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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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You Say

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  • Will: Salman rushdie is a microscopic crapule on the asshole of th
  • Henry: I think the fireworks may come from the fact that these auth
  • Paul: Vanessa Place's 'La Medusa' seems like an American authored
  • Lance: I agree with you about the state of American fiction and I b

Group Reads

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

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


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

The Last Samurai: Charles-Valentin Alkan

I just finished up with The Last Samurai today, and I was tickled to see the composer Charles-Valentin Alkan make an appearance toward the end. While I’d disagree that Alkan is quite as obscure as DeWitt makes him out to be (or maybe his reputation has grown in the 10 years since TLS was published), it’s very true that he gets nowhere near the acclaim of his more celebrated contemporaries (e.g., Chopin) even though he did compose some remarkable music.

If you’d like to listen for yourself, the pianist Marc-André Hamelin (not sure if this was one of the five DeWitt claims actually still plan Alkan) has done a bunch of fine recordings of Aklan’s music. I like the pieces collected on the Symphony for Solo Piano disc (though the cover art seems a little geeky to me).

Of course, the appearance of Alkan makes one final entry in the “obscurity vs genius” theme that runs the length of the entire book, and how fitting that Ludo manages to discover his “father” by recognizing a neglected genius playing the work of another neglected genius. One imagines that the cultural knowledge necessary for Ludo to recognize Alkan and thus find his “father”–in conjunction with the social skills needed to maneuver said “father” into accepting his overture–indicate that he has finally started down the road toward developing a cultural literacy to match his prodigious literary literacy.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Last Samurai: A Good Samurai Will Parry the Blow I was out of action for half of last week, but I'm hoping to finish up The Last Samurai today and get together some concluding...
  2. The Last Samurai References and Annotations Thread: Week 3 Last Samurai-ers--you know what to do. And here's a thought that occurred to me from last week's section. . . . continue reading, and add...
  3. The Last Samurai: The Burden of Genius For instance, the section starts out with the piano-playing dreams of the narrator's mother (and I like how each of our sections has begun by...
  4. The Last Samurai: Cultural Literacy and Other Grown-Up Things Now that we're into the meat of this book, I think it's time to talk about a theme I've been tracking for a while and...
  5. The Last Samurai: Fathers and Reasons I've been thinking a lot about the story of Hugh Carey this week, which comprises roughly the last half of this week's reading. I like...

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2 comments to The Last Samurai: Charles-Valentin Alkan

  • David C

    I wonder what others here think about Sibylla’s job. It seems so mind-numbing particularly for someone of her intelligence. Moreover, it reminds me of war-time field intelligence filing (not that I have any experience). Just copying down whatever comes across one’s desk and putting it into an outrageously huge pile that serves no purpose other than to physically grow. Is this her alternative for suicide?

  • tom

    @ DAVID C

    I wonder if you’re someone who follows the World Series. The ratings are down drastically, for reasons I cannot understand, except perhaps because these two teams are not as well known as the Yankees and the Phillies. I predicted on a family blog that Colby Lewis, at age 31, would do a good job against the Giants. He spent time in Japan with his family, playing for a team from Hiroshima. Baseball players don’t write long posts like me, but one senses from his loconic answers that the experience was soul-forming.

    Do you realise to what incredible extent your question dynamites the entire novel? This question is not born of anger, but of surprise. Imagining Sib setting out to find a more satisfying job is to begin writing an altogether different novel. You may say: why not, and I’d agree. Except that I am sure that this one deserves to stand, and to be read on its own terms.

    I’d love to meet up with you in Paris. If that could happen, I’d put a copy of The Last Samurai in my satchel, and take you to the public garden around the Rodin museum. It’s a wonderful place for people who suffer from the heat, neat a place to rest their weary bones, and for some, to meditate on the achievements of Auguste Rodin. And of course I’d start reading to you. I’d read the passages where Sib, way back when, talks about Rilke being Rodin’s secretary. I think that, to keep reading this novel, you have to feel at that point some kind of empathy with Sib who obviously feels that Rilke’s position as secretary was quite enviable. And that he would do just about anything to remain in proximity with this “genius” of modern sculpture. Of course he would moonlight on his own work, especially on the notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. (There may be chronological problems imagining Rilke working on the notebooks while “serving” Rodin. That’s secondary to the fact that a samurai is someone who serves.)

    So that’s what I think of Sib’s job. She takes it because she’s taken up in the Samurai work ethic. It’s not the Protestant one. It’s a scheme to save her skin, and bring her son to the point where he’ll be able to parry blows all by himself. It’s something temporary, fleeting, not at all what she might have preferred, but this is brass tacks or destiny! Here too I think the reader needs a political muscle of imagination to conceive of something other than the standard leveling process of today’s educational institutions in order to keep clicking with Sibylla. Most of us belong to the category of the two farmer’s voices who respond to Rikichi with expressions of ghastly disbelief and confessions of allegiance to impossibility: there is nothing to be done.

    From the very beginning of this reading group, I’m the silly man who believes that Sibylla is to be trusted. That her intuition was spot on, and her devotion intermittent. Her chances of success at matter of statistics. But to live and work next to Rodin, who could possibly imagine something luckier or better or more solid than that?

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