could have occurred at almost any time after World War II (somehow this book, like seemingly everything Modiano wrote, feels like it’s taken place in the world wrought by the Second World War), even though the book’s biggest cultural signpost, Moulin Rouge, had seen its best days in the Belle Époque. But I suppose that’s all to the scene Modiano is constructing, a belated world whose inhabitants are characterized by a lack of direction, a feeling of missing out on something good.

This is a book about what transpires during one’s youth, and how that contributes to the person you become as an adult, even if what transpires isn’t very much at all. The book opens by depicting the scene at the titular cafe—basically twentysomethings wasting time and finding themselves. In this first chapter, Modiano sets up the rest of the book and describes the lost youths in the process of losing their youth. We very quickly come to understand that the real action is happening elsewhere—vague personal histories and individuals that only make the briefest impressions on what happens in the cafe. One of the group that regularly meets at the cafe takes a sort of roll call, careful to record who comes in to the cafe on each day. A certain person borrows this register, underlining the name of a woman nicknamed Louki in a blue pen. That same woman is also occasionally seen in the company of a mysterious “brown-haired guy in the suede jacket.” The subsequent three chapters, each told from the perspective of one of these three people, will delve into the shadow-life behind the appearances in the cafe.

One character observes of his relationships at the cafe, “we live at the mercy of certain silences.” This is a statement with a degree of truth, but I think that this is mostly his truth, that of a hardened type who doesn’t mind escaping from his past. The others in this book seem to have more ambiguous relationships with these silences, more need to open them up, even as they fear them.

A different individual, the book’s final narrator, is obsessed with black holes, dark matter, and parts of Paris that he calls “neutral zones,” places that aren’t a part of any other place. As the city modernizes and reshapes itself, getting rid of old landmarks and installing new ones, he references the possibility of “end[ing] up without a single reference point in your life.” All the places from one’s youth gone, all the people died or moved away. This seems to be the sort of life he has reached, a life filled with silences, and it is an unhappy one.

This character also obsesses over the idea of eternal return, particularly the image of a beautiful summer, a perfect noon that he would like to live out forever. It’s a different sort of “end[ing] up without a single reference point in your life,” the fantasy version, the happy counterpart to his unhappy real life. This book may be thought of the story of how he got the one and not the other, and why one seems to impossible, the other inevitable.

As a writer, Modiano seems most interested in our relationships to our childhoods, and the way that the society and relationships of our young adulthood make us into the people we become as adults. He seems to be trying to fix the point at which our lives lose the sense of having new possibilities. Not only determining that moment, but also depicting the intangible aspects of that process, and trying and imbue it with a certain sense: a melancholy, dingy, and down to earth heroism and romanticism.

Excerpt from The Surrender


There’s a book that I wrote called The Surrender that will be publishing from Anomalous Press on March 31, 2016. It’s launching at this year’s AWP Conference in Los Angeles, so you can get it at the Anomalous Press booth then, or in bookstores, etc thereafter.

If you would like an advance look at this book, some of The Surrender was excerpted at Entropy yesterday. (I also wrote a little about The Surrender in this post from November).

The book began its existence in the fall of 2014 when I published “The Last Redoubt” with The White Review. At the time I thought that essay was going to be the end, but early in 2015 I was presented with the opportunity to expand that essay into an entire book. So I added an essay that goes before “The Last Redoubt” and one that goes after it, thus forming a triptych of essays. The first essay deals with aspects of my adolescence and young adulthood—basically things leading up to the events depicted in “The Last Redoubt”—and then the third essay deals with the past few years, that is, things that happened after the events in “The Last Redoubt.”

The excerpts found at Entropy come from essay number one. You can read them here.

Translation Issue of The White Review

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Daniel Medin has once again edited a fantastic translation-themed issue of The White Review. You can find the full table of contents here. I’ve got a rundown of some of the highlights below, but before I get to that, thought I’d mention that Daniel and I are collaborating on a little something set to hit later this year. Details forthcoming.

Galina Rymbu: a remarkable young Russian poet (check Music & Literature for a feature on her own the line). “Sex Is a Desert” is an outstanding poem.

Liliana Colanzi: a Bolivian writer who is likely to attract some serious attention over the next couple years. Dalkey will be publishing a collection of her stories this year.

Li Er: Like Can Xue, this author takes Chinese fiction to new places.

Monika Rinck: Along with Uljana Wolf, a very interesting younger poet working in German.

Wioletta Greg: Part of a novella (the title is literally “Unripened Fruit”) that Portobello will be publishing down the line.

Esther Kinsky: She generated a reputation for stunning translations, and now she’s rising as a writer. Fitzcarraldo will publish her By the River in 2017.

Nir Baram: Reputedly “the Israeli Musil.”

Wolfgang Hildesheimer: a more or less forgotten genius, whose extraordinary biography of Mozart made waves when it was published. Hildesheimer knew everyone, read everything, translated Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. 2016’s his centennial year.

Books That I’ve Had Memorable Conversations About, 2015


I thought it would be an interesting addition to my favorite reads of 2015 to make a list of some of the books I’ve had the most memorable conversations about.

Sometimes even if a book doesn’t work as a whole, there can be a very memorable, impacting section in it, or even just a single extraordinarily pregnant image, which can often be easier to process in a conversation than an entire book. Other times books have just so overwhelmed you as an entire experience that it gives rise to remarkable encounters with fellow human beings, even though you can’t possible hope to bring the entire experience of the book into a single conversation. And sometimes a book opens up within you a space for a conversation you needed to have, either with or without knowing it. In all cases—and many others—this shows the great impact a book has had on your life and, for an hour or two, the life of another.

So here are a few books I read in 2015 that gave rise to very memorable conversations. Some of these are dramas I saw enacted on the stage that I’m counting as books read. And needless to say this is not an exhaustive list, just the ones that have come to mind. I purposely chose not to duplicate any from my “favorite reads of 2015” list, although obviously many of those would be applicable here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (tr. Don Mee Choi)

Reconsolidation by Janice Lee

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Top Girls and Love and Information by Caryl Churchill

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean, Anna Milsom)

The Musical Brain: And Other Stories by César Aira (tr. Chris Andrews)

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald (tr. Michael Hulse)

Vertical Motion by Can Xue (tr. Karen Gernant, Chen Zeping)

Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists by Joan Copjec

The Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin (tr. and contribution by Jacob Steinberg)

The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg

Boredom and Art: Passions Of The Will To Boredom by Julian Jason Haladyn

Subscriptions and Donations and Sales


As I sort of mentioned earlier this week, December is traditionally the time when all of your favorite publishers get those $$$ that let them keep giving you the books you love for the other 11 months in the year.

It would be immensely cool of you to spend a few of your hard-earned greenbacks on some of their wares this holiday season. This is in your own interest, as you are helping enable the publishers you love to survive another year so that they can keep giving you the books you love. And you are also spreading joy into the lives of people who work extraordinarily hard for pretty blah pay to give you those books. And you are also doing a huge favor to readers 10 and 20 years down the line, who will benefit from these publishers not having shriveled up and died amid a wave of apathy.

Anyway, if you want to do this, here are some recommendations. These are great gifts, or get one for yourself.

Archipelago Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off all books through December 26th with the coupon code NEWSITE at check-out.

Open Letter Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off with code BookSeason at checkout through Dec 31.

And Other Stories. Subscribe.

Verso Books. 50% off and free shipping on these titles through Dec 31.

Ugly Duckling Presse. Subscribe.

Wave Books. Subscribe.

Dorothy, a Publishing Project. All 12 books for $120.

Restless Books. Subscribe.

Melville House Publishing. Subscribe.

Music & Literature. Subscribe.

The Point. Subscribe.

The White Review. Subscribe.

Feed the Critic

I don’t know how widely this is known to people who aren’t lazy little litbloggers, but December is traditionally the “black friday” of the lame blogger world. In this month Amazon sales always go way up, ad revenues tend to spike, and this is also when the good readers of the world tend to open their kind hearts and pitch me a little change.

Which, all in all, makes for a nice little year-end bonus in the not-terribly-lucrative world of meaty literary criticism.

Not to get all “smallest violin in the world” about it, but doing this blog takes time. Yes, it’s fun to do, and it has benefits for me, and I enjoy pimping books I love, but it honestly does take a wee bit of effort to make this lame little blog happen every year. If you appreciate it and think it’s good for literary culture, please consider supporting it.

Anyway, if you’re a steadfast reader of this site and are so inclined to show your appreciation monetarily, now’s the best time. It’s easy. You can hit me directly with some Paypal love below. You can order some of your favorite 2016 titles through my Amazon links.* You can order gifts on Amazon here. You can buy The Latin American Mixtape, for yourself a total steal at just $2.99. There’s also Lady Chatterley’s Brother. Or order The End of Oulipo?, totally next-level literary criticism of the kind you’ve never read before.

* I know many of you have a completely justified and frothing hatred of Jeff Bezos and all of his projects. I understand! I put up the Amazon links in case you’re going to buy products there anyway, in which case doing so through my links will pretty much entirely kill Bezos’s razor-thin profit margin and hasten his demise. If you’d rather not purchase books from Amazon, find your local indie retailer here.


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

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

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


5 essays. 2 interviews.

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

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

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