Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else. Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.
Initially, the Frankfurt School set out to understand why the communist revolution had failed among the rank-and-file of Germany’s working class. Their project would grow to encompass the root causes of fascism, the authoritarian underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and the cultural machinations of commodity fetishism that would engulf the Western world in the twentieth century and beyond. The task of crafting an engrossing, rigorous historical biography about a group of notoriously difficult Marxist philosophers, social theorists, and cultural critics is no small feat. That is precisely the task Stuart Jeffries set for himself in The Grand Hotel Abyss, which serves as a sort of group biography of a very specific time, place, and elusive cultural moment that many (outside of graduate philosophy programs) are not aware even existed.
DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now, in 2017, is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today. I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.”
“Aphoristic thinking is notebook-thinking,” Susan Sontag observed in her journal in the spring of 1980, “produced by the idea of keeping a notebook.” She had been kicking around the concept of the notebook-as-form for awhile, as well as attempting to locate the defining characteristics of aphoristic literature, while working on an essay about the writer Elias Cannetti, whose aphoristic style she very much admired. That year was punctuated by the death of Roland Barthes, another fiercely epigrammatic writer whom Sontag held in high esteem. In the essay she would eventually publish on Barthes, she wrote: “It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.” The aphorist, for Sontag, is always moving towards the last word, and the aphorism itself an attempt to say all there is on a subject in one fell motion. Aphorisms are effective precisely because they seem to contain the truth in hard, diamond-like kernels; a good aphorism can’t be parsed.
With A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem has written yet another quite ambitious novel that challenges American fiction’s low tolerance for thinking-as-art. This now makes four in a row that have either risked sinking from bravura and scope or have appeared too light and clever on the surface to be matched seriously with earlier feats. For instance, rather than Chronic City being a kitschy map for traversing Web-dominant culture, it tries to salvage what’s left of the literary and humane while honoring skeptical avant-garde traditions that inherently distrust the novel form. Up until The Fortress of Solitude, admirers could content themselves, to a degree, with parodied tributes and deconstructions of old styles without having to imagine the positive role Lethem charted for novels in the future. As described in his essay on White Elephant and Termite postures attempted as a novelist, his books in recent years puzzle through this dialectic of positive and deconstructive values, and A Gambler’s Anatomy continues the course.
It’s with no small amount of urgency that Mathias Énard’s Compass, an engrossing meditation on the cultural and historical tension between Europe and the Islamic world, arrives from New Directions in a gorgeous translation by Charlotte Mandell. Winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Compass is a post-Orientalist novel of ideas that locates the Western canon—Flaubert, the sentimental, if reckless, traveler detailed above, but also Borges, Liszt, Heine, Hugo, Goethe, Balzac, and many more—inside an intricate tableau of Eastern cultural influence and exchange. I call it “post-Orientalist” in the sense that Énard’s characters, a group of aging academics, are all working in the shadow of Said’s screed, in search of the theory’s new critical horizon.
Despite its fervid storyline, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is the product of clear calculation and restraint. The narrative is tightly packed, the cast of characters narrow, and the logic addictive. From the first lines the reader enters into a murky alternate reality, pursuing that sublime moment of clarity that constantly eludes capture.In fact, the book feels more like a protracted short story than a novel. This is unsurprising, given Schweblin’s immense talent for the short form. Before the 2014 publication of Distancia de rescate—Fever Dream’s original Spanish title—Schweblin published two short story collections, El núcleo del disturbio (2002) and Pájaros en la boca (2009), for which she won the Casas de las Américas Prize. Through short stories, Schweblin established herself as a writer of the strange and eerie.
With “Losing our Milk Teeth,” the opening poem of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s award-winning collection, Hemming Flames, the author announces from the outset that we’re in for a thrilling ride—thrilling as in thriller as much as the acute pleasure of reading masterful poems. Hemming Flames is by turns terrifying, uncanny, and sometimes lunatic, in the ways lunacy charts (if it does chart anything) the unpredictable and uncanny. There is also a wry and blunt humor here, a consciousness latching onto what will carry it through the traumas of an imploding family.