published an overview of some new, untranslated literature coming out of France, but they might have shed some of the stereotypical baggage . . ." />

The End of Oulipo?

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

On Stereotypes Surrounding French Lit

It’s cool that the LA Times published an overview of some new, untranslated literature coming out of France, but they might have shed some of the stereotypical baggage:

Until the 1980s, more common literary topics were “man and nature, the writer in Montmartre,” said novelist Jean-Pierre Ostende, whose new book about an audit firm, “Et voraces ils couraient dans la nuit” (Voracious, They Ran in the Night), is another example of the shift. “You were not supposed to write about telephone poles or the decorations in an airport.” Instead, French fiction focused on creating literary forms and “literature for literature’s sake” and avoided stories with the so-called nouveau roman (new novel) or honed in on the inner world of the writer.

“It was a little hard to talk about reality,” said Dominique Viart, who teaches at the University of Lille 3. “Literature of the ’60s and ’70s talked about itself,” he said.

But increasingly visible today, “the story is back,” said Viart. “French literature is no longer self-absorbed at all. It talks as much about the problems of Rwanda, globalization, the great questions of society. And not just the little world of Paris and the little world of writers. François Bon was one of the first to write about the world of the worker, and since then it hasn’t stopped.”

As I’ve mentioned before, New Novelists tend to have plenty of “story” in their books. I also disagree with drawing a line between talking about “reality” and talking about yourself. Are you (the writer) not a part of reality too? And, as Enrique Vila-Matas has demonstrated so well, does talking about yourself not bridge over to the rest of the world around you?

Of course, the reality that Vila-Matas discusses isn’t the “reality” as Dominique Viart construes it, which it seems would comprise something vaguely journalistic and highly moralistic. But that only brings me right back to Robbe-Grillet, whose Jealousy is, among other things, very much a postcolonial story. Of course it’s not a dumbly postcolonial story (which, I fear, is the kind that Viart wants to read).

But anyway, for me it all gets to be a little too much at this line:

French literature from Baudelaire to Balzac, Zola and the surrealists has a lofty tradition of focusing on the subject of contemporary society.

That would be the same Baudelaire who attempted to defend himself from charges of obscenity under the argument that his poetry was art for art’s sake, which, yes, the Times article decries about half a page up.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Rise of Daily Life in French Lit The new Words Without Borders blog has shot out of the box with their ongoing Perec coverage. The latest piece is an excellent, lengthy interview...
  2. Is French Literature Dead? Nice to know we American's aren't the only ones who can ask trivial questions about the death of things. This time it's an unnamed French...
  3. French Writing Dead? I'm very pleased to see this article in Prospect giving some more recognition to two recent French novels in translation that Ive been praising over...
  4. Nabokov on Beckett's French From a nice essay on Beckett in the Boston Review: This thought coalesced into a conviction. Thereafter, Beckett, who so valued control over his work...
  5. Vila-Matas Website Javier Moreno of Hermano Cerdo points out to me that Enrique Vila-Matas now has a website, all in Spanish, obviously. There’s some useful stuff there,...

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