The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

The Immoralist

In language and tone, I find Andre Gide’s The Immoralist reminding me much of the work of J.M. Coetzee, specifically Disgrace. Both authors use a very pared down, austerely beautiful language; in a translator’s note, Richard Howard calls Gide’s voice "raised almost to the tension of the lyre," which seems about as good a description as can be given. Thematically, both books are wrestling with the following idea, quoted from Gide: "The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task."

Like Disgrace, The Immoralist’s protagonist eventually evolves into an amoral state (despite the title, I think he’s more beyond morals than transgressing them):

I reached a point of enjoying in others only the wildest behavior, deploring whatever constraint inhibited any excess. I came close to regarding honesty itself as no more than restriction, convention, timidity.

I imagine The Immoralist, with its strong hints of pedophilia and with its apparent embrace the passionate pursuit of personal desires and the mixing of the classes, was probably a good deal more shocking in its day than it feels now. Howard compares it to Freud and Nietzsche, both of whom certainly have worn with time. But I think this idea that animates the book–how easily we can lose our inhibitions, and how difficult it is to know what to do once we’ve lost them–is something that never grows old.

What I like most about this book, what most struck me the first time through, is the description of how the narrator Michel comes to embrace sensuality. After his marriage ("If I did not love my fiancée, as I say, at least I had never loved any other woman."), Michel and his bride head to Algeria, where he discovers that he has tuberculosis. It is when this disease brings him to the brink of death that Michel realizes the worth of living. Much more interestingly, his battle with tuberculosis forces his mind to reconcile with the body it inhabits, and through the disease Michel becomes sensitive to bodily sensations and, perhaps, stops seeing the mind and body as separate things.

I had forgotten I was alone, forgotten the time, expecting nothing. It seemed to me that until this moment I had felt so little by virtue of thinking so much that I was astonished by a discovery: sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.

This seems to be the pivotal moment for the book, as not only does overcoming the disease put Michel in touch with sensuality, it also forces him to hide this new side of himself from his wife, which is the wellspring of his love for transgressions.

I ended by enjoying the dissimulation itself, savoring it as I savored the functioning of my unsuspected faculties. And I advanced every day into a richer, fuller life, toward a more delicious happiness.

Of note here is how Michel comes to his amoral (or immoral) final state. Unlike the characters in, say, Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness, Michel reaches his state without leaving society. True, he gets his start in Africa, but it is only in France that he truly discovers and embraces his new ethic. And yet, Gide isn’t willing to let Michel come to love transgression in the presence of proper Frenchmen. Rather, Michel perfects his taste for the immoral while interacting with the uncouth French peasants that manage his estates.

Compare this, then, to Marc Estrin’s recent, excellent Golem Song, where the protagonist come to believe himself beyond morality in the heart of one of the most cultured cities on earth. A comic telling of a contemporary New York City citizen’s path to amorality, Golem Song’s would-be Superman is Alan, an overweight dork who comes to his beliefs not though estrangement in the jungle or association with the lower classes, but through good old urban decay and violence, aided by a generous helping of traditionally American sour race relations (in this case between African-Americans and Jews). It seems now that forces previously thought to reside within exotic and/or pre-modern people now can be found disembodied, haunting our inner cities.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Lipsyte on Houellebecq Sam Lipsyte hangs out with Michel Houellebecq. You are there. If you’d rather not waste 20 minutes, I’ll tell you what happens. Sam and Michel...
  2. The Immoralist Our happiness, during this last part of the trip, was so untroubled, so calm, that I have nothing to tell about it. The loveliest creations...

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