After the publication in English translation of Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War and War—which together with Seiobo There Below constitute an important cross-section of Krasznahorkai’s prodigious literary output—his bleak outlook on a human history bent on calamity has become legendary. In an interview published in 2012, he expresses doubt that the human race will survive another 200 years. Regarding our collective ability to alter this course, his prognosis is less than optimistic as he calls the authority of literature itself into question: “This kind of communication is really over and done with. Its disappearance is a rather obvious process; it is happening faster at some points of the world than at others. I’m afraid this kind of literature is not sustainable.”
What survives from undergraduate literature classes? Preferences? Jargon? Half-remembered couplets? Dog-eared copies of Lacan’s Écrits or The Woman Warrior? More than anything else, what proves most durable, even if one resists the content of one’s coursework, is the form—the basic vision of how to read, the actions entailed in measuring up a book, sitting down with it, and extracting something from it that one can show or describe to another—revealing details, blind spots, latent meanings—anything that verifies not only that you read the book, but that you got it. While few of us read exactly the same way outside of literature classes as we used to read on assignment, this more general practice of close reading persists, remarkably intact long after commencement.
A groundbreaking new volume published by New Directions, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, offers unprecedented insight into the writer’s lifelong relationship to the English language, as well as an affecting portrait of the Argentine master as lecturer. These twenty-five classes on English literature were recorded by a small group of students in 1966 and later edited by two leading Borges scholars, Martín Arias and Martín Hadis. They have now finally been rendered into English by the incomparable Katherine Silver.
In the last two decades, a considerable shift toward expanding the impact of Hungarian culture has occurred; as its literature gains more and more worldwide prominence, contemporary writers such as Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy, and László Krasznahorkai are becoming nearly as familiar to readers of world literature as Saramago, Banville, and Bolaño. In addition, writers such as Sándor Petőfi, Imre Madách, and Miklós Radnóti have finally begun to be read in numbers deserving of their talent. Yet, Hungarian writer Miklós Szentkuthy, who has at different times been compared to the holy trinity of Proust, Joyce, and Musil, still remains something of an obscurity.
But back to Belarus and how I wrote The Devil’s Workshop. So at about four in the morning, a taxi driver was taking me from my hotel to the airport in Minsk. Unfortunately he was pretty drunk, so as soon as we got out of the city he asked me to take over. I refused, since due to my psychopathic history I still don’t have a driver’s license. He didn’t understand, so we got into this huge argument, and by the time I finally convinced him to keep going—I said if he wouldn’t drive, we might as well just go lie down in a snow-filled ditch by the side of the road—I saw my plane lifting off into the clouds over the little airport out on the tundra.
One thing led to another, and that was just the beginning. I’m talking about the head resting in the plate of cannelloni. Heavy, still, and deaf, and attached to Pedro Akira’s compact body by a strong and manly neck. Oblivious to all the consequences this stillness began to unleash outside the Italian restaurant, in other heads and along other streets, more primary than secondary. Consequences transformed into actions that now, seen from here, from this requisite distance, seem like terrified ants running away from each other, ants fleeing from their own shadows. But that came later, five hours after the first memorable event of the day already briefly described—the breaking of the string on my double bass—which doesn’t seem worth mentioning but really is, and the reason shall soon be seen by those who are listening to this.
There are certain writers who are difficult to write about, not because their works lack interest, but because they have achieved such stature and critical acclaim that it seems impossible to say anything about them that wouldn’t seem repetitive. Faced with such authors, critics are left to less interesting tasks, such as debating their place in the canon, championing their most minor works, or resorting to obscure parts of their biography in order to have something fresh to say. There are few opportunities for us to glean new perspectives. One comes shortly after the author’s death, when his or her work can first be assessed in its entirety. Another comes when the writer is translated into a foreign language and the work reanimated before a fresh audience. Even Now, a collection of poems by the recently deceased Belgian master, Hugo Claus, selected and translated by David Colmer, fulfills both these conditions.
Szirtes seems to possess a genuine poetic gift, one he consistently—and, for the reader, frustratingly—subverts. He deals almost exclusively in surfaces. Because he so often crafts good phrases, but slings them together with little regard for development, narrative or concentrated form, reading a poem by Szirtes can be like trying to make out a melody heard on a radio from several rooms away.
Most visions of the afterlife entail some kind of deliverance from the burdens imposed by memory—after all, what heaven could be more fitting than one where we transcend our Earthly failures? Spanish author Carlos Rojas ingeniously shows us the arch obverse of that in The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell: the inferno as an eternity with our regrets. Here, the titular poet is found in a hell that resembles an infinitely long spiral where each soul exists in a sort of solitary confinement with his or her own memories projected onto a personal stage, complete with rows of seats for the lonely spectator.
Books are published all the time that rely on the classic novelistic tropes that guarantee a satisfying emotional experience. Alternatively, plenty of books rely on the “un”-traditional tropes of experimental literature that guarantee a satisfying intellectual experience. Somehow, Ridgway has written a book that accomplishes both.
When Caesar and D’Intino tell us that Leopardi started to view the Zibaldone as “merely a gigantic storehouse of memories that recall other memories,” going on to claim that, ”in this sense, the diary functions precisely like poetry itself,” they are merely in error about the nature of poetry. But when, after assuring their readers that the Zibaldone was “a private document, not intended for public consumption,” they then assert that “it is now impossible for any serious reader of Leopardi to do without it,” they’re indulging in a mania that requires explicit contradiction: it is very, very much possible for a serious reader of Leopardi to do without the Zibaldone. It is very, very much possible to form a serious appreciation—even love—for the man’s poetry without even glancing at his helplessly manic notebooking, let alone crawling through 4,526 pages of it.
Miguel Hernández, selected and translated by Don Share, is a powerful introduction to one of Spain’s finest poets. Comparable to Ted Hughes in quality and intensity, Hernández shatters the notion that pastoral verses are synonymous with gentleness. Though the poems temper truth with mercy, it is the death-mercy, the lead gift, that Robinson Jeffers (a comparable poet) gave to his hurt hawks. Miguel Hernández does not flinch from describing either joy or suffering. He insists that we observe the world as it is, that it is the duty of man to change it for the better, and to find the beauty in the blood we spill.
Let the Dark Flower Blossom centers on twins who share a tragic family history. Leaving that behind for college, they become friends with a fellow student who turns out to be a creature from a very different social milieu. For these three, and others, there are journeys, sexual escapades, the flush of success and fame, failure, murder, faulty memories, guilt and innocence, children unacknowledged by their parents, disguises, and a set of obsessions that, among other things, includes Greek gods, statues and places that might give rise to miracles, typewriters, labyrinths, and mazes, a wooden box that is tricky to open, fire, roses, apples and cakes. A patient reader will spend some time tracing their occurrence and how their import changes, subtly and broadly, depending on what consciousness Labiner wants us to follow. What is paramount, though, what we’re not meant to forget for an instant, is both the importance of storytelling and its ramifications.
I prefer to start with the premise that there must be something worthwhile (or at least alluring) about Calloway’s writing. After all, I purchased her book—and not for the photos. (In any event, the Internet, I have been told, is replete with far more risqué images and degrading descriptions of human sexuality in all of its guises.) Rather than asking whether Calloway’s work is worthwhile or worthless, or grappling with her body as something to be fought over, even if she encourages a reader to confound her persona with her fiction, I believe intellectual energy is far better spent figuring out precisely what, if anything, makes her work so distinctive. As a traditional writer with limited exposure to the alternative literature scene from which Calloway emerged—who had never even heard of MuuMuu House or provocateur publisher Tao Lin prior to reading what purpose did i serve in your life?—I would like to venture an outsider’s perspective that might elude those steeped in debates about the merits of the alt.lit movement or, for that matter, the canons of Third Wave feminism.
The narrator breathes an unlikely mix of fear, mania, humor, and spirituality into Apostoloff, the first novel by Büchner prizewinner Sybille Lewitscharoff to be translated into English. The story begins when the narrator and her sister, two grown women living in Germany, agree to a grand scheme. A rich neighbor from their childhood community reveals his desire to salvage his circle of deceased Bulgarian friends by uniting their remains in a communal Bulgarian grave. He offers the sisters a large sum of money to allow for the excavation of their father, who committed suicide when they were children. They assent. Their father’s skeleton undergoes cryoengineering, a Russian technique that turns his bones to crumbs, and their wealthy friend invites them to join the grandest funeral procession that Bulgaria has ever seen.
The blurring of the lines between “fiction, memoir, and essay” is certainly the most provocative feature of Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again, and is ultimately the reason why it is still very much a book worth reading. The pieces, each narrated by the author, or her fictional stand-in, are mostly plotless reminiscences of the author’s childhood and equally discursive meditations on her present circumstances.
The No World Concerto, Spanish novelist A.G. Porta’s first novel to be translated into English, is a complex fictional riff on games, possible worlds, and the art of fiction itself. Porta is best known among English-language readers as an early collaborator with Roberto Bolaño, and, like Bolaño, he pays tribute to the innovations of the high modernists without exactly emulating them. The No World Concerto is structured as a Matryoshka doll, or as a hall of mirrors, fuguing seamlessly between authorial narration, third-person reportage, and inner monologue, a structure that becomes head-clutchingly complex when you consider that its two protagonists are writers with fictions in progress. The novel is set in Paris, but a Paris that resembles a half-constructed film set, referred to throughout as “the neighboring country’s capital,” with even the tactile pleasures of the place-names stripped away. Getting lost in this novel is a more dire possibility than the phrase usually implies.
Most these 700 pages present a diversity of critical perspectives on Bresson, like Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Mirella Jona Affron’s account of Bresson’s and Pascal’s rhetorical affinities, and Mireille Latil Le Dantec’s look at his relationship with Dostoevsky (Pickpocket, A Gentle Woman, and Four Nights of a Dreamer are based on the Russian’s works). There is a curious, insightful piece by Jean-Claude Rousseau comparing Bresson and Vermeer, as well as Serge Daney’s examination of one brief, inimitable scene in The Devil, Probably, where an organ is tested and a vacuum cleaner hums away in a cathedral as people argue about God and revolution in an ad hoc meeting. Yet there are not only thematic readings. Robert Creeley and Patti Smith contribute poems, Kristin Thompson examines the “sparse parametric style” of mise-en-scène and editing in Lancelot du Lac, Bresson’s 1974 color film, with all 644 shots of the film broken down within a recounting of its action, as well as nearly fifty stills from the film. All thirteen features are given a good amount of coverage, with the most words reserved for two of the masterpieces, Pickpocket and Mouchette, including Lindley Hanlon’s piece exclusively on the use of sound in the latter film. And two essays by noted scholar P. Adams Sitney give excellent overviews of how Bresson’s camera and soundtrack affect the viewing, with special notice of how his figures move in the pregnant spaces he places them in.
New arrivals are called out by name to separate rooms. We see several of them, a montage of faces ranging the age spectrum, sitting apprehensively at a plain table. The workers remain offscreen, their voices soft and professional. Their routine is quite clearly ingrained. The camera remains on the subjects, stationary, table level, an eye-line shot from the workers’ view, waiting patiently for reactions. From off camera, a worker states, “You died yesterday afternoon.” Welcome to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, his 1999 masterpiece. Who knew the beyond could be so bureaucratic? Do not, however, let this muted, arcane opening fool you. While the film never seems in a hurry to take off, making frequent use of static camera shots and lingering takes, what is given to us on the screen is quietly and confidently engaging. Kore-eda’s pacing never waivers either; it chips away at our sense of how a film should operate until we too have settled into the cypress interior of the building, and have become silent workers in the process.
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