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.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


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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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.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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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