Tag Archives: zadie smith

The Euro View On Best Euro Fiction

Michael Stein at Czech Position has a worthwhile reaction to the American reaction to the Best European Fiction series from Dalkey Archive.

It gets down to that old experiment/nonexperimental debate that was had upon the publication of Best European Fiction 2010, thanks to odd remarks made by Aleksandr Hemon in his introduction and press interviews and Zadie Smith in her preface to the volume. I think Stein is a little hard on Ruth Franklin, who was one of the few critics astute enough to point out the incoherence in Hemon’s and Smith’s statements vis a vis Euro literature, but he does give her credit. He also rightly tags Smith:

Unfortunately, the debate (in so far as their was one) was obscured by some of Hemon and Smith’s initial statements. Franklin rightly points out Smith’s peculiar mention of O. Henry as somehow representing a model of American writing, together with Hemingway. What seems even more off-key though is the list of models Smith provides as a European contrast – “Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kafka, Sebald.”

Barth? Barthelme? Did Smith compile this list on an American college campus that has a “European” feel and get it confused with the real thing. I would venture to guess that not only don’t most of the writers included in BEF have a list of models that looks anything like this, but that a good number of them have only the vaguest idea who Barthelme is and assume Barth is a misspelling of Barthes (when, as Milan Kundera well knows, it obviously refers to Karl Barth, the inventor of negative theology).

Smith’s list of models could be that of a reasonably well-read and above-average cosmopolitan American MFA student, a fact which Franklin pounces on to make her point that we are all in the same (literary) gang. But ask a Russian, Polish, Spanish or Icelandic writer about their literary models, or simply read the stories presented most recently in BEF 2011 and you will see that this notion of a global literature is an easily punctured myth.

The whole article is well worth a read, as it offers a nice glimpse of how Europe views its literature, and U.S. literature. And I look forward to Stein’s promised second installment.

And though Stein doesn’t mention is Lauren Elkin’s long review of BEF 2010 at The Quarterly Conversation makes some worthy points in this debate. Among them:

Blending and diversity are inherently related to the art of translation; when you take something from one culture and transform it into another, both the source and the target cultures remain distinct and yet transformed. But for all this crossing and trespassing, this project has an air of an “us and them” mentality to it: “[T]ranslation has to be a ceaseless process,” Hemon writes. “Not only do we have to provide a continuous flow of literary texts from other languages into English, we also have to be able to monitor in real time, as it were, the rapid developments in European literatures.” Eventually, one assumes, this increased correspondence will break down the differences between European and non-European literature. Already the influences and tendencies that come through in this volume go beyond a strictly European literary heritage, making that organization of literature by geographical area—especially one as vast as Europe—seem more and more arbitrary. The choice, therefore, to privilege these hybridized stories seems to indicate that the breakdown has already begun, to such a point that it seems as odd a construct to talk about “European fiction” as it is to talk about “North American fiction,” or “Asian fiction.” The exchanges between these literary spaces don’t stop with the landmass of a continent. Especially not one as arbitrarily located as Europe: where does Europe stop and Eurasia begin? What of the tantalizing closeness of North Africa?

Zadie Smith on Leve, Etc

It looks like Harper’s has continually upped the space for space for Zadie Smith’s book column to the point that in May she covers just two books in four pages. That’s actually a fair amount of real estate for a “roundup,” so perhaps this new gig might not be a waste of her and our time.

However, that will only be if she manages to write some better criticism than what we see in her unilluminating and annoyingly hip thoughts on Suicide, which she seems to think is some kind of book of adolescent angst:

That mixture of thoughtfulness and self-regard, honest interrogation and mere posing—if I were fifteen, Autoportrait would be my bible. As an adult, I still find Levé hard to resist, perhaps because his adolescent aesthetic reminds us of the kind of writing that got us reading in the first place.

She both takes the book as some kind of suicide note and considers the book’s suicide victim as an obvious stand-in for Leve, two readings that are rather lazy and mundane. This is the way the whole review is. It’s not insightful at all, just kind of engagingly written and superficial.

Mysteriously enough, despite trashing Suicide as fatuous, adolescent, and cheaply philosophical, she then arrives at a positive verdict on the book:

Now, is all of this about you or Levé? Does the difference matter? It is as if Levé has found an existential way to depict a friendship: two souls intermingled in a pronoun. The sadness of this book is overwhelming. Yet at the same time it’s a cause for happiness, because it’s the final record of a writer who found, in the end, the correct vessel for his talents. In Suicide Levé’s fragments become wonderfully sharp, conjuring tragedy in a few sentences: “You kept a tape of the messages left on your answering machine by mistake. One of them went: ‘We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine.’ Uttered slowly by an old lady in despair.”

For her other book, Seven Years by Peter Stamm (cheers; two books in translation published by small presses), Smith delivers a fairly mundane plot summary and commits the unpardonable sin of parenthetically patting a translator on the head: “Stamm’s prose (beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann) is plain but not so simple . . .”

As with the review of the Leve, it takes on a chatty tone that strains for coolness:

A thin volume from Other Press ($15.95), it has a bewitching cover: a photograph of an antique bedstead with stylish contemporary sheets, set against a tasteful gray wall. I took one look at it and thought: God, I wish I lived like that. This bourgeois response proved thematically important, as we shall see. It gets under your skin, this novel. It welcomes you into a clean, modern space as appealing as that room—and then it really fucks with you, if you’ll excuse my Swiss-German.

Maybe one of Smith’s friends will tell her how this kind of writing sounds, since it seems that whoever edits her at Harper’s is willing to let it go.

Judging by Smith’s criticism that has been published previously elsewhere, she has much better work in her than this. I look forward to seeing it.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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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