Yasushi Inoue was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed Japanese writers of the twentieth century— winner of every major Japanese prize, a perennial Nobel candidate, his books made into movies for more than half a century and widely translated. Certainly no Japanese writer between Natsume Soseki and Haruki Murakami, in my view, including Japan’s two excellent Nobel prize winners, gives such intense and consistent literary pleasure. In English, though, he has never even attained the status of being “rediscovered” every decade or two. A university press published a retranslation of The Blue Wolf, Inoue’s novel about Genghis Khan that was the basis for the recent blockbuster movie Genghis, in 2007, and before that was The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan (basis for a 1969 movie starring Toshiro Mifune) in an almost unreadable translation in 2005—that’s been pretty much it in recent years.
The romantic idea proposed here, that Alexandria’s greatness and his friends’ devotion will further his understanding of what it means to be, is admirable, as is how quickly Durrell delves right into these ideas in the first novel’s first pages. Life and love are difficult, and being is a writer’s true duty.
I read these early pages and adored them. I adored where I thought these novels would go. I thought I had found another pure and wonderful reading experience. I so wanted that to happen.
In September of 2008, at the age of eighty-five, Jose Saramago began to write a blog. His wife, watching him suffer the restlessness and anxiety of advanced age, had suggested to him that he try doing something challenging, as his traveling and own writing were slowing down. Unlike so many writers who viewed the approaching age of the Internet as threatening, Saramago wrote: “Could it be, to put it more clearly, that it’s here (on the Internet) that we most closely resemble one another? Are we more companionable when we write on the Internet? I have no answers. I’m merely asking the questions. And I enjoy writing here now. I don’t know whether it’s more democratic, I only know that I feel just the same as the young man with the wild hair and round-rimmed glasses, in his early twenties, who was asking the large questions. For a blog no doubt.”
Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to him (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with the author himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of his best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. His structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.
One letter separates the names of these two poets. Move from “r” to “s” and Jorie becomes Josie. This simple nearness draws an inevitable and inappropriate comparison when these two poets are seen together on the bookshelf: from Jorie to Josie, a progression. The title of Josie Sigler’s first collection, living must bury, echoes the title of Jorie Graham’s seminal work The End of Beauty. Both of these titles reference themes of life, humanity, and the end of life and humanity. They also move toward declaring an objective, a purpose: this is the purpose of beauty, to live we must perform the act of burial.
Although Yuri Rytkheu (1930–2008) wrote in Russian, he preserved through his fiction the history of the Chukchi people—the native Siberian tribe of Chukotka, the region lying just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. There are maybe 12,000 Chukotka inhabitants today, but in spite of revival efforts in the post-Soviet years, few are able to read in their native Chukchi language. Indeed, under Communism, Rytkheu’s efforts to depict the customs and values of his ancient people faced crippling censorship from the state or were marred by painful self-censorship. Only with the emergence of glasnost and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union was the author able to liberate himself fully and publish more freely abroad. In the last decade much of his work has enjoyed repatriation. This story is taken from Rythkeu’s remarkable collection The Chukchi Bible (forthcoming in English translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse and Archipelago Books).
Any attempt to sum up Dixon as a writer would be a fool’s quest. So, allow me: he uses male narrators and a lot of dialogue and limited description and down-to-earth language, except when he doesn’t. His language can be transparent, translucent, opaque. His sentences can last for pages; three words alone can knock you out of your chair. He avoids grand statements and shuns the workshopped sheen of the parabolic arc, preferring instead straight lines or scribbles, action that bleeds off the edges or compresses all into boxes of black ink. Sometimes he shatters frames and builds new things from the slivers. Sometimes, his stories are simply stories. To put his work in context, the back flap author bio has it that Dixon grew up reading Joyce, Hemingway, and Kafka. Fair enough: his work reads like each filtered through the rest.
In this slim collection of nine essays, each essay detailing one prize he received, Bernhard raises his disdain for all literary prizes to an art. (I do note, with some pleasure, that the author’s note at the end of this book states, “the winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany . . .”) Bernhard rarely forgets to remind us that anything to do with prize-giving is beneath him. Again and again, he makes declares that all those unfortunates who would honor him with a literary prize are blockheads worthy of only the most tightfisted gratitude. In fact, in most cases Bernhard claims that the only reason he bothers to pick up the award is so that he can grab the prize money, which is immediately plugged into some debt or other.
Prompt and penitent retreat has become standard among translators, and Jonathan Galassi, in his new edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti for Farar, Straus & Giroux, is quick to the confessional: “the intense musicality of his poetry cannot be fully brought over.” Readers familiar with what Galassi calls Leopardi’s “maddeningly various, inventive, sinuously decisive poetry” will probably nod at the discreet wisdom of this, for all that it would have struck George Chapman or John Dryden as mystifying.
In the years since Count Otto van Hausberg last visited Belgrade, the Austrian-ruled city seems to have changed, and not for the better. Fog and mist have settled around the city walls, and everywhere there is talk of murder, rebellion, and death. And in the twenty years since his last visit (or is it thirty? or more? the Count is never quite clear on the matter) the stench of vampires has come to Belgrade. Hausberg is unsure whether these vampires are real, which means the Last Judgement is approaching, or if they are fake, which means that he, Satan, has made a foolish mistake in wasting his time hunting the simple dead.
In Ernesto Mallo’s novel Needle in a Haystack the trauma is Argentina’s Dirty War, which began in 1976 when the Argentine military junta overthrew the presidency of Isabella Perón, which was inherited after the death of her husband, the demagogue Juan Perón. In the subsequent seven years, the military terrorized Argentines, and up to 30,000 students, social workers, writers, journalists, priests and others disappeared. Mallo’s novel presents this experience through the guise of a detective story that opens with the hero, Lascano, a veteran Buenos Aires police detective, waking up as he is called to the scene of a double or triple murder.
The main character of Patrik Ouředník’s Case Closed is like a creation out of the mind of Samuel Beckett, a writer whose work Ouředník has translated and whom he occasionally resembles. (In addition to being a translator, like Beckett, Ouředník also emigrated to France.) The book revolves around an aging man living in Prague named Viktor Dyk who is defined by a crude sense of humor, an obsession with bodily functions, and physical decrepitude. His chief intellectual pursuits are chess, amateur detective work, literature (he writes books under the name “Viktor Jary”), and, at an earlier stage in his life, the collection of beetles.
O Fallen Angel is an exercise in cliché: in character flattened into archetype, even stereotype, even cliché. The narration is in the third person, divided into sections concerned with three characters: Mommy, Maggie, Malachi. In each section the narrator offers gestures of close third-person, tossing up jetsam of the characters’ inner voices and daily reality, but also maintains a critical distance, a distance most often mocking in its criticism. The characters are exaggerations of recognizable American clichés: the conservative, Midwestern, fat, sexually repressed, “family values”–loving (thus hypocritical) housewife; the “fallen angel” of a daughter, fled the nest to become a seemingly superficial liberal, a psychology major at a private school who’s now a waitress, is bipolar, drug using, promiscuous, seeking out sexual degradation; and the homeless prophet, paranoid and destructive, “insightful” in his perceptions but futile in his actions.
With his latest novel, The Four Fingers of Death, Rick Moody has accomplished something that shouldn’t be possible: he has written a literary novel that is also a highly readable page-turner and an amusing sci-fi adventure yarn. If there are other examples of literary novels that are all those things, I can’t name one. But even if you suggest a number of novels I should read to get up to speed on the literary achievements of the sci-fi genre, I would still ask: are there any sci-fi novels that knowingly and engagingly evoke a grade B sci-fi movie, while at the same time commenting on our dystopian present by giving us a vision of the future—the year is 2026—predicated on the assumption that every problem we now face will only get worse?
Borges—as with Aristotle, one name will do—migrated to North American shores early in the 1960s and was identified by critics as a doubly exotic species—a “Latin American” and a spinner of such metaphysical tales as “Funes the Memorious,” “The Library of Babel” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The field-guide classification has largely stuck. With Beckett and Nabokov, he has been taxonomized as a senior precursor to the trendy “meta-fiction” practiced half a century ago by such juniors as John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Without benefit of his Argentine context, critics have misunderstood this deeply tradition-minded and allusive writer, and failed to notice we had a major poet on our hands, an elegant Spanish-language alternative to the odious Pablo Neruda.
George Economou’s Ananios of Kleitor seems to be an academic monograph, collecting the fragments of a fourth-century Greek poet and documenting their reception. In fact, it is a polyphonic, adventurous, genre-breaking work where fictions proliferate. Rather than spin a continuous tale, Economou inhabits a series of voices, first in Ananios’s poems, then in the comments and correspondences of scholars, from the distant to the recent past, who study him. Far from the dry work it first appears to be, Ananios of Kleitor is a restless, searching book, less a novel than a poetic meditation on desire, knowledge and history.
By the time he died, in 1991, Max Frisch was probably most famous for his late novellas Montauk, Man in the Holocene, and Bluebeard, each of which investigated questions of memory, identity, and the choices that define each of our lives. In its subject matter, Biography has more in common with these than with his earlier plays. Yet it comes closer than the other plays to realizing Frisch’s beliefs about what theater is and what it can do.
The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, sadly, was little translated into English during his lifetime, and most of what made it through was poetry. Perhaps this was because his fiction never quite fit the English-world model of a Latin American writer, neither writing the meta investigations of a Borges or Cortazar, nor delving into the magical realism of the Boom. Instead, his short stories were in a more realist vein, interested in urban dwellers; later, as he was marked by the turbulent history of Uruguay and its neighbor, Argentina, he reflected on the plight of the political prisoner and the exile. English-speaking readers can now see for themselves with Harry Morales’ excellent translation of Benedetti’s stories, The Rest Is Jungle. While his stories do vary in structure, one consistent feature is that Benedetti liked to work with voices, whether through conversations or first-person narratives bordering on neurotic self-justifications. Using the conversational structure allowed Benedetti to dispense with direct psychological insights and let his characters reveal themselves, though they are never fully aware (even though they think they are). Not extravagant in their confessions, all these people want to do is talk, to explain.
“Photography is a future perfect being endlessly ripped out.I mean by this the practice of taking daily photographic self-portraits ,a practice which has to be renewed every single day.” So writes Alix Cleo Roubaud, the wife of the Oulipian poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, in her journal, in May 1980. (And one should note early on that the atypical punctuation is Roubaud’s) Her journals from late 1979 to early 1983 were brought out in English earlier this year by Dalkey Archive, in a beautiful paperback that features many of Roubaud’s photographs. The journals, and the photographs, are themselves a “future perfect being endlessly ripped out”—Roubaud died in 1983 of a pulmonary embolism at age 31. Severely asthmatic all of her life, she writes with an awareness of death hanging over her, and this produces an understandable amount of apprehension in the reader and lends the journals an air of almost unbearable sadness. The reader is forced to come to terms with Roubaud’s death long before she has. Her last entry is dated January 19, 1983—her birthday, and nine days before her death.
Tomás Harris is a name likely to be somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, even readers of Latin American poetry; at least until a few months ago when, after the earthquake in Concepción, the literary world began to take notice of his work. There’s no shortage of Chilean poets making their way into the US literary market, so the omission might be forgivable. In fact, according to Three Percent’s translation database, in 2009 Chile was the third-most-common source of translated works of poetry after France and Japan. Out of the 72 new translations of poetry, fourteen were from Spanish and five were Chilean. Cipango came out alongside new translations of work by Nicanor Parra, Raul Zurita, and Oscar Hahn—all major figures in contemporary Chilean poetry. So we might be forgiven for not noticing the book until now, when the world’s attention is on Concepción, where Harris’s book is partially set.
Joseph Powell has had a steady but quiet writing career. Even as he is ensconced on his farm in Kittitas County in Washington State, amid the chickens, horses, cattle, and many fruit trees, he also teaches English and creative writing at Central Washington University. He is the author of four collections of poetry and several chapbooks, and his poems have long focused on the challenges and bourgeonings of living by, and close to, the land, its blights and harvests tied up with the “local mythologies” of his world. The poem with that title begins: “Who to tell the old stories of nerve, sinew,/the raw ignorances of survival?”—question which Powell’s latest book, Hard Earth, seems to be most urgently interested in addressing.
One might expect The Clash of Images, acclaimed Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito’s recently translated book of short stories, to be focused on the conflict between traditional Moroccan society and Western modernity. Indeed, it is true that in Kilito’s stories local Moroccan culture butts up against the West: Quranic education at the msid is endangered by a school run by the French “infidels”; French middle school readers break Muslim taboo and depict the Prophet (and as a Moroccan peasant, no less); and the projectionist at the local cinema cuts the “dialogue, boring by definition, . . . dead time, filler, hokum . . . ” from American Westerns. Yet this slender collection is a small treasure for how it resonates beyond the most obvious borders of its form. “Life is a heap of impressions, sensations, dreams,” writes the author in an introduction to his collection. “Literature supplies a reference point, injects order into disorder.” Exact in its observations, confident in its narration, compact, honest, and tonally subtle, Clash of Images gives the feeling that something central about the mystery of being alive has been preserved for us and is shared.
For thirty years, English-language readers have been enjoying ever-increased access to Joseph Roth (1894-1939), a writer canonical in Europe. The Overlook Press kicked off a parade in the 1980s when it reprinted a whole shelf of translations completed during Roth’s lifetime. Those editions have been steadily supplemented and, in a few cases, supplanted by the more recent—and herculean—efforts of Michael Hofmann, who has translated three books of Roth’s non-fiction, volumes of his stories and letters, and five novels, including Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzsky March. Now, this November, Archipelago Books has joined the fortuitous procession by publishing Ross Benjamin’s inspiring new translation of Roth’s “other” masterpiece Job: the Story of a Simple Man.
This year, two of our most classically oriented poets have released books of mourning and elegy. But whereas Anne Carson, in Nox, her memorial to her late brother, drew on her long-standing interest in the broken, the partial, the fragmented, Gjertrud Schackenberg in Heavenly Questions does almost the opposite, offering poems in a meticulous blank verse that gives them the stately power and authority of Chapman’s Homer and its legions of descendants. And whereas Carson’s obsession with the fragment points to the inevitable, irrecoverable deterioration of our classical inheritance, Schnackenberg–whose map of the ancients is not limited to Greece and Rome, but takes in China, India, and more–focuses instead on the remarkably unbroken skein of knowledge and inquiry that links us to those long-gone ancestors.
Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning for over forty years. A seething, underground mine fire has created a ghost town: decades ago, many residents abandoned their homes, and those who remained faced eviction. Not only weekend entertainment for overanxious undergraduates, the empty town has been elegized in several poems and novels. Although Centralia is not explicitly engaged in Keith Montesano’s debut poetry collection, Ghost Lights, he does sketch a similarly charred, wounded Pennsylvania. This is not the pastoral state of Harry Humes or even the blue-collar postwar milieu of Gary Fincke; Montesano’s collection is closer to the work of James Hoch. Hoch’s subject matter is grounded in southern New Jersey—hours from Montesano’s western Pennsylvania—and both poets presuppose violence and suffering as adolescent passages. Hoch’s most recent collection, Miscreants, positions pain as the locus of the suburban male experience.
This book is a welcome and necessary addition to an understanding of contemporary Japanese poetry, as Tada Chimako (1930–2003) was one of the most important modern poets from that nation. Though a selected volume of her work was published in 1990, and Jeffrey Angles translated an individual collection, From a Woman of a Distant Land, just last year, this additional volume seems long overdue.
Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s 2004 novel, The Informers, recently translated into English by Anne McLean, is a fascinating story that explores the relationship between the memory of reality and the reality of textual truths. The intertextuality creates a complex web of action and tension between those who tell stories and those who live stories.
“I haven’t been satisfied by most contemporary novels, especially those set in very well-trodden territories like New York. Even the geography of these novels is limited, where all we see are small strips of that city. So I feel that—both with the nonfiction book about mainstream India and with the fiction I am writing now—that you can do a lot with even the most written about places. People talk about the crisis in the form of the novel, at least in England and America. There is no crisis. It’s a good form, an open and flexible one. The crisis is with the writers.”