Interview with Álvaro Enrigue

enrigue

BOMB has posted my interview with Álvaro Enrigue from its current print issue onto its website. We talk a great deal about his new novel, Sudden Death, as well as his prior book, Hypothermia (very much worth your time if you liked Sudden Death), as well as influences (DeLillo plays a big role here) and Álvaro’s penchant for awfully morbid humor.

And as a bonus, here’s a link to a review I wrote of Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, which was where I first read Enrigue (his fantastic “On the Death of the Author,” extracted from Hypothermia).

And here’s some of Enrigue from the interview:

It comes down to where you want to draw the line of modernity: the debate is so wide and has existed for so long that it is almost a personal decision. I have a preference for a term used by academics to define those seventeenth-century braves who threw themselves onto the train of obsessive innovation: “early moderns.” It’s lovely, as the idea of modernity involves the faint smell of decadence; the notion of something newly born yet already rotting is elegant—and maybe it’s precise in political terms, since it is in this period that things went wrong forever. But I tend to prefer definitions that are a bit more extreme: Lyotard says that modernity began the moment that Saint Paul projected history as a line and not a circle, as something with a beginning and an end.

There is something “Pauline” and apocalyptic in the way Caravaggio kept moving forward, destroying the tradition of Catholic art and himself in the process. His was a desperate effort to give testimony of a world that, according to the creed of Counter-Reformation, had been misrepresented. My novel, then, begins closed up in the pallacorda match. Quevedo is nineteen years old—or something like that—and he is there, in the service area of the tennis court at the Piazza Navona, trying to understand this creature on the other side of the net, at the same time unbelievably sophisticated and unacceptably vulgar—as are we, keeping our records of Miles Davis and The Clash in the same box. I don’t have to say that Quevedo’s fascination with the monster is mine. The game is told not from his point of view but perhaps from the perspective of someone who is just behind his shoulders, someone who has accepted his poems’ poisonous advice. Then the picture opens, first to Rome, and then to Europe. When the players change courts, the point of view changes. Now the reader looks at Quevedo and his friends, and imperial Spain and the Americas behind them.

During the hour and a half in which they are playing, the court is the center of the world. A world that had become so big and confusing that it began to demand bigger tools to be understood—Galileo’s theories renewing the way in which reality was organized, and Baroque art too, as a desperate way of representing a universe in perpetual change, or sonnets as the ultimate tools to understand the human soul’s contradictory nature. The modern novel was about to be invented by Cervantes, as a machine to think about what is and what is not moral in a universe that didn’t fit in the Bible anymore. Sudden Death is a novel—we are still there. We are the children of that generation, chasing again and again the volleys of religious fanatics and the abusive politicians who prosper thanks to them, the bankers and capitalists cashing in on the misery they produce in the rest of the world. Sudden Death is not about Caravaggio, Quevedo, and their world, but ours.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 43

Here’s your Spring 2016 issue. Or just go here.

h3>Features


The Hostile Situation of Hope

The Hostile Situation of Hope

Some of the greatest innovations in modern literature have arisen in the aftermath of tumultuous occasions, awakening in us spiritual dilemmas that stir striking questions concerning our position within the world. Feeling abandoned, and unable to comprehend ourselves within traditional philosophical and historical frameworks, we reach instead toward more inward aspects—the irrational and incomprehensible. Emil Cioran’s “organic man” is raised on these ruins. Faced with failing structures of knowledge and a human consciousness that has long been corrupted by order, ambition, and abstract constructs, Cioran returns us to a more primitive, fundamental mode of being; it stems from a “vital imbalance” rather than intelligence or reason.


War Music by Christopher Logue

War Music by Christopher Logue

There is probably no work more influential in Western literature than The Iliad, and Logue came to the poem late in the history of its influence. As he put it in an interview, Logue aimed to “write an English poem that is dependent on the Iliad.” He placed it in a tradition with writing by Chaucer, Tyndale, Jonson, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Edward Fitzgerald, and Pound, all of whom, he noted, wrote original works in English that depended on poems in other languages. We might add to this list other late Modernist examples of such “dependent” projects, like Nicholas Moore’s thirty-one versions of Baudelaire’s “Spleen (III)” in the different voices of 1960s England, or the free variations of Robert Lowell’s Imitations. But Logue’s poem is perhaps better read as a forerunner of a tendency that in the last fifty years or so has produced some of our most visionary poetry: a tendency to compose spare, tensely-focused new works of literature out of longer canonical works.



Interviews

An Interview with Mariusz Szczygieł

An Interview with Mariusz Szczygieł


From Ryszard Kapuściński I learned that everything has to be seen in its wider context—that we’re not alone, meaning that what happens to us has already happened to other people, somewhere else in the world. He taught me to see that we are only a very small part of the world. From Hanna Krall I learned to write less rather than more. She taught me that all the words have already been used, everything has already been said, which means I must always remember to stop and wonder whether the world actually needs my words. From Małgorzata Szejnert I learned that reportage should be about whatever it’s about, plus something else as well. She taught me that the story is not everything. There has to be an idea behind it.


A Conversation with Angela Woodward

A Conversation with Angela Woodward


This book started out so complicated. I didn’t know what it was, or why it couldn’t be everything. It had a set of chapters interspersed throughout that told about a traveler going to the ceremony of some indigenous people in Siberia, and a terrible accident. Then it had another story about a disastrous archaeological dig. The relationship between Jonathan and Jenny was really fleshed out. And then it had bits and pieces of the chapters you see today, that have whatever flavor they have, a more folkloric feel, whereas the rest of it was sort of novelistic. It was a huge mess. It, and I, reached a point of collapse and implosion, and I started over completely.



In Translation


The Fashion by Germán Sierra

The Fashion by Germán Sierra

Germán Sierra’s work is a rare exception. A respected neuroscientist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he is one of a small group of writers to have considered in earnest the challenges contemporary science presents to the narrative model that has come down to us from the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the sovereign role of individual psychology as an engine of plot. He brings to mind Philip K. Dick, but less speculative, more uncanny, and tinged with a hard-edged griminess reminiscent of Darby Crash–era Los Angeles.


From Bad Light by Carlos Castán

From Bad Light by Carlos Castán

That was around the time of the spectacular accident in the Chilean mine. Thirty-three workers trapped almost half a mile beneath the earth. In real time, heart in mouth, the world followed the tragic events that, for seventy days, TV news bulletins the length and breadth of the planet led with. As did the press, and the radio. It was practically the only talking point. First, a tunnel was opened up through which the rescue teams could introduce the medicines and provisions from the outside world that were deemed most urgent. Direct, fluid communication was then established with those trapped below, their fear probed, their hopes of making it out alive broadcast, their attempts to say farewell in the darkest hours, their messages of love, their ham-handed poetry, filled with a candor that was chilling in its simplicity—pure naïf horror. People wondered what it might feel like to be trapped beneath a hillside, with tons of earth above and all that uncertainty as to whether one might ever again see the sunlight and all that it normally bathes.



Reviews

Captivity by György Spiró

Captivity by György Spiró


György Spiró’s novel Captivity, beautifully rendered into English by Tim Wilkinson, is a work of ambition—almost literally, not only metaphorically, titanic. Undeniably, it is titanic in the sense of the evocation of gargantuan sweep and breadth; and it is no less titanic in its hopes to re-awaken a Latin-Hellenic-Hebraic world at the base of what we now consider the “Global West.”


Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [1]

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [1]


Named for the tie-breaking round of pallacorda, the Renaissance game that prefigured tennis, Sudden Death is not a farce, and nor is it simply a speculative work that asks “what if?” of great historical figures and moments. Indeed, Enrigue deliberately works against the speculative mode by weaving exegetical historiography and laconic fourth-wall-breaking reflections throughout the relatively “straight” narrative lines of the apocryphal tennis match, the Mexican conquest, and the ideological formation of the Counter-Reformation.


Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [2]

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue [2]


“YOU’VE NEVER READ A NOVEL LIKE THIS BEFORE” proclaims the back cover of the bound galley of Death, likening the effect of the book to a “gut punch.” Like much ad copy (for which the author should not be held responsible), I take issue with these statements, not least because I have indeed read a novel like this before. Many, in fact. On those occasions, however, I would have been reading books by, say, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino, so it’s in a rather august company that Enrigue has earned himself a place setting.


The Birth-mark and The Quarry by Susan Howe

The Birth-mark and The Quarry by Susan Howe


Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.


Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach

Is that Kafka? by Reiner Stach


Underlying all of this biographical work is a desire to complicate received ideas about the author. In his introduction, Stach describes the enduring image of Kafka in characteristically clear-eyed terms: even though “decades of international, interdisciplinary research” have given scholars a more nuanced picture of Kafka and his times, he has persisted in the popular imagination as ” “the quintessential archetype of the writer as a sort of alien: unworldly, neurotic, introverted, sick—an uncanny man bringing forth uncanny things.” Stach’s aim is to “destabilize” these images by introducing “counter-images” in which he emphasizes the unexpected and the overlooked to help “quietly divorce us from clichés.” Implied here is the conviction that clichés about an author’s life obstruct appreciation of their work. Why else bother to challenge them?


Montauk by Max Frisch

Montauk by Max Frisch


There’s nothing terribly new about the confessional as a literary form. It can just as easily appear as swagger as it can an act of contrition, and this book has the flavor of both. And as a form, often in the guise of a personal essay, the confessional is having quite a moment. In the wake of the successful autoerotic exposures of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume Struggles and the critically gorgeous self-scrutiny of Maggie Nelson’s more slender Argonauts, there’s a contemporary appetite for the personal essay that has hardly been sated. And in the act of confession, there’s as much to be proud of in a debauched or dissolute life as there is to regret or repent. Lest the reader of this review fall into the trap most common for first-time encounterers of Frisch, this isn’t some kind of Swiss-intellectual misogynist rant, an I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for the pretentious. It is very honestly self-interested and self-critical. It’s messy in the way that psychotherapy is messy, or that our unvarnished motives would be if the world could see them. It’s loving, in its way, and sadly aware of how much time has passed and how badly.


Drowned and The Other Woman by Therese Bohman

Drowned and The Other Woman by Therese Bohman


The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women. The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and translator Marlaine Delargy’s prose styles remain the same from book to book. What differences there are prove to be relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society.


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

my-struggle-book-five-version-3

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

Surr

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

fortuny

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

cafe-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.

Pillar #6. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

simulacra-simulation

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I remember that it was in the winter and spring of 2002 that I began to get very much into Thomas Pynchon. In December 2001 I read The Crying of Lot 49, which at the time seemed absolutely unlike any book I had ever read. (I was 23 and still had a lot of reading ahead of me.) I quickly moved on to Gravity’s Rainbow in January 2002, which was all over the place in terms of how much of it I understood and/or enjoyed. Undeterred, I next moved on to V.

My youthful readings of Pynchon could make a Pillar in their own right (and probably will one day), so maybe I’ll just say one thing here. When I read these books I felt something very, very alive about them, something that seemed entirely essential to understand, but that was far beyond any sort of interpretation I could bring to these books. It was a little like being subjected to the same joke over and over, a joke that you don’t get but that leaves everyone around you laughing. I was dying to find my way into books like these. These were the years when I was very consciously trying to make myself understand this literary world that I had decided to adopt.

On my 24th birthday I was given Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation with some intimation that this would help make Pynchon comprehensible. There was also another P-word that this book promised to reveal to me: postmodern.

There was a certain kind of intellectual thrill of discovery that was possible in those days that doesn’t exist for me any longer. I don’t mean to say that reading doesn’t bring me the thrill of discovery or intellectual engagement any more—it does. But it all feels so different now. So many of the coordinates have been revealed to me that reading feels more like cultivating a somewhat orderly garden than scraping through a dense jungle.

I loved the feel of that dislocation when I read Pynchon and Baudrillard. It felt almost occult. This was reading at its most aspirational. There were powers at work here, a whole other world that I never knew existed. I had no idea of its shape or size, or even if it was actually there or not. Maybe I would never understand it. I trod on because I had some idea that there was something really, really important here, and getting it would gain me access to those conversations about books that I wanted to have. I can still remember exactly where I was when I read this book—it’s a reading experience that is burned into my mind. Out of the thousands of books I’ve read since then, there are very few for which I can find such distinct memories of reading.

There are eighteen essays in Simulacra and Simulation, and by far the longest and most potent of them is the first: “The Precession of Simulacra.” This is the essay containing that most memorable phrase “the desert of the real,” the essay that the Wachowskis must have had in mind when then made The Matrix. Its main idea is that what we now take for reality has itself detached from anything that might be called “real” in a conventional sense. Via a set of technologies and ideologies, the postmodern world has manufactured what Baudrillard terms the “hyperreal”: “a real without origin or reality.” The essay then goes on to argue for phenomena that either helped create or reflect this world order, including the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Apollo moon landings, Disneyland (and Los Angeles as a whole), and, most importantly, nuclear weapons and the logic of mutually assured destruction. Essentially, these and other phenomena have created an economy of signs and symbols where it is the symbolic value of actions that trumps their actual value. This new economy of signs and symbols has introduced a fundamentally new logic to our world, one where the intuitive assumptions about cause and effect, real and fake are no longer correct.

Looking at that list of referents can make the book seem dated—it was originally published in 1981, which accounts for the predominance of ’60s and ’70s motifs. So it says something that after the September 11 terrorists attacks, this was the book that so many people reached for. Or that one of the biggest movie franchises of the late ’90s and early ’00s was built around this ideology. No doubt our politics and economy has moved on since Baudrillard wrote this essay, but it has proven tenacious as an explanation of the world, and the ubiquity it has assumed constitutes an argument in itself.

Beyond the arguments laid out in that first essay, the subsequent essays seemed like something of a road map for intellectual fascinations I would take up in subsequent years. For instance, this book was the first place I encountered (or where I found impetus to finally explore) such personal intellectual milestones as: J.G. Ballard and Crash; Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science”; Apocalypse Now; a postmodern critique of the mass media; Philip K. Dick; and so many other things that I won’t include here for lack of time and space.

With well over a decade of hindsight, I find it fascinating that this book felt like such a lightning rod when I first tried to understand it. Looking back, the postmodern artistic aesthetic and poststructuralist philosophy that this book was so central to have been constant pre-occupations of my reading and intellectual life since. And the literatures and philosophies of the early and mid 20th century that laid the groundwork for this book were things that I deeply immersed myself in during the years after I had had my fill of the postmodernists.

I think that when you’re young there’s a certain amount of reading you have to do where you really don’t get it, where you’re breaking open doors that are locked to you. This is the way that you break out of the mass culture that everyone who is born in our world is indoctrinated with. This book certainly is one of my most important foundations in that sense. And it’s something that has been a frequent reference point since then, an essay I still regularly go back to and learn from.

Pillars #5. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

against-interpretation

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I can no longer remember when I first heard the name “Susan Sontag,” but as far as I can remember, that name has always had an absolute omnipresence combined with a weightiness that simply could not be ignored. Even before I really knew who she was of what she did, I knew that she was as important and as intellectual as you could get.

The first thing I read by her was On Photography, which I think was in 2003. I’m sure a lot of it went right over my head at the time, but I got the basics of the book and I remember finding it easy to read and liking it very much.

Around that time I also read In America—the National Book Award impressed me, and I was curious to see what Sontag’s intelligence looked like in fiction. I recall being rather baffled by the book, liking certain stretches but never really figuring out what made Sontag want to write the book or what it was all about.

Through the years that followed, I would find myself renewing my acquaintance with Sontag. She’s such a capacious, wide-ranging author that it seems difficult to read her systematically, so it seems that I just read her as chance and inclination contrived to make room for her.

Perhaps this explains why it took me so long to read what is possibly her best-known, and maybe just plain best work: the essay “Against Interpretation.” This essay hit me like nothing else of her had ever hit me. It was really one of those transcendent reading experiences where it’s like you’re under a spell; and I read it with that energy of true engagement, where virtually every sentence gave encouraged me to continue the argument in my head in several different ways at once. It was an essay that deeply influenced how I wrote, that showed me new ways that I might try to write essays, new techniques and tricks I could try out. I wrote at least one essay in clear imitation of it.

One of the things that I love about “Against Interpretation” is how it stretches back, to the very, very beginning. Its very first words are, “The earliest experience of art . . .” This is such a bold and, frankly, risky way to begin an essay, but it works for Sontag, because what she wants to talk about can withstand that sort of a context. This isn’t some overwrought rhetorical flourish . . . she makes a very good case that the thing she’s arguing goes back to our earliest thoughts about art.

Of course Sontag does not know what the earliest experience of art was like. Nobody knows what it was like. And yet she writes about it. She uses hedging words like “must have been” and “seems to have,” and these are the essayistic equivalent of sleight of hand, ways of saying things that you know to be true, despite the fact that you would come off as laughable and ridiculously pompous if you simply stated them as such.

What is Sontag talking about in this introductory section of her essay? She is talking about the idea that art is mimesis, that it is a representation of something that exists in the world. This theory of art, she tells us, has never seriously been challenged in all of the thousands of years of Western art since the Greeks first proposed it. The reason she brings this up, she says, is that mimesis requires that art justify itself (another sleight-of-hand: she never goes in to why this is, she just casually asserts it and moves on). And once you enter the realm of justification, you begin to talk about benefit, purpose, things like that, and you can never reclaim that innocent approach to art that you had before the discovery of theory. And this is the original sin of the art world: now art must justify itself, it must be interpreted. Sontag is writing against the idea of interpretation. She is trying to write against this experience of art.

Already there is so much that is impressive about this essay. To begin with, in just under three pages Sontag has taken us from the origins of all Western art to the present day, zeroing in on what may be the problem of all art. She has revealed the container that art exists in, and she has implied that there is some way to escape it. She has convinced us (or at least made us willing to consider) that there is a blind spot in all of our experiences of art.

It is said that good fiction requires the suspension of disbelief, and the same is no less true of essays such as this one. These three introductory pages have taken us into the world of the idea that Sontag is proposing. Like a skilled novelist she has given us just enough information to make this world live in our minds, to make her view of art and what has gone wrong with it exist for us. Even if only for an hour of our lives, Sontag’s argument about the original sin of art feels true, and this is essential to getting us to read the essay, to give it the gravity Sontag wants to invest in it, to make us feel why she is so passionate about getting rid of interpretation. There is scarcely a difference between this and the opening incident that proposes a lifelike character whose dilemma we cannot help but be fascinated by. This is when abstract intellectual debates begin to feel emotional and important, the way the ticking time bomb in a Hitchcock movie feels important. And Sontag does it so well here.

Another thing that is essential about this essay are the asides. Here are a few of them: “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”; “interpretation makes art manageable, conformable”; “our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all”; and, of course, the most famous: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

It must be said that remarks like these, as brilliant and as inspiring as they are, are not easy to fit into an essay. They often stick out, disrupting the flow of the argument, sounding silly in the wrong context, simply taking you out of this suspension-of-disbelief that Sontag has so carefully constructed. Even reading them in this blog post, so out of context, they sound so less interesting than in the course of Sontag’s essay. Remarks such as these must be carefully fitted into their place, or else they must be abandoned (perhaps to be worked in to some other essay). What I’m saying is, it’s not easy to make these sorts of things work—these are the darlings you’re told to kill. It is impressive that Sontag can get so many into this piece, and that she can make these feel as though they are native to the flow of the essay, a flow that she has be so careful to establish and sustain.

“Against Interpretation” is scarcely 11 pages long, but it took me 45 minutes to read for the first time. (I know, because at the bottom of it I wrote, “45 excellent minutes.”) There you have it: it is a piece that retards your progress, that makes you linger over it, expanding it with your own thoughts, pondering the possibilities, simply reveling in its grandeur. And it is an essay whose main point has always stuck with me, whose question has always remained a question that I take with me when I experience art. How many essays do you remember the last line of? How many essays stick in your mind and condition your experience of art?

Excerpt from The Surrender

3-women

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.

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.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2016. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.