15 Great New Directions

new-directions

New Directions is a publisher that has brought so many household names into existence, and here are 15 of its books that have meant a lot to me personally. These are all books that have changed the way I read and how my mind thinks.

As a bonus, if you want to know about the history of this press—how it was founded, how it first evolved and became self-sustaining, and how this dream list was amassed—read the admirable Literchoor Is My Beat by Ian S. MacNiven.

Years after I’ve read this book, lines of it still pop into my head, and I feel that its rhythms are in my thoughts for good. A list of sorts, but also a philosophy, an ecology, and a reminder of the fact that love exists.

The paranoid, deathbed rant of a bankrupt priest, this book showcases Bolaño’s power and his ability to conjure up the dark psychology of a Goya.

Hawkes will forever be haunted by some words he said about the enemy of literature being character, plot, etc. If you bother to read him, you’ll see that this does not mean he doesn’t put character, plot, etc into his book. In fact, he is a master of these things, and Second Skin surely shows this.

This is Lispector at her listy-est, a book that looks a reads a little like late David Markson, albeit if you substitute radiant passion for somber irony. There are more quotables and ponderables here than anyone should be entitled to write.

Although he’s not terribly well-known here, Emilio Pacheco is regarded as one of the foremost Spanish-language poets of his generation. He also wrote prose, and Battles in the Desert is a novella that’s required reading in Mexico. It’s a book about memories and nostalgia and childhood innocence, a bit of a red-herring-esque whodunnit in the tradition of a Bolaño.

I think this book stands as good a chance of any to be read 100 years from now. It’s a book about beauty and art’s purpose in this world, and how humans make order from anarchy. It’s also stylistically radical and utterly engrossing from virtually the first page.

A seminal book of New Criticism. Empson starts from the idea that ambiguity exists when “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading” and moves on from there to construct a genealogy of the seven kinds possible. In its willingness to see this-as-that and to wonder where the sense in a text lies, it seems to anticipate some of the great critical movements that would come later in the 20th century.

This is the infamous book of Aira’s that involves a plot to take over the world with clones of Carlos Fuentes. I always tell people that this is one of Aira’s best, even if it sort of falls apart 2/3 of the way through. Which, actually, may seem like the most Aira thing about it.

A poet’s novel, a beast that a decade in the making, a book that tries to capture the American idiom, or at least what it was before America completely changed size and shape from the ’60s onward (but still, an idiom that can be found if you look in the right places).

Although other of Vila-Matas’s books have worked his central ideas in more elaborate ways, this may still be my favorite of his because of the brevity and tautness to it. A series of footnotes with no original, a series of riffs on modernism, a punchline with no joke. Read it in an afternoon, think about it for the rest of the month.

To me this is the quintessential Sebald, a walking tour that takes in the whole of European art and history, plus life, death, logic, rationalism. And “the rings of Saturn” must be one of the better organizing metaphors I’ve ever encountered.

Simply put, if you think you know what poetry is, read Nicanor Parra.

I believe this was my first New Direction ever. This book has introduced generations of readers to new worlds, and it will continue to as long as books are read.

I don’t even really know what Walser has set out to do here, or what kind of a novel this is supposed to be. I only know that it is unlike any novel I have read, and that it gives new definitions to the word weightlessness.

A spy novel mixed with a philosophical inquiry into Europe, the world view of its major religion, and its political possibilities. Plus an attempt to know oneself, and that Beckettian imperative to finally fall silent.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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I finished Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant the other day, and immediately thereafter I looked through various reviews, as this book has been notoriously disliked by a number of high-profile critics. After judging this book for myself and seeing the objections, I generally don’t understand the critiques being lodged at Ishiguro.

Before I go any further, let me dissuade you from Joyce Carol Oates’s critique in the NYRB. I don’t think it’s a very good review, and it completely spoils the plot (there are a few important surprises in this book, and the ending in particular should not be spoiled). So I would stay away from that one, unless you’ve finished the book.

It seems that the critiques of this book fall into two main camps: first off, there is the complaint about the texture of this novel. The book takes place in Britain in the early middle ages, and Ishiguro has been faulted for not providing verisimilitude as one might expect from a work of historical/political fiction written by an author like Norman Rush. I will not deny that Ishiguro’s book is very much a fantasia (Oates references John Barth), and perhaps he is being judged by books like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, where the voice was highly mannered and textured in a very satisfying way, but I don’t see that this critique holds any importance for this book. I see no evidence that The Buried Giant in any way sets out to offer a true-to-life account of Britain in the early Middle Ages, and I imagine that Ishiguro (and perhaps many other readers) would see such a complaint as beside the point. The narrative voice, such as it is, is consistent throughout; it is more in the vein of fairy tale than historical novel, but this suits Ishiguro’s aims for the book (which is more about the social and the archetypal than the personal), and I found it satisfying. He is working in a much more mythic register than in other books, but this suits his aims and his themes, and I don’t see why his past successes should in any way insult his current project.

To perhaps draw one comparison, John Williams’s final novel, Augustus, is a similar pastiche, taking place in Imperial Rome. Williams makes no bones about the fact that he is using well-known historical actors purely for his own motives, freely inventing where he likes and making very little attempt to create an authentic portrait of Rome of the era. Woe be anyone who reads this book for an account of Augustus’s life. None of that kept me from finding the book utterly brilliant and captivating on its own terms, even though we are very far from the voice of Stoner.

Or in one more example, an author like Thomas Mann, who offered extraordinary localized portraits in books like Doctor Faustus and Buddenbrooks, set out to do an entirely different thing in Joseph and His Brothers. Could he have even written that book with the texture of a Faustus? I doubt it. The approach required by re-imagining the Bible freed Mann to write as he never had before, even if it was very different from what many would regard as “Thomas Mann.” I am glad he did it, just as I am glad to have some 400 pages of Felix Krull, even if that book bears much more likeness to a Wes Anderson’s depiction of the Austro-Hungarian era than a Stefan Zweig’s.

The other line of critique, which would seem to hold a little more water, is that this book is an allegory that is too highly on point. On one level, this is so obvious as to be not worth saying: the boatman is death, the titular giant is memory. The dragon Querig’s mist is the historical amnesia that allows for peaceful co-existence. Well, duh. You don’t get any points for picking up on this, and if you think this is the extent of what Ishiguro is up to in this book, you might look at it again.

James Wood in The New Yorker offers a slightly more interesting version of this critique:

On the one hand, the novel suggests that humans may have caused the arrival of the mist (presumably, as a result of warfare so terrible that it encouraged an enforced amnesia, a kind of psychological Dayton Agreement); on the other hand, all the talk about angry or ashamed deities, along with the existence of Querig the she-dragon, suggests forces beyond human control and complicity. Ishiguro seems to want it both ways, as befits the religious credulity, the Arthurian magic, of his fictional world. “Never Let Me Go” is a miraculous novel, because it is an allegory that points straight at us—at ordinary, obedient, unfree human life. “The Buried Giant” points everywhere but at us, because its fictional setting is feeble, mythically remote, generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague.

Well, first off, I do not think Ishiguro’s setting is feeble or remote, as evidenced by the fact that anyone who has read this book can immediately point out the key aspects of its environment: the mist, the dragon, the buried giant, the boatman, etc. These seem quite palpable and fixed in readers’ minds, Wood’s included.

As to pressureless, I disagree. As Wood himself notes, Ishiguro deploys these elements in such a way as to make their tension clear: Beatrice and Axl only remain in love because they have forgotten the sins of their past, but what sort of a love can this be if they cannot remember their lives together? Similarly, the Anglos and the Saxons can co-exist, but only because they cannot remember the wrongs their forefathers perpetuated on one another. What sort of a peace is this? One of the ingenious moves of this book is to project Beatrice and Axl’s version of this quandary into the grand historic Anglo/Saxon version, and vice versa, via the plot mechanics. This is perhaps where Wood finds the allegory becoming too literal and too vague, but I would say here it is reaching complexity.

This is why I cannot call this book “pressureless.” Each of the various subplots in this novel is like a string, and the more you try to pull out any individual string to examine it, the more firmly knotted together they all become. This is the thing Ishiguro has achieved, and it is a different achievement than his usual, because it encompasses multiple points of view, instead of just one (this is his first third-person novel), and implicates multiple levels at once: the historical, the personal, the allegorical, the mythic, the social.

I think the book has flaws: some of the arrangement of plot elements is a little too slack. Here Ishiguro occasionally resorts to rivets and screws to keep this box from falling apart, where he in other instances he has made it all hold tight without need of such tools. At other times Ishiguro descends from his mythic register to give us something a little more mannered and classically “Ishiguro”—brilliant as these stretches can be, they do feel out of place, darlings that might have been better drowned.

But it is an interesting and powerful read, yet another elaboration of Ishiguro’s method and core concerns into new forms and new realms of the human experience. It covers territory Ishiguro has never before touched, and it does so in interesting and valid ways. I would not hold it as his best work, but nor would I casually discard it as have some others.

Tim Parks Interview

Tim-Parks

Over at BOMB I’ve interviewed Tim Parks on his new book, Where I’m Reading From. This is a collection of edited, arranged blog posts he did for the NYR Blog. So all of the material is online, but I think it gains a great deal by reading it as Parks has arranged it, as well as reading it in print versus on a screen. Reading these sequentially, you get much more of a sense of an argument taking hold, and you begin to pick up a lot more on the was the pieces all resonate with one another.

Parks is talking about a few different things here. One would be the rise of the “globalized” novel, that beast which translates more easily, fits into a variety of contexts, and tends to win the big global prizes. He’s also very interested in what the Western novel as a form has left to do, and what sorts of new things are still possible within it. This book is also personal, charting Parks’s development as a reader and a writer (and a translator). And, it’s also interested in the ways people are reading now and what is motivating them to pick up certain books and not others.

There are a number of other threads that work their way throughout the book. Agree or disagree, I found each of the columns quite stimulating, and I do think Parks is asking the right questions as regards the form fiction takes these days, what it does, and where it is headed. I’d highly recommend it for anyone interested in these sorts of questions.

The Knausgaard Cometh

USA - Art - Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book 4 is now a thing that exists in this world as a consumer commodity. I have done my part to welcome the behemoth by interviewing its translator, Don Bartlett, and reviewing Book 4 itself.

Just for fun I checked the sales figures on the entire series, and by far that great majority of Knausgaards sold this year are Book 1. I can’t draw any other conclusion than that many, many people are hearing about Knausgaard for the first time this year and/or have finally been persuaded to give the series a try. Which seems to bode well for My Struggle remaining a thing of interest to the mass media and reading public through Book 6.

For even more fun, I ran the numbers on Elena Ferrante and discovered more or less the same thing: this is by far her best sales year to date, so I’m guessing there’s a similar thing happening there. (And keep in mind, the series concludes with the fourth volume, releasing in September.)

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Perhaps series are viable right now in a way they haven’t been for a while. Perhaps people like the idea of having a book that they can look forward to reading year-over-year for a while, and maybe the series aspect gives rise to a community of readers in a way that you don’t necessarily get with stand-alone books by the same author. Whatever it is, Knausgaard and Ferrante are commodities that have been on the market for a few years now, and so far people are more and more eager to read them.

War and Cinema by Paul Virilio

dr-strangelove

Over at Enclave, I wrote a little about War and Cinema by Paul Virilio. It’s a striking book of theory, considering how the movies and the wars feed each other’s fantasies.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

boy-who-stole

A very strong recommendation for The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila (translated by Sophie Hughes). This is Repila’s first book in English and the second that he has published. It makes me very curious to read his first book, as well as anything he happens to publish in the future. Repila is from Spain and was born in 1978.

John Self has ably summed up the book’s conceit and pointed out a number of its features, so I’ll point interested readers in that direction.

It’s about two boys stuck at the bottom of a well. Like The Woman in the Dunes, another book about people trapped in a hole, it has a strong allegorical feel to it, but it’s not simple to reduce this book to a message or a point. There are a few sentences scattered throughout the might lead a reader in one direction or another, but for the most part Repila simply concerns himself with elaborating the relationship between the two boys, the increasing madness of the smaller one, and the extraordinary mental and physical depredations that their plight subjects them to.

Repila has written a very disturbing book that one feels physically as one reads it. It is a short book, but one with a very powerful impact and that would support multiple readings. It’s quite impressive, and, as I mentioned before, it makes me wonder what might come next out of this person’s mind.

I should also mention Sophie Hughes’s translation, which is wonderful. I have not had a chance to read the Spanish, but I have no doubt in her skill here. The book reads beautifully in English.

Gathering Evidence by Thomas Berhard [1]

I have a feeling I’m going to be blogging my read through Thomas Bernhard’s autobiography in five volumes, Gathering Evidence. I’m currently on the second volume, An Indication of the Cause, which so far has recounted Bernhard’s enmity for his adopted city of Salzburg.

What I wanted to share at the moment are the pages in which Bernhard describes the bombing of Salzburg during World War II, when he would have been in his early adolescence. His description of the tunnels in which he and his fellow Salzburgians were made to cower during bombing raids is simply chilling.

And then a couple of pages later where he describes the actual bombing of the city.

As tends to be the case, you really need to read the whole thing through to get the full effect of the cumulation, but these pages should give some idea of the power of the writing. I had not previously know that Bernhard wrote about what the war was like in Austria. This account surely must stand up there with the greats.

Some Recent Publications

I know it’s been pretty lonely up here the past couple of weeks. This is due to travel and some projects that are involving a lot of my energy at the moment. But this site has been on my mind, and there will be some more bloggy goodness before long.

For now, some links to a couple of recent pieces:

First, up at Fanzine, an essay I wrote around Lars von Trier’s body of work, particularly his film The Five Obstructions. Like many, I view von Trier as a mixed bag, but he’s got a definite point of view, and this is one of his best movies. And also, I really, really enjoyed how this piece came out.

Secondly, at Music & Literature I have a review essay on NYRB Classics’s edition of Silvina Ocampo’s stories, Thus Were Their Faces. These are stories that get more and more impressive with each run back through them, and it’s great to see Ocampo finally finding a real audience in English.

The Illogic of Kassel

I really dug Enrique Vila-Matas’s latest, The Illogic of Kassel. Not going to say a whole lot at the moment since I’m trying to run down a review somewhere, but I will discuss it eventually, somewhere. This, his latest novel in Spanish, is being released in conjunction with A Brief History of Portable Literature, a delightful 1985 novel by Vila-Matas, on June 9 of this year.

In the meantime, my essay on Vila-Matas, review of Never Any End to Paris, Dublinesque, and interview with Vila-Matas at The Paris Review.

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